Reading Lolita in Tehran
This is one of those books that people tell you is really great, and you think “yeah, yeah, a book group in Tehran … sounds interesting.” I don’t know where we all got the idea that this book is about a book group of the sort we know here … a sort of hen night where a bunch of women get together and after a desultory discussion of the book at hand, retreat into drinks and gossip and general social activity.
This book is not about that kind of book group. This book is about women who are reading for their lives.
Azar Nafisi returned to Iran on the cusp of the revolution to teach at the University of Tehran. Like any junior professor, she was filled with excitement and anxiety, but bit by bit, she found herself hemmed in by a revolution that forced her to wear the veil, that arrested, imprisoned and murdered her students and colleagues, that closed the universities, that “made me irrelevant.”
I’d been reading along thinking of John Ashcroft and Bush, of the “Patriot” Act, and Homeland Security, of the sheer impotent rage I felt as I heard Bush say this evening on TV that the new bill to clearcut the forests so they won’t burn is “just common sense” when Nafisi recounted this anecdote: “Khomeni had asked a leading political cleric, Modaress, what he should do when an official in his town decided to call his two dogs Sheikh and Seyyed, a clear insult to clerics. Modaress’s advice, according to Khomeni, had been brief and to the point: “Kill him.” Khomeni concluded by quoting Modaress: “You hit first and let others complain. Don’t be the victim, and don’t complain.”
How does one fight these sorts of bullies? Clearly this is the motto of the current administration, and like Nafisi, I too have retreated into the sanctuary of reading, of gardening, of keeping my head down and hoping I can outlast this bunch.
Which is where reading and writing fiction comes in. Nafisi gives one of the most cogent arguments I’ve ever read for why fiction matters. Fiction matters, she says because “A novel is not an allegory … It is a sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel.” And empathy is exactly what ideologues seek to repress. In discussing Lolita with her students, Nafisi “mentioned that Humbert was a villan because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most, Lolita. Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people. He created the Lolita he desired, and would not budge from that image.”
I could not help but think as I read this book of the ways the right wing has bullied their way into the seat of power, by declaring that their dogmatic beliefs are simply “common sense,” and that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is not an “American.” I don’t know what tools we have to fight ideologues — I failed miserably at exactly this task in graduate school, and I fear that I don’t have what it takes to fight this fight on a political level either. I’m just an artist, and I have my family/social novel I’m working on … but what if I’m working on this while the call is going out to put us all in veils, while the arguments are being made that we shouldn’t mind, because after all, it’s just taking your shoes off to get on an airplane. Why are we all being so unreasonable? Isn’t this, after all, for the greater good?