Reader, I have had my privilege checked. I don’t know what I thought this book would be about. I suppose I assumed it would be some wispy bookish memoir of the author’s efforts and successes in teaching her students to love literature. It is far more than that.
Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi, 2003) is the story of the author’s time teaching literature in Iran during the Islamic revolution. At the time, universities were coming under attack by those who wished to impose a stricter set of laws. Men and women were being segregated and female students would be punished for running up stairs or talking to men or for possessing makeup. After quitting her post at the university, due to the imposition of these laws, Nafisi takes it upon herself to lead a class independently, filled with students who are wholly committed to the study of literature for its own sake. It is here that the book opens, with Nafisi and her female students discussing Humbert Humbert and his taking of a young life.
I admit to not knowing much about the Islamic revolution. I’ve not read much about it, save for Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, so Nafisi greatly opened my eyes to the way the Iranian government sought to steal from its citizens, most notably from its women. Nafisi is horrified to learn that one of her students who had missed class had been jailed during her vacation. She was punished for acting too freely, subjected to a virginity exam, and was lucky to come out of it alive. Men and women are executed for failing to conform for the regime, for acting too “Western.” Women are searched at will and reprimanded for wearing makeup or nail polish. In a time like this, you wonder why something like literature is so important and, indeed, Nafisi addresses this question with her students when she first begins teaching at the University of Tehran:
…most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed to immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.
And, right there, is exactly why we books are important. While reading this I couldn’t help but think, how lucky we are to be able to gather and discuss literature whenever and with whomever we like! To discuss and disagree with the government, to not be jailed for our dress, and, especially as women, to consort with whomever we like, to walk alone or with another man, to express ourselves freely. This is what our freedom gives us and we forget that so many do not have this privilege. And I imagine, when immersed in a society where this is the norm, it is so easy to forget what rights we are denied.
This book, as are the works that Nafisi discusses with her class, is about oppression and blindness, about being forced to become what others wish for us to be. During a time where some would praise a bigoted, racist politician for “speaking his mind” or claim their rights were being infringed upon for not being allowed to spout hate on private websites, Reading Lolita in Tehran serves as a warning of what we could really become. Some may still question why novels are important or what purpose fiction has in the face of political extremism. To that I will leave with this final quote:
Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me… Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to ‘see’ others, hence to empathize with them. What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennett) as well as the worst (Humbert). We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others. Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book that is set in the Middle East, read a book about politics]