Thursday, February 19, 2009

'Reading Lolita In Tehran' by Azar Nafisi

How much do most people in the Western world know about the difficult lives of people in Iran? Personally, I think not that much. Our knowledge is based on preconceived notions and news reports flooding our brains on a daily basis. Being separated by thousands of miles and an abyss between our culture and theirs, it is quite difficult to truly grasp the trials and tribulations of ordinary men, women and children living in Iran. In my opinion, the most credible source of information regarding any experience is a personal account. That’s why Reading Lolita In Tehran is such an important book.

Azar Nafisi returned to her beloved country of Iran after spending several years, including attending college, in the United States. When she left Tehran, it was a modern, democratic city with happy, intelligent people, with women sharing equal rights with men and all enjoying their country and their freedom of religion. Years later she came back to Iran she didn’t recognize but still had no idea what would really become of it. Reading Lolita In Tehran is Nafisi’s memoir, depicting the seventeen years of living under the fundamentalist regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. She is a brave and very bold university teacher, who first gets expelled from University of Tehran and then resigns from another university before they get a chance to expel her. Instead, she creates a regular meeting at her own house where seven former female students of her meet weekly to discuss one of the greatest writers in the literary world. In between the accounts of every meeting, Azar describes Iran’s quick descent into tyranny, where women are refused any rights, jailed and put to death of the smallest offenses and all the intelligentsia, every academic that refuses to submit to censorship and regime is quieted or eradicated.

Reading Lolita In Tehran is not an easy read. Nor should it be such. You cannot write down in any easy terms memories and experiences that defined these women and became their everyday terrors. However, it is a beautiful book and well worth the time you’ll spend reading it. It is written in a way that’ll become personal to every person that reads it. For me, Azar Nafisi gave me the greatest gift a writer can give to a reader: a new appreciation for literature, which sadly and quite unconsciously I have started to take for granted. Austen, Nabokov, James, Gatsby, they become lifelines to these brave women. The books let them live through one thing the regime couldn’t take away, their imagination, the window into another world that could have been their world too.

Probably, the saddest part was the heartrending disillusionment with the country Ms. Nafisi once loved and the young girls desperately wanted to love. As the author mentions herself, the women of her generation and older at least had the past and the memories to cherish, while the generation of her students and their children was denied even that.

Lastly but maybe the most importantly, Reading Lolita In Tehran brings to life the saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Both sides know it. The government is painfully aware of that, therefore the bookstores are closed down, the books are burned, the academia is being forced into discussing only the works that further the Islamist cause and those who don’t comply lose their careers or even lives. The young women, students of Ms. Nafisi, know the power of a written word too. It saves their lives, gives them hope and keeps them floating on the surface, not drowning just yet.

Favorite quote:

"If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat."