Book Group in Chadors

An outstanding and unusual memoir of post-revolutionary Iran

Anyone who has ever held a job and ventured out on a blind date understands this paradox of intimacy: it is easier to become close to other people when not trying, while ostensibly doing something else. One of the pleasures that members of book groups everywhere discover is the gradual and delicately thrilling way in which they come to know one another as they talk about the books. Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi, the daughter of a former charismatic mayor of pre-revolutionary Tehran and of a woman who won a seat in Parliament in 1963, chronicles the personal and intellectual unfoldings of a private literature class she started in Tehran after she left her last teaching post. She'd resigned from the University of Tehran years earlier, refusing to wear the veil.

The group consists of seven women ("girls," she calls them), children of the revolution, greatly diverse in religious and political beliefs and backgrounds, who arrive at her house every Thursday morning for two years in the mid-1990s, take off their chadors and scarves, and talk about books—Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice. These young women, who outside the class struggle to live under the laws and potential daily humiliation of the Islamic Republic, make it painfully clear that we read not only for the most exalted but also for the most basic reasons. What reader has not compared his or her own love life to Swann's, or her own husband to Mr. Darcy? Yet these books take on added, ironic dimensions when we remember that the legal age for marriage in Iran at this time was nine (younger than Lolita), and that the punishment for female adultery, such as Daisy Buchanan's affair with Gatsby, was stoning. The one divorcée in the group, now remarried, gloves her red-polished nails, which constituted a punishable offense, as did any makeup. "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," says the youngest student in the group. Yet although Nafisi encourages extremely personal reading (when she realizes that almost all of her students accept the Islamic Republic's dogma about love—spiritual love good, sex bad—she supplements Pride and Prejudice with Our Bodies, Ourselves), her analyses of the books are never simple or reductive. In all the novels she finds evil in the villains' lack of empathy, in an inability to see and hear, to engage with, or even to dance with another person. "Humbert was a villain," she writes, "because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most."

Nafisi simply can't resist paradox. So although she writes about a society in which a woman can be jailed for dancing, punished for allowing a few strands of hair to fall on her face, disciplined for revealing her singing voice, or expelled from a university for the way she might eat a peach, she also tempts Western readers to marvel at the power this atavistic Iranian regime implicitly assigns to women's sexual allure.

Nafisi divides her book into four sections: "Lolita," "Gatsby," "James," and "Austen." The first introduces the reading group; "Gatsby" and "James" take us back to Nafisi's years teaching at universities in Iran, through the revolution and the war with Iraq. These two middle sections contain a pageant of drama—persecuted and executed professors; air raids; the regular clashes in class between Marxist and reactionary Muslim students; the death in jail of a particularly gifted student, who as a child stole books from the houses her mother cleaned; a young soldier who went to war and then returned to a university where he'd never belonged and set himself on fire.

In the last section, "Austen," we finally learn about the personal lives of the girls. The "fairy-tale atmosphere" of these Thursday mornings spent talking about books allowed the eight women to "share so much of our secret life with one another." The wildest one, the divorcée with red nails, is beaten by her third husband, who calls her "used" because she has been married before. She cannot easily leave him, because the courts routinely grant child custody to husbands, and she has a young daughter. Two of the girls are happily enough married. One of them got to know her husband in a university class of Nafisi's. "Did you fall in love?" the teacher asks, as she seems relentlessly to ask everyone. "Well, yes, of course," the girl says, in an answer as revealing as a line of dialogue written by Austen. Sanaz, an attractive young woman from a good family, is jilted by the boy to whom she has been betrothed since childhood, presumably because after living in England for five years, he no longer wants the sheltered Muslim girl his parents have selected. And when Sanaz goes on vacation with five girlfriends, the Revolutionary Guard arrests and jails the six of them for "Western attitudes," and the girls are subjected to two virginity tests—the second because the first, conducted by a woman, is considered suspect. Another of the book-group members is being presented with a series of suitors for an arranged marriage; at the same time she is considering emigrating to the United States to continue her studies. To go or not to go is the question that seems to hover in the air for all these women except one, who is a devout Muslim and has decided to stay in Iran, not to marry, and to pursue a career in publishing.

In the way that some American Jews in the seventies read Roth and Bellow not only for their literary merit but also to determine whether their portrayals were "good for the Jews," some American Persians and Arabs may be concerned with whether Nafisi is "good for the Muslims." But Nafisi has an essentially romantic nature, and nowhere is it more apparent than in her politics. Watching the wreckage of the twentieth century's revolutions from far away, one can all too easily forget the idealism present at the beginning of revolutionary societies, whether Islamic or Marxist, and the pull that memory exerts even on its opponents and defectors. Though Nafisi once left a job because she refused to wear the veil and later left her beloved country, her portrayal of Khomeini is not exactly one of a villain. Or if he is a villain, he's in the genre of villain that Humbert belongs to. "At the start of the revolution," she writes, "a rumor had taken root that Khomeini's image could be seen in the moon. Many people, even perfectly modern and educated individuals, came to believe this. They had seen him in the moon."

Nafisi, who spent years in Norman, Oklahoma, and loves Mike Gold, Gatsby, and Häagen-Dazs (she has the habit of eating coffee ice cream topped with cold coffee and walnuts whenever she's nervous), has some secrets of her own, which are only teasingly revealed to the readers of her memoir. She, too, struggles with the question of whether to stay or leave, and for her this question sometimes seems to refer not only to the Islamic Republic but also to her husband. Periodically she visits a man whom she calls "my magician," with whom she shares books and ideas, coffee and chocolate. These interludes are the most romantically written sections of the book (she grants her magician the ability to read a person's character from the shape of his nose), yet one feels that the pragmatism that could never govern her political impulses has a strong hold on her family life.

There are certain books by our most talented essayists—I'm thinking in particular of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion, and Dakota, by Kathleen Norris—that, though not necessarily better than their other works, carry inside their covers the heat and struggle of a life's central choice being made and the price being paid, while the writer tells us about other matters, and leaves behind a path of sadness and sparkling loss. Reading Lolita in Tehran is such a book.