Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

2015-09-02 00.32.39I don’t want to do any work, so I’ll write about the book I started reading two days ago. It’s Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi – a memoir. It tells of a group of young women reading and discussing canonical works of (mostly Western) fiction in Iran, led by Azar Nafisi, a literature professor. Barred from teaching at the university on ideological grounds, Nafisi contacts seven of her former students to form a reading group. They meet at her place, she gives them assignments, and they discuss books over tea.

The first thing I sort of got worried about when I started reading the book was group dynamics. I put myself in the shoes of the professor and in the shoes of the students. I don’t know yet if all of the students formally graduated from the university but I read that some of them are married, but irrespective of whether they still continue their studies or not, they are no longer her students because she’s been expelled. So, I was curious about whether there was a hierarchy, or whether they acted as peers; and if there was hierarchy, how they managed to keep the activity still casual and pleasant. I’m all for taking students seriously – former and present – but admitting students into my domestic space and then letting them behave as if I was a figure of authority would bother me I guess. I mean, if I did let them come to my place every week, I would need to make sure that we’re meeting strictly as “friends,” but there would still be the age difference and the history between us. If we’re friends, why would we always meet in my place, at a time I chose? Would they be comfortable enough to discontinue if they didn’t enjoy my company any more?  In the case of the Lolita reading group in Tehran, I understand that they kept the professor-student power structure. The author refers to the women as “my girls,” which is outright infantilizing.

Of course, Nafisi wouldn’t normally resort to this unless she wasn’t stripped off her rights to teach in an institutional setting. Which brings me to the question of why she’s doing this – she clearly enjoys playing the “professor” role (I admit that it’s highly gratifying) and she wanted more of that when she could no longer do so at the university. Obviously it’s not an equal relationship; although the former students and the former professor are doing mutual favours to each other, it’s mostly the students who acknowledge it on their part. Nafisi tells us that many of them arrived with bouquets of flowers for the first session. I always have this funny feeling when grown-up academics prefer to hang out with people who have much less research (and other) experience than themselves over their peers. It just feels wrong.

When I look at the cover, the juxtaposition of the names Tehran and Lolita strikes me as juicy. Right under the title, the picture of two colourless young women – both because they’re wearing black robes and because a sepia filter has been applied – hunched to read also forms something of a contrast. I read that the book has caused a stir in the world of Iran Studies, with Hamid Dabashi calling Nafisi a “comprador intellectual” (ouch!). Even before starting to read the book, I could sort of see where this kind of narrative could lead, considering the title and the cover. 18 pages in, the author’s recurring mentions of the robes and the headscarves got tiresome. Why did she have to describe everyone’s headscarf or black robe in such detail? Because it’s an all-female reading group, the women remove their headscarves at the doorstep. Nafisi is evidently appalled that all women had to cover up – that’s why she was kicked out of the university – I would too, and as she rightly points out at page 13, if everyone is made to appear religious, that renders the religiosity of the truly religious meaningless. But I could sense just a tinge of that rush that some Westernized non-Western intellectuals are in to identify themselves with Western cultural identities. This was what put me off Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence.

The book still has its merits, of course. It’s narrated beautifully, and it is infused with a love of fiction, which I share. Looks like it will be an interesting read, so let’s see how it goes.

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