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August 15, 2003

Nafisi the Neocon


A review of Reading Lolita in Tehran

by Anthony Gancarski

The 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."

Such 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 job 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].

But 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." Nafisi, 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.

Nafisi 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.

Would 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.

Forgivable, 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 the "mullahcracy."

Is 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.

But 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.

Such 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."

What 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.

As 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.

What 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 power.

As 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.

Such "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."

This 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.

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Anthony Gancarski, the author of Unfortunate Incidents, writes for The American Conservative, CounterPunch, and LewRockwell.com. His web journalism was recognized by Utne Reader Online as "Best of the Web." A writer for the local Folio Weekly, he lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

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