#3. Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Life for Iranian females during the Iranian Revolution is something that I have formed a hungry interest for lately. It is not a topic I see discussed or explored much so I thought it would be enlightening for others to read about and come to know of also.

Reading Lolita in Tehran was written after Nafisi left Iran permanently in 1997. Whilst in Iran, she struggled against the ideas and procedures of the revolution. She was a very liberal minded professor teaching at the University of Tehran, where she refused to wear the veil. She was expelled eventually, as the government adopted a totalitarian approach towards ruling and wanted control over free thinking professors (among many other things) like herself.
The next university she decided to teach at, she resigned from. Thereafter, she began private literature classes at her house every Thursday morning. She invited 7 of her female students to attend these and they studied literary works that were deemed as controversial in the post revolutionary Iranian society, such as the famous Lolita. Other classics by novelists such as Jane Austen and Scott Fitzgerald were also studied. What makes this memoir intriguing is the heavy intertextuality that it possesses. The literary works studied in the book club formed by Nafisi are understood and attempted to be interpreted from a modern Iranian perspective. The interlacing of Nafisi’s life events with the life events of the seven members of the book club are further interpreted through these books too. This really gives an effective insight on what it meant to be a woman in Iran during the revolution.

7CFFCB62-0D23-4DE4-8A95-F4A6B196F7B5“…do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”

“She made poetry out of things most people cast aside.”

“When in memory I hear her voice, I know I never lived up to her expectations. I never did become the lady she tried to will me into being.”

“Life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms.”

“Reality has become so intolerable, she said, so bleak, that all I can paint now are the colors of my dreams.”

“Withdrawal into one’s dreams could be dangerous.”

“I admired their ability to survive not despite but in some ways because of their solitary lives.”

“I lied, she said. You lied? What else can one do with a person who’s so dictatorial he won’t let his daughter, at this age, go to an all-female literature class?”

“I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that “readers were born free and ought to remain free.””

“…he is passive, he is a hero without knowing or acknowledging it: he fights with his instincts, and his acts of writing are his means of escape. He is a hero because he refuses to become like all the rest.”

“It is amazing how, when all possibilities seem to be taken away from you, the minutest opening can become a great freedom.”

“What could she do? She did not believe in politics and did not want to marry, but she was curious about love.”

“Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.”

“He didn’t value books (“the problem with you and your family is that you live more in books than in reality”).

“One memory curls itself wantonly and imperceptibly around me, testing me seductively.”

“…the dearer a book was to my heart, the more battered and bruised it became.”

“I explained that 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 too immutable.”

Art is no longer snobbish or cowardly. It teaches peasants to use tractors, gives lyrics to young soldiers, designs textiles for factor women’s dresses, writes burlesque for factory theaters, does a hundred other useful tasks. Art is useful as bread.”

“”But what use is love in this world we live in?” said a voice from the back of the room.”

“A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel.”

“This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.”

“It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless.”

“I started picking books up with a greedy urgency.”

“What do people who are made irrelevant do? They will sometimes escape, I mean physically, and if that is not possible, they will try to make a comeback, to become a part of the game by assimilating the characteristics of their conquerors. Or they will escape inwardly and, like Claire in The American, turn their small corner into a sanctuary: the essential part of their life goes underground.”

“If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat.”

“…it was a source of constant regret and sorrow to me that their childhood memories of home, unlike my own, were so tainted.”

“Even when our personal and political differences alienated us from one another, the magical texts held us together.”

“It was during this time that, while reading certain writers, I unconsciously took up pencil and paper again. I had never wholly give up my pleasurable undergraduate habit of underlining passages and taking notes.”

“All his life had been a struggle for power – not political power, which he disdained, but the power of culture. For him culture and civilization were everything. He had said that the greatest freedom of man was his “independence of thought,” which enabled the artist to enjoy the “aggression of infinite modes of being.””

“”I confess that I have no philosophy, nor piety, nor patience, no art of reflection,” he wrote, “no theory of compensation to meet things so hideous, so cruel, and so mad, they are just unspeakably horrible and irremediable to me and I stare at them with angry and almost blighted eyes.”

“She was bitter and determined, stern and tough, and yet she loved novels and writing with a real passion. She said she did not wish to write but to teach. She was an inarticulate writer.”

“…these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within oneself, a movement inward that makes them whole.”

“”Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had? I’m too old – too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t, like me to-day, be without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it, and now I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. For it was a mistake. Live, live!””

“There are different forms of seduction, and the kind I have witnessed in Persian dancers is so unique, such a mixture of subtlety and brazenness, I cannot find a Western equivalent to compare it to.”

“I am too much of an academic: I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narratives without pontificating”

“It is said that the personal is political. That is not true, of course. At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives. Personal and political are interdependent but not one and the same thing. The realm of imagination is a bridge between them, constantly refashioning one in terms of the other.”

“Heartbreak is heartbreak, I reasoned. Even English or American girls are jilted by their lovers.”

“I had concluded, dramatically, that this regime had so penetrated our hearts and minds, insinuating itself into our homes, spying on us in our bedrooms, that it had come to shape us against our own will.”

“Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world – not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.”

“I had always had a hankering for the security of impossible dreams.”

“”How is it that we keep coming back to marriage,” Mitra said, “when we’re supposed to be here to talk about books?””

“Every great book we read became a challenge to the ruling ideology. It became a potential threat and menace not so much because of what it said but how it said it, the attitude it took towards life and fiction.”

“She yearned to become a literary personage: her love of literature was real, yet her talents were limited and her ambition for power and control sometimes surpassed and even came to clash with that love.”

“In my mind from time to time I resurrect and recreate her. I try to penetrate the unsaid feelings and emotions that hung between us. She keeps coming towards me through the flickering light, as in our first meeting, with that ironic sideways glance, and passes through me, leaving me with my doubts and regrets.”

“I felt sorry for her. She was in love – this should have been the best time of her life – but she was anxious about so many things.”

“”Are you happy?” I asked her anxiously.
“I don’t know,” she said. “No one ever taught me how to be happy. We’ve been taught that pleasure is the great sin, that sex is for procreation and so on and on and forth. I feel guilty, but I shouldn’t – not because I am interested in a man. In a man,” she repeated. “At my age! The fact is I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. I’ve always been told what is right – and suddenly I don’t know anymore. I know what I don’t want, but I don’t know what I want,” she said, looking down at the ice cream she had hardly touched.”

“Azin had said that the most important thing in life was the mystical union one felt with the universe. She added, philosophically, that men were just vessels for that higher spiritual love. Vessels? There went all her claims to sexual pleasure and physical  compatibility.”

“I had come to a conclusion: our culture shunned sex because it was too involved with it. It had to suppress sex violently, for the same reason that an impotent man will put his beautiful wife under lock and key. We had always segregated sex from feeling and from intellectual love, so you were either pure and virtuous … or dirty and fun. What was alien to us was eros, true sensuality.”

“These girls, my girls, knew a great deal about Jane Austen, they could discuss Joyce and Woolf intelligently, but they knew next to nothing about their own bodies, about what they should expect of these bodies which, they had been told were the source of all temptation.”

“How do you tell someone she has to learn to love herself and her own body before she can be loved or love?”

“Austen manages to make us aware of the most intriguing aspect of a relationship; the urge, the longing for the object of desire that is so near and so far. It is a longing that will be gratified, a suspense that will end in unity and happiness. The scenes of actual lovemaking are almost nonexistent in Austen’s novels, but her tales are all one long and complicated process of courtship. It is obvious that she is more interested in happiness than in the institution of marriage, in love and understanding than matrimony.”

“These women, genteel and beautiful, are the rebels who say no to the choices made by silly mothers, incompetent fathers … and the rigidly orthodox society. They risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship, and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose.”

“It’s frightening to be free, to have to take responsibility for your decisions.”

“I am going to leave, I told myself. I can’t live like this anymore. Every time something like this happened, I, like many others, would think of leaving, of going to a place where everyday life was not such a battleground.”

“Recently, the thought of leaving Iran had become more than a defense mechanism and incidents like this were slowly tipping the scales. Among friends and colleagues some had tried to adjust to the situation.”

“We are not with the regime in our hearts and minds, one had said, but what can we do but comply? Should I go to jail and lose my job for the sake of two loose strands of hair?”

“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.”

“There is a term in Persian, “the patient stone,” which is often used in times of anxiety and turbulence. Supposedly, a person pours out all his troubles and woes into the stone. It will listen and absorb his pains and secrets, and this way he will be cured.”

“She said, “I am going away.” She said she was twenty-seven now and didn’t know what it meant to live.”

“I am twenty-seven. I don’t know what it means to love. I don’t want to be secret and hidden forever.”

“Other people’s sorrows and joys have a way of reminding us of our own; we partly empathize with them because we ask ourselves: What about me? What does that say about my life, my pains, my anguish?”

“She wrote about how ever since she could remember, she had been told that life in the land of infidels was pure hell. She had been promised that all would be different under a just Islamic rule. Islamic rule! It was a pageant of hypocrisy and shame. She wrote about how at work her male superiors never look her in the eye, about how in movies even a six-year-old girl must wear a scarf and cannot play with boys.”

“Although she wore the veil, she described the pain of being required to wear it, calling it a mask behind which women were forced to hide.”

“Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe.”

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

“I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions. To have a whole life, one must have the possibility of publicly shaping and expressing private worlds, dreams, thoughts and desires, of constantly having access to a dialogue between the public and private worlds. How else do we know that we have existed, felt, desired, hated, feared?”

“We speak of facts, yet facts exist only partially to us if they are not repeated and re-created through emotions, thoughts and feelings. To me it seemed as if we had not really existed, or only half existed, because we could not imaginatively realize ourselves and communicate to the world, because we had used works of imagination to serve as handmaidens to some political ploy.”

“I went about my way rejoicing, thinking how wonderful it is to be a woman and a writer at the end of the twentieth century.”

Thank you for reading. I hope this book post has ignited an interest, regardless of how small, for you to learn more about one of the most important revolutions to take place in history.