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Stalled in Iran


When she left Iran for the US in 1997, Azar Nafisi found that she was able to write with a freedom that she had not known since she was last in America as a student in the 1970s. Long muffled by Iranian censorship, she took advantage of her liberty to write a damaging and eloquent account of the Islamic Republic. Damaging, but indirect, for Reading Lolita in Tehran1 is about reading well-known works of English and American literature in a totalitarian environment—about entering a fictional world whose morally ambiguous characters resist the leveling effects of ideology. In revolutionary Tehran, Nafisi writes, reading Invitation to a Beheading, Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, Lolita offered “a critical way of appraising and grasping the world.” In a political system that aims ruthlessly to homogenize, to impose a code of behavior and thought, fiction can be a weapon of resistance.

During the decade or so that she spent teaching English literature at Tehran University and at Allameh Tabatabai University, also in Tehran, in addition to two years of private instruction of a class of young women, Nafisi was engaged in resistance. By setting very demanding standards of Islamic virtue from its citizens, the Islamic Republic has made criminals of millions of them. Nafisi was expelled from Tehran University for declining to wear the hejab, the Islamic head- and body-cover that the Iranian authorities have made mandatory. Later, at Allameh Tabatabai, she wore the hejab with contemptuous sloppiness; she ate ham and drank vodka after both had been banned; she had the temerity to try to shake the hand of a male student; and she taught Lolita to her private class, despite its perversion of what Islam, no less than any other religion, regards as a sacred relationship between a guardian and his juvenile charge.

Nafisi regards Reading Lolita in Tehran as an optimistic book about the “transformative power of literature.” It contains a description of an exuberantly democratic classroom “trial,” suggested by Nafisi herself, of The Great Gatsby, which has offended her Islamist and leftist students. The account of the trial goes on for pages, but some brief quotes can suggest its flavor. One of the Muslim students, Mr. Nyazi, states a case for the prosecution. “The only sympathetic person here,” he says, “is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson. When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the only gen-uine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of…the Great Satan!” A young woman, Zarrin, defends the book:

Careless is the first adjective that comes to mind when describing the rich in this novel. The dream they embody is an alloyed dream that destroys whoever tries to get close to it. So you see, Mr. Nyazi, this book is no less a condemnation of your wealthy upper classes than any of the revolutionary books we have read.

Nafisi writes:

I discovered later that most students had supported Zarrin, but very few were prepared to risk voicing their views, mainly because they lacked enough self-confidence to articulate their points as “eloquently,” I was told, as the defense and the prosecutor. Some claimed in private that they personally liked the book. Then why didn’t they say so? Everyone else was so certain and emphatic in their position, and they couldn’t really say why they liked it—they just did.

Nafisi describes the intimacy that developed in her private class, where discussion of troubled characters like Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper led “my girls” to share their problems. (These mostly have to do with men, or the state, or both.) She finds solace in a friendship with a mysterious academic. But to my mind Reading Lolita in Tehran is mostly a sad book, “a mournful feast,” as Nafisi writes in another context. Censorship, of art and behavior, casts a shadow. So does the despotism exercised by men over women who, in the case of Nafisi and her girls, are helplessly aware of what is going on. Nafisi pays for her awareness “at night, always at night, when I returned. What will happen now? Who will be killed? When will they come?”

A description of a walk taken by a student, Sanaz, recalls the experience of many Iranian women:

It is in her best interest not to be seen, not be heard or noticed. She doesn’t walk upright, but bends her head to the ground and doesn’t look at passersby…. The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia, who ride in white Toyota patrols, four gun-carrying men and women…. They patrol the streets to make sure that women like Sanaz wear their veils properly, do not wear make-up, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers or husbands…. The streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined….

As a student, Nafisi had opposed US meddling in Iran, cheered the Shah’s flight, and returned home full of optimism. The revolution soon soured. Freedom was subordinated to an intolerance that took the form of radical Islam; this intolerance permitted, through the promulgation of benighted laws, Iranian men to assume absolute authority over their wives, daughters, and sisters. For a great many Iranian women, this may have been seen as a correction of the excesses of the Shah’s time, when the carousing of the nouveaux riches had raised fears of Western-style degeneracy. For a great many others, revolutionary but secular-minded, it was a ghastly surprise.

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets,” Nafisi writes, “is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes.” She is reminded of the condemned Cincinnatus C. in Invitation to a Beheading and the waltz that he dances with his jailer. When the waltz ends, Nabokov writes, “Cincinnatus regretted that the swoon’s friendly embrace had been so brief.” Nafisi writes,

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other…. There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

By 1997, Nafisi had decided that the only way to leave the circle was to leave Iran, and that prompted people she knew to seek an escape route. Nafisi’s epilogue alludes to the emigration of several of her students. Since she has written very critically about the Islamic Republic, it is unlikely that she will be allowed to return safely to Iran, even for a short holiday. That puts her in a position that is privileged but also difficult. Exiles are able, as Iranians in Iran are not, to tell the full truth about the Islamic Republic. However, the longer they spend away from Iran, the less acquainted they are with it, and the more their accounts are open to question.

I know the period that Nafisi deals with in Reading Lolita in Tehran only through books and conversations with people, including my wife, who lived in Iran at the time. Nafisi’s portrayal is grimly authentic. On the other hand, I have direct experience of life in Iran since the election of a reformist president, Muhammad Khatami, which happened a month before Nafisi emigrated, and I disagree with aspects of Nafisi’s portrayal of this newer Iran.

In articles and lectures written in the US, Nafisi describes the Khatami presidency as marking hardly a break with the past, and the Islamic Republic as being no less fanatical and vicious. She portrays normal Iranians as being more politically conscious and willing to act with dynamism than they are. Such misapprehensions are common among Iranian exiles; they justify a vilification of the regime without regard to the nuances of its behavior, while offering an unrealistic hope of change through the power of its people.
In an article that she wrote last year for The Wall Street Journal, Nafisi suggested that Khatami’s landslide election victory in 1997 was “more a vote against the rulers of the Islamic Republic than in support of an obscure cleric with impeccable revolutionary credentials.”2 That was not my impression from a rally of several thousand people I attended in 1999. Even then, more than two years after he came to power, it was remarkable how much admired, even revered, the President was. He was, as I wrote, “loudly cheered, with female students holding up his photograph, their male counterparts bellowing his name.”3 As late as 2001, when Khatami’s efficiency as a reformer was widely questioned, I watched 12,000 people in the provincial town of Kerman, including young women close to hysteria, give him a welcome that might elsewhere be given to a pop star.4

In her Wall Street Journal article, Nafisi referred admiringly to Iranians “breaking into riots to see films by great directors, Iranian or Western.” In the early 1990s, a decision to suspend the screening of two films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most famous filmmakers, led to rioting by people who had hoped to see the films. But the decision to suspend the screenings had been prompted by much more serious rioting, by violent Islamist groups, outside movie theaters where the films were playing. It is not uncommon for fists and insults to fly during the annual Tehran film festival. Seats are hard to come by and the festival organizers are notoriously incompetent. But these minor fracases do not amount, as Nafisi put it, to “the Iranian people…revealing their civilizational aspirations.”

In an interview that she gave in 2003 to The Atlantic, Nafisi lamented that following the terrorist attacks of September 11, scant attention was paid to the fact that “40,000 Iranians came out to the streets in Iran under threat of jail or torture and lit candles in sympathy with the American people.”5 There were several vigils in Tehran after the attacks. Some five thousand people took part in the biggest, on September 18, according to an Iranian cameraman whose pictures of the event appeared on the BBC. The New York Times put the number of participants at three thousand. None of the other vigils attracted more than a few hundred people.

Nafisi told her interviewer that “there is a lot happening in the universities…. Universities now are the hotbed of the movement for democracy.” This was no longer true in 2003, and it is not true now. In the wake of serious student rioting in 1999, the authorities decapitated the student movement by jailing its leaders and, it is widely believed, torturing some of them. Those demonstrating students were associated with President Khatami’s reform movement, but that has now lost much of its support, and there is no longer a political current that reflects the aspirations of large numbers of young people. Many students are fatalistically convinced of their inability to influence the running of their country. There is less “happening” in the universities than at any time since the revolution.

  1. 1

    Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003).

  2. 2

    The Books of Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2003.

  3. 3

    See my “Struggle for Iran,” The New York Review, December 16, 1999.

  4. 4

    See my “Khatami’s Admirers Lose Patience with Failure of Reforms,” The Independent, February 24, 2001.

  5. 5

    The Fiction of Life,” Atlantic Unbound, May 7, 2003.

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