Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran

On the syllabus of a class on Shakespeare I took in university, my professor had written, about Hamlet, that his character “is often taken as the highest representation of the human experience, albeit one that is white, upperclass and male.” Her proviso, to someone such as myself, who has loved and studied the play for the better part of my adult life, was shocking, even deeply insulting, and one of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t have the courage to raise my hand and say so right then and there. Her words segregated Hamlet, made him a product of his gender and culture, and gave permission to the majority of my class – who were not white, or male, or upperclass – not to empathize with him. To someone who loves literature, such a stance is untenable: empathy is at the core of the imaginative experience, and all of literature, all of art, in fact, demands our empathy, without which it is impotent.

The impulse behind her words has become increasingly familiar to me over the years. It is one of political correctness. It is no longer politically correct to suggest that the experiences of a white upperclass male could possibly bear on, for example, an African American woman, as her life experiences are too different, her goals and desires unique, and to suggest otherwise is a form of imposition, an almost imperialist push to force the values of one culture on those of another. Don’t believe me, or find such idiocy troubling? Early anthropologists made similar mistakes, believing that tribal societies in New Guinea, South America and Africa had values and emotions that were completely foreign to us. Early research on these peoples emphasized their differences, and wild claims, such as that they have no sexual jealousy or violence, were commonplace. It was not long before the research improved, and new studies and better methodologies brought greater understanding. One such example is provided by the peoples of Samoa, whom the anthropologist Margaret Mead claimed, in her 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa, lived in an idyllic, egalitarian society, where violence was a foreign concept and the rigid separation of gender roles that marked the evolution of every other human society did not exist. Her “findings” proved highly influential to anthropological theory, even today, long after researchers such as Derek Freeman showed, quite conclusively, that she got the facts spectacularly wrong.  The truth is that, despite vast differences in geography, language and culture, we are all of us equipped with similar minds, and the emotions – including jealousy, love, fear, anger and guilt, as well as several dozen others – are ubiquitous to humankind.

I begin with such a discursive preamble because what I most enjoyed about Nafisi’s memoir is its affirmation of the powers of fiction. The book recounts her experiences as a professor of English literature in Tehran at the start of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, particularly centering on a class she teaches out of her home with a select group of female students. You would be hard pressed to find, anywhere on the planet, a people whose daily realities are so distinct from our own. Nafisi paints, in disturbing detail, the degradations suffered at the hands of this totalitarian theocracy, whose every policy is aimed at extinguishing imagination and human instinct, particularly sexual desire.

She grounds all of her thoughts in discussions of Western literature, notably Nabokov’s Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Henry James’ Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors, and in the process reveals herself to be a remarkably astute and appreciative reader. There were several moments where I lamented that so attentive and loving a reader could be found to teach a class in an Iranian university – with the very real threat of a prison sentence or worse hanging over her head – while my own classes were taught largely by idiots or ideologues… One of her more private revelations is a comparison between Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Nabokov’s Lolita, and the Ayatollah Khomeini: both, Nafisi argues, are narcissistic dreamers, obsessed with imposing their idealized and unrealistic expectations upon an innocent and destroying the object of their dreaming in the process. For Humbert Humbert, that object is the 12-year-old Dolores, the girl he abducts and tries, unsuccessfully, to fashion into the object of his desires; he can sleep with her and possess her sexually, but he cannot truly know her, cannot occupy her spirit in the way that he has occupied her body. For the Ayatollah, the object of his dreams is Iran and the Iranian people, whom he attempts to recreate in his idealized image of a proper Muslim society: devoid of sexual desire, free will and imagination. Like Humbert Humbert, the Ayatollah can possess the object of his desires, but never to the extent he wishes, and the outcome of such a rigid and uncompromising dream is inevitably destruction.

Perhaps the most engrossing aspect of the memoir is not her own reaction to literature but that of her students. Initially, she teaches exclusively out of a university classroom, to a group of 40 or so students who, like any Western university class, have a diverse appreciation for the material: some are there because they love literature, going so far as to take the class without credit; others resent their required attendance. In this setting, and with the omnipresent rhetoric of the regime denouncing “Western decadence” and “immoral thinking” at every turn, it is understandable that the majority of the students are cowed into silence, with the vocal minority standing in stark contrast to one another: half of them using their every breath to “expose” the ethical corruption of the texts and the other half doing their best to defend them. Here is Nafisi describing these ideas in an off-hand manner (Mr. Nahvi is one of the vocal “revolutionaries” denouncing every book):

It was only later, on a trip to the States, that I found out where Mr. Nahvi was getting his ideas from when I bought a copy of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. It was ironic that a Muslim fundamentalist (Mr. Nahvi) should quote Said against (Jane) Austen. It was just as ironic that the most reactionary elements in Iran had come to identify with and co-opt the work and theories of those considered revolutionary in the West.

Ironic, perhaps, but unsurprising. For those unfamiliar with him, Edward Said, like the misguided anthropologists and sociologists I began by referencing, built his reputation on stressing the inherent incompatibilities and differences between Eastern and Western cultures. The irony of both reactionary East and “revolutionary” West taking to his work should be alarming to lovers of literature, who have a vested interest in maintaining that one of art’s highest goals is in breaking down these barriers and finding common ground, not in throwing both hands in the air in defeat.

There is destined to be a future battle between these two schools of thought; they cannot peacefully coexist. And when that war of ideas is finally prosecuted, Nafisi’s memoir will seem prophetic and forward-thinking when, in reality, she is only affirming what once was common knowledge: good art – and good writing – appeals to something so basic and timelessly human that its relevance, far from being tied to a specific culture, nation or language, might as well be coded for in our DNA.