Thursday, November 11, 2010

From the Archives: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I began keeping a reading journal several years before I began blogging. I find it interesting to sift through my thoughts of books that I read back then. My views in relation to Reading Lolita in Tehran became quite heated as you will see in my journal entry from March 2005:

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi

Random House, 2003
Nonfiction; 384 pgs
Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires. [pg. 282, Reading Lolita in Tehran]
As I began to read the last chapter before the epilogue of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, I found myself thinking of the movie Finding Neverland, the story about J. M. Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan. Both spoke to the power and necessity of imagination in our lives. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Ms. Nafisi shares just how important the imagination played not only in her life but also in the lives of her students—all in the form of the novel.

There were a couple of moments when I felt as if I was missing part of the meaning behind her story because I had not read many of the books she mentioned nor studied the authors to the degree that she had. It is obvious Ms. Nafisi loves literature and takes every opportunity to delve into its depths, the authors’ motives for writing, and the impact it will have on those who read it, including relating it to her students’ lives and circumstances.

What I found most interesting was her own story, about her life in Iran. She described the changes Iran underwent after the revolution: the people seeking change and inevitably of what they ended up with. She wrote that the morality squads, the executions, the rigid laws, the lessening of the people’s freedoms, including and especially those of the women, were partly the fault of the Iranian people who did not fight against them in the beginning. And while they might not have known to what degree or form the changes would eventually bring, she believed that their complacency played a part in making it a reality. This is not a new phenomenon, however, as history has demonstrated throughout the years.

This book is especially interesting in today’s climate, as the war in Iraq wages and the Middle East and terrorists clamor for “the death of America.” The blind hatred toward my country and people astounds me. There is no distinction between what may be good about the so-called Western World and that which they consider evil as it is all considered evil; there is no interest in making peace other than through total destruction. There is no attempt at understanding, finding a way to compromise, or even for tolerance. Only hate and blame. It saddens me that there are people out there that harbor such strong anger towards me without knowing anything about me. That anger and hate seem to be based on ideas or assumptions that they know little about. And they do not want to know. Those that subscribe to such radical views are unwilling to face themselves and their own corruption and hypocrisy. It’s much easier to cast the blame outside of themselves rather than to look inward and try to improve their own failings and build on their own strengths. Of course, such people would rarely, if ever, admit that they have faults. They cast stones at others and yet are just as guilty—perhaps of the same or of different crimes. It’s different though, they may say. And they believe it. How do you counter that? People like that seek to oppress anyone who may be different even in the slightest of ways and to destroy that which does not support their beliefs. They feel threatened and therefore act out violently against those they don’t understand or who question them. There are people like this all over the world, and not just in countries like Iran or Iraq. Even in America people like this can be found, only with a different “perpetrator” to blame and be the target of that persecution and hate.

Perhaps because I am a woman, I am drawn more to the plight of women who are oppressed within their own homelands. In Iran, it is even more astonishing that a country that was once so forward thinking and progressive could revert to oppressing a previously respected and strong group of people in their society: the women. It is argued that the women need protection—that the less freedom they have the safer they will be. They are treated like second, if not third, class citizens.

I have no doubt that my own westernized upbringing and ideology color my perception of what should be and how people should treat one another, regardless of religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, color or creed. I cannot fully grasp the life and culture that Ms. Nafisi spoke of in her book, other than through what I may hear or read about in books and the media. Ms. Nafisi herself was considered westernized; she attended school in England as well as in the United States. I would like to have had the opportunity to read a similar memoir written by one of the women in her reading group, those who were not exposed to the western world initially (other than through literature and media) and who had very little notion of what life had been like before the revolution.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books was thought provoking. It provided a look into the life and experiences of one woman in Iran as well as those around her and the part that fiction played throughout.
[ . . . what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth. [pg. 3, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books]
Rating: * (Good +)

Source: The book was loaned to me via a bookring sponsored by a member.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. After reading your post, I would have to say that I agree with your points. There is too much hatred out there, for no good reason. I also think that you would really like the book Honeymoon in Tehran, which deals with an American born Iranian journalist who tries to make Iran her home and the things that the people, particularly the women of that society go through. It was an eye opening read for me, and I think it would really interest you as well.

  2. I'll admit I haven't read alot of books that take place in the Middle East because I walk away so damn mad. I did read A Thousand Splendid Suns, and I just felt antsy and frustrated at how women are treated like a lower class of human. I've heard good things about this book. I'll keep it in mind when I'm looking to get fired up!

  3. My book club read this several years ago. It was my selection and most found it difficult because they hadn't read many of the books that she references so often in her memoir. You have cut right to the point of why the book is such a valuable read even if you don't get all of the literature references. Your thoughts and reactions were very similar to my own. I'd actually love to re-read the book someday to see what I might think of it a second time. I might want to read Lolita first.

  4. This has been on my TBR pile for ages. As soon as we move, I've got to dig it out. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Sadly, there are people in our own country who judge without knowing and don't want to hear anything that will modify their opinions about another country.
    I too have avoided the anger I feel when reading about women in the Middle East. But I think I'll put this book on my TBR list.

  6. I had every intention of getting this read this year but somehow it slipped through the cracks. Definitely next year.

  7. I was assigned this book my senior year of college. I must say, I wasn't really a fan, which is unfortunate, as it was a powerful story. For some reason, the people involved really didn't resonate with me.

  8. Heather - It was interesting to see how little my opinion on the subject has changed since I wrote that five years ago.

    I think I have a copy of Honeymoon in Tehran. I'll have to dig it out and read it. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Sandy - It's easy to get riled up over books like this, I agree. I haven't yet read A Thousand Splendid Suns but it is one I hope to get to eventually.

    Kathleen - I think it would be a good one to re-read too. I bought a copy of Lolita after reading this book. I just need to bring myself to read it!

    Clea - I'd love to know your thoughts on it when you do get to it.

  9. Pam - Yes, I agree--and even mentioned it in my review from five years ago. People like that are everywhere, unfortunately, their hate aimed at those who they perceive are different from them. I wish it wasn't so.

    Lisa - I'm sure you'll get to it when you are able.

    Stephanie - That happens. Those women live in such a different culture than we do. I think it would have made more of an impression on me had I understood more of the literary references.


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