Interviews May 2003

The Fiction of Life

Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring
Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
Random House
288 pages, $23.95

In 1979, Azar Nafisi returned to her native Iran after a seventeen-year absence. From the moment she stepped off the plane, she found herself in a place that was dark and unfamiliar. The cheerful and cosmopolitan Tehran airport that she remembered from her youth, with its terraced restaurant and stylishly dressed women, now seemed barren except for giant posters of the ayatollahs tagged with menacing slogans in black and red: "DEATH TO AMERICA! DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM & ZIONISM! AMERICA IS OUR NUMBER-ONE ENEMY!" As a customs official searched her bags, he picked up her books—most of them modern American novels—with particular disdain, as though handling dirty laundry. "But he did not confiscate them—not then," Nafisi recalls forebodingly in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. "That would come sometime later."

While revolution was brewing in Iran, Nafisi was at the University of Oklahoma, immersed in English literature and leftist politics—the former with great conviction, the latter with some ambivalence. When the worldwide Iranian student movement—a diverse league of Marxists and anti-imperialists—reached Oklahoma, Nafisi joined it and entered what she calls a "schizophrenic period." She would deliver rabble-rousing speeches denouncing American imperialism, while toting books by "counterrevolutionary" authors such as T. S. Eliot, Nabokov, and Jane Austen. Her image of Iran was similarly divided—her country was both the enchanted place of her childhood memories and the object of the student movement's increasingly militant fantasies.

Nafisi longed to return home and share her enthusiasm for the Western canon with the next generation of Iranians, and she eagerly accepted a teaching position in the English department of the University of Tehran. "Had I been offered a similar position at Oxford or Harvard," she writes, "I would not have felt more honored or intimidated." But she soon discovered the hazards of an ideology that insisted on politicizing every sphere of life. The university was the epicenter of revolutionary activity, and the fanaticism that fueled the bloody demonstrations on the campus grounds and in the streets soon found its way into Nafisi's classroom. As she tried to teach the literary merits of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Twain, many of her students could see the literature only as a proxy for the decadent West. After class, she found herself shadowed by unsatisfied students: some attacking her for teaching such filth, others who loved the books but were too intimidated by the Islamists to admit it in the classroom. With the former, she argued in vain for the value of discourse, going so far as to arrange to put The Great Gatsby "on trial" in class. With the latter, she formed personal and often lasting bonds. In 1980, Nafisi lost her battle with the revolutionaries; her continued refusal to wear the veil cost her her job. "I have become irrelevant," she found herself thinking and saying repeatedly.

Trapped among the crude fictions of the Islamic regime—the official lies, the Orwellian rhetoric, the pro-regime demonstrations staged by rent-a-crowds, and the arbitrary executions—Nafisi immersed herself in the works of fiction that lifted her spirit. She bought books almost compulsively and read instead of sleeping. Reading and rereading, she found resonance in unexpected places: Lolita's Humbert Humbert and Washington Square's Dr. Austin Sloper both reminded her in different ways of the ayatollahs, for instance. In the mid-1980s, she sought out a brilliant and famously reclusive scholar of film and literature and gradually made him her mentor and confidant; they spent hours, often at personal risk as an unmarried man and woman, deep in conversation about the relevance of art.

Above all, she longed for an opportunity to share her passion with students, away from the meddlesome politics of Islamicized universities. In the fall of 1995, after leaving another teaching position over a political conflict, she came up with a daring way to realize that dream. She invited a group of young women from past classes to form a private reading group that would meet weekly in her home. The women she chose could hardly have been more diverse—privileged and poor, pious and sexy, chaste and divorced, mothers and professionals; the only prerequisite for group membership was a love of great books. With their veils off and in the security of a private setting, the women were free to discuss intimate details of their lives, to exchange ironic quips about the despotism that brought them together, and to appreciate literature in their own idiosyncratic ways. In a classic moment, Yassi, the group's "comedian," riffed on the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice: "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." The group continued to meet for two years, until Nafisi emigrated with her husband and two children to the U.S. She now teaches literature at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Nafisi pulls no punches in her condemnation of political Islam—at one point she astonishes her husband by comparing life in the Islamic Republic to "sex with someone you loathe." But looking back now from her new home in Washington, D.C., she feels a wry sense of gratitude toward the regime. By its confiscations, it taught her "to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom" in a way that she could not have experienced elsewhere.

I spoke with Nafisi by phone on April 23.

—Elizabeth Wasserman

Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi   

The role of Nabokov's Lolita in your book is not what readers might expect from the title—a risque book in a sexually repressed society. For you and your students, Lolita was a kind of metaphor for the Islamic Republic. I wonder what kind of reaction readers have had to that—and particularly to your comparison between Humbert Humbert and Ayatollah Khomeini.

Interestingly enough, when I talk about how the ayatollahs, by imposing their dreams on us, turning us into a figment of their imagination, did basically the same thing that Humbert did to Lolita, it seems to resonate with a lot of my American readers. And my students in Iran connected with Nabokov more than with any other writer. It's because of the kind of universe he created, in Lolita and in other books, in which the free individual always had to fend for herself or himself, and the biggest crime was confiscation of another person's reality. That was something that they connected with immediately.

I was surprised to learn which novels the regime's censors and your Islamist students found most offensive—not the authors who have been censored in the West, like Joyce, for example, but authors whom we tend to consider delicate and restrained, like Henry James and Jane Austen.

People would react to books by authors like James and Austen almost on a gut level. I think it was not so much the message, because the best authors do not have obvious messages. These authors were disturbing to my students because of their perspectives on life. Henry James really bothered my ideological students because he's so ambiguous, because he refuses to simply take sides and relieve you of your duty. And I kept telling them that Henry James in his life might have seemed like a very complacent man—I always imagine him as middle aged, never as a youth. But in writing he can be subversive of your perspective on life. His heroines are usually, apart from Daisy Miller, very unassuming, very quiet, but at the same time they are very committed to their sense of individual dignity. And from an ideological perspective and a totalitarian perspective, that is where the Islamists are hurt. They are not so much hurt by mere profanity; they are hurt by that sense of individual dignity, by the temerity of people who say, We do what we think is right, what we feel is good. I think that is what bothers them at the core about James or Austen or Fitzgerald.

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