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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003)

by Azar Nafisi

Other authors: Marie-Hélène Dumas (Translator)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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12,223266425 (3.62)470
This is the story of Azar Nafisi's dream and of the nightmare that made it come true. For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. They were unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Nafisi's account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl or protests and demonstrations. Azar Nafisi's tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran.… (more)
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28. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
reader: the author
published: 2003
format: 17:36 audible audiobook (356 pages in paperback)
acquired: May 11 listened : May 11 – Jun 10
rating: 4½
genre/style: Memoir theme: random audio
locations: Tehran 1979-1995
about the author: Iranian-American author born in Tehran in 1948. She studied abroad from age 13 and emigrated to the US in 1997.

Nafisi, who claims decent of 800 years of Nafisi family writers, was educated abroad from age 13. She returned to Iran in 1979 to teach English literature, just in time for the Islamic Revolution and its associated dystopian oppression. She had some protectors, a spouse with a stable income, and she was mostly able to continue to teach within the Islamic Republic, despite all its insane treatment of women and its censorship and hatred of the west. When she was prohibited from teaching, she started her private reading group of former students, and they started with reading Lolita.

She had quite an experience, and the book covers it all - the revolution, street riots, arrests, executions, invasive law enforcement and its intense focus on preventing women from committing the sin of doing anything or appearing an anyway that might possibly make any young man aroused, and also constant bombing by Iraqi bombers. Meanwhile she taught, kept teaching, had children, and kept reading. Her students would be arrested at demonstrations, or even on vacation, and then tortured in unknown ways, and sometimes summarily executed. Her colleagues faced the same threats, some executed on the roadside. And she processed it all through literature. If you believe her take, she was very bold. During the early uncertain swings in the revolution she had her class put [The Great Gatsby] on trial, the revolutionary students prosecuting, and other students defending, and she played the defendant, the book. Her literary critiques become commentaries on the repression of this Islamic revolution - insightful to both it and to the books. (Beyond Nabokov and Fitzgerald, she also has a theme on Henry James and Jane Austen - actually it was Austen who led to her reading group).

Certainly, her literary take is unique, and tied to these experiences, and amplified by them. These English classics become far more intense for her and her students than for any normal reader. A well-quoted line struck me near the end. Shortly before leaving Tehran, a literary friend tells her that when she gets to the US, “You will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen … The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place…”

This very long book is such an awkward thing, and yet I agree with the conventional wisdom on this. It's terrific, even if awkwardly terrific. It stumbles in so many ways. For example, her efforts to conceal identities make the fake identities confusing, so much so that I was completed baffled as to who was who. I quickly gave up trying to follow. (She reads the audio herself, in her Iranian accent, which also awkwardly works well.) But it's unique and tragic, passionate, flawed, and also makes for a creative use of literary criticism.

Recommended if intense literary responses and the Iranian revolution interest.

https://www.librarything.com/topic/341027#7870718 ( )
  dchaikin | Jun 26, 2022 |
This is the searingly intimate memoir of a female literature professor in Iran. She tells the story of her professional career and it's untimely end as increasing governmental restrictions against women force her to resign from the university. Adrift and at loose ends as her country unravels around her, Professor Nafisi turns to literature, her familiar escape from the unfortunate state of the world. Eventually, she decides to hold a secret class in her home for hand-selected students. They will read and discuss banned books and devote themselves to the study of great works and thereby transcend their lives.

As the narrator lovingly recounts the struggles and dangers of her life and her students' lives, she also delves into the lessons learned from each great writer. She also teaches by example how to love a work of fiction based on its merits outside the moral structures of one's society. Despite the foreign natures of such works which describe places well outside their experience, they are still able to relate to and appreciate the characters they read about and even hope to emulate them.

This book is very moving and hits especially close to home due to recent political events in my own country. It's terrifying to realize how easily rights once extended can be removed by the state. This book also serves as a college level course on a number of novels, providing deep readings and insights about the impact of famous works and why their influence remains so potent. ( )
  Juva | May 17, 2022 |
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a lot of different things. It is a memoir, it is a loose biography of the lives of several young women living in Iran during the Islamic republic. It is also a love letter to the author Henry James, as well as reflection on how fiction is a refuge in times of struggle. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to get out of Reading Lolita in Tehran. As a memoir, I feel obliged to bear witness to the Nafisi’s experience as well as the realities of the world she lived in. As a reader, I think I most appreciated the academic conversation about theologically-driven politics and about the cultural role of fiction novels.

I cannot compare Iran and the Islamic Republic to modern day America. The discomfort and agitation we feel in our political system here in the United States is not even a shadow of the terror and subjugation endured by women in Iran during this time. Many things, such as the conversations around Roe vs. Was and the judicial possibility of overthrowing so many landmark cases in the coming years feels absolutely overwhelming; I am enraged. But I am in a place of privilege, and I do understand that many people have been living with the frustration and political dictation of their rights for far longer and far more harshly than I ever have or ever will experience. The experiences of Sanaz and Nassrin particularly come to mind when I think of it women’s rights in the United States, and I am grateful that I have so many liberties still, despite the progress rewinding to the dark ages for our country. I am grateful to Nafisi for sharing the stories of these women. It has led me to contextualize my own situation as well as to grow in empathy for those who have lived with so much less freedom than I.

There was a section about 20% into the book that felt disconnected from the rest the story. This was where Nafisi shared her experiences both in her career as well as her personal life. The background here was hopeful to give contacts to the rest of the book, but it’s placement felt awkward to me. At the beginning of Reading Lolita in Tehran, we meet the group of students in her class, and I grew attached to each other stories quickly. Although this is in a biography, I found myself wanting to learn more about those young women and as a reader, I felt discombobulated when the story took a sudden sharp turn into discussing only the author’s experience. Otherwise, I don’t have any criticism on the way this book was written. I thought it was insightful and did a good job of balancing cultural commentary with personal experience.

I also think that the writing style of Reading Lolita in Tehran is extremely niche. I really enjoyed the history of modern Iran because as an American citizen, the information I learned in school and through the media about this country is incredibly biased. The philosophical conversation interested me on a personal level, as I love to have those discussions of hypotheses and illusions, but it was really the modern history that struck me. It’s very easy to see a situation as black and white, good and evil. The reality is — the situation surrounding a war is far more complicated than we want to admit, and nobody ever really wins. There is no pure good. Nafisi’s experience lent me more empathy than I had previously, and I am grateful for her alliterative, candid illustration of this time in her life.

This memoir is more about personal experience than it is a illustration of Lolita or The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice or any of the many books that the Nafisi mentions throughout this biography. It is best to take everything in stride and listen to each carefully chosen word. This is about falling in love, a book about women’s rights, a book about seeing yourself in literature, a book about standing up for your beliefs and knowing when to compromise. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a thoughtful composition and I highly recommend it. Like most memoirs, I don’t know if I would reread it, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of this book and everything to do with my inclination to, like Nafisi, read and reread my favorite pieces of fiction above all else. I am immensely grateful to have experienced this book and to have had the opportunity to view the world, the Islamic Republic, and the ethical quandaries of a female academic through Nafisi’s eyes. ( )
  Morteana | May 14, 2022 |
Nafisi’s book is a biographical reflection mostly upon her experiences teaching Western literature (the modern novel) in Tehran, Iran, before, during, and after the 1979 revolution. In addition, several chapters recount the actual events of the revolution happening in and around the University of Tehran, where she was a professor (Ph.D. American literature, University of Oklahoma).

The narrative pattern weaves together insights from the literature she taught in the classroom, with social upheaval happening around the university. We see behind the scenes into individual experiences of Nafisi and her students during those pivotal years of 1979-1981, as the future of Iran was being sorted out. The sorting out process was sometimes violent and bloody in the streets, constantly argued in the universities, and fought for in the halls of power.

Nafisi includes conversations with students comparing meaning in the novels with the meaning of the social changes happening around them. One of the key functions of literature, Nafisi says (and many others have said), is that it helps people put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This was a big issue among the many competing groups vying for influence when the revolution was in progress, and no one yet knew what the future government would look like. Much of the book explores these competing meanings and influences.

Some of the novels that feature in Nafisi’s life and in the book include Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, James’ Daisy Miller, Washington Square, and the Ambassadors, Nabokov’s Lolita, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, among others.

There is an interesting episode where the classroom is converted to a courtroom, and Great Gatsby is put on a mock-trial for its moral integrity. Students are assigned to roles such as judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and all participated in the questioning. No verdict was reached, but the exercise provoked a lot of thought and debate. Nafisi considered it a success, despite the lack of a verdict.

Nafisi was dismissed from the University of Tehran in 1981, but years later was invited to teach at Allameh Tabataba’I University. In one poignant moment, a former student re-appears seven years later, and rejoins Nafisi’s literature class in the new setting. Nafisi learns that the last time she saw some of her students, was the day many of them were put in jail for several years, and learned that one had been executed. Ultimately, Nafisi was expelled from Allameh Tabataba’I University as well. Actually she resigned, but her resignation was denied, but then she was expelled. The end result was that she left the school.

The 1980s feature her professorial life, her relationships with students and friends, but the backdrop of this decade was the steady bombardment from missile strikes as the Iran-Iraq war dragged on for many years.

Nafisi began to feel irrelevant as her expertise were devalued, her services as a professor no longer wanted. She wrote to an American friend, being irrelevant is like visiting your old house, wandering into your old family room, where your book-filled bookcases have been replaced with a brand new television set. You are no longer relevant to this house. You’ve become a ghost roaming between the walls, floors, through the doors, but you are not seen and not part of it anymore (169). The feeling is common among older people; however, Nafisi was not very old at the time, and the haunting realization takes on special poignancy in these circumstances. The mood is perfectly captured in the quotation from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, the “Burnt Norton” chapter (227–228).

By the 1990s, Nafisi hosted weekly discussions on modern American novels in her home. It included some of her former students, which temporarily filled a void. Ultimately, Nafisi left Iran in 1997. Some of her old friends and students stayed in Iran, others relocated to the US, Canada, England, and Europe. Some pursued their own PhDs, some became teachers and professors.

Looking back on the story, I see a life constantly interrupted, derailed, damaged; but with a drive to find meaning and empathy through the best literature. That is the thread that holds together from her youthful college experience, through Iran’s Islamic Revolution, through the Iran-Iraq war, through many academic, social, and governmental relocations, dislocations, and difficulties. It’s the story of how any life can be more meaningful when reading and learning are at the center and drive the mind onward. ( )
  Coutre | May 7, 2022 |
This memoir is in four sections. The first Lolita introduces us to the group of young women who come to her home on a Thursday and study literature. There is plenty about Nabokov and Lolita and the discussions in the group and their personal circumstances are charming and engaging and I missed them when we moved on to Gatsby and then James, These take us back to her life teaching, her expulsion from teaching and the Iran-Iraq war. The final section about Jane Austen takes us back to the Thursday group and deals with the difficult decision to leave Iran. She brings Tehran and life in Iran after the revolution to life and describes how this impacted on the lives of women sensitively and with warmth.

I am too much of an academic: I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narratives without pontificating. Although that is in fact my urge—to narrate, to reinvent myself along with all those others.

The integration of literary criticism into the memoir is interesting, and makes it unique, but presupposes some familiarity with the novels and authors she discusses. At times the literary framework works wells, at other times it feels a bit forced. I found the James chapters the most difficult, probably because that was the author I was least familiar with. ( )
  CarolKub | Apr 25, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 258 (next | show all)
The charismatic passion in the book is not simply for literature itself but for the kind of inspirational teaching of it which helps students to teach themselves by applying their own intelligence and emotions to what they are reading.
added by mikeg2 | editThe Guardian, Paul Allen (Sep 13, 2003)
[A]n eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction--on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Times, Michiko Kakutani (Mar 15, 2003)
A spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression.
added by jburlinson | editKirkus (Feb 15, 2003)

» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nafisi, Azarprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dumas, Marie-HélèneTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Flothuis, MeaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
García de la Hoz, María LuzTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lambert, J. K.Designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Saltzman, AllisonCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Serrai, RobertoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To whom do we tell what happened on the
Earth, for whom do we place everywhere huge
Mirrors in the hope that they will be filled up
And will stay so?

- Czeslaw Milosz,  "Annalena"
In memory of my mother, Nezhat Nafisi
for my father, Ahmad Nafisi,
and my family: Bijan, Negar and Dara Naderi
First words
In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream.
What we search for in literature is not much reality but the epiphany of truth.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This is the story of Azar Nafisi's dream and of the nightmare that made it come true. For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. They were unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Nafisi's account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl or protests and demonstrations. Azar Nafisi's tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran.

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