Azar Nifisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran is an amazing book, but the American reviews I have read focused solely on Nafisi, the feminist who teaches women in a underground literature class. These reviews miss the more important point: Nafisi is writing a memoir of herself and other secular intellectuals who first supported the Iranian revolution in which Ayatollah Khomeini gained power. Americans should read this book because we know so very little about Iran of the last twenty-five years. We should be wary: Nafisi is a flawed narrator, telling us only part of the story.
After receiving a PhD in English from the University of Okalahoma and getting married Nafisi returned to Iran in the spring of 1979. As Nafisi says, she returned at a crucial moment both for herself and for the new Iranian revolution. She was immediately hired to teach English literature at the University of Tehran. For two weeks in late January, 1979, after the Shah had been driven out, Dr. Shahpour Bakhtiar, a democratic bourgeois liberal was prime minister, but most of the opposition including Nafisi herself had joined up with Ayatollah Khomeini against Dr. Bakhtiar.
Nafisi, whose father was jailed for four years by the shah, had been a student radical in Marxist Iranian student groups in Oklahoma in the 1970s and was all for destroying the “old,” which she and many other young Iranians thought meant booting out Bakhtiar, the liberal reformist. They wanted a revolution. Then Ayatollah Khomeini became head of state. When talking about her student radicalism Nafisi says, ‘”In the seventies—the mood—not just among Iranians but among American and European students—was revolutionary.” Not true. Radicalism among American students had peaked in 1970 and was subsidizing throughout the 1970s into reformism (only a really tiny minority of U.S. students were revolutionary). In the United States most young women in the1970s deserted the American New Left by the thousands to start reformist feminist groups.
What’s fascinating about this memoir is that Nafisi, the revolution’s supporter, started teaching fall semester 1979 at the University of Tehran where many of the battles of the revolution would be played out in the next two years. Nafisi says that at the university the Muslim students were a minority “overshadowed by the leftist and secular student groups,” but over the next two years Khomeini used the Muslim student groups and his militias to take over the university. Nafisi from her vantage point at the University of Tehran describes how the Khomeini government expeled professors deemed anti-regime, killed leftist students in demonstrations, arrested leftist students, jailed them for years and executed them. Khomeini consolidated his power over the country by purging just such leftists as Nafisi and her students.
In the midst of all this one day Nafisi cancels classes to attend a demonstration of women protesting the government’s policies instituting the veil and “curtailing women’s rights.” Her leftist women students followed the line of their Marxist groups denouncing the feminist protest as “deviant, divisive and ultimately in service of the imperialists” and supported the government. At the protest Nafisi saw vigilantes attack the women with “knives, clubs and stones.” That meeting was a turning point.
She herself first ran into problems teaching Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Two powerful Muslim students repeatedly attacked the novel in class as immoral, decadent western literature, so she had her class put the book on the trial. In her defense of the novel in class Nafisi says Gatsby had a dream of the past that ignored reality in present—living in the dream killed him. She then compares her generation of revolutionaries to Gatsby: “What we in Iran have in common with Fitzgerald was this dream [of revolution] became our obsession … this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in realization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven ….” She believed that she, her leftist students, and her Muslim students were all being devoured by their dreams just like Gatsby was. Soon she and her two women professor friends were expelled from the university for not wearing the veil.
To me, this section of the book titled “Fitzgerald” is the most moving and enlightening.
When Nafisi first returned to Iran she had been a leftist who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Mike Gold, the proletarian novelist and literary critic (actually I love proletarian literature as I left the bourgeois feminists to write about working class women in literature). By the time Nafisi was thrown out of the university, she had abandoned the working class Gold for bourgois writers who focused on women—Jane Austen or Henry James with his strong women characters in his novels Daisy Miller and Washington Square or Nabakov’s Lolita—as well as Fitzgerald.
Nafisi does for me the impossible: gets me interested in Henry James, a writer I have always ignored. She does this by showing how the four writers—Nabokov, James, Austen, and Fitzgerald—all opened up democratic space in the novel where women as well as men had liberty, integrity of the self, choices to make, and the right to happiness. Nafisi says what she likes these novels is summed up in a comment on Henry James: He always had a protagonist who desired “to preserve a sense of personal integrity in the face of outside aggression.” Nafisi becomes a celebrant of these bourgeois novelists who give their characters liberty--the right to protect themselves against outside power.
I think Nafisi is a fine literary critic but often this book lacks humility of self-analysis and reads like one long rage against Islamic fundamentalists. The closest she comes to self-analysis is when she analyzes Gatsby and her own use of the dream detached from reality. Did she regret her past actions being in coalition with Khomeini? She eludes to it but avoids dealing with it head on. She never plainly discusses when she ceased supporting the Islamic revolution and instead became a celebrant of the bourgeois novel of civil liberties.
Nafisi’s book isn’t George Orwell’s Homage to Catelonia or Richard Wright’s American Hunger. Both are great books because they have self-analysis showing how the heroes disillusionment with Communist led to their leaving the party. Even after they split with the Communist Party, Orwell was still a socialist and Wright a fighter for civil rights. Their books leave us not with rage but with self-analysis and humility. Nafisi lacks both the self-analysis and humility. Her book misses greatness.
But Nafisi gives us Iran, a country we need to know here in America as we’ve been cut off from any knowledge of them for 25 years. In 1987 Allameh Tabatabi University promised to hire her if she wore the veil. She made the compromise. Some of her former students rejoined her classes, telling her of years of their imprisonment; rapes in jail; execution of their friends. The suffering toughened the Iranian feminists, young and old. We feminists in the United States had a lark compared to them.
Nafisi describes how Iranianwomen students were still continually harassed at their college for being caught wearing pink socks or lipstick. By 1995 Nafisi can’t stand the harassment at work of herself and her students so she resigns to start her underground class.
When she and her women students talk in her underground class, they never have political discussions. They discuss boyfriend jilting them, being sexually harassed, being beaten by their husbands—very intimate topics. I can not believe they never discussed their own political histories. These were women who were had lived gut-wrenching politics—some had been in jail. So why does Nafisi omit their political discussions? Did the leftists students ever re-evaluate their groups’ alliance with Khomeini in 1979-80? Who knows? Her seven women students, as my friend Keiko Amano said, lack character development and tend to blend into one another.
Nafisi gives fascinating descriptions of how she, her friends, her students and family committ small acts of defiance: her husband’s drinking bootleg vodka; her family has satellite TV; one female student wore outlawed pink socks; another young woman having red nail polish she hides in gloves when she walks on the streets. This part of the book shows the culture resistance in the 1990s—a resistance that must contributed to that political opposition by 2000 when ¾ of Iranians voted against their government.
Dear reader, this a book we should all read. Now over half of Iran’s university students are women. Our mass media is so ignorant of Islamic countries that they neglect to show us in Iran fundamentalists are clearly a minority. Maybe Islamic fundamentalists are minorities in all their societies as they are in Iran? Nafisi is surely not alone but part of a larger movement wanting to bring human rights and civil liberties to Middle Eastern countries.
It is who have to learn about them. Dear reader, you still must read this book if you want to understand more about Iran.