Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I had a slow start with this book--there's a lot more literary criticism than I expected, and I got bogged down feeling like I should read all the books the author had her students read. Nabakov and Henry James, mostly. But then I just plowed through it. I had trouble keeping the characters straight, but that might have to do with the names, which are unfamiliar to me.

It is fascinating to read about these Iranian women and to try to get a picture of what things are like in Iran. The last paragraph, written by one of Nafisi's students who is still in Iran, made me cry:

Five years have passed since the time when the story began in a cloud-lit room where we read Madame Bovary and had chocolate from a wine-red dish on Thursday mornings. Hardly anything has changed in the nonstop sameness of our everyday life. But somewhere else I have changed. Each morning with the rising of the routine sun as I wake up and put on my veil before the mirror to go out and become a part of what is called reality, I also know of another "I" that has become naked on the pages of a book: in a fictional world, I have become fixed like a Rodin statue. And so I will remain as long as you keep me in your eyes, dear readers.

I don't know what it's like to live under an extreme religious government, or what it's like to never show my face in public, to never feel the sun or wind on my skin. I don't know what it's like to regularly walk past giant posters that say "Death to America!" But reading a book like this helps me begin to imagine it. As Nafisi says several times in the book, one reason we read fiction is to learn how to have empathy for others, especially others we would normally not understand. This book makes me want to keep these women in my eyes, to remember their world. I hope it'll change.

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