“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.”
In 1995, at her wits end with the control the Islamic regime exerted over intellectual life at Iranian universities, American-educated academic Azar Nafisi resigned her post at the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Tehran. But rather than give up teaching altogether, she assembled a group of her best female students, and invited them into her home for a private weekly seminar in Western literature. For two years, seven Iranian women of varying ages and backgrounds met to discuss works such as The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and Washington Square, creating a small oasis of intellectual freedom in the midst of a repressive political climate.
The seven women came from different families of varying religiosity. Some were married, while others were single, or even divorced. We get a sense of their differing circumstances, but Nafisi must necessarily be somewhat vague, or even misleading, in order to protect those who are still in Iran. The women, regardless of their disparate backgrounds, were hungry for literature for its own sake. They did not need that literature to be explicitly political, in fact better not, but they were united in their refusal to let the regime dictate what was or was not worth reading. Behind closed doors, the women are sassy and even sacrilegious. Yassi, the youngest student, and one from a traditional background, snipes “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife,” snarkily paraphrasing Jane Austen’s famous opening line. The dire restrictions of the regime spark rebellion even among the faithful.
After opening with the private class, and a discussion of Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading, Part II steps back in time, to the years immediately after the Islamic revolution, and illuminates the increasingly chilling atmosphere that eventually led Nafisi to depart from public academic life and set up her own private class in her home. Nafisi recounts how the University of Tehran became a battleground for rival political forces, with Communists and Islamists fighting for control of this crucial symbolic space. Interruptions and cancelled classes became the norm as the balance of power shifted towards the radical student organizations. Anyone who has walked around a university campus has seen bulletin boards filled with posters for student groups and events, but in Tehran, “there were reprimands posted about the color of our uniforms, codes of conduct, but never a notice about a talk, a film, or a book.” Literature and learning were forced to take a back seat to current events.
Reading Lolita in Tehran gives a cogent account of the chain of events that slowly stifled intellectual life in Iran, while also acknowledging the extent to which the narrative is a product of time and distance. “In retrospect, when historical events are gathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time,” Nafisi cautions. She left her first academic post at the University of Tehran years earlier, as part of a protest against forcing women to don the veil, a cause which seems hopeless in retrospect. But at that time, it still seemed conceivable that opposition to the requirement could triumph. Using her journals, Nafisi is able to balance the retrospective view with how events felt in the thick of things. For some, the narrative may seem too mired in the personal, but this provides some sense of how it felt to try to go about daily life in the midst of revolution and war.
Indeed, the blurring relationship between the personal and political, and the personal and professional is an important topic here. A private class under such circumstances creates a relationship among the participants that is deeper and more complex than what typically develops in a classroom. Nafisi finds herself becoming a friend and confidant to her students, in addition to a teacher, and the social aspect of the gathering of people with a common love of literature is an important emotional support beyond mere intellectual stimulation. But if Nafisi accepts these blurring relationships, she rails against the political intrusion on the personal realm: “At the core of our fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives.” Though Nafisi is resistant here to the intrusion of the political on the personal realm, we also see glimmerings of her later ideas about the importance of the imaginative realm to political freedom, which she more fully expresses in her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination.