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Book Review of Reading 'Lolita' in Tehran : A Memoir in Books

Reading 'Lolita' in Tehran : A Memoir in Books
islewalker avatar reviewed on + 29 more book reviews

I consider myself a relatively uninformed American regarding Iran and it's history or current situation. Other than a friend I worked with ("I am Persian" she said with pride.), I had very little personal attachment or knowledge of the country.

Last summer just around the time I signed up for Twitter, I began following OxfordGirl during the Iranian unrest that began then. I read about their attempts to organize and being clubbed by Basiji on motorcycles, dressed in black. I saw the videos that made it out of the things they spoke of. I made my location appear as if it was from Iran as well in order to shield those who were there from being dragged out of their apartments at night once the government figured out who had Twitter acces or had submitted cell phone video to the world. I saw the Nadia video as it came out and was nauseous and incredulous that I had watched her death.

I read as OxfordGirl moved from not wanting to call what was happening in Iran a "revolution" (Sea of Green it was referred to first), then wanting just Ahmahdinajad removed, then some clerics and Ahmadi, and then desire for a secular government and calling themselves the Green Revolution.

The voice of Azar Nafisi in tis book and OxfordGirl have become one to me, because they both deal with the same fights, the same subtle but soul-killing indignities. Tehran University, where the author taught, had a big green metal double gate that marked the entrance to the university, but only the men could enter there. Beside it was a narrow black-curtain covered doorway and women were stripped down to assure that they dressed in appropriate ways. Did a strand of hair fall out from under the chador? Their faces were wiped to discover the remanants of makeup. Nail polish was checked for.

Azar's young sixth grade daughter was lead to the principals office to be checked, her nails clipped so short that they bled. Her friend was accused of eating an apple in a provacative way.

At the same time, Azar is an English professor and carries such a love of literature that it is difficult, even for me, an English major in school, to understand. She idolizes the literature and constantly see the connections in it to their lives in Tehran.

Because she was considered a Westernized trouble-maker because she had attended college in the United States, she was constantly monitored and harrassed as she taught. Minders attended her classes, criticizing novel choices and her teaching methods. When she finally quit her teaching, she decided to finally have the class she had always wanted with a hand-picked group of her best students, meeting at her home. Each day they arrived, having to be accompanied by their fathers, husbands or brothers or they may end up in the worse prison in Tehran. Only in her apartment did they dare take off their chador. The novel begins remarking of the transformation of these girls, who became women in the six years of the class, from amorphous black-chador-clad indistinguishable icons --to brightly dressed, blue-jeaned women.

I may have had more patience for the English literature-inspired commentary running through the novel. In fact, having never read Lolita, I wonder if I will interpret it the way all others have--a promiscuous child seducing a man, or a monster 40 year old man abusing and 12 year old girl, not listening to her crying, accusing her of being the sin that was in his soul. The novel becomes the central image that represents the society: the unbridled sexual abuse of men who projected their own misshapen souls onto the women around them.

This is a Persian Baby Boomer with much of the idealism of the hippy generation--transplanted back to Iran. In one critical chapter, Iran is likened to The Great Gatsby where all one's hopes and distorted realities are seen in what they do not have. The realist in me feels it will never be the vision of Iran they have vaguely see in their imaginations. It will confound them, destroy them if they are not allowed to actually live without having to kill off the feeling part of them in order to survive in the society. There is another chapter (or many) to be written.

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