azar nafisiThe paper attempts to analyze the ways literature may interact with its readers, the subtle way fiction interferes with reality. The example we take is "Reading Lolita in Tehran", a controversial book mainly due to the articles of Hamid Dabashi intending to deconstruct Azar Nafisi's memoir. We contend that Reading Lolita in Tehran shows poignant examples of oversimplifying the ”clash” between the Western world with its "honesty of imagination" and the rigidity of Islamic moral rules in post revolutionary Iran, nevertheless its literary quality stands out to counterbalance the presumed flaws and make it a praiseworthy book.

Keywords: Western vs. Oriental, personal vs. political, literary, post-revolutionary Iran, women’s rights, criticism, interpretation grid, fictionalizing

Ever since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Greater Middle East has generated a lot of interesting evolutions. The main aim of this text is focusing the attention on some aspects of the 'clash of ideas' in contemporary Iran, a country which, politically and strategically, threatens a lot the regional balance of power.

As the title of the envisaged book reads from the very beginning, it claims to be ”a memoir in books”, although it transcends the initial intention, overlapping social and political criticism altogether literary criticism, as well as rendering pages of sheer literature. Out of the praise for the book recorded on its first pages, the name of Susan Sontag stands out: in her opinion Nafisi ”defied and helped others to defy radical Islam’s war against women. Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom – as well as stirring account of the pleasures and deepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with great literature and with an inspired teacher.” Sontag’s comment comprises some worth mentioning words useful in our analysis: theocratic, oppressive regime, ordeal of freedom, great literature, inspired teacher and above all the verb ”defy”. In other words, the merit of the book resides in the way great literature is used by a charismatic teacher to rebel against the undemocratic system in her strife for liberty. Unfortunately it involves a reading grid resembling the clichées used against the book as we shall see below.

The plot of the book unfolds smoothly along the four chapters entitled after the names of the books evoked, i.e. the authors Nafisi analyses: ”Lolita”/Nabokov, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, [Henry] ”James”, [Jane] ”Austen”. After being denied to teach at the University of Tehran without the veil that she doggedly refuses to wear, the professor of American literature goes on teaching some of her former doting students in her own living room, set against the post-revolutionary Iran of the middle 1980s and early 1990s, depicted as a gruesome background. The purpose of the class is very clear: ”to read, discuss and respond to works of fiction. Each will have a private diary” (18)[1] to record responses to the novels. Each chapter is a pretext for remembering past events in very coherent and well-integrated discourse – while the reading group meets between 1995 and 1997, the timespan encompassed by the book is broader: from 1979 to 1997 - and includes also her teaching experience before and after the formal resignation. And above all, the text provides high quality literary critcism.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran was severly criticized as a salient example of what Hamid Dabashi named ”selective memory”, a concept tallying with a so-called ”historical amnesia” backing up the emerging of the American empire ever since 9/11 under the pretext of anti-terrorism war. Thus, Nafisi’s work would become representative for ”an increasing body of mémoires [written] by people from an Islamic background that has over the last half a decade, ever since the commencement of its ’War on Terrorism’, flooded the US market”[2]. Dabashi quotes the reputed postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak who coined the phrase "white men saving brown women from brown men"[3], trying to demonstrate that the plight of the Muslim women in the Islamic world turns into an instance of legitimacy for the American imperial purposes and their fighting against Islamic terrorism. By calling Nafisi a ”comprador intellectual”, Hamid Dabashi does not hesitate to conclude that ”the book is partially responsible for cultivating the US (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran, having already done a great deal by being a key propaganda tool at the disposal of the Bush administration during its prolonged wars in such Muslim countries as Afghanistan (since 2001) and Iraq (since 2003). A closer examination of this text thus reveals much about the way the US imperial designs operate in its specifically Islamic domains.”

Dabashi focuses on the book’s cover image (”an iconic burglary from the press”), whose deconstruction turns into a two-page stern critique of what he names ”stealing a part of truth to tell a bigger lie”. The cover, depicting two female adolescents leaning their heads for the obvious purpose of reading something, is actually a caption taken from the Iranian newspaper Mosharekat. The first impression that the photograph is supposed to bring about – sympathy and complicity with the scarf-covered Iranian readers of ... ”Lolita”, in a kind of  ”political defiance” – would be thus a painful sham, as the actual object of gaze, ironically enough, is the leading reformist news report during the parliamentary election of 2000 in Iran (the original picture displaying also the photograph of president Khatami). Heavily quoting Roland Barthes’s explanations about the photographic message with its denotations and connotations, Dabashi draws his conclusions on the representation of colonised body hence the two young women, ”Oriental Lolitas”, seem ”stripped of their moral intelligence and their participation in the democratic aspirations of their homeland.” Moreover, the use of this cropped image would become relevant, enabling Dabashi to make a strong case for the distortion of Iranian history and culture: the biased selection of Nafisi’s readings follow the same pattern of ”shrinking it to the size that is useful for an active recycling”. But perhaps Dabashi makes a good point posing the question of postcolonial Iranian feminism reduced to silence in the book.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus calls Dabashi's essay ”a less-than-coherent pastiche of stock anti-war sentiment, strategic misreading, and childish calumny”, claiming that ”The book's failure, however, is not political—as Dabashi insists—but literary”[4]. This is how Lewis-Kraus agrees with Dabashi only on the point of ”its inadvertent mildness and its smug satisfaction”, rendered by the latter by means of ”the adjective kaffeeklatsch that comes closest to articulating the problems with Reading Lolita in Tehran”. He points up to the self-importance of the book’s tone, ”more petulant than outraged” and also gives examples of Nafisi’s ”emptily lyrical sentences ("It was evening. Outside, the sky was the color of dusk—not dark, not light, not even gray.") perfectly suited for the facile readings she presents of the texts at hand”. Even though several background commentaries may sound to some extent simplistic, we cannot agree with it as a general conclusion for the whole book. The fact she takes ”therapeutic solace” in reading does not undermine the quality of her writing altogether, all the more so because for a professor of literature who lives for/through books, reading and writing on books being a compulsory refuge, ”politically salutary effects of reading novels and writing literary criticism” cannot be dubbed as unwarranted overemphasis. Azar Nafisi confesses out of an undoubtedly authentic creed: ”If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now on constant retreat. My other sanctuary, what helped me restore some sense of sanity and relevance to my life, was of a more intimate and personal nature...”(170)

While Dabashi accuses her of being an agent of Western imperialism, Lewis-Kraus squarely calls her ”a literary carpetbagger”: ”Unlike most of her friends in Tehran, she gives the impression that she could leave at any time; this knowledge gives her life over two decades under the mullahs, at least as she presents it, a touristic quality”. If Dabashi calls the book bad because it is dangerous, Lewis-Kraus calls it bad because it is cliché and pretending to be more important that it is: ”The besieged Nafisi gets to preserve her fantasy that removing her veil to read Austen in her home was not only therapeutically powerful but politically noble”. The critic admits the value and relevance that lie at the heart of Nafisi's project as ”meaningful and brave”, and does not question ”her faith that literature can extend some promise of alternate worlds”. On the other hand, he states that all these creditable traits are counterbalanced by a significant flaw: ”Her obvious valor as a teacher and mentor makes it all the more unfortunate that her book is so self-important.” For instance Lewis-Kraus notices the ”pat, self-congratulatory resolution” to leave Iran, which indeed stands for a rather commercial technique pleasing a kind of audience too familiar with good-endings: ”she's entitled to rejoice because of how much she's done for her students”, making the book ”irresistible to some American readers”.

In a blunt analysis, Roksana Bahramitash compares Reading Lolita in Tehran with Betty Mahmoody’s famous novel, Not without my daughter, both indicating instances of women’s oppression in the Islamic world; as well as Dabashi, Bahramitash accuses Nafisi of being highly promoted by the neoconservatives of the current administration in Washington, labelling the book cliché-ridden, ”representative of Muslim/Iranian misogyny”: there is no question that women suffer from oppression in Iran, yet there is a major problem with a depiction that feeds negative stereotypes about Muslim/Iranian men.” [5]

A more pertinent critique of ”Reading Lolita in Tehran” can be found in the book Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz, mainly the chapter “The Good, the Missing, and the Faceless: What is wrong with Reading Lolita in Tehran”. The author starts with the very title and, as it was the case with the ”cover-issue” triggering the severe criticism mentioned above, underlines the somewhat exotic stake of the book: ”if world literary masterpieces are so entirely universal, what is so remarkable about reading Lolita in the city of  Tehran? The title Reading Lolita in Tehran has an unmistakable undertone of Otherness to it: reading Lolita is something you should not expect to happen in a place such as Tehran.”[6] An Iranian-born professor at the University of Maryland, Keshavarz names the novel she thoroughly analyses ”a typical example of the New Orientalist narrative”, namely oversimplified, one-sided, exaggerated and paradoxically ”as extreme as the views of the revolutionaries it criticizes”, reducing the entire Iranian culture to the behaviour of some Islamic extremists. And we partly agree with the literary critic on various poignant flaws of Reading Lolita in Tehran - the superior attitude, the brusque, blunt language, the pervasive tone of disdain, the enforcement of some shopworn European stereotypes about the Oriental imagery. Therefore, thinks Keshavarz, Iranian culture is reduced ”to the behavior of its extremists” and the characters of the book are dived exclusively into the good vs. the bad: ”seven young women in the reading group and the major villains”.[7]

We shall nevertheless restrict to a critique that underlines the hybrid character of a book that belongs to the literary realm notwithstanding - something that Keshavarz tends to somehow overlook, although she confesses: ”because it is not a work of history, Reading Lolita in Tehran is not required to provide a full context of the events.”[8] It is not a case of literary criticism to accuse Azar Nafisi of having a personal and ”selective” opinion on the events she experiences taking into account her Western education as well - hence a legitimate subjective perspective. We cannot neglect she teaches American literature and her particular interest or object of study is not necessarily the unconditioned source of only biased views. It would be a never-ending debate if we attempted to establish strict boundaries between fictionalizing and taking reality as such or as a point of reference. When the author is appalled by the horrors of war (between Iran and Iraq) and feels no pride in it, she is entitled to have such an attitude that cannot be turned into a proof of her ”lack of compassion” only because she does not feel the urge to glorify the heroes on the battle field. The same would apply to everything she was accused she intentionally neglected to depict, thus wiping out what her critics consider compulsory to be mentioned by her book. That may be considered as the least relevant out of the negative commentaries on the book: they do not refer only to what the text itself talks about, but add list of names and facts presumably avoided on purpose. There is a reply that the very book seems to offer to such criticism: when one fundamentalist student in Nafisi’s class tries to designate what should have been according to his views the right theme and heroes Fitzgerald should have chosen instead of corrupt and adulterous characters like Gatsby and Daisy Fay, one witty retort comes up: ”Why don’t you write your own novel?”(133)

Whatever the misinterpretations, the exaggerations such heated debates must have implied in the aftermath of the publication of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Keshavarz makes various points that are not off the mark at all. First of all, as we have already mentioned above, the oversimplified version of almost all the things the book deals with, except the pieces of literary criticism, which are notably profound beyond any doubt.

For instance, the way Nafisi regards Islamic feminism as a ”contradiction in terms” (262) is much debated and firmly contradicted by the critic, who gives arguments and counterexamples. Likewise, she challenges Nafisi’s following extreme statement ”we lived in a culture that  denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to ... ideology” (25) Keshavarz Fatemeh accuses Azar Nafisi of reductionism all throughout her critique, but when she states that Iranian cinema is alive and well and experienced ”the most flourishing period after the revolution” (p. 125), that is only partly true, because the years Azar Nafisi refers to in her book are the early 1980s, a period that can hardly be characterised as thriving for Iranian cinema: ”The three phases of the relationship between cinema and the state correspond to socio-political phases of the Islamic Republic. The first phase, now referred to as the First Republic, lasted for a decade, beginning with the creation of the Islamic state. "Liberals" and "moderates" confronted "radicals" and "militants"; the latter, supported by Ayatollah Khomeini, won the struggle to control the post-revolutionary state, and excluded the former from power. This first phase, dominated by the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), saw the ascendance and almost undisputed power of feqh-based Islam and the suppression of reformist and modernist visions of Islam. Attempting to bring culture and art under its control, the regime created the Committee for Cultural Revolution. The Ministry of Culture and Art became the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), with a mandate to Islamize all kinds of art and cultural activities. Through its various organizations, the regime promoted the creation of a distinctively Islamic cinema in the early 1980s. In those years no quality film was produced, and women and love were almost totally absent from the screen, though women were present behind the camera, even working as directors. In the absence of women, love and human emotions could be channeled through children, so stories based on children dominated the screen. In the mid-1980s, the grip of feqh-based ideology gradually loosened, and a period of qualitative growth started. Iranian cinema started to attract international attention once again.”[9] If we take a look at the notability of the Iranian movies in the 1980s, a few were screened at international film festivals, which does not account for them escaping from the censorship or being watched in the cinemas inside Iran. “I had not been inside a movie theater for five years” records the narrative voice of Reading Lolita in Tehran in 1988, ”all you could see in those days were old revolutionary movies from Eastern Europe, or Iranian propaganda films.” (206) Attending a special Tarkovsky session at the annual Film Festival in Tehran, Nafisi noticed the audience looked more  like ”a protest rally” and ”such rupture over Tarkovsky by an audience most of whom would not have known how to spell his name, and who would under normal circumstances have ignored or even disliked his work, arose from our intense sensory deprivation. We were thirsty for some form of beauty ... there was a sense of wonder at being in a public place for the first time in years without fear or anger, being in a place with a crowd of strangers that was not a demonstration, a protest rally, a breadline or a public execution.” ...”we experienced collectively the kind of awful beauty that can only be grasped through extreme anguish and expressed through art.”(206)

A striking feature regarding the characters of the book easily becomes liable to criticism: the people portrayed as ”the ugly”/the bad are the epitome of backwardness, and because Keshavarz notices they are deprived of a real voice, she calls them ”the faceless” as well. Islam is the ”mythical monster” and, like in a fairy tale, the good fights against the evil, and the antagonist forces behind are, broadly speaking, the West and the Islam. The characters of the ”novel” are cast in a too obvious division between women - named by their first names and men - mentioned by contrast only by their family names. But the way they are called is less important than the fact that they belong to worlds as different as black and white, standing for the dichotomous pair the evil – the innocent, the oppressed-the oppressors / the abused – the abusers. On the other hand, a relevant critique to the way characters are depicted may refer to their lack of complexity. All throughout the book we deal with what literary criticism technically defines as ”flat characters”, displaying little development, if not any at all. Or, using Keshavarz’ coinages, they are types representing basically the good and the evil: ”the Westernization of goodness” and ”the Islamization of wickedness”.[10] The male students like Ruhi, Forsati, Ghomi are hypocritical, opportunistic, egotistic and obtuse, opposed to fawn-like girls (”my girls” as Nafisi calls them).

The episode in the book describing Sanaz’s Persian dance is one good example of the trite clichéd perception of the Oriental woman, it ”might as well be the portrait in an odalisque painting by an 18th century European artist”[11], ignorant of the way women from Orient really looked like and who painted them all the same accordingly. Nafisi firmly believes that, in contrast with women anywhere to the West, Iranian women of different backgrounds take on the same expression of ”hazy, lazy flirtatious look in their eyes”, ”flirtatious in a way Miss Daisy Miller and her likes [Western women] could never dream of being” (265-266). It is about the reinforcement of a stock stereotype so much rebuked by feminist activists and that one would have never expected to find in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In another clear cut distinction - ”we” vs. ”they” - Nafisi tells the students ”we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future”. (109)

Quoting Nabokov’s statement about the quintessence of literature that stems from the folk tales, Nafisi reckons she is entitled to extend it to her own life to the point that she feels like living in a fairy tale; hence her childlike remarks: ”I had a feeling that we were living in a series of fairy tales, in which all good fairies had gone on strike, leaving us stranded in the middle of a forest not far from the wicked witch’s candy house.” (241) Or, elsewhere: ”an absurd fictionality ruled our lives. We tried to live in the open spaces, in the chinks created between that room, which had become our protective cocoon, and the censor’s world of witches and goblins outside. Which of these two worlds was more real, and to which did we really belong? We no longer knew the answers. Perhaps one way of finding out the truth was to do what we did: to try to imaginatively articulate these two worlds and, through that process, give shape to our vision and identity.” (26, italics mine) The ongoing overused play upon generic ambiguity (fictional versus factual) sometimes leads to far-fetched conclusions, presumably supported by reliable literary voices: ”We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebbles or ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.” (17) The mere invocation of Nabokov may not convince the reader of unconditional magical metamorphosis of  ”pebble” into ”jewels”, i.e. the transformation of the dull reality into brilliant fiction. Nevertheless, later on in the book a far more genuine and hence significant note seems to contradict that previous belief: ”memories have ways of becoming independent of the reality they evoke” (317). But that is, in our opinion, one of the few cases in the book illustrating the awareness of the complexity of such relations between fact and fiction.

Basically the overall perspective the memoir offers is the analysis of the political by means of the literary. In other words, Nafisi takes the grid of interpretation she uses in literary criticism and thus perceiving the real world through the lenses of literary critical devices, she fictionalizes it. Khomeini, Iran’s last imam, is compared with Humbert, Lolita’s seducer, sharing the same solipsizing drive: ”like all great mythmakers, he had tried to fashion reality out of his dream, and in the end, like Humbert, he had managed to destroy both reality and his dream. Added to the crimes, to the murders and tortures, we would now face this last indignity – the murder of our dreams. Yet he has done this with our full compliance, our complete assent and complicity.” (246)  By entitling her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author of takes her ’revenge’ against those she believe to have been the solipsizers of her country, shaping the history and culture according to their own wishes. It  is obviously more than about ”reading Lolita” or reading literature in the book: it is about the reading comprehension exercise Nafisi proposes so as the readers mustn’t miss what she points out to them in italics, a metaphor labelling the unfairness of the Iranian regime: ”the desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. (33) and this is how the following decision becomes explicable: ”like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.” (25)

When the author partly tries to take into the account the bilateral nature of the relation fiction-real, it is only in theory, because the fairy-tale realm she envisages does not seem affected by such dissonant hues, she mistakes the targeted objects of political intrusions, which are their actual, real lives (”This was a country where all gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms” (25)) with her refuge into books and her students’ fantasies, at least as presented in the book: ”It is said that personal is political. It is not true, of course. At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives. Personal and political are interdependent but not one and the same thing. The realm of imagination is a bridge between them, constantly refashioning one in terms of another. When I am asked about life in the Islamic Republic of Islam, I cannot separate the most personal and private aspects of our existence from the gaze of the blind censor. I think of my girls, who came from different backgrounds. Their dilemmas ... stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspirations by the regime. This conflict lay at the heart of the paradox created by the Islamic rule. ” (273) And in an enthusiastic outburst, the author appeals to a pseudo-utopian cliché:  ”I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions” (338) Therefore, if the personal is not political, and if the former, lying properly in the ”background” of human intimacy and imagination should be linked to the the latter only to be protected by it, the whole issue becomes quite contentious or paradoxical when somewhere else in the book the author dreams of a world where the foreground is re-conquered by those traits belonging naturally to the personal: „modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations...Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to ”see” others, since to empathise with them. ... how does the soul survives? Is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination. Stalin emptied Russia of its soul.. Mandelstam and Sinyavsky restored that soul by reciting poetry and by writing in their journals. ... Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances, Bellow wrote, is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face recover their proper place – the foreground.” (315)

In an almost self-titillating way the author lets herself described by a mysterious character, ”the magician”, an original intellectual acting as a mentor to her all throughout the book: ”She is okay. She is very American... like an American version of Alice in Wonderland” (176) She casts herself in the role of a good fairy as well, an Iranian Alice in a literary wonderland  (”That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was!” (8)) and she emphasizes incessantly the uniqueness of the haven she devised for her clandestine class: ”there, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing, human beings (25) ”when all possibilities seem to be taken away from you, the minutest opening can become a great freedom. We felt when we were together that we were absolutely free.” (28) Upon having decided to leave Iran in 1997, she muses: ”I went about my way rejoicing, thinking how wonderful it is to be a woman and a writer at the end of the twentieth century.” (339) These shallow reflections are illustrative of the pervasive tone of self-pleasantry that somehow undermines the quality of a book that features also various instances of very good prose.

The best example is offered by what she calls the process of ”irrelevance”, a phenomenon vividly depicted as rooted in her own experience. After a female guard at the Ministry of Education tried to rub an imaginary makeup off her face so hard to the point of rubbing her skin off, the author confesses she felt soiled, like her whole body was a dirty rag to be cast off. And that is how the idea of a game came to her: ”I decided to make my body invisible. The woman’s coarse hands were reverse X rays that left only the surface intact and made the inside visible. By the time she finished inspecting me, I had become as light as the wind, a fleshless, boneless being.the trick to this magic was that in order to remain invisible, I had to refrain from coming into contact with other hard surfaces, especially with human beings: my visibility was in direct ratio to the degree to which I could make other people not notice me. Then, of course, from time to time I would make part of me return, like when I wished to defy...authority...and my eyes reappear, to stare at them uncomfortably.” ”Sometimes, almost unconsciously, I would withdraw my hands into my wide sleeves and start touching my legs and my stomach. Do they exist? Do I exist? The Revolutionary Guards and the guardians of our morality ... saw hands, faces and pink lipstick... I saw some ethereal being drifting soundless down the street.”(p. 168) ”This was when I went around repeating to myself, and to anyone who cared to listen, that people like myself had become irrelevant. This pathological disorder was not limited to me; many others felt they had lost their place in the world.”.. ”What do people who are made irrelevant do? They will sometimes escape, I mean physically, and if that is not possible, they will try to make a comeback... the essential part of their life goes underground. (p. 169)” All these metaphorical innuendos allude to the condition of women in an oppressive society, deprived of the liberty to behave naturally, to be visible. They are relevant and profound because they are grounded on genuine experience, on strong physical reactions and emotional involvement. They do not call on fiction to defend themselves, they do not resort to imposed fictionalising – simply transgressing thus the memoir genre and entering good literature as such. ”For a long time I wallowed in the afterglow of my irrelevance.” (171)

The authenticity of this remarkable episode on ”irrelevance” justifies and triggers also the perception of the Other, otherwise little reflected by Reading Lolita in Tehran. This is how the author witnesses a completely different view on reality than hers as if caught by surprise: ”My growing irrelevance, this void I felt within me, made me resent my husband’s peace and happiness, his apparent disregard for what I, as a woman and an academic, was going through. At the same time, I depended on him for the sense of security he created for all of us. As everything was crumbling around us, he calmly went about his business and tried to create a normal and quite life for us. ... He was a partner in an architectural and engineering firm. He loved his partners, who, like him, were dedicated to their work. Since their jobs was not directly related to culture or politics, and firm was private, they were left in relative peace. Being a good architect and a dedicated civil engineer did not threaten the regime, and Bijan was excited by the great projects they were given: a park in Isfahan, a factory.. a university. He felt creative and he felt wanted, in the very best sense of the term, he felt he was of some service to his country. He was of the opinion that we had to serve our country, regardless of who ruled it. The problem for me was that I lost all concepts of terms such as home, service and country.”(p. 169)

Azar Nafisi remembers at a certain point to offer her students a critical perspective; she complains that they ”tend to look at the West too uncritically; they have a rosy picture of the West, thanks to the Islamic Republic.” (312) She admits that Bellow ”gives a truer experience of this other place” explaining how the west is gripped by an ”atrophy of feeling”, but she hardly ever focuses on that point in her classes as a matter of fact.

          As for the undeniable merits of the book, Fatemeh Keshavarz points to the ”references to  well-known literary figures [that] lend authority to the book”, arguing that the sections devoted to these writers represent the best part of it: ”In these literary critical discussions, the book captures a sense of excitement generated by the transforming power of literature. Furthermore, when discussing these  writers, the author knows her subject well. Most of all, the literary observations are readable because the excitement of analyzing literature removes the anger and bitterness in her tone.”[12] When Nafisi devised a Gatsby trial for her course ”in these days of prosecutions”, her mind was constantly occupied with suitable arguments for the trial, due to her strong belief ”this after all was not merely a defense of Gatsby but of a whole way of looking and appraising literature” (122), a remark that may stand for a possible characterization of Reading Lolita in Tehran, which, beyond all flaws, undeniably succeeded in epitomizing the ”honesty of imagination”: the creed of literary authenticity.



[1] Azar NAFISI, Reading Lolita in Teheran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House, 2004. All throughout the paper references to our primary source are indicated by page numbers between brackets.

[2]Hamid DABASHI, ”Native informers and the making of the American empire”, in Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 797, 1 - 7 June 2006, accessed 15th October, 2013,

[3] Gayatri SPIVAK, "Can the Subaltern Speak?", in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271-316.

[4] Gideon LEWIS-KRAUS,Pawn of the Neocons? The debate over Reading Lolita in Theran”, Slate Magazine, November 30th 2006, accessed 12th November 2013,

[5] Roksana BAHRAMITASH, ”Orientalist Feminism and Islamophobia / Iranophobia” in The World's Religions: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Arvind Sharma (Santa Barbara: Fortress Press, 2011), 195-198. She also claims „the consequence of the book’s publication and the film’s release was a wave of attacks motivated by racial hatred against Iranians throughout Europe and North America.”

[6] Fatemeh KESHAVARZ, “The Good, the Missing, and the Faceless: What is wrong with Reading Lolita in Theran”in  Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 22.

[7] Ibidem, p. 111.

[8] Ibidem, p. 137.

[9] Ziba MIR-HOSSEINI, ”Iranian Cinema. Art, Society and the State”, in MER219 Middle East Research and Information Project, Volume 31,

 Summer 2001, accessed 2nd November 2013,

[10] Fatemeh KESHAVARZ, op. cit., p. 118.

[11] Ibidem, p. 131.

[12] Ibidem, p. 137.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...