Keeping faith in the old magic amid new repression

Reading Lolita in Tehran
September 19, 2003

This book is a remarkably original account of one woman's first-hand experience of the Iranian revolution, generously interspersed with erudite passages of literary criticism. The author returns to Iran in 1979 in the heyday of the revolution to teach English literature at Tehran University, only to discover that "the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one's work but the colour of one's lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair". It is a time of "violence, executions, public confessions to crimes that had never been committed, judges who coolly talk about amputating a thief's hands or legs and killing political prisoners because there was not enough room for them in jail".

Azar Nafisi is acutely aware of the irony of her predicament as a teacher. The mullahs had lowered the age at which girls could marry to nine. Had Nabokov's Lolita, who was 12 when seduced by Humbert, lived in the Islamic Republic, she "would have been long ripe for marriage to men older than Humbert". As she tells her class that Gatsby personifies the American dream, she can hear the chanting of " Marg bar Amrika - death to America" by the demonstrators in the street below.

And yet, despite her despair at "the impotence of words in the face of such inhumanity", she perseveres, selecting her required reading to include Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, books whose authors had "faith in the critical and magical power of literature". She is purged from the faculty to become "an irrelevance" for refusing to don the veil, but continues her classes with a few faithful students at home. These sessions develop a therapeutic power of their own. "It allowed us to defy the repressive reality outside - not only that, but to avenge ourselves on those who controlled our lives. For those few precious hours, we felt free to discuss our pains and joys, our personal hang-ups and weaknesses; for that suspended time, we abdicated our responsibilities to our parents, relatives and friends and to the Islamic Republic. We articulated all that happened to us in our own words and saw ourselves, for once, in our own image."

Nafisi's abiding passion is literature, and her range is vast. Empathy - a favourite word - she tells us is the key to human understanding, in life as in fiction. "Evil lies in the inability to see others." The human soul survives the onslaught of evil "through love and imagination".

Eventually, the battleground that is everyday life in Tehran becomes too much for her and, along with her family, she moves to the US. Although her contempt for the cruelty, corruption and hypocrisy of the clerics is palpable, some good may yet emerge from their tragic 24-year rule. Whatever the merits of Islam as a spiritual guide to the lives of men and women, it is now manifestly clear, particularly to those living in Iran, that it has been an abject failure as a political blueprint in the conduct of human affairs. No single event, other than the initial creation and the subsequent discrediting of the Islamic Republic, could have achieved this end. At Tehran University where the hotheads once demanded the excising of the word "wine" from a Hemingway story, or ordered Nafisi not to teach Charlotte Bront because she appeared to condone adultery, the clamour for a national referendum on a secular constitution is already audible. If such an unintended but felicitous outcome were ever to transpire, then Nafisi's book would have richly served its noble purpose; and Humbert could conceivably turn in his grave.

Parviz Radji was Iranian ambassador to the UK, 1976-79.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Story of Love, Books and Revolution

Author - Azar Nafisi
ISBN - 1 86064981 5
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £14.95
Pages - 343

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