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The right to imagination

`Reading Lolita does not set out neat parallels between reality and fiction. It is autobiographical, teeming with characters we may or may not meet again... '

READING LOLITA is a teacher's account of a group of women in Iran who met secretly to discuss works of English literature during some of the harshest years of Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. Azar Nafisi was a teacher of literature at the time of the Iranian revolution. As the university in which she worked began to restrict the content of her courses and the way in which she taught them (and even how she dressed in class), she resigned from her position. Shortly afterwards, she and a handful of women students (and a tag-along boyfriend) formed a class in which they could freely talk about a set of texts.

The private conversations these young women have about Nabokov, Austen, James, Fitzgerald, and other writers are interwoven with equally fascinating "official" classes at the university before and after the revolution, in which proponents of Islamic law have their say.

Swirling around these often passionate academic discussions are Nafisi's stories of her own life and those of the students. They wander freely over the entire history of Iran since the revolution. The sweeping range of political thought and feeling, men's and women's, in that country is a revelation to those of us who have so far made glib oppositions between the imperialists loyal to the Shah and the fundamentalists who overthrew him.

Nafisi's protagonists are at first among the most enthusiastic supporters of the revolution. In one of her more chilling passages, she says, "When in the States we had shouted Death to this or that, those deaths seemed to be more symbolic, more abstract, as if we were encouraged by the impossibility of our slogans to insist upon them even more. But in Tehran in 1979, these slogans were turning into reality with macabre precision. I felt helpless: all the dreams and slogans were coming true, and there was no escaping them."

It should be strange that as they watch their revolution change, their friends and colleagues fall to a frightening new dictatorship, a group of women should choose to study Nabokov, James, and Fitzgerald. These are precisely the languid, decadent kind of authors a fundamentalist regime would hate as representatives of an immoral and egotistical Western ethos. For similar reasons, they would also seem to be particularly irrelevant to the lives of women and even men living under such a regime. Are they, then, to pick up Nabokov's words, a "rent in [their] world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty"?

Only partly so. Nafisi and her students repeatedly surprise us with the ways in which they apply these novels to their own existence. They read Austen with passion, talking of her insistence on the right to choose in a choice-less society, the concept of individual freedom even within marriage, the balance between the public and private, and even the "muted sensuality" of Darcy, which seems to turn on women around the world. There is also a stunning insight into the way Austen shows us "cruelty under ordinary circumstances, committed by people like us."

More seriously, from most of the literature they study, Nafisi and her students distil rage and rebellion.

As they talk of Humbert's brutal imposition of his own reality on Lolita, they consider how their regime has refused to understand what they wanted from the revolution. They are humiliated, held in custody overnight, jailed for years, publicly executed, or killed off quietly for a list of crimes that the cruel ingenuity of their government constantly adds to. For expressing contrary opinions, being Westernised, refusing to wear a veil, "inflaming a man's passions", walking with a man who is not a father, brother or husband, letting a headscarf slip, and very soon, for growing their nails long, laughing out loud, or running up the stairs. Some of them suffer years in jail, come out, and commit the very same act of defiance again.

Their suffering deepens during the Iran-Iraq war and the United States' economic sanctions, till they have truly lived through a "black and hideous" tragedy. But they never let go of their own sense of what is real. They respond with determined indifference to the shrill objectives of their leaders. And they continue to feel. As with James's heroines, their victory has nothing to do with happiness and everything to do with self-respect.

Nafisi leaves the Islamic Republic of Iran, but she knows she will not be able to put out of her head "all the things it had taught me — to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom."

Reading Lolita does not set out neat parallels between reality and fiction. It is autobiographical, teeming with characters we may or may not meet again, their lovers and ex-lovers, their children, their mothers. There are loose ends, flashbacks and flash-forwards, sudden deaths. In reading these abrupt connections and disjunctions we feel to some extent the instability and apprehension the characters live through.

In her closing chapters, however, Nafisi does draw together the connections between life and literature in an organic way. "I have a recurring fantasy," she writes, "that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination... To have a whole life, one must have the possibility of publicly shaping and expressing private worlds, dreams, thoughts and desires... How else do we know that we have existed, felt, desired, hated, feared?"

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi, Fourth Estate, London and New York, 2004, p.347.


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