Literary Travels: Reading Lolita in Tehran

WP_20150624_001I always have a book in hand, but the one I just finished had me so engaged while I was reading it–and has continued to intrigue me after having finished it–that I thought it was worth some commentary.

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately but Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi is an autobiography–‘a memoir in books,’ as the author describes it.

The book has been in my home library for quite some time so it’s interesting that I chose to grab it, among the handful of others I pulled, to read in the midst our relocation and temporary housing.

I’d like to say there was some motive behind my selection, and maybe subconsciously there was, but I think I grabbed those that were handy and had been on my reading list for some time.

The story primarily takes place in the Islamic Republic of Iran and recounts the experiences of a female professor who created a secret group of students who met to read and discuss forbidden Western novels.

The book is about many things, but the themes that most resonated with me were the author’s feelings of displacement, even in the midst of her family, friends and home country; the identity struggles of the author and her students, primarily as women but also as academics/professionals; and, the power of literature, which allowed the author and her students to briefly escape their volatile reality but also challenged everything they knew about themselves, religion, morality and the culture shifts occurring as a result of their country’s continued political upheaval.

I’ve been feeling rather displaced myself lately. My husband and I uprooted and moved across country–a journey we had long discussed but hadn’t operationalized until this opportunity presented itself–and in week six of our transition, we are still searching for a permanent place to call home. While I am staying busy with freelance work and applying for jobs, I’m also adjusting to working from home rather than in an office full of people.

Technology allows us to stay in touch with friends and family from Ohio and enabled us to reconnect with friends in Washington, but I vividly recall–and have revisited with my husband–how different it was 10 years ago when I was similarly displaced and living in Northern Ireland without the ability to call or text home whenever I wanted to hear a familiar voice. You learn a lot about yourself when you are in a new environment, facing day-to-day challenges on your own and relying on self-motivation to propel you forward. You grow in unexpected ways.

You also learn or fall back on coping mechanisms that allow you to contemplate your situation and determine a right path forward. In these instances I tend to escape–primarily into a book or by traveling somewhere I’ve never been and experiencing something new. I would argue that my escapes are not designed to delay my inevitable need to deal with reality, rather, they create an environment where I can play out scenarios and make decisions without having to exclusively focus–and likely obsess over–the situation at hand.

A great deal of context to explain why the following are some of my favorite excerpts from this book:

“Now that I would have a great deal of time on my hands, I could read without any feelings of guilt.” (pp. 167)

“I had not realized how far the routines of one’s life create the illusion of stability. Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.” (pp. 167)

“If I turned toward books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat.” (pp. 170)

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” (pp. 336)

“As he carries in the two mugs of tea, I tell him, You know, I feel all my life has been a series of departures.” (pp. 338)

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The Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

Apart from my personal reflections, the book also inspired me to research the Islamic Republic of Iran to learn more about its history. I will not pretend to understand everything, but I find it fascinating that a country that was fairly progressive, especially in terms of women’s right, from the 1930s to 1970s reverted to historical and conservative practices after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

I am sure there are other examples of this, but I believe the majority of the revolutions I studied growing up involving people fighting for social progress rather than reinstating past conservativeness.

Lovebirds and the Hagia Sophia
The Beautiful Hagia Sophia, Turkey

The book spoke a great deal about the author’s experience having lived in both ‘versions’ of Iran–one where she was free to walk the streets with male companions unveiled, and one where she was forced to wear hijab and learn about her students’ incarcerations for their rebellious behaviors.

I have visited a few countries with a majority Muslim population–Egypt in 2008, Turkey in 2013 and Morocco in 2014.

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The Refreshing Jardin Majorelle, Morocco

I always try to learn about a country’s background and culture before I travel so I can be as respectful and intelligent in my behavior as possible, but I did spend more time doing so when I visited Turkey and Morocco, especially given the political turmoil in their neighboring countries.

I was with Brian in both counties and never felt threatened or uncomfortable as a female traveler, but I did make it a point to dress conservatively and cover my head so I could experience the incredible beauty of some of the mosques.

Recalling those experiences, what struck me while reading this book was my freedom, on many levels.

My freedom to travel to these countries, to wear what I wished to wear, to show affection toward my husband, to laugh as freely as I wanted.

Those freedoms were not available to the women in the book or to Iranian women today.

As I was looking up other things about all of this, I came across an article in the New York Times about My Stealthy Freedom, an online movement drawing attention to the compulsory hijab in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As the movement’s creator describes it:

The right for individual Iranian women to choose whether they want hijab.

As part of this movements, many Iranian women have taken pictures without hijab–a criminal and punishable offense. What I love is that women who chose to wear hijab and Iranian men also participate and support the movement.

Reading Lolita in Tehran brought all of this history and political/social movement to my attention and has inspired me to learn more and reflect on my freedoms.

I’ll leave you with this incredible video about the My Stealthy Freedom project so you too can learn more!

One thought on “Literary Travels: Reading Lolita in Tehran

  1. Thank you for this beautiful post.
    About the revolution: the revolution in Iran did not turn out as many people (including my family) had hoped. It was not that Iran’s compared to the region very liberal society did a U-turn on all the progress in women’s rights. The problem is that many groups were part of the revolution with very different ideas. The group that won was not the one supported by the majority but the one who was most aggressive. That the author is a women and professor in the Islamic world shows that Iran’s society accepts strong and successful women, however the government which comprises of those people who won the battle to power after the revolution has always tried to limit women’s rights. But even this government is not homogenous after 38 years. The laws that limit women are fortunately getting laxer, and however parts of the government try to turn back the wheel to stricter times they cannot.
    The Iranian society has not been as limiting as other societies in the region so that then (before the revolution) women were successful and self confident and even now they are successful and even much more self confident:
    http://theotheriran.com/tag/women/ (just browse through these posts I am sure you will enjoy them).
    So why are women even more self confident now than in the past? Well this is really a phenomenon, given the current backward thinking regime. I think because of two reasons, they have fought against this restricting government for every inch of their rights, and their literacy rate is much higher than in the good old times. For academic families like my family and most probably the family of the author everything is now worse than before, but a lot of women in poor and uneducated families have had the opportunity to go to school and study. In fact the majority of Iran’s students are now female students.The literacy rate for women has gone up from somewhere near 60% to 96% for people below 30. (the majority of Iran’s population).
    I don’t think that this was what the current regime has intended, but this has happened nevertheless over the last 38 years.

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