The Common Good
May 2004

A Refuge from Tyranny

by Jesse Holcomb | May 2004

Iranian women experience the transformative power of fiction.

I remember college English professors who, perhaps blindsided by fashionable trends in scholarship, deplored—or worse, ignored—modern Western novelists such as Vladimir Nabokov or Henry James (invoking the damning labels "misogynist" and "elitist"). And so I was at least intrigued when I came across Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. What use would a company of young Iranian women living in an oppressive fundamentalist state have for Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel detailing the ensnarement and rape of a 12-year-old girl by the quixotic and obsessed H. Humbert?

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Nafisi does not disappoint. With lucidity and candor, she tells of a most unusual book club—an underground literature class composed of seven of her brightest female students who meet weekly for two years in Nafisi’s living room in Tehran. Beneath the shadow of a disapproving university, a blind censor, and invasive Islamic morality squads, the women read Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James, and Nabokov as if their very lives depended on it. They read Western novels precisely because they were considered dangerous by the authorities, but more important, they provided a new and foreign idiom for self-illumination.

A native of Iran herself, Nafisi bears witness to the self-effacement and paranoia induced by a totalitarian regime—the environment in which she and her students find refuge in books and in each other. But she also chronicles the subversive acts of resistance performed by these women to ensure the survival of their dignity. "Like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling in love, and listening to forbidden music."

It is this supreme irony that leaves such a lasting impression—that these women could transcend time and space so as to see themselves in Lolita, a character drawn from the Western literary canon, of all places. Or, like Austen’s female characters in Pride and Prejudice, Nafisi’s young women identify with the struggle to express passion openly and to defy social constraint by asserting their independence. Reading Lolita takes shape around these instances where fictional worlds and real time intersect.

NAFISI’S RICH MEMOIR documents the turbulence of living in revolutionary Iran from the time she began teaching in the ’70s, through the Iraqi invasions of the ’80s, and into the ’90s; the bulk of the narrative discloses the personal lives of Nafisi and her students. Nafisi records her own feelings of inner conflict and even despair as she attempts to maintain boldness and inspiration in the face of a bleak, tyrannical edifice. Considering how dehumanizing the regime was (and is) to women, Nafisi and her students find empowerment in fiction and in their growing friendships. In essence, theirs is "an active withdrawal from a reality that had turned hostile."

Yet while literature is celebrated here as a means to liberation, Reading Lolita leaves the reader with a taste of uneasiness and ambiguity. One doesn’t close the book with a sense of political optimism for these women but is left to wrestle with, on one hand, the wonderfully transformative power of fiction and, on the other, grim anxiety over the fate of civil rights under a hostile regime. Nafisi reminds us, however, in the words of social critic Theodor Adorno, that "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home." The freedom of any society is first contingent upon the freedom of the mind and the spirit, a connection demonstrated throughout Reading Lolita’s pages.

What Nafisi’s memoir does brilliantly is stand for dignity, humane civil society, and women’s rights. She does so, however, without defaulting to knee-jerk anti-Americanism or, conversely, a wistful glamorization of Western culture. There is a clear, implicit warning in her writing: Democracy anywhere is threatened when the human imagination is suppressed and the freedom to tell the truth in art is denied. From this admonition, no culture is exempt. And that is why, in particular, Americans ought to read about a small book club in Iran and even, perhaps, pick up a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita.

Jesse Holcomb is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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