Unformatted text preview: READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN Azar Nafisi
Aspects of characters and events in this story have been changed mainly to protect individuals,
not just from the eye of the censor but also from those who read such narratives to discover who's
who and who did what to whom, thriving on and filling their own emptiness through others'
secrets. The facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful, but I have made
every effort to protect friends and students, baptizing them with new names and disguising them
perhaps even from themselves, changing and interchanging facets of their lives so that their
secrets are safe.
In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and
fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come
to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women-to teach a mixed
class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of
fiction. One persistent male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he,
Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about
the books we were reading.
I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and
asked, Which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at
least one would turn against me. Nassrin once responded mischievously, You yourself told us
that in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ. Manna
pointed out that I was no Miss Brodie, and they, well, they were what they were. She reminded
me of a warning I was fond of repeating: do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of
fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so
much reality but the epiphany of truth. Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own
recommendation and choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the
Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN perhaps Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.
A couple of years after we had begun our Thursday-morning seminars, on the last night I was in
Tehran, a few friends and students came to say good-bye and to help me pack. When we had
deprived the house of all its items, when the objects had vanished and the colors had faded into
eight gray suitcases, like errant genies evaporating into their bottles, my students and I stood
against the bare white wall of the dining room and took two photographs.
I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing
against a white wall. They are, according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head
scarves, covered except for the oval of their faces and their hands. In the second photograph the
same group, in the same position, stands against the same wall. Only they have taken off their
coverings. Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the
color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still
wearing their head scarves look the same.
The one to the far right in the second photograph is our poet, Manna, in a white T-shirt and jeans.
She made poetry out of things most people cast aside. The photograph does not reflect the
peculiar opacity of Manna's dark eyes, a testament to her withdrawn and private nature.
Next to Manna is Mahshid, whose long black scarf clashes with her delicate features and
retreating smile. Mahshid was good at many things, but she had a certain daintiness about her and
we took to calling her "my lady." Nassrin used to say that more than defining Mahshid, we had
managed to add another dimension to the word lady. Mahshid is very sensitive. She's like
porcelain, Yassi once told me, easy to crack. That's why she appears fragile to those who don't
know her too well; but woe to whoever offends her. As for me, Yassi continued good-naturedly,
I'm like good old plastic; I won't crack no matter what you do with me.
Yassi was the youngest in our group. She is the one in yellow, bending forward and bursting with
laughter. We used to teasingly call her our comedian. Yassi was shy by nature, but certain things
excited her and made her lose her inhibitions. She had a tone of voice that gently mocked and
questioned not just others but herself as well.
I am the one in brown, standing next to Yassi, with one arm around her shoulders. Directly
behind me stands Azin, my tallest student, with her long blond hair and a pink T-shirt. She is
laughing like the rest of us. Azin's smiles never looked like smiles; they appeared more like
preludes to an irrepressible and nervous hilarity. She beamed in that peculiar fashion even when
she was describing her latest trouble with her husband. Always outrageous and outspoken, Azin
relished the shock value of her actions and comments, and often clashed with Mahshid and
Manna. We nicknamed her the wild one.
On my other side is Mitra, who was perhaps the calmest among us. Like the pastel colors of her
paintings, she seemed to recede and fade into a paler register. Her beauty was saved from
predictability by a pair of miraculous dimples, which she could and did use to manipulate many
an unsuspecting victim into bending to her will.
Sanaz, who, pressured by family and society, vacillated between her desire for independence and
her need for approval, is holding on to Mitra's arm. We are all laughing. And Nima, Manna's READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN husband and my one true literary critic-if only he had had the perseverance to finish the brilliant
essays he started to write-is our invisible partner, the photographer.
There was one more: Nassrin. She is not in the photographs-she didn't make it to the end. Yet my
tale would be incomplete without those who could not or did not remain with us. Their absences
persist, like an acute pain that seems to have no physical source. This is Tehran for me: its
absences were more real than its presences.
When I see Nassrin in my mind's eye, she's slightly out of focus, blurred, somehow distant. I've
combed through the photographs my students took with me over the years and Nassrin is in many
of them, but always hidden behind something-a person, a tree. In one, I am standing with eight of
my students in the small garden facing our faculty building, the scene of so many farewell
photographs over the years. In the background stands a sheltering willow tree. We are laughing,
and in one corner, from behind the tallest student, Nassrin peers out, like an imp intruding
roguishly on a scene it was not invited to. In another I can barely make out her face in the small V
space behind two other girls' shoulders. In this one she looks absentminded; she is frowning, as if
unaware that she is being photographed.
How can I describe Nassrin? I once called her the Cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing at
unexpected turns in my academic life. The truth is I can't describe her: she was her own
definition. One can only say that Nassrin was Nassrin.
For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and
almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and
robes and burst into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more than their
scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own
inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz
Mountains became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of blackscarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.
The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical
literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One
Nights, along with Western classics-Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The
Dean's December and, yes, Lolita. As I write the title of each book, memories whirl in with the
wind to disturb the quiet of this fall day in another room in another country.
Here and now in that other world that cropped up so many times in our discussions, I sit and
reimagine myself and my students, my girls as I came to call them, reading Lolita in a
deceptively sunny room in Tehran. But to steal the words from Humbert, the poet/criminal of
Lolita, I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won't really exist if you don't. Against the
tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves:
in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life,
listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran.
And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.
If I write about Nabokov today, it is to celebrate our reading of Nabokov in Tehran, against all
odds. Of all his novels I choose the one I taught last, and the one that is connected to so many READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN memories. It is of Lolita that I want to write, but right now there is no way I can write about that
novel without also writing about Tehran. This, then, is the story of Lolita in Tehran, how Lolita
gave a different color to Tehran and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov's novel, turning it into
this Lolita, our Lolita.
And so it happened that one Thursday in early September we gathered in my living room for our
first meeting. Here they come, one more time. First I hear the bell, a pause, and the closing of the
street door. Then I hear footsteps coming up the winding staircase and past my mother's
apartment. As I move towards the front door, I register a piece of sky through the side window.
Each girl, as soon as she reaches the door, takes off her robe and scarf, sometimes shaking her
head from side to side. She pauses before entering the room. Only there is no room, just the
teasing void of memory.
More than any other place in our home, the living room was symbolic of my nomadic and
borrowed life. Vagrant pieces of furniture from different times and places were thrown together,
partly out of financial necessity, and partly because of my eclectic taste. Oddly, these
incongruous ingredients created a symmetry that the other, more deliberately furnished rooms in
the apartment lacked.
My mother would go crazy each time she saw the paintings leaning against the wall and the vases
of flowers on the floor and the curtainless windows, which I refused to dress until I was finally
reminded that this was an Islamic country and windows needed to be dressed. I don't know if you
really belong to me, she would lament. Didn't I raise you to be orderly and organized? Her tone
was serious, but she had repeated the same complaint for so many years that by now it was an
almost tender ritual. Azi-that was my nickname-Azi, she would say, you are a grown-up lady
now; act like one. Yet there was something in her tone that kept me young and fragile and
obstinate, and still, when in memory I hear her voice, I know I never lived up to her expectations.
I never did become the lady she tried to will me into being.
That room, which I never paid much attention to at that time, has gained a different status in my
mind's eye now that it has become the precious object of memory. It was a spacious room,
sparsely furnished and decorated. At one corner was the fireplace, a fanciful creation of my
husband, Bijan. There was a love seat against one wall, over which I had thrown a lace cover, my
mother's gift from long ago. A pale peach couch faced the window, accompanied by two
matching chairs and a big square glass-topped iron table.
My place was always in the chair with its back to the window, which opened onto a wide cul-desac called Azar. Opposite the window was the former American Hospital, once small and
exclusive, now a noisy, overcrowded medical facility for wounded and disabled veterans of the
war. On "weekends"-Thursdays and Fridays in Iran-the small street was crowded with hospital
visitors who came as if for a picnic, with sandwiches and children. The neighbor's front yard, his
pride and joy, was the main victim of their assaults, especially in summer, when they helped
themselves to his beloved roses. We could hear the sound of children shouting, crying and READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN laughing, and, mingled in, their mothers' voices, also shouting, calling out their children's names
and threatening them with punishments. Sometimes a child or two would ring our doorbell and
run away, repeating their perilous exercise at intervals.
From our second-story apartment-my mother occupied the first floor, and my brother's apartment,
on the third floor, was often empty, since he had left for England-we could see the upper
branches of a generous tree and, in the distance, over the buildings, the Elburz Mountains. The
street, the hospital and its visitors were censored out of sight. We felt their presence only through
the disembodied noises emanating from below.
I could not see my favorite mountains from where I sat, but opposite my chair, on the far wall of
the dining room, was an antique oval mirror, a gift from my father, and in its reflection, I could
see the mountains capped with snow, even in summer, and watch the trees change color. That
censored view intensified my impression that the noise came not from the street below but from
some far-off place, a place whose persistent hum was our only link to the world we refused, for
those few hours, to acknowledge.
That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was! Sitting
around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers, we moved in and out of the
novels we read. Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it.
We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could
be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.
Six A.M.: the first day of class. I was already up. Too excited to eat breakfast, I put the coffee on
and then took a long, leisurely shower. The water caressed my neck, my back, my legs, and I
stood there both rooted and light. For the first time in many years, I felt a sense of anticipation
that was not marred by tension: I would not need to go through the torturous rituals that had
marked my days when I taught at the university-rituals governing what I was forced to wear, how
I was expected to act, the gestures I had to remember to control. For this class, I would prepare
Life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of
sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms. It was unpredictable: the regime
would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown. Now, after a period of
relative calm and so-called liberalization, we had again entered a time of hardships. Universities
had once more become the targets of attack by the cultural purists who were busy imposing
stricter sets of laws, going so far as to segregate men and women in classes and punishing
The University of Allameh Tabatabai, where I had been teaching since 1987, had been singled
out as the most liberal university in Iran. It was rumored that someone in the Ministry of Higher
Education had asked, rhetorically, if the faculty at Allameh thought they lived in Switzerland.
Switzerland had somehow become a byword for Western laxity: any program or action that was
deemed un-Islamic was reproached with a mocking reminder that Iran was by no means READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN Switzerland.
The pressure was hardest on the students. I felt helpless as I listened to their endless tales of woe.
Female students were being penalized for running up the stairs when they were late for classes,
for laughing in the hallways, for talking to members of the opposite sex. One day Sanaz had
barged into class near the end of the session, crying. In between bursts of tears, she explained that
she was late because the female guards at the door, finding a blush in her bag, had tried to send
her home with a reprimand.
Why did I stop teaching so suddenly? I had asked myself this question many times. Was it the
declining quality of the university? The ever-increasing indifference among the remaining faculty
and students? The daily struggle against arbitrary rules and restrictions?
I smiled as I rubbed the coarse loofah over my skin, remembering the reaction of the university
officials to my letter of resignation. They had harassed and limited me in all manner of ways,
monitoring my visitors, controlling my actions, refusing a long-overdue tenure; and when I
resigned, they infuriated me by suddenly commiserating and by refusing to accept my
resignation. The students had threatened to boycott classes, and it was of some satisfaction to me
to find out later that despite threats of reprisals, they in fact did boycott my replacement.
Everyone thought I would break down and eventually return.
It took two more years before they finally accepted my resignation. I remember a friend told me,
You don't understand their mentality. They won't accept your resignation because they don't think
you have the right to quit. They are the ones who decide how long you should stay and when you
should be dispensed with. More than anything else, it was this arbitrariness that had become
What will you do? my friends had asked. Will you just stay home now? Well, I could write
another book, I would tell them. But in truth I had no definite plans. I was still dealing with the
aftershocks of a book on Nabokov I had just published, and only vague ideas, like vapors, formed
when I turned to consider the shape of my next book. I could, for a while at least, continue the
pleasant task of studying Persian classics, but one particular project, a notion I had been nurturing
for years, was uppermost in my mind. For a long time I had dreamt of creating a special class,
one that would give me the freedoms denied me in the classes I taught in the Islamic Republic. I
wanted to teach a handful of selected students wholly committed to the study of literature,
students who were not handpicked by the government, who had not chosen English literature
simply because they had not been accepted in other fields or because they thought an English
degree would be a good career move.
Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation, was subservient to politics and subject
to arbitrary rules. Always, the joy of teaching was marred by diversions and considerations forced
on us by the regime-how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was
not the quality of one's work but the color of one's lips, the subversive potential of a single strand
of hair? Could one really concentrate on one's job when what preoccupied the faculty was how to
excise the word wine from a Hemingway story, when they decided not to teach Brontë because
she appeared to condone adultery? READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN I was reminded of a painter friend who had started her career by depicting scenes from life,
mainly deserted rooms, abandoned houses and discarded photographs of women. Gradually, her
work became more abstract, and in her last exhibition, her paintings were splashes of rebellious
color, like the two in my living room, dark patches with little droplets of blue. I asked about her
progress from modern realism to abstraction. Reality has become so intolerable, she said, so
bleak, that all I can paint now are the colors of my dreams.
The colors of my dreams, I repeated to myself, stepping out of the shower and ont...
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