Saturday, March 21, 2009

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

I must admit that before last month's book club meeting I'd never heard of Reading Lolita in Tehran, even though it has remained on the New York Times bestseller list since it was first published in 2003. At the last book club meeting the group decided to pick three books to read before our next meeting (in April). Although widely different in their subject matter all three of the books involve the Middle East or Islamic and Muslim cultures. It was decided that members of the book club could read all three books, any two of the books, or even just one depending on their tastes and how many time allowed. The three books chosen were: Now They Call Me Infidel, Three Cups of Tea, and Reading Lolita in Tehran. I selected Reading Lolita in Tehran for two reasons, first because it was easily accessible at my local library and second, because the idea of women in another culture studying Western literature and discussing it in a classroom or book club setting sounded interesting. And it was...

From the Publisher:
We all have dreams—things we fantasize about doing and generally never get around to. This is the story of Azar Nafisi’s dream and of the nightmare that made it come true.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading—Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller and Lolita—their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran.

Nafisi’s account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi’s class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work that preached falsehoods of “the Great Satan,” she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and stood as the sole witness for the defense.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice.

My thoughts
For the most part I enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran, but it was a difficult book to read. Even though it was only 347 pages it took me over two weeks to finish it.

When I began Reading Lolita in Tehran I expected a book that would teach me more about 19th and 20th century classics as seen through the eyes of women from another culture, but I was in for a surprise. Yes, I did learn more about the classics discussed (incidentally all of which, with the one exclusion of Pride and Prejudice, I've never read). Through her memoir Nafisi and her students do a great job of dissecting the novels and getting inside the characters and authors minds, not that I always agreed with them, but what I didn't expect was to come away knowing so much more about Iran as a country and the Islamic culture during the late 1970s through the mid 1990s.

But as I mentioned the book was a difficult read. For starters, this is no fictional work. It is a memoir and reads like a memoir. At times I found myself bored, but I pushed on and was rewarded as the boring parts are limited. The Islamic culture itself was difficult to read about because it is a depressing world where morals are upside down, where women are suppressed and punished for being women, and where citizens are forbidden their God-given unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Last, and because I knew nothing about so many of the books discussed, the information contained in Reading Lolita in Tehran was a lot to take in. I think it might have been easier had I read the works before reading a memoir where the works are discussed in such detail and in contrast to a culture that is so different from my own.

That said, Reading Lolita in Tehran remains an interesting book and I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad I'm done reading it. I am looking forward to discussing it with the other women in my book club. On a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent I would rate it a 3. It was ok, but not one I plan to re-read or purchase for my library. I'd advise interested readers to borrow a copy from their local library.


Jenny Girl said...

I applaude you for finishing this book. I don't I could have done it. Good review as well.

Jena said...

I read this book after having the pleasure of seeing Nafisi speak at an NCTE convention, which may have affected by reading of the book a few months later, because--though I didn't find it an easy read--I was fascinated. I could hear Nafisi in my head yet, but I hadn't read many of the books mentioned, though I since have. I plan to reread Reading Lolita in Tehran again, though I may wait till I decide for sure whether I'll be reading The Great Gatsby sometime soon.

Jo Jardin said...

Hello...I am reading this book and doing a Google search led me to your site as a link for information...

I am on month 4 of reading this book. Like you, I had only read one of the books featured in the book, so my plan was to read the books I hadn't read, which means I stop in the reading of the book, read the next book discussed, and then go back to the book.

I agree that the book drags at times, but I have to admit that without starting this book I wouldn't have read some of these classics...I would just keep putting them off. (I'm at the section on Gatsby.)

Great blog, by the way! :)