Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Book Club Choice Monday 14th June 04

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi published 2003


This is the delightful word exclaimed by one of Azar’s students, Yassi, one day when she walks into the room for the routine Thursday morning private literary class. Azar Nafisi, the author, is immediately carried back in time, and in this episode when the girls use their imaginations to explain the word, there is a sort of encapsulation of this wonderful book. Here Azar first describes the episode, she then goes on to define the meaning of the word, and then uses it to stretch our imagination and feed us with memories, descriptions, analyses and histories of the students and the times they lived in in Iran under the Ayotolla Khomeini and others.
Each girl has been given a pseudonym to protect their present lives. Yassi said she thought ‘upsilamba’ could be the name of a dance, Manna ‘suggested … it evoked the image of a small silver fish leaping in and out of a moonlit lake’, Nima, Manna’s husband who sent in his suggestions later added that it was a prod in the brain so as not to forget him, Azin said it was a melody, Mahshid said it was three girls jumping rope, Sanaz said ‘a small boy’s secret magical name, Mitra said a blissful sigh, Nassrin a magic code.
In fact it was Nabakov who actually may have invented the word out of his usual method of word-play, meaning possibly how it was that children could understand ‘eachother at the first word’ captured in written form by dredging up an archaic letter, the ‘upsilamba’, which became in his own eyes a bird or a catapult that freed you into imagining other worlds.
What is noticeable from their interpretation however is how each of these girls who spend most of their week swathed in black, hiding their hair, their nails, their laughter, cannot repress their inner hope and spirit, their imagination that soars and frees them from the cruel, gray brutality of their daily lives.
So it is that Azar Nafisi manages to combine many literary devices in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran.
The book reads easily like a novel but is in fact her memoirs, triggered by her deep love and knowledge of English, American and world literature. To give shape to her memoirs she takes 4 authors and explores themes she and her students discover in their various novels. You all know that these four are Lolita by Nabakov, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, Daisy Miller and other novels by Henry James and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Thus in each chapter we have unusual and often disturbing analyses of the books they read together, borrowing ideas frequently from other works by the authors or illuminations of works by other authors.
The initial push-off, like the word ‘Upsilamba’, is never dull in itself. Most great works of art grab the reader pretty rapidly, whether it is Lolita or Pride and Prejudice or to be topical, The Iliad. But there has to be a greater theme and at least one interesting character to hold us and involve our minds. Nafisi could just have analyzed the books, but she uses them to draw us into her world. She finds that the Thursday morning discussions which she had originally intended as a private class for serious students of literature after she withdraws from her University career due to, for her, impossible restrictions on dress, behavior and choice of subjects, draw out the private lives and despair and hope of these women and herself.
In the first chapter, concerning Lolita we learn about each student in turn. Nafisi is protective towards them and calls them her ‘girls’ even though some of them are women.
She describes herself as ‘good old plastic’. This is obviously modest and belies her own genius and ability to hold the class together through thick and thin.
There is Nima, married to a sympathetic husband, Manna, who is barred from the group out of fear of the religious police. Although Nafisi’s husband, Bijan, makes an occasional appearance in the apartment, the women unwatched by authorities or menfolk unburden themselves and allow womens’ problems to be aired…. and each novel sheds amazing light on their problems.
There is impish Nassrin, who ‘disappears’ from the group and is found to have undergone horrific troubles at the hands of the authorities.
Her friend Mashid is the oldest, the most conservative and religious of the group. She seems to have accepted an almost nun-like existence.
Azin, the most glamorous, often clashes with the two friends. She is longing to show off her beauty and test the waters of freedom and sexual innuendo around her although she is actually married, albeit to a wife-beater.
Mitra is calm and teasing. Of the group, she has the most peaceful relationship with another student, Hamid, and the two married for love.
Sanaz is under the thumb of her immature younger brother, who takes on the role of irritated protector and mini-dictator. She finally travels to Turkey to attempt a marriage with someone she has had a crush on since childhood, a marriage expected of her Europeanized but obedient fiancé; this imposing of marriage on the two good people who scarcely know each other ends in separation.
Lastly, there is laughing, self-questioning Yassi, the youngest and possibly most devoted of the group who is only 14 when she audits a University class and later follows Nafisi into the private Thursdays. Her vulnerability in the face of her imprisonment makes her particularly touching.
None of these girls have happy, carefree lives. They are captured for demonstrating against repressive authority, whether in appearance, religious deviance or political beliefs or being in the wrong place during the frequent raids. Some are tortured. They have friends who sat in prison with them or whom they had met in class who were summarily executed. Even those who avoid the public find their lives encapsulated by Kafka-esque or Alice in Wonderland rules and laws and attitudes. Nafisi comes out with many personal examples. There is the stray hair showing from under the chador.
There is laughing in corridors. There is eating a peach too seductively. There is looking or letting a man (in other words seducing him) look into her eyes. There is playing music. Books are increasingly banned, films are hard to find, mixed company of unmarried people is considered whoredom for which you can be executed.
In fairness to the University and to my puzzlement, the books and authors studied are pretty well acceptable to the authorities. Nevertheless the courage of Nafisi and her students constantly overawe us.
Nafisi describes her career at The University of Tehran followed by the move to AllamehTabatabai University for women.
At the U of Tehran where she was a young lecturer back from America (on campus she had demonstrated with anti-Shah students) she met the new revolutionaries who were battling amongst themselves for hegemony, Marxists versus Islamicists of various intense levels of belief. We watch as the Ayotollas take over. Meanwhile she relished the arguments she had with members of the various Islamic Brotherhood members who seem to have treated her with mingled respect and regret at her views. At one point she puts the book Daisy Miller on trial in the form of a debate. Daisy is attacked by a religious but persistent young man who finds her immoral and is defended by startlingly bright women. This one class could have caused Nafisi’s dismissal and expulsion of the women but she at least gets away with it.
In the chapter on The Great Gatsby she describes the growing atmosphere of turmoil and fear as the religious leaders clamp down more and more on the population. One excuse for the repression is the inflated and imposed fear and hatred of anything Westernized, America the Great Satan and the imperialistic Zionist Entity.
In the chapter on Henry James we experience the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war. On one hand she and the girls live with fear, death and terror every night, on the other they carry on in a sort of timewarp of disbelief; as with their appearance they have real bodies and expressions beneath the black clothes that swathe them, so their minds ready at any minute to run for shelter cannot really accept their daily limitations. Knowing life in Israel, we can understand how this can happen.
In the last main chapter, based on Jane Austen, she discusses marriage. The girls are as engrossed in this subject as any religious Jewish girl waiting for a shidduch and have expectations just as varied, from acceptance of arranged marriage to yearning for romance. This is in an ethos of mens’ control over womens’ destinies. Yassi, the youngest, parodies the opening line of Pride and Prejudice saying “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife.” Nafisi tells us about her growing family. Her little daughter Negar was born into repression and resents the fact that she has never even known the freedoms her mother remembers. When Khomeini dies she thinks the women outside the window will take off their chadors and when they don’t she cries out that he is not dead. She is actually right, metaphorically! She is born into a society where people are so accustomed to unquestioning obedience they see Khomeini’s face in the moon. Her husband Bijan, a most stable character reminiscent in his perfection of Austen’s Mr Darcy, is completely supportive of her comparatively wayward behavior and also supports her in her career. Her mother who had been a minister under the Shah in turn chides her and gives her warmth and protection. She has a little son who will grow up in America when she finally decides to return after nearly 20 years and where she teaches to this day.
I find it impossible to talk about everything I think about when I read the pages of this book. There is a sort of turmoil in my own mind, due to the myriad subjects and the emotional impact. But there are one or two themes I would like to mention because they affect me so strongly.
One is her relationship with a mysterious, unnamed ex-teacher she calls “My Magician”. He is her mentor and his very hidden-ness and exclusivity suggest that she is at once attracted to him like a soul-mate in hiding and in need of him to clarify her own thoughts about books and problems as they arise. Now it is interesting that Nabakov in Lolita talks about a mysterious ‘conjuror’ who knows answers. This suggests to me that Nafisi sees her life defined as if it were literature and literature as if it were life. Thus she can delve into a book and with her students see incredible relevance to their lives and psyche whilst seeing their lives play out like a novel.
Narrowing this down, I would like to mention Lolita itself. I have avoided getting into it so far as it would take an entire volume to explain it. Firstly, I am utterly amazed at the level of intimate knowledge by these non-native-English students with all the innuendoes of our rich language. To follow Nabakov’s use of language takes time and familiarity with much of Western culture. He himself was astonishing: had to learn English and he uses it like a wizard.
We all react viscerally to Humbert Humbert, and this is Nabakov’s intention. He has taken a horrible subject and made art out of it. As Homer says (I’ve been rereading the Iliad as you probably realize), violence has a ‘terrible beauty’. The violence of Humbert against the nymphet Lolita is repulsive and yet produces all around us a ‘terrible beauty’ - a great web of deceit bolstered by brilliant innuendoes, word-plays that cause us to look further, deeper into history, our language, our society, ourselves, and the consequences of our actions and beliefs. He has us entangled. The Persian women understand this instinctively in a way that we in the West can not. The attitudes based on The Absurd, and the violence, physical or mental, against the Iranian people and women in particular is so all-pervasive, and so bolstered by religious and cultural baggage they cannot escape from it without revolution or death. Even escape or exile will never free them mentally as we see when Nafisi meets certain old friends after many years. During the war they were indoctrinated with signs saying:
“Whether we kill or are killed we are victorious!”
When the Islamic government took over the Film Censor was an old blind man.
If a Muslim Iranian, even married with four wives, wants to make love to more women he can contract a 10-minute marriage.
That is the Alice in Wonderland experience. That is the experience of Cincinnatus in Nabakov’s Kafka-esque novel about an innocent prisoner. That is why the women think that Daisy Miller herself shows heroic courage in the face of a society we would recognize today. Their sensitivity to problems – and freedoms – that surround us in the West is heightened far more than our own.
And the despairing analysis of all the women is that the worst sin, the worst evil in Man is lack of empathy, lack of the ability feel, to put oneself in the place of another. Like Humbert Humbert. Like anyone who imprisons people and ideas in the name of love or religion or class propriety or patriotism, ignoring the living beings they are persecuting. And this is ironically aided and abetted by ourselves, since we like Nabakov’s ubiquitous butterfly, are caught in this net of solipsization, this persuasive taking-over of our own individual selves by another entity, whether it be a Humbert or a religion or a blind Film Censor. Because we are complicit -- as Nafisi says, “What linked us so closely was this perverse intimacy of victim and jailer.”

Linda Hepner


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