Monday, March 10, 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
By Azar Nafisi
Hodder, 347pp, $32.95

We were in a hotel in Esfehan. As my partner removed her scarf and let loose her hair, she felt an awkwardness run through the people in the room, as if she needed to clothe herself again. The moment hit us like a strange blow.

Barely a month in Iran and we had come to such feelings. Women moved in dark flocks, covered from head to toe in their black chadors, many held by the teeth as their wearers struggled with shopping or children or an unpredictable breeze that might reveal an illegal strand of hair.

When the literature professor Azar Nafisi returned to Iran in 1979, she refused to bow to this new law of "modesty" and lost her teaching position at the University of Tehran. The Iran she knew was crumbling with the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the imposition of sharia law, which included the compulsory chador, the reduction in the marriageable age for women from 18 to nine, and the introduction of stoning for adulterers and prostitutes. To be with a male who was not your husband or relative became a crime. The books Nafisi taught would be banned, along with Western music and the sound of a woman singing.

Initially, Nafisi retreated: into the privacy of her home; into a chador so ridiculously large she could withdraw her hands into it and disappear; and into the secret world of books and reading. Her ultimate protest was a seemingly tiny act that grew out of this love of literature. She formed a women's book group in a country where books and ideas can put you in prison.

As a literary critic, she is an exquisite guide to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald and P.D. James, among others, connecting them to the lives of women under the regime. Humbert Humbert's theft of Lolita's identity is, for example, paralleled to Khomeini's regime and its abuse of women. Nafisi likens living in Iran to "having sex with a man you loathe".

It's a raw moment in a predominantly subtle and tender work that mixes memoir, history, literary criticism and the latent elements of political thriller. Nafisi maintains an elegant wall of privacy that breaks only partially, notably in regard to the man to whom she refers - somewhat cloyingly - as "my magician", an anonymous mentor who offers a romantic presence lacking in Nafisi's life with her husband.

Denial lies at the core of this book. Nafisi's story of a young woman returning from holidays in Syria, where she felt the wind in her hair for the first time, only to cover up in Iran again, is full of unspeakable heartache and anger.

Not all this pain is the product of a repressive regime, of course, even if a hideous marriage between the public and the personal is always at play: "'The Islamic Republic has coarsened my taste in colours,' Manna said, fingering the discarded leaves of her roses. 'I want to wear outrageous colours, like shocking pink or tomato red. I feel too greedy for colours to see them in carefully chosen words of poetry."' At this stage, Nafisi observes, with casual lucidity: "Manna was one of those people who would experience ecstasy but not happiness."

Perceptions like this glitter throughout Reading Lolita in Tehran. If there's a fault, it's in Nafisi's cooling personal qualities (which must be part of her defence mechanisms) compared with her passions for the page, along with an overly fluid structure that sometimes loses individual characters in the more vivid blend of ideas and incidents.

Perhaps Nafisi summarises this problem when she writes of how there is "a term in Persian, 'the patient stone' ... used in times of anxiety and turbulence. Supposedly, a person pours out all his troubles and woes into the stone. It will listen and absorb his pains and secrets, and this way he will be cured. Sometimes the stone can no longer endure its burdens and then it bursts."

- Mark Mordue

* This review was first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books on November 22, 2003.

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