Published: 2003 by Random House
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“It became a habit with us, a permanent aspect of our relationship, to exchange stories. I told them that listening to their stories, and through living some of my own, I had a feeling that we were living a series of fairy tales in which all the good fairies had gone on strike, leaving us stranded in the middle of a forest not far from the wicked witch’s candy house. Sometimes we told these stories to one another to convince ourselves that they really happened. Because only then did they come true.”
“Reading Lolita in Tehran” is a memoir of women’s life in Iran during the latter part of the 20th century. The author has since moved to the US, but recollects her experiences teaching an underground literature class to selected students. She writes of the impact of literature and imagination, using the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen to frame the events of the Islamic revolution and the Iran/Iraq war.
The memoir is at the same time uplifting and sad. The author tells of her struggle whether to continue teaching at the university while accepting increasing personal restrictions, and whether going along with them makes her complicit in the regime that she opposes. As women’s rights became increasingly restricted, she felt that she had become irrelevant and isolated within her own society. Nafisi also writes about the struggles of each of her students, several of whom spend time in jail or are pressured into marriage at a young age.
As a whole, I found the book fascinating. There are a lot of literary references, which might be a bit frustrating for some readers, but was one of the aspects of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” that I loved most. It isn’t just about the books themselves, but about the experience of reading them in a specific context. I even found Nafisi’s depictions of Jane Austen fascinating, and I’m by no means an Austen fan. I do wish, however, that we would see a bit more about the author’s relationship with her own husband, because for about 3/4 of the book, he seemed to be just a side note. He existed in the background, but wasn’t really an active player in the story.
“Reading Lolita in Tehran” is by no means a quick read. It’s meant to be digested slowly and to make readers think. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in the position of women in the Middle East or in Iranian history. I applaud Nafisi’s decision to host a secret literature class. As someone who loves literature, I think it’s such an awesome idea.