Just read “Reading Lolita in Tehran”; not my favorite writing style, but I was caught up in Azar’s descriptions of and thoughts on books they are reading in Tehran, during repression that makes living in Serbia look like picnic.
In short, this book talks about what it was like living in Iran during the 80’s and 90’s when the “revolution” took place and brought back old, decadent laws that stated that women had to wear chadors and veils, women and men couldn’t hang out unless they were married or relatives, books couldn’t be taught at universities if they contained the word “fuck” or anything that promoted “rotten Western values”, etc.
Azar Nafisi is a literature professor who grew up in different times, when people had much more freedom, and she tries to help young people with her fascinating lectures. The lectures are on English and American classics, like “The Great Gatsby,” “Pride and Prejudice”, “Daisy Miller”, “Lolita”, etc. Her group of students is a mix of different backgrounds, political and religious views, social statuses, and temperaments. Many of them belong to different associations and, depending on the ideology they follow, they perceive the books’ characters radically different.
One of the more militant students was so appalled by the “decadence” of the values he thought “The Great Gatsby” was promoting, that he demanded Mrs. Nafisi took it out of her program. She found a better way to handle the delicate situation, and suggested they brought the book to court. Azar Nafisi took the role of the accused book, one of her more advanced, smart and brave students was her defender, and the militant student was the prosecutor. The prosecutor’s speech was a passionate dogmatic speech about evil, sin, filth, and immorality, and the defender was skilled at avoiding demagogy and providing strong arguments. The trial ends in favor of the book, but it doesn’t feel like a complete victory in a place where you have to go to court to defend a work of art for having characters of “questionable morality”.
Aside from teaching at the Tehran university, Azar holds secret classes for seven gifted women students at her house each Thursday morning (that often go on into the rest of the day). Those classes are her favorite: women take off their veils and talk about everything from literature to their fears and hopes. That’s the only place they can be who they really are, or at least a place they can wonder who they really are without worrying whether a lock of hair will fall out from under the veil and sexually frustrate some poor, honest Muslim (which could send them to prison).
What I like about the book is the way Azar connects English classics to her life in Iran, and how she uses literature to fight against repression. The most interesting parts are those that go into details about the characters, structure and plot of the books. The less interesting parts to me, though definitely informative and educational, are those that depict chaos on streets and at the university. I’m less interested in the specifics of the politics, than I am in their consequences, and in how the books these women read spread the idea of democracy.