smart money argues that, rather than merely contemplating a war
with Iran, the United States is actually in the advanced stages
of a cold war with the Islamic Republic. Such a hypothesis is
borne out by myriad texts, including a late July cover story in
the Wall Street Journal. "In Tehran, Boutiques Stock
Hot Outerwear Under the Counter" addresses what WSJ
scribe Farnaz Fassihi describes as "women clamor[ing] to
show off curves in illegal designs"; Fassihi describes the
traditional garment for Muslim women, the ankle-length hijab,
as a sartorial attempt to "hide curves and smother all sexuality."
an unforgiving description of the hijab likely would resonate
with many women of Iranian origin, including Dr. Azar Nafisi,
author of the memoir Reading
Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi's book attempts to forge a truce
between the disparate fields of personal memoir, literary criticism,
and political manifesto. It is as unfortunate as it is inevitable
that the latter is most instrumental in carving out the book's
ultimate identity, especially given that Nafisi's current day
is professor and director of the "SAIS Dialogue Project"
at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International
Studies [where her colleagues include worthies like Fouad Ajami].
while Reading Lolita in Tehran is an indelibly political
text, this reviewer hastens to add that it isn't solely political,
except in the sense that the "personal is political."
who spends some pages in the book discussing her days as a student
radical at the University of Oklahoma in Norman in the 1970s,
accepted a position teaching English literature at the University
of Tehran as the Khomeini revolution began to take hold. In that
environment, fresh from protesting against the US government with
students on OU's Oval, Nafisi was not a safe bet to live and work
as Khomeini's "morality police" would desire.
taught English at three universities in Iran (the University of
Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and Allameh Tabatabai University)
over the course of two decades, so her commitment to exposing
Iranian students to the glories of western literature is not in
doubt, and serves as the glue of the book. Much of the memoir
is devoted to painstaking documentation of conversations with
students, both in formal classrooms and in the more casual venue
of a gynocentric book group comprised of former students after
her University employment concluded.
that Nafisi's insights on literature were more interesting. The
conversations she has with her students about literature are full
of the familiar, trivial dreck familiar to American university
students of the last generation; "values-based" discussion
of literature, perhaps forgivable here because of the cultural
chasm between Nabokov, Henry James, and the other writers Nafisi
teaches and the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose art forms become
conscripted by the government to serve a higher purpose – the fusion
of nationalist and Islamic principles.
but as predictable as watching a microwave oven soldier through
its paces. To a man, the Islamic revolutionaries elicit Nafisi's
contempt. They never seem able to understand what Nabokov is driving
at with "Lolita", or why Jane Austen's female characters
are "flighty". And Nafisi portrays herself as all too
unwilling to teach them. Any ideological resistance the good Doctor
encounters to the classics of western literature she frames as
nothing short of brainwashing by what Michael Ledeen would call
that the mark of an effective teacher? By the standards of the
American university, no. American professors, at least those minted
in the last quarter-century, are driven to embrace "inclusiveness"
and "diversity". They have no choice, actually, as Universities
hold any number of enforcement mechanisms at their disposal to
keep rogue instructors in line.
the reader is expected to accept Nafisi's implicit explanation
of why she chose to teach some students to the best of her ability
while leaving others unenlightened to the joys of The Great
Gatsby. After all, she was living in Iran during a turbulent
time, and there were many external pressures on her.
external pressures, naturally, are what the book is about. It
seems that the pages of Reading Lolita in Tehran
cannot be turned without the memoirist mentioning one transgression
or another of the Tehran government. There was a "gloomy
reality" to life in Iran, whose culture "denied any
merit to literary works", Nafisi writes. Perhaps because
of such denial of merit, "an absurd fictionality ruled"
Iranian lives as the self-styled Islamic republic performed what
the expatriate authoress dubbed a "betrayal of Islam."
exactly comprises a betrayal of Islam? To Nafisi, such a betrayal
is inexorably linked with the quashing of commercial culture.
So many pages are written about the invasive searches of the Morality
Police, who applied the zeal of the Transportation Security Administration
in ensuring that Iranian women conducted themselves in accordance
with the state's demands.
Nafisi tells it, Tehran was at war with both its people and the
desires thereof. Thus, "the desire to wear pink socks"
was snuffed out at the altar of the state. And so it was that
her daughter was "punished for licking ice cream in public"
and for wearing colored shoe laces.
were the implications of this quixotic war on sensual pleasure?
Nafisi's perspective on the regime's iniquities leads her to many
a trenchant observation on what the totalitarian ethos does to
those living under its unforgiving yoke. The authoress herself
confesses often to feeling no kinship with the state, writing
memorably that she had "lost all concept of terms – home, service,
country." She described herself and intimates as "perfectly
equipped failures", relegated to such a condition by a Tehran
regime that eliminated its best and brightest, squandering its
intellectual resources in favor of perpetuating its own hold on
William Burroughs famously wrote, control needs control to control.
Nafisi discusses the pervasiveness of ideological enforcement
in the university setting with poignant, if self-serving, detail:
the one boldfaced sentence in the book is the author repeating
a claim, ostensibly left by a disgruntled student on a blackboard,
that "the adulterous Nafisi should be expelled." As
Nafisi maintains, the closest she came to adultery in the Islamic
republic was maintaining fidelity with her pre-revolutionary sensibilities.
"adultery," in a more forgiving context, could be seen
as salvation for both Nafisi and the millions of Iranians who
undoubtedly share her perspectives yet lack the institutional
backing of Johns Hopkins University. As Nafisi's book progresses,
she somewhat begrudgingly provides examples of what she loved
about her native land. Most compelling to this reviewer was Nafisi's
all-too-brief meditation on the beauty of the poetry and prose
of Rumi, Hafez, Sa'adi, Khayyam, and other canonical Persian authors;
as the memoirist memorably put it, those writers' words "literally
rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching
all five senses."
reviewer undoubtedly would have had a more favorable impression
of Reading Lolita in Tehran if there had been more
descriptions like that interspersed throughout her book's relentlessly
dour depiction of life in the Islamic Republic. Could it be that
there was so little joy in Tehran that Nafisi was unable to balance
her memoir? Or is the memoirist herself complicit in the error
of sacrificing her personal experiences on the altar of political
necessity? This reviewer suspects that both questions could be
answered in the affirmative.