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  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books
  • John R. Rachal
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books by Azar Nafisi. New York: Random House, 2003.

To read Azar Nafisi's elegantly crafted Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books is to enter two worlds simultaneously: life in the university against the backdrop of the geopolitical world of Tehran from the end of the Shah's regime [End Page 743] to Nafisi's departure from Iran in 1997, and the world of the literary imagination in the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. After completing her formal education at the University of Oklahoma, Nafisi returned to Tehran as a professor of English at the University of Tehran. Her memoir marks the hellish descent from the U.S.-supported autocracy of the Pahlavi regime to the murderous barbarity of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution. It further marks one university professor's progress from radical opponent of the Shah to stunned but resistant witness to the bloody and smothering theocratic autocracy of the ayatollahs. Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao all might have smiled at Khomeini's revolution, familiar with the rush of power borne of ideological fervor and the rolling heads of the ancien regime. What they would not have recognized was Khomeini's new twist: the genderization of the revolution, its special madness reserved for women. Thus the veil, which to Nafisi's grandmother "was a symbol of her sacred relationship to God . . . , had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols" (p. 103). Enforcing the veil and its accompanying dress code are armed Toyota patrols, known as the Blood of God, who roam Tehran's streets in search of women whose attire might not pass the Ayatollah's muster.

Nafisi almost incidentally covers the Iran-Iraq war's hideous absurdity and profligate expenditure of others' lives by Khomeini and Saddam Hussein, but her main narrative implacably chronicles the ultra-fundamentalism of the revolution as it closes in on the relative freedom of thought that pre-existed it in both the university and the culture at large. As the Islamic revolution glories in its executions of those it perceives as enemies and "brandish[es] their photographs after they have been tortured and executed" (p. 119), university officials and professors accommodate themselves to varying degrees to the edicts of those "drunk on the righteousness of their own fictions" (p. 132). The reader is introduced to a surreal depiction of university life, from the vaguely comic, with one female professor bolting past the corpulent university guard who tries to run her down for violating the new law requiring her to wear the veil; to the fanatical, including the fundamentalist student who bizarrely and fatally immolates himself in Nafisi's building in the name of the Ayatollah; to the Revolutionary Court trial, instigated by students, of one department head who had courageously defended a prison guard. The running professor is ultimately fired, and Nafisi herself is later expelled from her professorship over her own refusal to veil herself. Or there is the male student who is sexually aroused by a patch of bare skin left uncovered by female students' veils. Students from the radical but modestly named Muslim Students Association, the (ironically) slightly less radical Islamic Jihad, and, at least before the revolution had taken complete hold, the Marxist Fedayin and the Communist Tudeh organizations stake their territories and pressure professors and administrators. One group of drama students demand that Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Racine be replaced by Gorky, Brecht, and even non-playwrights Marx and Engels, resulting in at least one professor's principled resignation. When what Susan Sontag has called "radical Islam's war against women" (n.p.) was supported by a Marxist student organization denouncing women's rights demonstrations against the revolution as "individualistic and bourgeois" and "playing into the hands of [western] imperialists and their lackeys" (pp. 112-113), Nafisi wonders if the [End Page 744] lackeys they had in mind were the prostitutes and even her former principal who had recently been murdered, some stoned to death. Capped off with stairwells postered with...


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