Reading Lolita in Tehran

In 1979, Azar Nafisi returned to her native Iran to teach literature at the prestigious University of Tehran. Engrossed in her love of literature and teaching, she slowly came to understand the Islamic revolution that was gripping her homeland. In the mid-1980s, Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil. She then taught at the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University, but grew increasingly frustrated with the restrictions they imposed. While her rights were being taken away bit-by-bit, Nafisi realized that, "Every great work of art ... is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors, and infidelities of life." In 1995 she resigned her faculty position to hold secret literature classes in her home with just a handful of her top female students. She tells the story of the revolution, her classes, and her students in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which Nafisi wrote after fleeing to the United States in 1997.

Publishers Weekly said her book "transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism, or social history, though it is superb as all three." This excerpt hints at the political changes that forced Nafisi under the veil and explores the subversive side of great literature.



One day in the spring of 1981—I can still feel the sun and the morning breeze on my cheeks—I became irrelevant. Just over a year after I had returned to my country, my city, my home, I discovered that the same decree that had transformed the single word Iran into the Islamic Republic of Iran had made me—and all that I had been—irrelevant. The fact that I shared this fate with many others did not help much.

In fact, I had become irrelevant sometime before then. After the so-called cultural revolution that led to the closing down of universities, I was essentially out of a job. We went to the university, but we had nothing much to do. I took to writing a diary and reading Agatha Christie. Instead of classes, we were summoned to endless meetings. The administration wanted us to stop working and at the same time to pretend that nothing had changed. Although the universities were closed, the faculty was required to be present and to offer projects to the Committee on the Cultural Revolution.

These were idle days, whose only enduring feature was the lasting friendships we formed with colleagues in our own and other departments. I was the youngest and newest addition to the group and had a great deal to learn. They told me about the prerevolutionary days, about excitement and hope; they talked about some of their colleagues who had never returned.

The newly elected committee for the implementation of the cultural revolution visited the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences and the Faculty of Persian and Foreign Languages and Literature at the auditorium in the School of Law. Despite the formal and informal instructions to the female faculty and staff on the issue of the veil, until that day most women at our university had not obeyed the new rules. That meeting was the first I had attended at which all the female participants wore head scarves. All, that is, except three: Farideh, Laleh, and me. We were independent and considered eccentric, so the three of us went to that meeting unveiled.

The three members of the Committee on the Cultural Revolution sat rather uncomfortably on the very high stage. Their expressions were by turns haughty, nervous, and defiant. That meeting was the last at the University of Tehran in which the faculty openly criticized the government and its policies regarding higher education. Most were rewarded for their impertinence by being expelled.

Farideh, Laleh, and I sat together conspicuously, like naughty children. We whispered, we consulted one another, we kept thrusting our hands up to talk. Farideh took the committee to task for using the university grounds to torture and intimidate the students. I told the Revolutionary Committee that my integrity as a teacher and a woman was being compromised by its insistence that I wear the veil under false pretenses for a few thousand tumans a month. The issue was not so much the veil itself as freedom of choice. My grandmother had refused to leave the house for three months when she was forced to unveil. I would be similarly adamant in my own refusal. Little did I know that I would soon be given the choice of either veiling or being jailed, flogged, and perhaps killed if I disobeyed.

After that meeting, one of my more pragmatic colleagues, a "modern" woman, who decided to take up the veil and stayed there for another 17 years after I was gone, told me with a hint of sarcasm in her voice, "You are fighting a losing battle. Why lose your job over an issue like this? In another couple of weeks you will be forced to wear the veil in the grocery stores."

The simplest answer, of course, was that the university was not a grocery store. But she was right. Soon we would be forced to wear it everywhere. And the morality squads, with their guns and Toyota patrols would guard the streets to ensure our adherence. On that sunny day, however, when my colleagues and I made our protest known, these incidents did not seem to be preordained. So much of the faculty protested, we thought we might yet win.

*  *  *

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women—to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction.

For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Mountains became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.

The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics—Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean's December and, yes, Lolita. As I write the title of each book, memories whirl in with the wind to disturb the quiet of this fall day in another room in another country.

Here and now in that other world that cropped up so many times in our discussions, I sit and reimagine myself and my students, my girls as I came to call them, reading Lolita in a deceptively sunny room in Tehran. But to steal the words from Humbert, the poet/criminal of Lolita, I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won't really exist if you don't. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets, or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.

We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology. This was a country where all gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms. The colors of my head scarf or my father's tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies. Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings, were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent—part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture.

Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling in love, and listening to forbidden music.

An absurd fictionality ruled our lives. We tried to live in the open spaces, in the chinks created between that room—our protective cocoon—and the censor's world of witches and goblins outside. Which of these two worlds was more real, and to which did we really belong? We no longer knew the answers. Perhaps one way of finding out the truth was to do what we did: to try to imaginatively articulate these two worlds and, through that process, give shape to our vision and identity.

*  *  *

How can I create this other world outside the room? I have no choice but to appeal to your imagination. Let's imagine one of the girls, say Sanaz, leaving my house and let us follow her from there to her final destination. She says her good-byes and puts on her black robe and scarf over her orange shirt and jeans, coiling her scarf around her neck to cover her huge gold earrings. She directs wayward strands of hair under the scarf, puts her notes into her large bag, straps it on over her shoulder and walks out into the hall. She pauses a moment on top of the stairs to put on thin lacy black gloves to hide her nail polish.

We follow Sanaz down the stairs, out the door, and into the street. You might notice that her gait and her gestures have changed. It is in her best interest not to be seen, not be heard or noticed. She doesn't walk upright, but bends her head towards the ground and doesn't look at passersby. She walks quickly and with a sense of determination. The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia who ride in white Toyota patrols, four gun-carrying men and women, sometimes followed by a minibus. They are called the Blood of God. They patrol the streets to make sure that women like Sanaz wear their veils properly, do not wear makeup, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers, or husbands. She will pass slogans on the walls, quotations from Khomeini and a group called the Party of God: MEN WHO WEAR TIES ARE U.S. LACKEYS. VEILING IS A WOMAN'S PROTECTION. Beside the slogan is a charcoal drawing of a woman: Her face is featureless and framed by a dark chador. MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL. MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES.

If she gets on a bus, the seating is segregated. She must enter through the rear door and sit in the back seats, allocated to women. Yet in taxis, which accept as many as five passengers, men and women are squeezed together like sardines, as the saying goes, and the same goes with minibuses, where so many of my students complain of being harassed by bearded and God-fearing men.

You might well ask, ‘What is Sanaz thinking as she walks the streets of Tehran? How much does this experience affect her?' Most probably, she tries to distance her mind as much as possible from her surroundings. Perhaps she is thinking of her brother or of her distant boyfriend and the time when she will meet him in Turkey. Does she compare her own situation with her mother's when she was the same age? Is she angry that women of her mother's generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women? Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from 18 to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?

*  *  *

After our first discussion of Lolita I went to bed excited, thinking about Mitra's question. Why did Lolita or Madame Bovary fill us with so much joy? Was there something wrong with these novels, or with us? Were Flaubert and Nabokov unfeeling brutes? By the next Thursday, I had formulated my thoughts and could not wait to share them with the class.

Nabokov calls every great novel a fairy tale, I said. Well, I would agree. First, let me remind you that fairy tales abound with frightening witches who eat children and wicked stepmothers who poison their beautiful stepdaughters and weak fathers who leave their children behind in forests. But the magic comes from the power of good, that force which tells us we need not give in to the limitations and restrictions imposed on us by McFate, as Nabokov called it.

Every fairy tale offers the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies. In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors, and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter. This is why we love Madame Bovary and cry for Emma, why we greedily read Lolita as our heart breaks for its small, vulgar, poetic, and defiant orphaned heroine.

*  *  *

Manna, a student who made poetry out of things most people cast aside, had once written about a pair of pink socks for which she was reprimanded by the Muslim Student's Association. When she complained to her favorite professor, he started teasing her about how she had already ensnared and trapped her man, Nima, and did not need the pink socks to entrap him further.

These students, like the rest of their generation, were different from my generation in one fundamental aspect. My generation complained of a loss, the void in our lives that was created when our past was stolen from us, making us exiles in our own country. Yet we had a past to compare with the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away. But my girls spoke constantly of stolen kisses, films they had never seen and the wind they had never felt on their skin. This generation had no past. Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.

I wonder if right now, at this moment, I were to turn to the people sitting next to me in this café in a country that is not Iran and talk to them about life in Tehran, how they would react. Would they condemn the tortures, the executions, and the extreme acts of aggression? I think they would. But what about the acts of transgression on our ordinary lives, like the desire to wear pink socks?

I had asked my students if they remember the dance scene in Invitation to a Beheading:* The jailer invites Cincinnatus to a dance. They begin a waltz and move out into the hall. In a corner they run into a guard: "They described a circle near him and glided back into the cell, and now Cincinnatus regretted that the swoon's friendly embrace had been so brief." This movement in circles is the main movement of the novel. As long as he accepts the sham world the jailers impose upon him, Cincinnatus will remain their prisoner and will move within the circles of their creation. The worst crime committed by totalitarian mindsets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution—that is an act of utmost brutality. My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress. They had not become part of the crowd who watched the executions, but they did not have the power to protest them either.

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one's individuality, that unique quality that evades description but differentiates one human being from the other. That is why, in their world, rituals—empty rituals—become so central. There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus's executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

In the end, when Cincinnatus is led to the scaffold, and as he lays his head on the scaffold in preparation for his execution, he repeats the magic mantra: "by myself." This constant reminder of his uniqueness, and his attempts to write, to articulate and create a language different from the one imposed upon him by his jailers, saves him at the last moment when he takes his head in his hands and walks away toward voices that beckon him from that other world, while the scaffold and all the sham world around him, along with his executioner, disintegrate.

Azar Nafisi is visiting fellow, professorial lecturer, and director of The Dialogue Project: The Culture of Democracy in Muslim Societies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She has lectured and written extensively in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture as well as on the human rights of Iranian women. Her writings include Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabakov's Novels and Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women. Her op-eds and other articles have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal . Her cover story, "The Veiled Threat: The Iranian Revolution's Woman Problem" published in The New Republic, has been reprinted in several languages. Sidebar excerpted with permission from Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Random House, N.Y., 2003.

*Nafisi describes this novel by Vladimir Nabokov as creating "not the actual physical pain and torture of a totalitarian regime, but the nightmarish quality of living in an atmosphere of perpetual dread. Cincinnatus C. is frail, he is passive, he is a hero without knowing or acknowledging it: He fights with his instincts, and his acts of writing are his means of escape. He is a hero because he refuses to become like all the rest." (back to article)

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American Educator, Fall 2003