That time came to me last night when I put down the book this week “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi.
In this journey of 52 books I have come across so many different types of books excellent ones, the good ones, the not so good ones and sometimes crappy ones too.
However how I would like to describe “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is that it’s different. It’s different from the all the one’s I have read before in many way.
How the author Dr. Nafisi has woven this tale, set in a lesser known land Iran is a tribute to writing itself. In this age where people are not so much inclined to reading and where we don’t have the Austen, James, Atwood and Nobokov writing for us, Nafisi takes us pretty close to what excellent writing looks like.
Still I am struggling for words as to how to describe it and any words said or written won’t be able to do justice to it, but I will try…
Iran – not many people know about the country very much (still) except for the fact that it’s an Islamic republic and anti United States. Last Year when the revolution spread to the streets of Tehran (yet again) in re-election of the president “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” then some interest was rekindled about that nation. How protesters used social media to fuel the revolution was the talking point of many websites and newspapers. We in India however have a different view of Iran (with gas pipeline coming up and we supporting Iran in the use of nuclear energy for domestic purpose) and at some point consider it as a friend.
The story is set in the 1980s and 1990s when the author returns back to her home country Iran to find that liberals were being sidelined and a revolution was on the anvil which threatened to curtail the rights and liberties of the Iranians. She takes us through those initial days of revolution when Iran was getting converted to a complete Islamic republic. The freedom and liberty that was once being enjoyed in the state was getting drowned in the shouts and screams of the clerics and other politicians in the name of Islam.
The way author remembered Iran when she was a teenager (she left for studies at the age of 13) was quite different. She describes the trials and tribulations of living in an Islamic state where veil was mandatory for women, women were not allowed to wear any makeup, nail paint, not allowed to talk to member of opposite sex, not allowed to shout, scream, run, etc and men used to have all sort of rights and privileges.
The entire change from a liberal nation to an Islamic state is so vividly described by the author that you can at times feel that you are actually walking in the streets of Tehran. Author takes up a job at university and teaches English literature. How the writings of the renowned authors such as James, Nobokov, Austen sometimes draws equal to the life they lead in Iran is simply beautiful. When the author could take no more of restrictions of the university (directly controlled by government) she quits her job and starts a literature class with a few of her students on Thursdays at home. Azin, Nassir, Manna, Yassi, Nima, Sanaz, Mahshid all her students of that literature class have separate lives in the Islamic republic and how they abhor the restrictions they have to live in and how they want a better life.
The book goes on to describe the impacts of the revolution, the war with Iraq (which lasted for 8 years), the modification of universities and how everyone tries to cope up in that nation.
The book is about Iran but not only about Iran, it is about life in an Islamic republic but not only about that, it deals with the issues of woman but not only in Iran, its about literature about Nobokov, Austen and James but not only about that.
The truth is that the book is not about any one thing and you just can’t take out even one thing it deals with without taking out the soul of the book. The amazing thing is that at the end of the book you just don’t come out hating Iran for the atrocities that it committed against its citizens or the liberties it curtailed for the woman. You don’t even come out with sympathy or sorrow or any such feeling for the characters as well. Even after reading all of it a sense of serenity prevails.
I don’t know if it was deliberate but Azin, Nassir, Yassi, Manna and others, these characters are never so well described that they will remain with you forever but still they do. You can’t tell the difference at the end as to who is who. That kind of perfectly fits the physical characters that every woman was same, was adorned with the veil where that makes one no different than the other.
It’s so much better to know a place through it’s people and after reading this book you would feel you know Iran better (you won’t love it, you won’t hate it) . There is so much art and literature in that country that you would realize while reading the book (as well you might realize several instances where Iranian movies are shown at world stage and even won many Oscars) and at times you would be surprised at the paradox the country is. The country which restricts women so much there girls and boys both sit together in university classes and study. The country that abhors west, has the western philosophy, literature and art so deep rooted that you can’t separate out one from the other.
What Dr. Nafisi has written is a masterpiece and I am sure if you haven’t experienced it all first hand you would never be able to explain so well as she did. The book is amazing, simply beautiful and very different from all you have read.
Thank you Azar Nafisi for bringing Iran and Iranians to our bedrooms and living rooms.