Memoir offers glimpse into Iranian culture

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In America, a book group that meets regularly to study classic works of fiction would be viewed as a mild, unassuming affair. In some other countries, this same group would be considered a dangerous threat to society.

Gifted writer, Azar Nafisi recounts her struggle to survive under Iran’s radical Islamic regime in her 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. Much of the work concentrates on the years from 1980 to 1988 when Iran and Iraq were engaged in an “unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless” war according to Nafisi. She also explained that this was a time of cultural revolution as well. Iran attempted to purge itself of all Western influence and brutally punished those who did not comply.

As an English literature teacher, Nafisi’s educational and political ideals often clashed with those of the government. She was eventually expelled from her post at the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the state-sanctioned veil. Women faced many restrictions during this period and were forced to wear concealing clothes that would ensure their modesty.

Nafisi took her defiance a step further by inviting seven of her most dedicated female students to study banned Western classics every week at her home. For more than two years, the group formed a creative, expressive microcosm in a world ruled by blind censorship and oppression. Reading novels by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen inspired them to continue their literary studies and pursue other artistic avenues. Above all, the class was an opportunity to escape the pressures of a fundamentalist society and delve into the more appealing realm of fiction.

To many Americans, life in Iran may seem closer to fiction than reality. In a society where people “mysteriously” disappear after participating in protests, and Islamic morality squads stage unwarranted raids, one is eerily reminded of George Orwell’s nightmarish vision in his novel, 1984. Nafisi, herself, remarked, “Life has acquired the texture of fiction written by a bad writer who cannot impose order and logic on his characters as they run amok.” After much deliberation and disillusionment, Nafisi moved to America in 1997. Currently, she is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, D.C.

Although her memoir evokes feelings of sorrow and angst, an underlying message of hope pervades Nafisi’s story. Her students found strength and inspiration in literature, allowing them to silently defy their rigid society. She also described that in recent years, the government’s vise grip on society is being steadily lessened, and Iranians are demanding more freedoms.

Nafisi is such a beautiful writer that one is immediately captivated by her vivid, passionate prose. A New York Times bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a fascinating story of courage and defiance that will appeal to readers from a variety of cultures.

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