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 Tehran 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.
I discovered later that most students had supported Zarrin, but very few were …