I actually took notes when I read Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book contains so much information and so many thought-provoking quotes, I had to make it easy for me to find them later on. For what, I had no idea. but it seemed important. In reading this book, I felt as though I had entered a world foreign to me, but met a character in the form of the narrator who is someone familiar–a voracious reader and a teacher.
Nafisi’s memoir takes place when she, an Iranian moves back to Iran from the United States, where she attends grad school . She decides to go home at what turns out to be a time of change and danger–during the Revolution.
What starts out as a hopeful movement, becomes an authoritarian anti-Western repressive government. Nafisi witnesses the controls tightening as the abuse of power becomes more chaotic. She writes of men and women being tortured and killed, of women sexually abused and raped and blamed. The powerless are doomed.
Although she starts out teaching in the university, soon Nafisi is expelled for refusing to wear a veil. She comes back for a time, but ultimately, she resigns and takes her teaching underground. She teaches literature in her living room to female students. It’s very hush-hush as they are all in danger if discovered.
What did I learn from this book?
- The structure of Nafisi’s memoir is very unique. Because the book is about teaching literature, she gives the book shape by forming sections around the books they read: “Lolita”; “Gatsby”; “James”; and “Austen.” She makes connections between the literature studied during the section and what is happening to the characters in the book and to Iran. Her clever structure is a good example of a memoir structured thematically.
- Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how little I knew about Iranian culture and about the Revolution. I’d seen Ayatollah Khomeini on TV often in the early 80s, and it was if a dark spirit entered the room each time he filled the screen. But this made me turn from Iran and not seek to learn more.
- Most importantly, Nafisi shows how naive and idealistic she and her fellow Iranian students were when the Shah was in power. They believed that revolution was necessary and would help Iran and its people. But their dream turned into a nightmare. The book shows how we have to be careful what we wish for. A promising course might not lead to freedom and happiness, but to a dangerous theocracy.
Although I ended up with 5 typed pages of valuable notes from this book, I remember one passage by rote. In the Gatsby section, a character says:
[The Great Gatsby] is an amazing book . . . . It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. “
I’ve taken on this quote as a personal mantra.
I’m looking forward to reading Nafisi’s recent book Things I’ve Been Silent About. She lives and teaches in the United States, and this book sounds like a memoir about her childhood, growing up with parents who told her romantic stories. This is her website.