Monday, March 16, 2009

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi

Summary: Nafisi recounts being a professor of English literature in Iran. Nafisi combines her exuberant love of literature with her analysis of the various regime changes and crackdowns on women's rights, in particular, throughout the 1980's and 1990's. She struggles to teach fiction as fiction in a society where religious zealots attempt to eradicate all "Western" or "immoral" influences.

Musings: I initially didn't enjoy this book, primarily because I think I was misled by the inner flap summary. Nafisi (and the book cover) initially frame the book in terms of the small book study group Nafisi organizes in Iran of former students after she stops teaching. I expected the book to be about the book group and the young women in the group, but the book is much more about Nafisi's struggles as a professor and her commentary on the books she taught. The subtitle of the novel, "A Memoir in Books," is a much more accurate title since the book really is Nafisi's attempt to understand her life through literature.

Nafisi is an expert on Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita (in fact, her other published book is about him), and her idolization of the author is evident, especially throughout the first section of the book. I wasn't looking to get into critical theory, so I was somewhat turned off by her continual analysis of Lolita (especially since it's been quite a number of years since I read the book). Early on Nafisi emphasizes that she and the other women she discusses are not Lolita, but the book and Lolita's lack of independence is analyzed so often that it's difficult not to see Nabokov's novel as an allegory for Nafisi's situation.

Nevertheless, I grew increasingly interested in the book as Nafisi moved past Nabokov and into her experiences as a teacher. Unlike Zoya's Story, which took place in Afghanistan but covered many of the same themes, Nafisi's story is told in way that draws you into the characters and the events that happen. Nafisi's life is not a dry retelling of facts, but a woman's struggle to maintain herself and her beliefs. I most appreciated the ways in which Nafisi is open to her uncertainty and compromises. She originally stops teaching rather than be forced to wear the veil, but after several years she is drawn back toward teaching. She must decide whether it's better to refuse to teach on principle (she had said she would never teach wearing the veil) or go back and teach and try to improve upon the education of the young people of Iran.

Throughout the book, Nafisi emphasizes the importance of fiction and our ability to learn through reading. She struggles to make her students understand that characters in novels, like people, cannot be understood one-dimensionally. The rule of the land has labeled people as "good" or "bad," and Nafisi works to counter such simplistic evaluations.

I feel like I would need to read the book again to really have a full understanding all Nafisi has to offer. It's certainly the best book I've read so far to deal with many of the issues of freedom, independence, and women's rights in the middle east.

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