There are certain works of western literature that most students in the United States will probably read at some point in their college careers. Pride and Prejudice. The Great Gatsby. Lolita. On American shores, these books are generally considered classics -- must-reads for anyone with the slightest interest in literature. Of course, this is most assuredly not the case in the Tehran, Iran. Since the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and began the anti-Americanism that caused Western culture to essentially be purged from Iran, such titles became all but forbidden. To teach them in the classroom -- especially one containing female students -- would be a genuine and punishable act of rebellion.
When Azar Nafisi was teaching literature at the University of Tehran, her syllabus was the least of her problems. Imagine living in a society in which it is an offense for a woman to show so much as a strand of hair in public. Now imagine how a woman who was encouraged by her father to explore her own personal history and engage in the art of story telling as a young girl might react to such a society. Nafisi was an independent, free-thinking woman living under a repressive regime. She was also an avowed fan of western culture: the films of the Marx Brothers, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of the Beatles, the literature of Jane Austen, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov. No longer able to adhere to the stringent rules of Islamic society, Nafisi refused to wear her veil in class and was summarily expelled from the University in 1981.
However, Nafisi's dismissal did not put an end to her teaching career. She returned to her profession in 1987, but had not lost her taste for testing the limits of the system. She would ultimately resign from her post for good in 1995, seeking a more creative means to educate. Nafisi secretively gathered a group of seven women, all former students of hers, to read and discuss those very novels that were deemed inappropriate for women in Iran.
For two years, Nafisi and her small class gathered together at her home on Thursday mornings where they would study Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller, and, of course, Lolita. And as the women explored and analyzed these classics, discussing the books in an open forum with a teacher who encouraged the women to express themselves freely, they also opened up about their own lives. Together they talked about their dreams, their failures, and the changes for which they wished.
Azar Nafisi's literary experiment would become the subject of her breakthrough debut memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book poetically recounts both those liberating Thursday mornings and the Ayatollah's rise to power fifteen years earlier.
Reading Lolita in Tehran has deservedly become something of an instant classic. Due to its lyricism, and the courage at the core of the story, the book has won Nafisi nearly universal praise. The New York Times called it "an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction -- on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual."
Since 1997, Nafisi has lived in the United States, where she continues to teach. She also continues to write, having op-ed pieces and articles published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, and The New Republic. Meanwhile, Reading Lolita in Tehran continues to inspire readers, grateful that Azar Nafisi had the courage to step out from behind the veil.
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In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Nafisi talked about some of her favorite memories, interests, and the ways she likes to unwind:
"When I was barely five, every Friday (Iranian weekend) morning my father would take me for a long walk, near the suburbs of Tehran. Our destination was a small fountain. He had bought me a special cup, which I would fill once we reached there. All through our walk he regaled me with stories. We also made up stories, sometimes about our own lives, and sometimes about fantastic creatures and worlds. This ritual, which lasted for a few years, still shines in my memory. Every once in a while in my imagination I search for that very small fountain that had seemed to me so enormous and bountiful."
"My father's especial way of relating to us influenced the relation between my brother and me. My best memories of my brother are when we took our books to fancy parties my parents made us go to and the way we whispered and created a magical edge to the pattern of everyday reality. We carved a private intimate world of our own to which no one could enter without knowing our secret magic word. It remained with me when I had my own children. My best hours in Iran were spent with my husband and two children, teasing and making up stories. We spent long hours during the war watching films by the Marx Brothers and laughing until we cried."
"When I was in college I, like so many other students, became involved in the student protest movements, but somehow I could never rid myself of certain 'bourgeois' habits: reading works by those authors called 'bourgeois,' or seeing 'bourgeois' films were among some of my unforgivable sins."
"The first time I visited Washington, D.C., was during one of the antiwar demonstrations. At one point a painter friend of mine and I stole our way toward the National Gallery. There was tear gas in the streets and the museum was to be closed early. My friend and I were playing hide-and-seek, trying to evade the guards and prolong our stay, when suddenly I came across Dali's The Last Supper. There I stood, transfixed until I was forced out of the museum.
"Years later, when I made another pilgrimage to the National Gallery, I found many other paintings that I admired more than The Last Supper, but I almost always make a point of paying a special visit to that particular painting. Dali is not my favorite painter, but that day, and that moment, I realized with a shock of the existence of a sense of beauty and dignity that went beyond any transient concern, especially a political one. Through what other means can we reaffirm mankind's highest sense of individual integrity and strength, overcoming not just life's obstacles but death's absolute dominion?"
"Whenever I am really nervous and sometimes unhappy, I take out some scoops of coffee ice cream, mix it with coffee and nuts (either walnuts or almonds) and immerse myself in the soothing cool of the coffee ice cream going down my throat. When an idea comes to me for writing, this nervousness reaches its heights and along with it my consumption of ice cream, coffee, and nuts."
"After a particularly hard day, I like to watch Seinfeld, Law and Order, (not Criminal Intent) and mystery films, especially the British mysteries. The most reliable news show I watch is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart! I also love the classic movies on Turner Classic Movies."
"I love paintings. Sometimes I steal an hour or so and go to the Phillips Collection, which is close to my work, and watch and watch. I like to watch only a few paintings at a time and focus on them for a while and then move on to others. Every once in a while I go to the National Gallery in D.C. to pay homage to the one Da Vinci they have. In order to remember a painting or a view, I look at it for a long time, then close my eyes and try to reconstruct the image in my mind, then open my eyes and look again."
"I love going to theater, especially with my family, and three friends with whom we share a great deal. I also love reading poetry and sometimes Shakespeare aloud when I am alone. I hold the book in my hands and move around the house, reading and reading, thinking, If this is not a miracle I don't know what is."
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In the spring of 2003, Azar Nafisi took some time out to answer some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life ?
This is an almost impossible question! If I have to answer it, I would say One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, especially its frame story about the cuckolded king whose kingdom is on the verge of annihilation by his decision to wed a virgin every night and kill her in the morning, thus avenging himself on womankind. His murderous hand is finally stayed by the wise and beautiful Shahrzad, who offers herself as his bride and keeps him entranced for one thousand and one nights by her stories until he is finally cured.
To me -- as to many of my nationality and age -- this is one of those stories one seems to have been born with. I think I heard it first when I was about four, and my father each night would choose to tell me a story from the treasure trove of Persian Classical literature, and the last time I read it was for a private class I had with seven of my female students in 1995.
I love Shahrzad's tale, because like all great works of imagination, it is simple and yet profound, opening so many windows to the luminous worlds hidden in the depth of what we call everyday reality. To me this story contains a hidden theme -- old and timeless -- about the power of stories to reshape and redefine reality. It reminds me of what Vladimir Nabokov called the third eye of imagination, helping us to see and envision the world and ourselves through fresh and new eyes.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
When it comes to books, I am very promiscuous, so many are my favorites -- it does not seem fair to choose only ten. If I don't mention more contemporary books it is not because I do not have favorites among them but because I have chosen the books that I have lived with the longest, having never-ending love affairs with them. They are books most of which I have read at different periods in my life, and yet every time I read them, they seem fresh and new, offering me a hidden gift I had not discovered before. I have already mentioned One Thousand and One Nights, and I have many favorites among the works of Classical Iranian poets and writers, such as those by Rumi, Hafez, and Ferdowsi.
These books have opened my eyes to the relation between the reality of my world and the alternative worlds fiction offers:
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll -- I always start my classes on literary criticism with Alice stories. Alice shows us how curiosity, a desire to go beyond our everyday habits and routine, can open up wondrous worlds to us and give us the power to turn the most ordinary into the most extraordinary. What would have happened had Alice not run after the white rabbit and had not had the courage to jump down the hole?
Nabokov's Lolita and Pnin are adult wonderlands filled with sorrow but also with faith in the power of individuals to overcome grief through their integrity and originality.
Denis Diderot's Jacque the Fatalist is also about the relation between reality and fiction. I love its humorous, playful wisdom. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is another quirky, teasing masterpiece.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is, as she herself claimed, sparkling -- brimming with the fairy-tale magic of stories. Yet it has so many things to say about reality: the individual's right to choice. The plot in Pride and Prejudice is developed around the issue of choice: Elizabeth Bennett's decision to marry the man she loves. She rebels against both parental and social authority, subverting the most accepted norms of her times.
These novels are amazing because of their poignant beauty, creating such inarticulate longings and passions:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
These stories and novels have shaped so much of our modern sensibilities:
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
And finally, I love the unique sense of humor in:
Tom Jones and Shamela by Henry Fielding
Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno
And a forgotten novel by Herman Melville: The Confidence Man.
What are some of your favorite films?
Again with films I will mention the classics, the ones that have endured over a long period of time: films by the Marx Brothers, some Woody Allens like Love and Death, Federico Fellini's films, many of Howard Hawks's and Alfred Hitchcock's.
Beethoven, the blues, the Doors, the Beatles, and Miles Davis.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I would like to shape and design my book club according to the needs and particular tastes of its members. The most exciting thing about a book club is that each person can bring to it her own colors and flavor.
I enjoy mixing and matching the old and the new, biography and fiction as well as history, and poetry. It is amazing how seemingly irrelevant books and themes illuminate one another. Here are some suggestions:
For discussion about the subversive role assigned to women in the novel and issues related to individual choice: Austen's Pride and Prejudice side by side with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, and of course, Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent.
I would study Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea alongside Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights.
This is a good time to reread books about what we call the American Dream and related subjects:
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
Henry James's The Europeans and Daisy Miller
Some interesting perspectives from the Middle East:
Nuha Al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries
Iradj Pezeshkzad's My Uncle Napoleon
Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis
Other ways of mixing and matching around an interesting theme:
Katherine Kressman Taylor's Address Unknown
Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl
Primo Levi's books
Julie Salamon's Net of Dreams
Parts of Tsevan Todorov's Moral Extremes
Books by the Russians:
Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky from among the classics
Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita
The memoirs of Nadeshda Mandelstam
Ann Applebaum's Gulag
Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, and works by other Russian dissident writers
I would love to read the great mystery novels in my book group, from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to more contemporary writers like Patricia Highsmith.
I would like to emphasize that the main goal of any book group, in my opinion, should be sharing the pure and unadulterated pleasure peculiar to the act of reading and nothing else.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I do have a rule regarding gifts, especially gifts of books: They have to be custom made according to the personality of the recipients. Sometimes I am so desperate for friends to read a book that I buy it for them to force them to read. Once in Iran I bought all the copies of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and gave them out to friends, one of whom translated it into Persian.
I also like to be surprised by the gifts I receive. I have often discovered great books through others who had eyes for books I had missed. I have a friend who is a fantastic historian, and she is constantly buying me books in her field that she thinks would interest me. It is exciting to get books from fields about which you know so little. I'd love to buy myself a copy of Vincent Van Gogh's letters.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
As I have mentioned I am very promiscuous in this regard, so it is very difficult to choose favorites. I respond under protest.
I admire originality and passion in my favorite writers. No matter what their political ideas and ideals and individual backgrounds, they are all loyal citizens of the Republic of Imagination. I can list so many, each very different from the other, for example:
Leo Tolstoy (for his innate sense of time and tempo of life -- despite his tiresome preaching), Vladimir Nabokov, Gustave Flaubert, Henry Fielding, Denis Diderot, Henry James, Stendhal, Italo Svevo, Italo Calvino, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gogol, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Franz Kafka, Jean Rhys, Peter Taylor, Carol Shields, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Raymond Chandler.
Some great short story writers:
Cynthia Ozick, Carson McCullers, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver....
And then what can one say of Shakespeare that would not become a cliché?
I have left out so many that I love, but it is impossible to mention all of them.
What are you working on now?
I am still recovering from my recent book. But I am also working on the ideas for a new book, which I have wanted to write for a long time, especially since my mother's death (January 2003), which has colored my attitude toward both life and death. It will center on the lives of three women, each living at a different period in time: the beginning of the 20th century, the middle of that century, and the present time. The theme will be focused on the idea of loss, of feeling like an exile in one's own home, and how each of these women deals (or does not deal) with it. I would like to mix their personal lives with the historical, cultural, social, and political events.
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