Reading Lolita in Tehran
Azar Nafisi
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Buy *Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books* online

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi
Random House
384 pages
December 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife.”

“Or is it a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man must be in want not just of one but of many wives?”
So speak Yassi and Manna, two young women who attend secret lessons to read forbidden Western classics at the home of their teacher Azar Nafisi. The setting is Tehran in the Islamic Republic of Iran. A decade and a half have passed since the Islamic revolution in 1979. At the Nafisi home, far from the world of authoritarian strictures, seven young women gather every Thursday to pore over the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Henry James and Austen - works forbidden to be read or discussed in the universities of Iran. As they read through these books, they begin to connect to the many characters and gradually open up to the group about their thoughts, their lives and their aspirations.

Nafisi’s journey starts when she returns to Iran during the revolution of 1979 with a desire to actively participate in the building of a new state. Gradually, as the Islamic government takes over, she and many of her co-workers and colleagues are horrified to see the religious fanaticism enter the campuses. Spurred by the fundamentalists, there are severe clashes between leftist and secular student groups that eventually result in radical Islamization of Tehran University. As committees are set up to reorganize the curriculum in accordance with the wishes of the leaders of the Islamic republic, Nafisi is questioned by a student called Nyazin on teaching The Great Gatsby, a book that he considers immoral, in the class. Thus follows a trial with both sides arguing their case. But as the narrative shows, it is almost impossible to bridge the gap.

“You don’t read Gatsby,” I said “to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are.”

“But ma’am”, Mr Nyazin interrupted me. “There is nothing complicated about having an affair with another man’s wife. Why doesn’t Mr. Gatsby get his own wife?” he added sulkily.
Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran transports you into Iran, from the early days of the revolution, the violence between the leftists and fundamentalists in academia, her own struggles for intellectual freedom in the face of authoritarianism within the English departments of the Universities of Tehran and Allameh Tabatabai, and her home where Manna, Mashid, Yassi, Azin, Sanaz, Mitra and Nassrin meet to discover books and themselves. All these come wonderfully and vividly alive with Nafisi’s lucid style and penchant for detail. Reading Lolita becomes a fascinating account of reading literature under violent and adverse conditions.

© 2005 by Shampa Chatterjee for

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