Jane Austen in Iran
Reading Lolita in Tehran:
A Memoir in Books
By Azar Nafisi.
Random House, 2004. ix + 356 pages.
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.
v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 24
See more book reviews
Return to Home Page