Thursday, February 25, 2010

Literary Bite: Reading Lolita in Tehran

This might be my new favorite book. Seriously! I cannot rave enough about it. And then funny thing is, I almost missed it entirely.

My mama read it a few years back, and didn’t really like it. Now, I trust her judgement in most things (especially books) so I assumed that Reading Lolita in Tehran was more hype than anything else. But I was at the library mid-snowstorm (praise and glory to all DCPL employees who have to go to work when the Federal Government is off!), meandering the aisles looking for something to read, when 6x6 pulled it off the shelf and said This is your book. Ok. Why not?

And O to the M to the G. It is SOOOO GOOOOOODDD! (I know, I’m gushing. Sorry, I just can’t control it.)

Anywho, about the book:

Azar Nafisi is a great author. She balances elements of introspective memoir, literary analysis, and political critique so seamlessly and flawlessly, it’s really remarkable. The book is tagged “A Memoir in Books”, and is a bit too complex for me to give you a plot summary…but check one out here.

Nafisi is a professor in Iran, who is eventually forced out of teaching by Islamist extremism, and decides to start her own in-home literature course for young women. Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four major sections, each focusing on one author or classic book: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen.

I have to admit, I have not read Lolita, nor The Great Gatsby, nor James. My Austen experience is long in the past, and I didn’t really like her books at the time (I think I read Emma and Pride and Prejudice sometime in elementary school or junior high…to young…I just couldn’t get into it). I’m sure there’s more I could get out of Nafizi’s writing if I were more familiar with all the authors she analyses, BUT one of the great things about this book is that you don’t really need to have read those books to get/enjoy the story.

It is as much a political critique as a literary one. All I know about Iran is purely academic. I’ve studied Political Islam and the Middle East, and I read the news every day – so Iran is definitely on my radar. But this book gave me a new perspective from the inside. Before, I was under the impression that the Iranian Revolution (1979) was a black and white event. Before = freedom, After = religious-based oppression.  Obviously that view is oversimplified. This book shows the nuances of the Iranian political structure, how it wasn’t just a before-and-after, and how society reacted to the new government.

Even if you don’t care about Iran, or Islam, or classic literature, this book rings true on so many levels. I realize this post is quite long, so I’ll stop there with my opinions and just say READ IT!

Here are some quotes I’ve pulled that I think might give you an idea of the essence of Reading Lolita in Tehran:

About the veil:

“A stern ayatollah, a blind and improbably philosopher-king, had decided to impose his dream on a country and a people and to re-create us in his own myopic vision. So he had formulated an ideal of me as a Muslim woman, as a Muslim woman teacher, and wanted me to look, act and in short live according to that ideal…It was not the piece of cloth that I rejected, it was the transformation being imposed on me that made me look in the mirror and hate the stranger I had become.” (165)

About Nafisi’s classes:

“Those forays into the personal were not supposed to be a part of the class, but they infiltrated our discussions, bringing with them further incursions. Starting with abstraction, we wandered into the realm of out own experiences.” (272)

About the “personal” v. “political”:

“…it was perhaps not surprising that the Islamic Republic’s first task had been to blur the lines and boundaries between the personal and the political, thereby destroying both.” (273)

The politicization of Islam:

“Islam has become a business, she went on, like oil for Texaco. These people who deal in Islam – each one tries to package it better than the next.” (275)

About the liberalizations of the 1990s:

“This was a period of hope, true, but we harbor the illusion that times of hope are devoid of tensions and conflicts, when, in my experience, they are the most dangerous. Hope for some means its loss for others; when the hopeless regain some hope, those in power --- the ones who had taken it away – become afraid, more protective of their endangered interests, more repressive. In many ways, these times of hope, of greater leniency, were as disquieting as before." (276)

Am I just blinded by my own love of this book? Or does it sound good to you too? I hope you read it, and I hope you like it!

Also: Children of the Revolution (BBC Podcast)

More Reviews

And this is kind of a tangent, but if you like this book, check out the movie Persepolis