Reading Lolita in Tehran: A revolution, few forbidden books, some loyal readers and an ordeal of freedom!

This book is the last one from the series of Iranian books I bought to read, and I am glad it was last one. It took me three months to finish it and it has been one of the finest memoirs I have read so far. It took hell lot of time, energy, and thinking but it was worth it.

Every time I read a new novel by an Iranian woman, I get amazed by the courage, knowledge, ideologies and substance these authors have.

This one, in particular, gave me sleepless nights, thousand thoughts and many lessons to preach. I was so hooked on this book that I read before sleeping in the night while going to work, and on weekends too. I was detached from everyone around, I kept thinking of the references, the characters, and dreams this book gave me.

Every chapter reminded me of a familiar feeling, a known touch, and an intimate presence. It felt like a strong feeling came back again all at once after all these years. There were days I was not able to read even two pages because the feelings would bottle up way too much and there were days that I could even read 50 pages in one go.

When I finished the book, it felt like an accomplishment, a sense of awareness and courage, mostly courage.

This book is a journey of a revolution, few forbidden books, some dedicated readers and an ordeal of freedom! Azar Nafisi, an exiled writer & scholar who recalls a memoir of her life in Iran from 980s and 1990s. She recalls the time when she taught literature at the University of Tehran to the day she left for the United States.

After she resigned as a professor at Tehran University in 1995, she created a class of seven young women for a private study group at her home. The group included her former students where they study forbidden works of western culture – such as Lolita, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice. The classes were conducted from 1995 to 1997 after which Nafisi left for the United States.  

The women share stories of love, marriage, and dreams under Islamic regime by blending it with personal anecdotes with Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

They talk about the influence of radical Islamist, a revolution which gave rise to Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq-Iran war, revolutionary guards, and morality imposed on women by a fundamentalist regime.

As the book talks about many celebrated books, I had to take a pause from reading and search the synopses of the book referred in the chapter. She gives insights into the world of these seven women and leaves the reader to decide their own conclusion of the book. She narrates the life parallel(reality) to the life described in the book(fiction).

She tells us the difference between the public and private life of Iranian women. Our previous authors also have spoken on same but this gives us an intimate picturization. The rules made women invisible on the streets but in private they became the best version of themselves.

She says,When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes. Our world in that living room became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of the black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.’

With the help of these remarkable authors, she relates it to the conditions in Iran, the feelings of people, the aura in the air on the streets. She adds,What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven.’

She tells us how granted we take our freedom, how we celebrate anything which comes from the west, how we don’t enjoy life because we keep comparing our situation with another person’s conditions. ‘We compared our situation to our potentials, to what we could have had, and somehow there was little consolation in the fact that millions of people were unhappier than we were. Why should others people’s misery make us happier or more content? Other people’s sorrows and joys have a way of reminding us of our own; we partly empathize with them because we ask ourselves; what about me? What does that say about my life? my pains, my anguish?’ Nafisi adds.

This book has been a roller coaster ride for me. There have been days when I have been lost, some days it would inspire me, and some days I would not even feel like moving from bed. There are books which make you fall in love with the characters, the streets, the places you imagined while reading the book, and picturization of the world out there. You create an alternative world at that place, thinking of alternative endings, and possibilities. It urges you to know more, questions more, and it makes you a wiser person. And, this book has given me just that.

Here is my favorite quote – A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing

So, go ahead, find your kind of literature drug and get high on it.


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