Reading Lolita in Tehran Review

By | January 4, 2012

Reading Lolita in Tehran
By: Azar Nafisi

Paige’s Rating: (1) of 5
Recommended for: History- Non-Fiction Readers

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran and fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. 

I really love literature as well as culture, so when I saw this book just hanging out on the shelf of a friend, I slipped it into my bag only to later say, “By the way, I grabbed a book to read.” I was excited for this one, but it ended up being a big let-down.

Nafisi, who was a college literature professor, begins the book by attempting to give the reader an image of the young student women who came to her house to secretly study literature, and attempts to show the reader how these women held quite different in religious, political and even social views. However, I found that Nafisi’s imagery got lost in other tangents and so the students instead seemed indistinguishable to me.

But the reason I really wanted to read the book was because I wanted a glimpse into Iran during and after the revolution. Yet even these events are very disjointed as Nafisi jumped from the present regime to flashback into the past and even sometimes flashes forward into a different time in her flashbacks. In what could have been a wonderful opportunity to highlight the Iranian Revolution and the effects it had on university life, instead became a jumbled time line of protest events, problematic students, bombings and reading in her living room.

At least the author gives us a plot that is interesting to read about, even if we are a bit lost and uninterested, right? No, not so much. I found myself asking what the plot was exactly. While Nafisi does share some stories of her students, the book essentially has two plots: one in which she clearly boasts about her knowledge of Western Literature, and one in which she laments about the difficulties arising from living in Iran with such a modern mind. Both these underlying, and yet perhaps they are the main, plots fail the reader. Nafisi talks about the books studied in her classes and expects the reader to have a working academic knowledge of them as well. Some of her analysis of the literature seems to be too deep and complex for the purpose it is serving in the novel, which is… well I think it was supposed to be to show a connection between Western Literature and Iranian life. And so with the Western Literature being taught to the readers, some refuge for the reader might be taken in the comparison to Iranian life. But the author again doesn’t describe this well and when she does, Nafisi is continual writing of herself and the hardships she faces with teaching narrow-minded students and the problems of being an independent woman in a male-dominated society. Her tone is one that is so whiney and egocentric, that I really wanted to give up on reading the book.

This book. The characters are basically faceless Iranian women who have stories to share but none of those stories are as important as the incessant crying of the author’s inability to save her faceless students mentally and physically from an oppressive regime. Instead, the author focuses on drawing out our pity for her situation and yet our awe in her ability to know so much about a single piece of literature. All of this is written in time that jumps forward and backward. Reading Lolita in Tehran is probably about as painful as actually reading Lolita in Tehran. My advice is skip it, really.

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