Lolita reveals big gap in cultures
For classic lit lovers looking to enrich their knowledge of the Middle East, Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2004) will hit two birds with one stone. Nafisi’s memoir recounts her experiences teaching English in Iran during the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. But the most compelling aspect of the book is that Nafisi tells her story by examining four great novels: Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James’s Daisy Miller, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Nafisi, the daughter of an Iranian politician, was educated in the U.S. during the sixties and returned to Iran in the nineties to teach English literature at the University of Tehran. When the Ayatollah came to power, Nafisi was expelled from the university for refusing to wear the veil, and thereby refusing to recognize religious law as state law. Nafisi then started a weekly book group at her home, where she discussed banned novels with a group of female university students.
Nafisi’s memoir relates her and students’ struggles to express individuality underneath the veil. Their stories of violence and oppression are told through readings of the western values presented in James, Austen, Fitzgerald and Nabokov. In Lolita, for instance, Nafisi points out that Humbert narrates, making Lolita his invention that never gets to speak for herself or define her own identity. Just as Lolita is conceived in a shape of Humbert’s choosing, the women of Iran were made to fit an identity conceived by the Ayatollah.
For those who sometimes get lost in the flood of knowledge, this book is a wonderful reminder that everything we read becomes a part of us and informs who we are. Reading Lolita makes the reader hunger to read or re-read these books, and to discover their wisdom for the first time or the 50th.
On a political level, this book can help us understand the values of Muslim
fundamentalists and why these values are impossible to reconcile with our own.
Weaving her personal feelings and reactions in with the experiences of her
bright and aggressive students, Nafisi’s memoir is full of hope and
resistance. These days, it’s just the kind of book many of us seek. More
info about Azar Nafisi and her work can be found at