AMMAN – Iranian-American author Azar Nafisi began writing Reading Lolita in Tehran after she left Iran to the USA in 1998. In the novel, Nafisi recounts her life in Iran during the period between 1979 and 1997. Using medias res to initiate her memoir, Nafisi introduces her readers to a secret in-home classroom consisting of seven women and one man. Secretly meeting in the privacy of her home every Thursday; the group delves into the infinite world of literature to closely study the relationship it bridges between reality and fiction. Nafisi relates the derived analysis into her life as well as the lives of her students. In reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi utilizes Vladimir Nabokov‘s view of great novels as fairy tales to justify the creation of the class, noting: “Every fairytale offers the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense, the fairytale offers you freedoms that reality denies”. Nafisi uses mainly four works of literature in her curriculum, which are implied in the chapter names of the book: Lolita, Gatsby, James, Austen.

In their meetings, the class features Western works of literature banned in Iran at the time, studied using forged photocopies. Nafisi comments on the irony and corruption of that system as, at one point in Iran’s history, the head of Iran’s censorship department was blind and requested films to be audiotaped to him. For that reason as well as the illegality of her actions while writing Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi made sure to not only change the names of the students present with her in the class but also their characters, so it would be difficult even for them to distinguish themselves. 

While the concept of the secret group meeting is the main plotline of the memoir, not all of the fictional works mentioned are discussed in her home. For instance, Nafisi discusses The Great Gatsby in the days she taught at university. There, she puts Jay Gatsby on mock trial after her students voiced their disagreements regarding the themes the novel discusses. Being the defendant of Gatsby herself; Nafisi realized the challenge of teaching Western literature in the non-western part of the world. Since Gatsby was molded to reflect qualities of the American dream and profound love, her students could only relate to his rebellious persona. They were so enveloped in that period of Iran’s politics that seeing Gatsby as a human rather than an adulterer who deserves to be stoned to death was not possible. 

Author Azar Nafisi left Iran in 1997. (Random House/Marshall Clarke)

Revolution, love, and feminism are prominent themes in Nafisi’s memoir. Set right after the Iranian revolution and on the brink of the Iraqi-Iranian war, Nafisi recounts repeatedly and tirelessly the number of times her lectures were cut off by political protests, a bomb or a missile. She narrates countless monologues and dialogues that detail the anxiety –or worryingly, lack of- caused by war happening right outside her very windows. Similarly, the issue of women’s bodies and their continuous treatment as religious and political grounds was deeply delved upon and heavily discussed in the pages of the memoir. We see Nafisi touch upon issues like domestic violence, rape, the Islamic veil, and talks about her own experience back at the time when the veil became compulsory by her University’s law and subsequently, the country’s. Nafisi writes on her rebellion against these regulations and how it led to her expulsion from the university. Despite the fact that later on, she opts to wear it but “improperly” and “momentarily” in compromise for her love for teaching.     

Whereas with every page, readers are bombarded by the harsh politics of the area. Reading Lolita in Tehran does not run short of the subliminal insinuations of love that sweeten the reading path for the readers. In this memoir, Nafsi features the character of “The Magician”. We later learn that he is an academic who used to teach at Nafisi’s previous university. While reading, one notices a neatly knitted relationship between the two that carry many multitudes and layers of depth. Nafisi introduces the magician in a detailed description of a rebellious “underground man”, through a non-existent story by Nabokov, called “The Magician’s Room”. 

Azar Nafisi photo by Stanley Staniski

You can feel Nabokov’s presence throughout Reading Lolita in Tehran. From Nafisi’s fascination with his lyrical language to her use of his words. She uses words like poshlust, upsilamba, and solipsized to quote him as a way to get her ideas across; utilizing literature as a tool to humanize her students; for war has deprived them of feeling and pleasure in the simplest form. Nafisi quotes Nabokov and continues in her own words saying: “I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won’t really exist if you don’t. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets, or reading Lolita in Tehran.”   

Aside from Nabakov, Nafisi practices a technique that is demonstrated through authors to teach her students life lessons through the experiences of fictional characters. Jane Austen’s characters are used in teaching the students how to overcome hardships using Austen’s own definition of love. James’ Daisy, however, delves into human feelings. Where Nafisi examines the correlation of harsh political climates and lack of empathy within Iran’s citizens. Leaving her students in the wonder of what’s ultimately moral.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a refined account of what it’s like to be a woman in a place that, as Nabakov describes, solipsize you. In Lolita (1955), Nabakov’s Humbert describes Lolita as “safely solipsized”. He draws Lolita more into herself so that her outer reality becomes non-existent; thus, having total control over her. Nafisi connects this definition to their own state, where Iran “the solipsist” uses a similar technique through not granting its women any agency outside of what it seeks, depriving them of their humanity so that whatever happens to them is justifiable; thus, imposing peak authoritarianism. It’s an account that lays down the cruelty and greed of humans and war next to the beauty we build in words, reading, and escaping.