Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

3.7 146
by Azar Nafisi

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"We all have dreams - things we fantasize about doing and generally never get around to. This is the story of Azar Nafisi's dream and of the nightmare that made it come true." "For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former…  See more details below


"We all have dreams - things we fantasize about doing and generally never get around to. This is the story of Azar Nafisi's dream and of the nightmare that made it come true." "For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading - Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller and Lolita - their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran." Nafisi's account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi's class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work that preached falsehoods of "the Great Satan," she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and stood as the sole witness for the defense.

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Editorial Reviews

In 1995, Azar Nafisi resigned from the faculty of a Tehran University because of the repressive "morality guard" policies of the Iranian authorities. Soon thereafter, she invited seven of her best female students to attend a secret weekly seminar on Western literature. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, she offers a moving account of these clandestine classes and vivid portraits of the brave young women who attended them. A subtle, gifted writer, Nafisi describes the powerful effect that seemingly alien works like The Great Gatsby had on her reading group.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Chapter 1

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women-to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction. One persistent male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he, Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about the books we were reading.

I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me. Nassrin once responded mischievously, You yourself told us that in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ. Manna pointed out that I was no Miss Brodie, and they, well, they were what they were. She reminded me of a warning I was fond of repeating: 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. Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own recommendation and choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but perhaps Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.

A couple of years after we had begun our Thursday-morning seminars, on the last night I was in Tehran, a few friends and students came to say good-bye and to help me pack. When we had deprived the house of all its items, when the objects had vanished and the colors had faded into eight gray suitcases, like errant genies evaporating into their bottles, my students and I stood against the bare white wall of the dining room and took two photographs.

I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing against a white wall. They are, according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head scarves, covered except for the oval of their faces and their hands. In the second photograph the same group, in the same position, stands against the same wall. Only they have taken off their coverings. Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.

The one to the far right in the second photograph is our poet, Manna, in a white T-shirt and jeans. She made poetry out of things most people cast aside. The photograph does not reflect the peculiar opacity of Manna's dark eyes, a testament to her withdrawn and private nature.

Next to Manna is Mahshid, whose long black scarf clashes with her delicate features and retreating smile. Mahshid was good at many things, but she had a certain daintiness about her and we took to calling her "my lady." Nassrin used to say that more than defining Mahshid, we had managed to add another dimension to the word lady. Mahshid is very sensitive. She's like porcelain, Yassi once told me, easy to crack. That's why she appears fragile to those who don't know her too well; but woe to whoever offends her. As for me, Yassi continued good-naturedly, I'm like good old plastic; I won't crack no matter what you do with me.

Yassi was the youngest in our group. She is the one in yellow, bending forward and bursting with laughter. We used to teasingly call her our comedian. Yassi was shy by nature, but certain things excited her and made her lose her inhibitions. She had a tone of voice that gently mocked and questioned not just others but herself as well.

I am the one in brown, standing next to Yassi, with one arm around her shoulders. Directly behind me stands Azin, my tallest student, with her long blond hair and a pink T-shirt. She is laughing like the rest of us. Azin's smiles never looked like smiles; they appeared more like preludes to an irrepressible and nervous hilarity. She beamed in that peculiar fashion even when she was describing her latest trouble with her husband. Always outrageous and outspoken, Azin relished the shock value of her actions and comments, and often clashed with Mahshid and Manna. We nicknamed her the wild one.

On my other side is Mitra, who was perhaps the calmest among us. Like the pastel colors of her paintings, she seemed to recede and fade into a paler register. Her beauty was saved from predictability by a pair of miraculous dimples, which she could and did use to manipulate many an unsuspecting victim into bending to her will.

Sanaz, who, pressured by family and society, vacillated between her desire for independence and her need for approval, is holding on to Mitra's arm. We are all laughing. And Nima, Manna's husband and my one true literary critic-if only he had had the perseverance to finish the brilliant essays he started to write-is our invisible partner, the photographer.

There was one more: Nassrin. She is not in the photographs-she didn't make it to the end. Yet my tale would be incomplete without those who could not or did not remain with us. Their absences persist, like an acute pain that seems to have no physical source. This is Tehran for me: its absences were more real than its presences.

When I see Nassrin in my mind's eye, she's slightly out of focus, blurred, somehow distant. I've combed through the photographs my students took with me over the years and Nassrin is in many of them, but always hidden behind something-a person, a tree. In one, I am standing with eight of my students in the small garden facing our faculty building, the scene of so many farewell photographs over the years. In the background stands a sheltering willow tree. We are laughing, and in one corner, from behind the tallest student, Nassrin peers out, like an imp intruding roguishly on a scene it was not invited to. In another I can barely make out her face in the small V space behind two other girls' shoulders. In this one she looks absentminded; she is frowning, as if unaware that she is being photographed.

How can I describe Nassrin? I once called her the Cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing at unexpected turns in my academic life. The truth is I can't describe her: she was her own definition. One can only say that Nassrin was Nassrin.

For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Mountains became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.

The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics-Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean's December and, yes, Lolita. As I write the title of each book, memories whirl in with the wind to disturb the quiet of this fall day in another room in another country.

Here and now in that other world that cropped up so many times in our discussions, I sit and reimagine myself and my students, my girls as I came to call them, reading Lolita in a deceptively sunny room in Tehran. But to steal the words from Humbert, the poet/criminal of Lolita, I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won't really exist if you don't. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.

If I write about Nabokov today, it is to celebrate our reading of Nabokov in Tehran, against all odds. Of all his novels I choose the one I taught last, and the one that is connected to so many memories. It is of Lolita that I want to write, but right now there is no way I can write about that novel without also writing about Tehran. This, then, is the story of Lolita in Tehran, how Lolita gave a different color to Tehran and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov's novel, turning it into this Lolita, our Lolita.


And so it happened that one Thursday in early September we gathered in my living room for our first meeting. Here they come, one more time. First I hear the bell, a pause, and the closing of the street door. Then I hear footsteps coming up the winding staircase and past my mother's apartment. As I move towards the front door, I register a piece of sky through the side window. Each girl, as soon as she reaches the door, takes off her robe and scarf, sometimes shaking her head from side to side. She pauses before entering the room. Only there is no room, just the teasing void of memory.

More than any other place in our home, the living room was symbolic of my nomadic and borrowed life. Vagrant pieces of furniture from different times and places were thrown together, partly out of financial necessity, and partly because of my eclectic taste. Oddly, these incongruous ingredients created a symmetry that the other, more deliberately furnished rooms in the apartment lacked.

My mother would go crazy each time she saw the paintings leaning against the wall and the vases of flowers on the floor and the curtainless windows, which I refused to dress until I was finally reminded that this was an Islamic country and windows needed to be dressed. I don't know if you really belong to me, she would lament. Didn't I raise you to be orderly and organized? Her tone was serious, but she had repeated the same complaint for so many years that by now it was an almost tender ritual. Azi-that was my nickname-Azi, she would say, you are a grown-up lady now; act like one. Yet there was something in her tone that kept me young and fragile and obstinate, and still, 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.

That room, which I never paid much attention to at that time, has gained a different status in my mind's eye now that it has become the precious object of memory. It was a spacious room, sparsely furnished and decorated. At one corner was the fireplace, a fanciful creation of my husband, Bijan. There was a love seat against one wall, over which I had thrown a lace cover, my mother's gift from long ago. A pale peach couch faced the window, accompanied by two matching chairs and a big square glass-topped iron table.

My place was always in the chair with its back to the window, which opened onto a wide cul-de-sac called Azar. Opposite the window was the former American Hospital, once small and exclusive, now a noisy, overcrowded medical facility for wounded and disabled veterans of the war. On "weekends"-Thursdays and Fridays in Iran- the small street was crowded with hospital visitors who came as if for a picnic, with sandwiches and children. The neighbor's front yard, his pride and joy, was the main victim of their assaults, especially in summer, when they helped themselves to his beloved roses. We could hear the sound of children shouting, crying and laughing, and, mingled in, their mothers' voices, also shouting, calling out their children's names and threatening them with punishments. Sometimes a child or two would ring our doorbell and run away, repeating their perilous exercise at intervals.

From our second-story apartment-my mother occupied the first floor, and my brother's apartment, on the third floor, was often empty, since he had left for England-we could see the upper branches of a generous tree and, in the distance, over the buildings, the Elburz Mountains. The street, the hospital and its visitors were censored out of sight. We felt their presence only through the disembodied noises emanating from below.

I could not see my favorite mountains from where I sat, but opposite my chair, on the far wall of the dining room, was an antique oval mirror, a gift from my father, and in its reflection, I could see the mountains capped with snow, even in summer, and watch the trees change color. That censored view intensified my impression that the noise came not from the street below but from some far-off place, a place whose persistent hum was our only link to the world we refused, for those few hours, to acknowledge.

That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was! Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers, we moved in and out of the novels we read. Looking back, I am amazed at how much 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.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 146 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
People have complained about this book for numerous reasons, for everything from Nafisi being a propagandist for the Bush administration to it being too 'boring' for focusing on literary criticism in detail when it should just be a narrative memoir. First of all, this book is a book written by a woman who is passionate about books - in essence, a book about books. Nafisi was a literary professor at a university in Tehran before her expulsion during the ascent of the regime/revolution. Her sobering, first-hand experiences living during the Regime in Iran, coupled with her unquenchable penchant for literature, drove her to write this memoir, and the result is a triumphant weaving of the two - current events in the Middle East and timeless Western literature playing off each other as described by an Iranian woman passionate about freedom, women's rights and¿Western literature. This is hardly propaganda. What it is is a memoir about literature and the powerful joy it brings, even in tumultuous times in the Middle East during bombing raids and wearing the veil mandatorily, and a consequent first-hand look into the lifestyle in such a predicament by an author who, while candid and completely honest in her condemnation of the totalitarian regime she was subjected to, does not once act bitter or caustic about her ordeals, or write about her impressions in a way that is at all manipulative or self-righteous. Any 'human' emotions or a opinions Nafisi does express simply reflect the fact that this is, after all, a memoir - a personal account of things that could be written in otherwise impersonal works (i.e. current events books and literary anthologies). 'Reading Lolita In Tehran' gives us an insight into both famous books and modern politics/history, but through the less-formal account of a woman who, although isn't treating it formally, knows an awful darn lot about both. And she happens to be a really interesting person and a really good writer.
Viejo More than 1 year ago
This book is beautifully written in the intimacy of Azar Nafisi's literary book club. The club is composed by seven Muslim women that just like Nafisi, open their heart and invite the reader to take a step into their life in the Islamic world. Each week they come into Nafisi's house unveiling their faces and freeing themselves from the restrictions of their society by reading and discussing tabooed subjects. In a sense, they find an escape to their real life problems in the fictitious plots of literary classics. It invites women of all ages around the world, to seek comfort for their own problems by submerging themselves in epic novels while standing up for their rights. This memoir is an example of how literature can help us heal the wound of our past and how important it is to defend freedom of expression. As a high school student, I consider this novel to be a great educational treasure. Not only does it create conscience on the empowerment of women and invites us to believe in gender equality, but it also teaches us about the different cultures and political issues in today's world. At the very same time it is also a book promoting Western literature that introduces us to the stories of each woman by relating it to the plot of classical novels such as The Great Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice and Lolita. As one reads the novel, you become acquainted with each member of the group and have access to their most intimate but important feelings and opinions. I consider that this novel can change the perspective some men have about women, and encourage them to see them as equal. Nafisi is a woman to be admired. This book comes from her true life personal experiences in the battle towards spreading her love for knowledge in a restricted world. Reading Lolita in Tehran will touch the emotions of any reader, it will make us cry, laugh, but above all mostly think. For anyone interested in Literature, Politics, Anthropology or that has ever been a book club member it is a must read. In my personal experience, the book opened my eyes towards life for women in the Islamic world. Although sometimes I found their experiences to have been heart breaking and intolerable, they also made me respect them much more than I did. I got to know the woman behind the Hijaab (Muslim veil), her culture and her life. The only recommendation I would give off when it comes to Reading Lolita in Tehran is that if you have read The Great Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice and Lolita it will be easier for you to understand the full context of the plot. The author constantly related the plots of these books to the experiences of the book club members. However, it is not something necessary. I had not read any of these books except for Pride and Prejudice and really enjoyed the book. Except that at times I wished I knew Lolita by heart to feel as if I understood each and every detail of the book.
Baomei More than 1 year ago
A revelation of a revolution that promised a country the keys to heaven but gave its people the evils of hell instead. Nafisi tells her story eloquently on how she survived the upheavals of the revolution. Using her imaginative mind for fiction and her passion for literature, she brought a degree of comfort to the hearts of her students in the face of tyranny. Reading this book was a heartfelt experience of compassion and new found empathy for victims of an oppressive government.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nafisi got me right into the culture and minds and hearts of Iran and the women who live there. For the first time I have true understanding and empathy for their lives. You need to delve deeply to get there, and we owe it to the women all over to the world to do just that. Give it a few chapters and you'll be engrossed!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author has a fascinating story to tell--that of life during the Islarmic Revolution in Iran. The problem is that the editor allowed the author to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing her favorite fiction books and authors. The interesting non-fiction aspects of her life were relegated to second place status in the book. I found this disappointing book to be a slow and boring read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the most brilliant studies of another culture I've ever read. Absolutely captivating account of how powerful words and books are and how (this is only implied, not at all discussed) we Americans take our liberties for granted. Amazing for its lucid, passionate writing and the breadth of Iranian culture it captures. My other favorite memoir of 2003 was 'I Sleep At Red Lights: a True Story of Life After Triplets,' by Bruce Stockler, a warm, funny, revealing look at what it means to be a man and the joys of fatherhood.
Lifeandtime More than 1 year ago
I found this book a compelling and easy to read memoir of the war years in Tehran in which the oppression of women occurred. Previously, I was annoyed at women who chose to wear the veil and chador and felt sorry for those who lived in countries where it was necessary. After reading Dr. Nafisi's memoir of those turbulent and traumatic years in Iran, I gained a stronger understanding of the life women were forced to lead there. But more than that, Dr. Nafisi helped me see them as people whom I would be proud to know. I found this book to be gripping in a way that I was unable to put it down. The memoir is written around Dr. Nafisi's teaching of English literature in universities there and her comments on various English novels are used to help the reader understand certain universal truths. The book will definitely allow the reader to see Lolita in a new light.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book beautifully written and lyrical. Given our current times, it was incredibly thought provoking. Dr. Nafsi sheds light on issues that many Westerners cannot comprehend. As a lover of literature (Nabokov, James and Fitzgerald serve as a backdrop for different chapters), I found this book incredibly creative and moving.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very insightful book that inspires mindfulness. I recommend it to every westerner to read and understand their own potential and that of a people who are rarely heard from. The people whose talents, passions, and ambitions are frustrated and thwarted under the veil of Islamic oppression.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
K_Han More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written book that is very insightful for everyone. Every person, male or female, should buy this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nafisi does a great job in describing her life whens she moves back to Iran during the revolution. The book states her true life personal experiences in the battle towards spreading her love for knowledge in the restricted world of Iran. When first arriving to her country, Nafisi was in awe of how much her beloved country had turned into an unrecognizable land. Before her book club was created, Nafisi was a literary professor at a university in Tehran before her expulsion during the ascent of the regime/revolution. She decided to start a book club in secret because she believed that her people should not be banned from reading American classic literature such as The Great Gatsby. The novel is separated into four parts, each telling a story from a different part of her life. Each section also talks about her book club and the literature they are reading. Most of the books are illegal to read in Iran so they have to be careful when meeting up. As the book progresses, it gets more intense as Nafisi and her group battle the revolution and fight for women's rights. They refuse to wear the muslim headscarf and participate in other acts against the government. This book is a great read for people who love to read and enjoy reading about personal experiences and history. The only recommendation I would give off when it comes to Reading Lolita in Tehran is that if you have read The Great Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice and Lolita it will be easier for you to understand the full context of the plot. The author constantly related the plots of these books to the experiences of the book club members and for me it was a little confusing because I have not read Lolita. But overall, the author did a good job in connecting many pieces of literature to add happiness to readers while reading serious matters such as the Iranian Revolution. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
wagnerclassiccars More than 1 year ago
I don’t believe Azar Nafisi was meant to be a memoirist. In Reading Lolita in Tehran she remained too self-absorbed to make me care about her students which left very little meaning to the book. She wasted details on trivial observations like the weather, but failed to flesh out the girls. I wanted to like this book, but I expected more. 
sunpensun More than 1 year ago
I sent this one to the recycling center. It bored me to tears. I liked the idea of it and loved the title, but the execution was a hatchet job.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Malkyra More than 1 year ago
I am surprised that a lot of people reviewing this book have mentioned that it is more about a book than about the goings on of life in Tehran. With a title like "Reading Lolita in Tehran," you know it's going to be focused around just that--the book Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. Other classics are mentioned, primarly because the premise of the book is that Nafisi, a teacher in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the Iranian revolution, rebels against the orders to not teach such 'scandalous' books in the university and instead invites a few choice students to her home to discuss literature. There are parallels drawn between characters in the stories they cover and the women themselves, as well as their real life situations they experience during this period in time where women's rights were dissolving quickly. The book is well written, but it does lean heavy toward the literary side. If you are unfamiliar with the stories they discuss, then you may feel, as a reader, a little detached from what is going on. However, if you like classic literature, you will surely feel the connection that Nafisi has with her students, and feel like you know them all as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Poetic and real and haunting. I have greater understanding and empathy for the oppressed women in this country. I also have a renewed love affair with the classics. I could not put it down. Page turner that makes one think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this in college, but I'm so glad that it was required reading because I would never have picked it up otherwise.
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