Reading Lolita in Tehran, published in 2003 by Random House Trade Paperbacks, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over one hundred weeks and has since been translated in thirty-two languages. Heavily criticized for the way it painted life under the Iranian regime, it is a memoir recounting two years (1995-1997) of secret meetings between the author Azar Nafisi and seven of her students, where they read and discussed banned works of literature. Essentially, the book explores how fiction was able (and not able to) transform the lives of these Iranian women.
The novel is divided into four main parts, each one using a different novel as a metaphor for exploring certain aspects of life in post-Islamic revolution Tehran. The author’s use of Lolita, referring to Vladimir Nabokov’s story of one man’s lust for a pre-pubescent nymph is her way of criticizing how Iranian women are forced to resemble and ideal that has nothing to do with who they really are.
Numerous metaphors abound in the book, but what I find most interesting is the importance literature itself is given in the story. A book truly is a powerful thing. For the author a book is a way of sharing not only her love of American literature, but also her thoughts and experiences of the Iranian Revolution. For the seven female students who gathered in her house every Thursday morning to read “Lolita” (and other banned books), literature represented freedom. To the Iranian authorities, books represented a threat, something to be controlled and censored. Print is thus shown as both liberating (through the sharing of ideas and production of controversial literature) and oppressing (through control, censorship and propaganda). Nafisi brilliantly explores this contrast of the autocratic and democratic by placing the controversial against a backdrop of traditional.
Some accuse the novel of encouraging an American liberation of Iran. Fatemeh Keshawar, in her reponse to Nafisi entitled Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran, accuses most books and media surrounding Iran of reinforcing a stereotype that is false. She particularly criticizes Nafisi for depicting Iranian women as passive victims and encourages us to read, in addition to her own book of course, other works of translated fiction by outspoken Iranian women authors such as Sharnuch Parsipur and Simin Danishvar. A long time fan of foreign fiction myself, it is one of the best ways to be experience the world and get a glimpse into the lives of other peoples. That’s why Reading Lolita in Tehran was such an enjoyable read. The important thing, as with all things we read, is to see it as an opening into a world that can have many different faces, not just the one it presents.
Azar Nafisi is currently a professor at John Hopkins University, having left Tehran in 1997 after she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil. You can visit her website at http://dialogueproject.sais-jhu.edu.