In the deformed, malignant years of the Ayatollah and the mullahs, women in Iran in the 1980s sometimes found subversive ways to mutiny against the cruelties imposed on them by wrathful men. Reading forbidden novels by Nabokov, James, Fitzgerald and Austen was the loveliest kind of mutiny, and in Reading Lolita in Tehran we learn how a gifted teacher and writer named Azar Nafisi met with seven female students every Thursday morning for two hours to teach them these books. It was a reading group unlike any other we have ourselves known.
To make life bearable for herself and these diverse young women, Nafisi risked jail to teach her students the great gifts that art can bestow. They were so hungry to learn this. She wanted them to see that novels could transform their squashed and humiliated lives, and she seems to have succeeded marvelously. It may be odd to most Americans that literature could be such a solace and inspiration during years of oppression–we knew this as students and have forgotten–but it is Nafisi’s strongest belief that this is true. She tells us what a female student once said to her: “I don’t know why people who are better off always think that those less fortunate than themselves don’t want to have the good things–that they don’t want to listen to good music, eat good food, or read Henry James.”
It is typical of Nafisi, the passionate scholar, that she has kept pink index cards with quotes from authors, and that this encounter with the doomed student led her to again read what Henry James wrote during World War I: “I confess that I have no philosophy, nor piety, nor patience, no art of reflection, 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.” Next to the last words on the pink card she wrote the girl’s name: Razieh.
The room where they gathered each Thursday was spacious but sparsely furnished. The fireplace was created by her Swedish husband, Bijan, whom she had met as a student in California. A love seat was covered by lace. There was a pale peach couch, matching chairs and flowers on a large glass-topped iron table.
“That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression,” Nafisi writes. “We learned without even noticing it. We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.” She was never certain whether she chose her girls or whether they chose her. They came to her house in a “disembodied state of suspension, bringing…their secrets, pains and their gifts.” She did not know if one of them would betray her to the morality police.
Nabokov is a personal favorite of Nafisi’s, and she reveals to her class that what he creates in Invitation to a Beheading “is not actual physical pain and torture of a totalitarian regime but the nightmarish quality of living in an atmosphere of perpetual dread.” All of those at the Thursday meetings knew about dread as a daily diet. Sometimes they were able to poke fun at their misery in order to survive, she writes, so there was laughter in the living room, and the flowers and food for lunches. The names of the students have the beauty of chimes: Yassi, Mitra, Nassrin, Mahshid, Manna, Azin and Sanaz. Madame Bovary had done what a year of teaching at the university had not: It created shared intimacy.
Students at the University of Teheran, where she once taught, were daily reminded of their own helplessness. A girl told her of having to enter a small, dark inspection room before walking on the campus. “I would first be checked to see if I have the right clothes: the color of my coat, the length of my uniform, the thickness of my scarf, the form of my shoes, the objects on my bag…the size of my rings,” she said.
Because she had been educated abroad, was the daughter of a former mayor of Teheran and her mother had once been in Iran’s Parliament, Nafisi knew what they were robbed of, what was always being taken away from the young women of Iran. It was hardly an ideal country for male children, either, so much more valued, because they were expected to fight in the war with Iraq, and die.
The class formed a special bond with Nabokov because “his novels are shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader’s feet. They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of fickleness and frailty,” she writes.
You have to spend a lifetime reading to write as well as Nafisi does. She is incapable of writing a trite or bad sentence. Here is what she says about herself after she stopped teaching in Iran: “My main link with the outside world had been the university, and now that I had severed that link, there on the brink of the void, I could invent the violin or be devoured by the void.” What a splendid instrument she has created in her memoir of her life in Teheran and of her students, whose lives she so changed at a time when the age of marriage was lowered from 18 to 9, when stoning became the punishment for adultery and prostitution. The violin she created makes the most perfect sounds.
Reading Lolita in Tehran had a most unusual effect on me. I didn’t want to be interrupted, so I canceled a dental appointment and a business lunch and missed a deadline. I read and read and ignored the world. This is what brilliant books will do; they seize you until the story is over.
It has never been a habit of mine to read comic books, so I was, at first, slightly taken aback by Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi. But she is such a talented artist and her black-and-white drawings are so captivating, it seems wrong to call her memoir a comic book. Rather, it is a “graphic memoir” in the tradition of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s brilliant story of the Holocaust. Like Azar Nafisi, she is of the Iranian upper class, and the great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor. She is the daughter of radical Marxists, but this spirited and deeply imaginative child believed herself to be the last prophet at a very young age. Sometimes the drawings brilliantly show the unspeakable anxiety that afflicts Iranians. The war with Iraq hung over them like a faint smell of mustard gas. When her parents take the little girl to a hospital in Teheran they see for the first time the wounded veterans and a row of beds filled by victims of Iraq’s chemical weapons.
I am grateful to Satrapi for her introduction giving a history of Iran, once the great Persian Empire, but puzzled by this sentence about the fundamentalist revolution: “I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.” But there weren’t just a few. Surely she remembers the joy felt by thousands of Iranians during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. Collaboration with the mullahs was widespread. What Satrapi hopes to do is defend her country, and her beguiling memoir should accomplish this for many readers. But read what Azar Nafisi writes in Reading Lolita in Tehran:
A stern ayatollah, a self-proclaimed philosopher-king, had come to rule our land. He had come in the name of a past, a past that, he claimed, had been stolen from him. And he now wanted to re-create us in the image of that illusory past. Was it any consolation, and did we even wish to remember, that what he did to us was what we allowed him to do?
In The Bathhouse, a chilling novel, Farnoosh Moshiri writes of a nameless 17-year-old Iranian girl imprisoned in Teheran for her brother’s radical politics although innocent of any transgression. It is written plainly–sometimes great suffering requires this–and at times with a sad poetry. The makeshift prison where she is held for a month had once been a bathhouse and is now the scene of unbearable ordeals for the women, many ordinary and innocent. What is most horrifying is that the prisoners are forced to debase themselves further by hurting others. Some prisoners are herded into the empty swimming pool while other prisoners are compelled to throw stones and pebbles at them. Those who refuse to do so are pushed into the pool themselves or shot. The narrator, wanting to stay alive, throws. The women in the pool are soon bloodied and helpless to protect themselves from the barrage.
On the last page, when she is released, the narrator writes: “The big yellow moon hung low over my head and millions of stars twinkled in the dark…. I lay in my blood, looking at the sky, thinking. What would I tell my sister when she asked, What happened in the Bathhouse?”
Moshiri based her novel on interviews with women who had been imprisoned and dedicates it to the memory of “prisoners of conscience who were executed in the prisons of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
A final small, sad note: All three women left their country, which now has such great need of them. But who among us would have stayed? Azar Nafisi and Farnoosh Moshiri both teach in the United States, and Marjane Satrapi is in Paris.