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Novels through Iran's prism

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books; Azar Nafisi; Random House: 344 pp., $23.95

May 14, 2003|Michael Harris | Special to The Times

What do Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Humbert Humbert have in common? Not much, at first glance -- the stern leader of Iran's Islamic revolution; the depraved but eloquent antihero of Vladimir Nabokov's most famous fiction, "Lolita." But U.S.-educated Azar Nafisi, who taught Western literature at universities in Tehran from 1979 to 1995, knows better.

Khomeini was a visionary who tried to drag Iran back to the 6th century, the time of the prophet Muhammad. He forced the country's women to conform to this fantasy by wearing the veil and submitting to draconian moral codes. In this he was hardly different from Humbert, whose real sin isn't the murder of his rival, Quilty, or even having sex with the 12-year-old Lolita, but the way he usurps the girl's childhood, edits her voice out of the story and denies her a life of her own.

Through Nabokov's genius, something of Lolita's essence still reaches and touches us, though Humbert seems to be in complete control of the narrative. For the discerning reader -- and few readers could be more dedicated than the seven young women Nafisi secretly taught in her home from 1995 to 1997 after official harassment ended her university career in Iran -- even supposedly elitist writers such as Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald are agents of freedom because a good novel is inherently democratic: It lets all its characters live.

"In the course of nearly two decades," Nafisi writes, "the streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules" -- for instance, by letting a few strands of hair escape from a head scarf -- "are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined, forced to wash the toilets," and sometimes raped or executed. Her students slipped into her house shrouded from head to toe and then, for a few precious hours, became modern women, free to shed their robes and flex their minds.

They were a varied group, some well into their 20s. Thrice-married Azin (names have been changed) flaunted the red-lacquered fingernails she usually had to hide under black gloves. Nassrin had been jailed for three years by the ubiquitous morality police who patrolled Tehran in their white Toyotas. Sanaz had to travel to Turkey to court her boyfriend without interference. Sober Mahshid, jailed for five years, clung to the belief that she should serve Iran and the revolution even as her Muslim faith eroded.

In a city battered by rocket attacks during Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, through riots, mass funerals and periodic easings of repression, Nafisi's students identified with Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and James' Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper, confronted sad and slippery Humbert and tried to make sense of the notion that Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, a liar, adulterer and partner of criminals, could also be a kind of idealist. Their aim was to reclaim parts of themselves that the regime had "colonized" since childhood.

Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., tells three stories in "Reading Lolita in Tehran." The first is her personal story of trying to serve Western ideals of academic freedom in a country being taken over by Islamic fundamentalism. (This part reminds one of "The Captive Mind," Czeslaw Milosz's account of how the Communists seduced or intimidated Poland's intellectuals after World War II.) The second is the story of Nafisi's seven secret students -- an affecting one, but broken up by time-shifts and the inclusion of so much other material.

The third, as Nafisi's subtitle suggests, is the story of the books themselves -- novels we thought we knew well, but viewed here in fresh and arresting ways. "Lolita," Nafisi points out, "was not a critique of the Islamic Republic" per se, "but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives." The ayatollah mentality pops up regularly in Western countries too. It used to come from the political left -- Nafisi quotes the forgotten Mike Gold, whose 1929 call for "proletarian literature" once carried weight in America -- but now it comes most often from the right, in attacks on the NEA and Hollywood, in demands for literature to reinforce conventional morality.

The targets of such attacks are often at a loss to respond, but Nafisi, after her years of intellectual warfare in Iran, has no such problem.

"I have a recurring fantasy," she says, "that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restriction."

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