The Tehran where Azar Nafisi grew up during the 1960s was a dynamic and freewheeling place, thanks to Iran's oil wealth and the secular and pro-Western, although authoritarian, rule of the last shah. I knew the city only as an outsider, when I lived there as a journalist in the early 1970s.
When I next saw Tehran, in 1992, it was a grim time in a grim city, more than a decade after the Islamic Revolution had replaced the shah with a regime that was the most reactionary theocracy on earth. (Unfortunately, there have been several more recent contenders for the title.)
Having destroyed all serious opposition, the revolution had focused its repression on the most vulnerable part of society: women. The legal age of marriage had been lowered from 18 to 9; stoning to death had become the appropriate punishment for adultery and prostitution. Draconian legislation required that women enshroud themselves in chadors, and they were forbidden from wearing bright colors, or showing the smallest patch of skin. Patrols roved the streets looking for offenders and, when they found them, carted the women off to jail.
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi captures the struggle of Iranian women for mental and moral survival in this ghastly wasteland. For the small circle of selected female students with whom, from 1995 to 1997, she met each Thursday in her home, where she lived with her architect husband and two children, literature—the works of Nabokov and Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen—formed a kind of secret garden into which they escaped beyond the mullahs' control. In fiction, the students were free to meditate upon their individuality and their womanhood.
"That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression," writes Nafisi, who was trained in the United States and returned to Iran to teach in the revolution's early days. "What a wonderland it was! Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers, we moved in and out of the novels we read."
Nafisi had been fired from her teaching position at the University of Tehran for refusing to wear a veil. She later built a career as a writer and part-time lecturer at a small local college. The students who met at her home varied widely in their personalities and backgrounds. Two had been imprisoned; most had known fellow students, family or friends who had been tortured, murdered or gang-raped by Islamist thugs. All of them were afraid. "Almost every one of us had had at least one nightmare in some form or another in which we either had forgotten to wear our veil or had not worn it, and always in these dreams the dreamer was running, running away," Nafisi writes.
Her approach was to formulate certain questions for her students, focusing on how great works of the imagination could help ease their anguish. Nafisi constructs her story around the group's exploration of such books, including Lolita, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice. As she conducts this inspired exegesis, Nafisi (who returned to the United States in 1997 and now teaches at JohnsHopkinsUniversity's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.) reveals the students' life histories, as well as her own, ultimately chronicling the drama of repression and survival in Iran over the past 25 years.
But this is not a book only about Iran and the power of fanaticism to ruin the lives of decent people. Ultimately, Nafisi's theme is the redemptive power of the human imagination.