George Justice, Editor

Jane Austen in Iran

Reading Lolita in Tehran:
A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi.
Random House, 2004. ix + 356 pages.
Paperback. $13.95.

Reviewed by William H. Hanaway.

When there is a conflict between ideology and free imagination, ideology generally wins the battle but always loses the war. The truth of this observation is the basic ground of Azar Nafisi’s compelling account of life, teaching, and literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her book weaves together an account of her own experiences teaching in Persian universities, her interactions with her husband, her students and others, and her thoughts about certain books that she enjoyed teaching. Nafisi boldly resisted all attempts by Islamic ideologues to censor what she taught or to appropriate her texts for their own purposes. When she was ousted from Tehran University, she began holding a secret literature class for a few female graduate students in her own home. The interactions between her and the students and among the students themselves, in the context of the books that they studied, form a major theme of this book.

The book is divided into chapters on Lolita, The Great Gatsby, some novels by Henry James and some by Jane Austen, mostly Pride and Prejudice. In each chapter, Nafisi finds a theme from the text they are discussing and, often with subtle indirection, relates it to the problems that the group face in their daily lives. In the chapter on The Great Gatsby, for example, she talks about peoples’ dreams of the future, the danger of their fulfillment, and the loss of the dream as it confronts reality and is powerless to change it. With Henry James, there is often a “desire…to preserve a sense of personal integrity in the face of outside aggression.” Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading provides the evocative image of dancing with one’s jailor, enabling a totalitarian regime to coerce its citizens to become complicit in its crimes. In all of this, there is a contrast between the reductive world-view of the Islamic ideologue and that of persons who simply want to get on with their lives. The question here is balance. Nafisi and her students come from different generations. The older generation feels that their past has been stolen from them, leaving a void, “making us exiles in our own country.” Yet, they do have a past to compare with the empty present. The students, on the other hand, represent a generation of Persians with no past: they know of movies they have not seen, music they have never heard, kisses they have never exchanged. Both generations long for a balance in their lives, while the regime views this as dangerous and subversive, deflecting the believer from the contemplation of Allah.

The last chapter is devoted to Jane Austen. “Every great book we read became a challenge to the ruling ideology…Nowhere was this challenge more apparent than in the case of Jane Austen,” says Nafisi. Austen provides Nafisi and her students with a chance to talk about what is on all their minds: marriage and the individual freedom of women. Austen seems to sum up many points about literature that Nafisi wants to make. The chapter begins with a grotesque travesty by one of the students: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife.” Behind this lay the restrictions placed on women in Persia when the Family Protection Law was repealed at the beginning of the revolution. The discussions of marriage in Pride and Prejudice provide an opportunity for the students to gain a perspective on their own lives and times. Nafisi argues that novels create a space for the reader to enter and live, in the imagination, another life. This space encompasses dialogue, self-reflection and self-criticism, and her students felt more alive and real there than they did in the “reality” of their everyday lives. Dancing in Jane Austen’s books becomes a metaphor for the freedom of men and women to interact in a highly structured situation in which one cannot be “out of step.” Under the civilized surface, however, there can be serious disagreement going on. The parallel to life in the Islamic Republic is all too clear.

Ideology opposes interiority: the need to think and debate within oneself and let the imagination run free. Novels with no overt political message were therefore suspect and dangerous to the regime. Nafisi stresses the dramatic nature of the novel and its multivocality, and sees these as democratic values. These values, and the space that the novel provides in which the imagination can live and create are powerful arguments for reading the classics. I know of no other book where these arguments are better made.

William L. Hanaway taught Persian and Persian literature at the University of Pennsylvania for 25 years and retired in 1995. He has visited Tehran twice in recent years.

JASNA News v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 24

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