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.