In praise of older books: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (2003)

Week 34: a year of Julie Parsons on her fasourite books

 

Thursday mornings, 1995. Seven women meet with Azar Nafisi, a lecturer in English Literature, who has recently resigned from the University of Tehran.

She has refused to wear the headscarf and chador, imposed on all women in the Islamic Republic. Her friends and students have come to discuss Nafisi’s favourite books: The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice and Lolita.

Nafisi was a student in America when the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979. She and her husband, Bijan, who had agitated and demonstrated in the US, returned to the new Iran, convinced it would be a free society, secular and progressive.

It soon became clear that this would not happen. Pictures of the executed were published in “ a cheap pamphlet with yellowing pages”. Nafisi and her husband watched the show trials of their old student comrades on television.

“They eagerly denounced their past actions. . . and confessed that they were indeed the enemies of Islam.”

The streets were patrolled by the militia, the so-called “Blood of God”. Nafisi’s outward physical appearance had to change.

“The contours and lines of my body would disappear as I slipped on. . . my long black robe and the black scarf I coiled around my neck.”

Her former school principal, the minister for education “was put in a sack and stoned or shot to death”.

She retreated indoors. Every week her friends gathered. They read and talked. They told their stories. Imprisonment, arrests, beatings. Their mornings with Nafisi, their discussions on life, love, morality, beauty, literature, gave them moments of reprieve, even humour.

“The Islamic Republic has taken us back to Jane Austen’s times. God bless the arranged marriage!”

In 1997, Nafisi and her family left Iran. In despair she writes “Life in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe. . . you make your mind blank - you pretend to be somewhere else. . . you hate your body.”

A powerful image from a powerful and unforgettable book.

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