Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi taught English literature at the University of Tehran in the period immediately after the overthrow of the Shah. Her passion for literature is palpable throughout the book and her commentaries on Lolita, the Great Gatsby, Jane Austen and Henry James are informative and a genuine aid to appreciation. However, it is the way literature is juxtaposed with the progress of the revolution that is so fascinating and stimulating.Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 18.02.15

Structured around recollections of her teaching and a women’s book club she sets up she describes a range of characters and their different experiences as the Islamic Fundamentalists become ever more powerful.

From the early days of the revolution where diverse political groupings of students argued on campus about the direction the new regime should take to later as the fundamentalists came to dominate and close down any challenge to the new orthodoxy.

It charts the way the veil was transformed from a voluntary expression of religious faith into a compulsory symbol of political oppression. Worse it makes clear this was a very specific form of male dominated political oppression. The accounts of the treatment of women whilst in one sense are not a surprise they still remain shocking. What also comes across is the hypocrisy that accompanied some of the worst excesses of the male guardians of the faith.

To be clear this is not an anti-Muslim book, far from it. What it is against is the totalitarian suppression of the individual and the denial of the right to freedom of expression. Totalitarianism does not grow out of Islam rather it traduces the Muslim faith to rationalise and legitimate its actions.

The way literature is shown in the book to be both the product and symbol of individual freedom and liberty is impressive. As the fundamentalist faction gains prominence and power, the condemnation of western literature as decadent becomes ever more strident. Certain books become more and more difficult to obtain and then banned. It is interesting how powerful literature is perceived by totalitarian regimes of all stripes as they attempt to control and ultimately destroy it.

Throughout the novel Ms Nafisi shows how literature can illuminate areas of life. She draws on Nabakov’s, work “An Invitation to a Beheading”. This Kafkaesque novel is about an individual condemned to death for “gnostical turpitude” which seems to consist of failing to blend in with those around him. Clearly, fundamentalist religion cannot cope with “gnostical turpitude” or, what amounts to the same thing, individuals. What Ms Nafisi brings out is the desire of totalitarian regimes, not just to impose external compliance but secure internal surrender.

Scarves and the veil become compulsory, shaking hands with a male who is not your brother or father is an outrage indeed looking into their eyes is the same. Imprisonment, torture and rape, stoning to death, disappearance and shooting were the very real tools of oppression. Within this incredibly repressive environment, the book club and literature become a way to cling to internal freedom, a way to avoid surrender.

This is a tremendous book which illuminates one of the major events in recent history with the light of individual human experience, with emphasis on the individual.

Published in 2015 By Penguin Classics.


Post script. I have used the term Islamic Fundamentalism in the above. As I wrote it I felt uncomfortable. Putting the two terms together seems to me to demean the former and provide a false veneer of acceptability to the latter. Fundamentalism in all its forms is first and foremost about power and only secondarily about whatever vehicle it uses to legitimise that power. I fear the two terms probably have to remain combined but I think it is important to always be clear that they are actually radically separate


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