Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi is a book that speaks such volumes to the reader that she would not read but rather devour it. One can call it whatever she sees the most in the book, either a political or a literary analysis or just a detailed account of the experiences of a passionate Professor of English Literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The book covers a good range of works of fiction. It is fiction that “offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world”, Nafisi says. It is divided into four parts. First two are named after the books Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other two after the works of Henry James and Jane Austen. Selection of each is meticulous. Lolita is chosen for its unflinching portrayal of confiscation of an individual’s life by another and The Great Gatsby for its depiction of the dream that destroys.
Nafisi starts a secret club with seven of her select students. In their introduction, she observes “They came from very different backgrounds. The regimes that ruled them had tried to make their personal identities and histories irrelevant. They were never free of the regime’s definition of them as Muslim women.” Pointing that there is no willful break from this identity. Girls’ struggles and nuances of their lives are brought forth by the author.
She reminds women of the immense power that they hold. From a small gesture like a hysterical laugh in public to coming out on the roads, everything counts as a protest. This dangerous capacity of a woman makes the institutions or the authorities so insecure and timid that their every reaction towards her is an attempt to relegate and domesticate her, to force her to withdraw to the private space.
Present’s predicament makes her to think that her generation will always have a past to compare her present with and to escape but for the younger generations they don’t have any past and they will continue to live with this void. The questions of personal and political freedom are mulled over throughout the book. In her criticism of the Islamic state she seems to embrace the Western world where one is ostensibly free but she does so not without this realization. While recalling her conversations with students about her stay in US she says “..hearing about my past experiences, they keep creating this uncritical, glowing picture of that other world, of the West….I’ve, I don’t know, I think I’ve…”
Critics of the book say that it looks down upon the view that personal freedom is the privilege of the bourgeoisie and fails to address the problem that in unequal class societies this privilege is accessible to only a few. However this is partly true. Her indifference to the intersective question of personal freedom in context of gender and class is brought to light by one of her students, Razieh. She in response to her teacher’s reproach toward her students who fail to meet her high expectations says “I always thought you were one who cares….but you must think about where we are coming from. Most of these girls have never had anyone praise them for anything. They have never been told that they are good or that they should think independently. Now you come in and confront them, accusing them of betraying principles they have never been taught to value. You should have known better.”
In its entirety though Nafisi might differ, the book becomes like Lolita which is “not a critique of Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives” in all times and spaces. Challenging the morality on which few establish their monopoly, subjecting the institutions to scrutiny and embracing the nuances of life.
Areesha Khan is a student of Masters in Development Studies at Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati