Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in TehranBook: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Author: Azar Nafasi

After being on my  reading list for years, I accidentally happened upon a copy in my apartment building swap table.  By the time I picked it up I knew I was starting grad school in a month.  This wound up being my last book for fun to be read for a year.  And it has stuck with me.  Part of what I love about books is the feeling of being immersed in another world – the best fiction books do this.  If you want to understand what is happening in Iran now, or in other parts of the Middle East, this is a good place to start.

When Azar Nafasi first returns to Iran with her husband and children after years in America, the Iran she knew growing up there is changing, yet from the Iran we hear about in the West, it appears more Westernized than what is taught.  Part of this is because it was.  In the middle of the 20th century Islamic laws were replaced with Western laws.  Nafasi and her students are witness to the lead up to and actual revolution.  As books on her class syllabus for English Literature become more difficult to acquire, and as she is given restrictions on what she can teach, a small group of female students approach her about creating a class outside of the University setting.

I had to continually remind myself they were all risking their lives to have these books, and be trading them – books I read in school.  As the war with Iraq continued and revolution with Iran seemed imminent, conversations began turning from the books to the political state of the country, how it was seeping into their personal lives, altering their day to day routine.  Families expecting a close following of the new Islamist laws, discussions of trying to escape to other nearby countries, or moving to England or America.  The history of the time is alive with each part of the book, with very personal perspectives on living through bombings and a slow roll back in freedom.  A constant theme was how far the laws went into private life – a vast difference of opinion of laws about women’s clothing and appearance, how and when they could appear in public.

The female voice is commonly left out in accounts of this time period, and especially from this region throughout history.  Not only is this an eye opening, unique account of history, the balance with the books they are reading, and the parallels between them and real life is well entwined.  Don’t expect this to focus heavily on discussing classic books, or to rely heaving on them to anchor the story.  The book will only be disappointing.  Read this for a different perspective and voice.  Read it because there is no way you can comprehend the change forced upon these young women and their families, and the choices they must make. Read it because you want to better understand what has been happening in the region since the Arab Spring and how it came to be.

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