I’ve been commuting a long distance the last five months, up and down that snake called Highway 280 that links my home in San Francisco to the peninsula south of the city. During my commute I’ve been listening to audiobooks, and attempting to fine tune my command of the cruise control function on my little Toyota Corolla so I can concentrate on the words I’m hearing.
The most recent audiobook I listened to was Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, a gripping, nonfiction account of living in that city during the first 18 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The book centers around a small reading group of students, led by the author. Azar Nafisi started a private literature class in her home after she was expelled from her teaching post at the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the chador following the Islamic Revolution. Ironically, Azar Nafisi had been an active opponent of the shah, and voluntarily moved back to Iran from the United States after the Islamic Revolution. The theocratic elements of the movement to topple the monarchy quickly put an ideological lock on Iran’s political and academic institutions, even subjecting women to detailed inspection of their clothing before they could enter the campus, and expelling or punishing female students who ran up the stairs if they were late for class, or called out to friends in a loud voice.
The many horrors of living in the Islamic Republic of Iran that Nafisi bravely details in this book are a sobering reminder that the days of brutal dictatorships are not behind us. We tend to think that, with a few isolated exceptions, the type of repression that fascism and communism subjected many millions to has more or less ended, and that we live in a more open era, when that sort of governmental control of citizens has ceased to exist.
Nafisi makes it acutely clear that Iran is still suffering under a dictatorship that limits women, political opponents, non-Muslims, homosexuals, and intellectuals—and actually all its citizens—in ways that are horribly autocratic. I was particularly touched by the story of the character she calls Nasrin, a young woman who started auditing Nafisi’s literature classes at the university when she was only 13. Nasrin, like much of her generation, gets involved in the movement to overthrow the shah, but her more secular faction loses out in the power struggle that follows the revolution. As a result, Nasrin spends her teenage years in prison, where a number of the other female prisoners are shot or raped. Nasrin escapes this fate, but after her release from prison, she is not allowed to attend university for several years because of her former political affiliation. She ultimately ends up paying smugglers to help her escape Iran, but one is left with a disturbing sense of the emotional damage that living under this theocracy has caused her.
Another feature of Nafisi’s book I found fascinating was how Iranian readers react to certain English-language novels. In contemporary Tehran, Henry James sounds like a revolutionary, with his strong women characters such as Daisy Miller. In the U.S., James might seem slightly dépassé, but in Iran, his novels are still so relevant that Nafisi’s students formed a secret Daisy Miller fan club. James's reception in Iran is probably much closer to the impact his novels had in the U.S.A. when they were first published.
Reading Lolita in Tehran pulls no punches in recounting the nightmarish atrocities that the Islamic Republic of Iran has committed. I still found the book uplifting in many ways. That puzzled me, and I had to ask myself why. For one thing, Nafisi documents the little acts of resistance that the young women in her class committed every day, from wearing jeans or t-shirts or gold hoop earrings under their chadors, to talking openly amongst themselves about the hypocrisy of the men they know who are affiliated with the government. I think the book's uplifting quality also comes from Nafisi testifying to the incredible endurance of the human spirit, even under suffocating oppression, and how brightly literature can keep that torch lit.
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