Nafisi, Azar.  Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books.  NY: Random House, 2003.  USD 14.95; ISBN 0-8129-7106-X (paperback).

This extraordinary and complex memoir can be read as an elegaic personal history of Iran’s revolution, and as a paeon to literature.  It is also a psychological portrait of the interior resources and resilience of the well-informed mind.

As a historical view through the chador, it documents a history of Tehran from the 1970’s through the Iraq-Iran War and into the mid-1990’s.  As a praise of fiction, the books discussed within it include Lolita (of course) but also other works by Nabokov; Jane Austen’s oeuvre; Henry James, particularly Washington Square and Daisy Miller; A Thousand and One Nights; The Great Gatsby and many other works, in full or in passing.   In Nafisi’s book, literature becomes an alternate, colorful and nuanced world that rivals the drab and dangerous reality of Khomeini’s Iran.  In such a world, Nafizi’s love for literature becomes a lifeline, a means to remain a person.  She writes that art and literature become necessary, to provide freedom, “when all other options are taken away.” [23].

To her, the excessive literalness and uniformity required under the regime robs people of their personal history, a “confiscation of life”.  [33]  The personal has been overtaken by the public: the landscape of one’s marriage, the things one says in front of one’s children, even decisions of personal grooming have been mandated by law and are enforced rigorously.  The only defense then becomes the life of the mind, or as we find by the end of her interior journey, “a freedom of imagination.”

For anyone who feels deeply about arts of all kinds, and indeed, intellectual inquiry i ngeneral,  Reading Lolita in Tehran serves as an affirmation of their importance to human existence and a healthy, vibrant society.   I haven’t read anything so captivating–or indeed, necessary–in a very long time. 

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