From the first few pages of Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, I know it was going to be a book hard to put down. It was indeed captivating, an intense, emotionally wrenching, heartfelt, and supremely well-written memoir about Nafisi’s 18 years living in Iran, starting at the time of the revolution in 1979. During those years, she taught literature classes at the universities, and in her last two years she formed a private class with seven women, held in her home. The eight of them came together to discuss literature, but discussion of their personal lives and life in Iran was never far from the surface. Nafisi divides her memoir in to four sections, each one centered around one of four authors: Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen. She expertly interweaves analysis of the author’s works with discussion of her life and conversations with “her girls” (as she calls the seven women), showing us the importance and power of fiction as we try to process reality.
I am embarrassed to admit how little I knew about recent Iranian history; much of the historical and political parts were unfamiliar to me. This was not necessarily an easy book to read. Nafisi relates in some detail what life was like for her and others under such an oppressive regime. It is horrifying and distressing to know that these things happened so recently, and are in fact still happening today. Nafisi’s honest discussion of her and her girls’ experiences, combined with her insightful discussions of literature, show how individuals are each affected both similarly and differently by the same circumstances, and how ultimately each must each make her own choice about how to live her life. I wrote more about the war and oppression aspects of the book on my other blog, Musings on Peace.
I cannot more highly recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran. I leave you with two quotes from the first chapter:
I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing against a white wall. They are, according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head scarves, covered except for the oval of their faces and their hands. In the second photograph the same group, in the same position, stands against the same wall. Only they have taken off their coverings. Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.
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.