The “Jewels” of Judgment: Reading Lolita in Tehran

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In the midst of daily talks about terror threats in our everyday lives, comes a story about an Iranian woman, Dr. Azar Nafisi, who is the heart of the story Reading Lolita in Tehran. Through an informal, sarcastic tone maintained throughout this book, a series of accounts from her troubled life in the Islamic republic frequently boil to the surface. Although politics is something that Dr. Azar Nafisi herself acknowledged as corrupt, she never seemed prepared for the utter and immediate toll it took upon her friends and people she knew such as her father, who was persecuted under the vindictive regime. Despite refusing to wear the veil that caused her to lose her job, she came in greater contact with her emotions. Using these new unexpected passions Dr. Azar Nafisi formed a secret group of students who were bound together through their vigorous studies of fiction.

In the exuberance of the novel, two types of characters emerge. The characters are those within the book and those fictional characters within the novels. The personalities are as diverse as the four seasons. Nima, Nassrin, Manna, Mahsid, Yassi, Azin, Mitra, and Sanaz are to me like the members of a secret “breakfast club”. They do not meet for breakfast per say but their explosive personalities and comments and well as their beliefs about the regime forever change their teacher (Dr. Azar Nafisi) and themselves. Sanaz has a need for approval. Nima, the sole male, wanting very much to get into the club displays a new way of male behavior. Yassi confesses that an uncle molested her, however Nima seems to be of a different generation; one which respects women. Mahsid does not make it to the end. Each girl had something to bring to their meetings. An experience, a comment, a vision that the others used to get through these hard times.

However it is not their individual personalities but common struggles that unite them as one. Some were jailed for bogus charges like make-up on, running, and some talked of being reprimanded for “eating their apples too seductively”. This novel is another demonstration of the way in which women are oppressed through out history even in the 1980’s and 90’s. Using Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Jane Austen novels Nafisi teaches the students of Western heroines and how their oppression relates to that of Islamic women. For example the antagonist Humbert brainwashes, kidnaps, and manipulates Lolita to satiate his sick fantasies. This is something that makes the book particularly amazing; that she makes these meetings with her students and the degree that she can relate literature of the Western world to her own world. Gatsby is someone in love with a girl he will always love, but one he can never have. Myrtle the adulterous one is a character questioned in the book. In Pride and Prejudice discussions, it would seem some girls dream to fall in love. For exposing these truths Nafisi should be praised. She is an amazing, eclectic individual who should be celebrated for her stubborn resolve to not allow the government who she is.

Nafisi also has the awful facts that surround her daily life. Daily reminders like bombs in the night. She recalls things, like her mother always being disappointed with her behavior, for Azin recognizes that she never lived up to her mother’s plans. Also, her father was the mayor and he was assassinated. Through her frightening experiences relating to the law (the bombings and constant raids in her daily life), she shares not only a knowledge of facts from being an honored professor, but a solid character of what fiction can be identified with.  Her strong beliefs she instilled within her and her comrades evoked this idea of neglecting the grave side of society and focusing on the magnificent parts of life: “… life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction” (Nafisi 3). People in Iran were taught to resent Western culture yet she did not. Nafisi is actually like many of her heroines, courageous beyond belief. Gatsby and Lolita are two quite different perspectives which Nafisi presents in a light of hope. Although in fiction both Gatsby and Lolita suffer unimaginable sorrow, in reality Azar evolves a candle of hope that does not vanish because of obstacles; in fact she becomes more resolute.

If not hope, then an understanding of suffering and unspoken empathy is what Nafisi attempts to project out into the world. Although her “magician” hid in the world, she did not. Sure, she hid in her apartment flat with her students but they were open with one another and shared deep reflections about the troubles they, as women felt and addressed to the professor which bound them closer. By having this almost secret society she grasps the true meanings of fiction. Occasionally, Nafisi diverts many of the problems surrounding the regime into a question of identity; she preached at first unintentionally the more profound ideas that would not soon be forgotten by any of her fellow students. Soon, they all found that they shared the same thoughts about woman’s declining role in society and it sickened them. Setting the stage for many of them would be an event much later in the memoir that left a lasting impression – the author’s moving to America.

Nafisi talks of the enormous changes, of all the things she left in Iran: the danger, the men pursuing her and mostly importantly the veil, which once represented devotion, but now a represented entrapment. She was like the Rosa Lee Parks of Iran saying, No I will not wear the veil. It is what got her fired, but also into that secret class and discovering a life that she had to smuggle. She had to smuggle happiness and her move to the states was a decision that made it seem as though she were abandoning her students.

Betrayal and dismay are two key feelings that many of her students voiced, but mentally Nafisi could not force herself to stay in this unstable lifestyle. Her thorough studies of fiction have led her to discover how beautiful life can be if you only give it a chance. This “chance” simply could not be accomplished if she stayed in a place that did not free her spiritually. As someone who cherished and loved fiction as much as she does, the coming to America was a closure that she recognized would not erase the painful memories she had to bear. The fact that she would no longer allow herself to become immersed in them was something incredible to undertake, something many people today can take with them. Learning of her story can inspire a hope in even the most desperate situations to climb out of your hole of apprehension into exuberance!

This book is truly a gem that sparkles in the night. The brilliant combination of fiction overlapping reality and the compelling stories of the oppression of women really make one think. Our author, a brilliant wonderful teacher annexed from the University of Tehran for not agreeing to wear the veil was a landmark event. It withstands the sands of time and is truly a testimonial to someone who looks fear in the eyes and said, no I am not allowing myself to be the government’s puppet. So to sum it all up, Nafisi never quite lived up to her mother’s expectations; she towered over them. It is fantastic to say that she was brilliant. However it is the girls she taught in secret whose resilience left the reader in shock. For the Middle East and Iran are worlds foreign to us. We, the spoiled, they the suffering, something this book outlines quite well. This book encompasses detail and memories and draws them into a one of a kind story.

 

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