Reading Lolita in Tehran : A Memoir in Books

by Azar Nafisi

Paperback, 2003




New York : Random House, c2003.


This is the story of Azar Nafisi's dream and of the nightmare that made it come true. For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. They were unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Nafisi's account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl or protests and demonstrations. Azar Nafisi's tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran.… (more)

Media reviews

The charismatic passion in the book is not simply for literature itself but for the kind of inspirational teaching of it which helps students to teach themselves by applying their own intelligence and emotions to what they are reading.
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New York Times
[A]n eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction--on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.
A spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mephit
This book is an account of living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime under sharia law, told partly through discussions of literature.

To read this book was, for me, slightly disorientating: for I felt like I was reading dystopian fiction, having a window into these women's lives under the regime. Yet it is autobiographical.

I guess what hits hardest about the novel was that prior to Khomeini's accession, women were on a similarly liberated footing in Iran as in the West:

"At the start of the 20th Century, the age of marriage in Iran - 9, according to sharia laws - was changed to 13 and then later to 18. My mother had chosen whom she wanted to marry and she had been one of the first six women elected to Parliament in 1963. When I was growing up, in the 1960s, there was little difference between my rights and the rights of women in Western democracies. But it was not the fashion then to think that our culture was not compatible with modern democracy, that there were Western and Islamic versions of democracy and human rights. We all wanted opportunities and freedom. That is why we supported revolutionary change - we were demanding more rights, not fewer.

I married on the eve of revolution, a man I loved. [...] By the time my daughter was born five years later, the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother's time: the first law to be repealed, months before the ratification of a new constitution, was the family-protection law, which guaranteed women's rights at home and at work. [...] My youthful years had witnessed the rise of two women to the rank of cabinet minister. After the revolution, these same two women were sentenced to death for the sins of warring with God and spreading prostitution. One of them [...] had been abroad at the time of the revolution and remained in exile. [...] The other, the minister of education and my former high school principal, was put in a sack and stoned or shot to death." (Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi, p.261-262)

With its atmosphere of surveillance, propaganda and morality squads, it felt like I was reading something along the lines of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, because it seems so alien. As you can probably tell, I didn't know much about Iran, (and indeed, still know passing little), but have been inspired to find out more.

I liked the way that books are reference points, memoirs, to the book. Nafisi taught literature and her enthusiasm for the texts translates well, (to the point I have a new list of books I wish to read or re-read) while also throwing the repressiveness of the regime into sharp relief.
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LibraryThing member coyle220
The lives of professor Azar Nafisi and the women in Tehran were no doubt difficult but it's hard to see how these Western books changed them. I found the details of their veiled lives to be more interesting than the secret book discussions. The most telling descriptions were of when the students took their veils off and revealed more of their personalities.… (more)
LibraryThing member jseger9000
Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of the most beautifully written books I have read. Full of lines such as Life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms.

Another one I liked is: A novel is not an allegory... It is a sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter the world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is the heart of a novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.

She uses this logic with her own writing, drawing you in to revolutionary Iran. Deftly comparing and contrasting nightmarish, totalitarian scenes of the Islamic Republic’s ‘morality guards’ that feel like something straight out of 1984 with scenes and analysis from novels as diverse as Lolita and The Great Gatsby.

A very enjoyable and one of a kind book.
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LibraryThing member seabear
I'm surprised by the generally tepid reception which this seems to have attracted on LT - I really liked it, even though I hadn't read anything by Nabokov or Henry James. Now I will, and I will pay closer attention to events in Iran. Thoughtful and affirming in places, this has its share of harrowing events. It was a window into a different world for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member Voracious_Reader
Azar Nafisi's memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of a changing Iranian culture, one fraught with both external and internal turmoil, during the Iranian Revolution. She describes her own experiences there through the lens of literature, particularly Nabakov's Lolita, Henry James' Daisy Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Some portions of her analysis and the connections she makes between the pieces and the rapid changes she observes within her beloved Iranian culture are very sound. I connect with her reading of Lolita and Daisy Miller. She doesn't ask and answer as many questions as I would like with the Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice; though, I like those portions as well. There isn't anything she said about any of the pieces where I thought "She's absolutely nuts." In some instances, I wish she would have pushed further with her readings.

She strikes me as a very insightful, loving, brave woman who is very saddened by the politicizing of religion, the lack of women's rights in Iran, and continual upheavals and revolutions there. She wishes that others could gain insights about human experience through close readings of literature, bemoaning the lack of empathy and shortsightedness of "revolutionaries" in Iran. There's a recommended reading list in the back of her book. If you haven't read at least the four I've listed above, it will be very difficult to make heads or tails of her memoir.… (more)
LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
A female professor in Tehran forms a reading group for female students. The group reads banned books. The premise sounds more interesting than the book is, and the author comes across as too self-important.
LibraryThing member TheEllieMo
A great premise wasted; the tone of the writing comes across as self-important. What I expected to be a book about a group of women taking risks to pursue something they loved, is actually a book about the author's career interspersed with her own abbreviated essays of various works of fiction. I would have liked to learn more about the women taking part in Nafisi's private literature class; instead we get mostly superficial commentary on them, which meant that I couldn't engage with any of the participants; a lack of engagement that meant I also wasn't that fussed about what happened to them, whereas the book, the premise, should have made me care.… (more)
LibraryThing member anna_battista
A magnificent defence of intellectual freedom, a life story full of fundamental questions, most of all a passionate declaration of love for literature... Hopeful, open-minded, uplifting and courageous. My book of the year!
LibraryThing member Lisa2013
I enjoyed reading the parts of this memoir that described what life was like in Iran for educated women and others during the Iranian Revolution than I did the parts of the book where the women met for their book club meetings. I appreciated the courage of the author/teacher and her students, but I had a hard time feeling engaged in their lives. I thought that I would love this book more, but I did like it. It was interesting to think about how I would handle myself if I were required to live under such a regime.… (more)
LibraryThing member monarchi
Reading Lolita in Tehran is an odd mix of memoir and literary criticism, tucked into one of chick-lit’s favorite clichés, the book-club book.
The insights into life in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran – a broader, friendlier look at the country than what we usually get through the news – were sometimes eye-opening. At the same time, the discussion of each of the books Nafisi's narrator reads with her students made me wish I’d had her as a professor.
Still, this is light reading – something to be packed along to the beach or read in snippets on your morning commute. For radical political insights, or deep and involved character development, you’d have to look elsewhere.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
I was unable to finish this book before book club but no one did. I went back to read it later. It is a good description of culture/politics in Iran during the revolution and the Ayatolla.
"Forcing religion makes the decision to be faithful meaningless." This book is a memoir in books. The author was a professor in Tehran during the civil war and the Islamic morality squads.… (more)
LibraryThing member andreablythe
While living in Tehran under the suffocating rules and regulations of the government, Azar Nafisi selected seven of her female students to participate in a secret class in which they would read banned books. A dangerous act under the regime. Through literature, the women find a way to express their own sorrows and frustrations facing the country in which they live.

I loved the way Nafisi wove together personal memoir with literary criticism. Her passion for books comes through one every page and her love for "her girls," whom she learns from as much as she teaches, is also crystal clear. She manages to show how books of imagination became a salve for them, a way out of the mundane terrors of their everyday lives. Moving and lyrical and sorrowful and wise, this is a lovely, lovely book.
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LibraryThing member TadAD
The primary reaction engendered by this book was one of disgust, admingled with a fair dollop of anger, over the pitiful showing the men in this book gave. These feelings were not directed at the author who, it must be presumed, is reporting accurately. They were directed at the men, themselves. Upon reading of men who go into apparently uncontrollable paroxysms of lust at the sight of a woman eating an ice cream cone...and think this is normal...I can only think they've been raised to have absolutely no self-control. Upon learning of a man who concludes that his ability to discern a faint white patch of throat through the veil of a woman covered head to toe in shapeless black robes is a symptom of her wanton harlotry, I can only think he's been raised with absolutely zero sense of personal responsibility. I like women as much as the next guy but, come on, it's not that hard to distinguish where deliberate provocation stops and some serious problems with lechery begin. I was kind of embarrassed to be a man reading this book.

That rant aside, it's not a bad book. I found the last three sections ("Gatsby" on national dreams, "James" on the totalitarian regime that swept into power, and "Austen" on the role of women) more readable and interesting. Perhaps because I have never read Lolita, nor anything by Nabokov, I didn't grasp the "Lolita" section that well. The recounting of the formation of the study group was clear enough, but the constant allusions and comparisons to events in Lolita left me with a feeling that I was missing something and, therefore, a big disengaged.

The book has a fault or two. I couldn't help but feel that the author's agenda left no room for balance. I don't mean to imply that I think that things weren't exactly as she portrayed. It was more of a doubt based upon her tone—I couldn't help but wonder that, if there were to be another side to the story, would it have appeared? Being neither Muslim nor Iranian, I cannot begin to hazard an opinion.

I would have liked to have learned more about the reactions of her students to the works they read and to know how they thought the class did or did not shape their subsequent lives. I had a history professor who used to say, "The thing not to forget after you tell what happened is to tell 'So what?'" I didn't feel we got much of that beyond Ms. Nafisi, herself.

Using four or five books of Western literature as a foil for society may or may not be a good idea...I think it only worked moderately well in this particular instance. I question whether non-Western thinking, particularly such thinking that absolutely rejects the West, can really be explained in terms of Western literature. Nonetheless, it's fairly easy to overlook some of those portions and focus on events and thoughts.

A good book, worth the read, likely to be highly charged emotionally if you are in any way connected to the environment in which it is set.
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LibraryThing member bunwat
This is for the audio version. This is a powerful book and Lisette Lecat mostly reads it well and clearly, but she never met an r she didn't want to roll, or a t she didn't want to hit like a nail, and sometimes the extremely careful and thorough pronunciation of. ev. ery. sin. gle. syll. a. ble. is a bit distracting.
LibraryThing member aplomb1
Atrocious and dumb almost beyond belief. Nafisi is a terrible, pompous writer with no conception of the complexity of the real world, and she attempts to bring this idiotic mindset to the reader. The fact that this was a bestseller bodes badly for America.

For about a quarter of Reading Lolita in Tehran I honestly believed that the bad writing must have been some sort of obscure postmodern statement, the meaning of which I had not yet grasped. I continued to wade through it in search of an explanation, trying to believe it was self-aware. But soon it became apparent that she really was writing in this ridiculous, all-over-the-map manner in earnest, attempting spectacular feat after spectacular feat of time- and tense-shifting (that failed just as spectacularly), and leaving out quotation marks in dialogue whenever the fancy struck her. All of this renders the book a rambling, incoherent muck of pretension. She also attempts to pump every chapter full of ornate descriptions of everything and anything regardless of its value to the story. A prudent editor could have cut "Reading Lolita in Tehran" down to half of its endless 343 pages without losing anything essential.

But really nothing in this abortion of a book is "essential." She frequently refers to a cherished metaphor comparing Iran's relationship toward its women with Humbert's relationship toward the title character in "Lolita." She writes that Iran suppresses its women's individuality for its own ends in the same way that Humbert forces Lolita into being his fantasy, never letting her escape his all-controlling narrative to become her own person. This injustice is one of the main themes of the book. And yet whenever one of the "bad guys" of RLIT comes into the picture, it becomes apparent who is casting whom in only one light. The soulless Iranian pig-men are never allowed to "say" things, they may only say them "sulkily," or "drone on triumphantly." Nafisi never even attempts to give anyone who disagrees with her vision of utopia more than one dimension; she condemns them as blindly as the censor she's so pissy about, portraying the men as red-faced babies screaming at the angelic, perfect, wonderful, articulate, elegant, soft-spoken and yet still tenacious and ever so brave girls of her class. Beyond the mangled prose, RLIT is as easy to read as Danielle Steel: the reader doesn't have to make a single judgment on anything, since Nafisi has already done that troublesome thinking for us.

Nabokov gave even Humbert a reason for his evil, if a tenuous one: his lost childhood love Annabelle. What is radical Islam's Annabelle? Don't look for real answers here. Nafisi offers only appetizing answers, ones that go down smoothly to give readers a sense of solidarity against a faceless enemy. She rightly deplores the injustices of the Iranian empire, but I don't like to think of what would go on in the kind of country run according to the oversimplified, ignorant, hypocritical thinking she demonstrates here. Compared to that, Iran looks like Disneyland.

I hope she learns how to write and how to think before she attempts another book.
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LibraryThing member Bookish59
I’ve read many of the novels discussed in Reading Lolita in Tehran before, during and after studying for my B.A. in English from (2 colleges within) The City University of New York (CUNY). I’ve never fully grasped or appreciated reading analysis until reading this exceptional memoir. (Education wasted on the young? or was I just not ready/receptive? Probably, but perhaps I didn’t have teachers/professors as bright, committed, and passionate about literature as Ms. Nafisi.)

Would Nafisi have been as brilliantly engrossed in reading, teaching literature and writing had she not lived in Iran? I don’t know. Certainly the living backdrop of Iran’s changing history, politics, revolutionaries, misguided leaders, angry youth, misogyny, ongoing violence and cruelty, and intense hatred (or more likely envy) of all things Western contribute to the energy and soul of Nafisi’s teaching at a few Iranian universities, and her writing.

And when living in Iran became a living hell, particularly for women, Nafisi’s private lit class for women in her home became a life-line of normalcy for her students and herself. Works by Nabokov, James, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Flaubert, and other Western writers provide a feast of freedom to discuss anything and everything. Literature becomes both their escape, and a way of dealing with their troubles. They learn (from the many characters analyzed) their options and choices in living wisely in very difficult circumstances. By describing what she, Nafisi, learns about her students connects us, the readers to them: we are in the room with them; sharing their confidences, fears, heartaches, triumphs and celebrations.

While painful to read about the limitations, realities and anxiety of life in Iran, bombings from Iraq, imprisonment and murder of dissidents (including some of Nafisi’s students), the humiliation of women forced into wearing chadors and veils, receiving body searches at public checkpoints, teachers and students putting up with university sycophants out of fear of arrest, Nafisi makes sure we understand the beauty of Iran and richness of Iranian life. She and many of her students have strong family bonds, love and support, which extend to friends, neighbors and colleagues making life bearable.

Outstanding read!
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LibraryThing member bookfest
Azar Nafisi is an Iranian literary scholar who studied in the United States but returned to Tehran to teach. As the Islamic Revolution cracks down on personal freedoms, Nafisi struggles with the right to teach literature on its own basis rather than in Islamic terms. Eventually, she withdraws from the University and teaches a small group of women in her home. Through her personal struggles and theirs, and through the lens of great literature, she reveals the impact of the political and religious battles on the lives of individuals, particularly women, and on the culture as a whole.

It was interesting to read this immediately after reading Persepolis, a child's perspective on the same oppressive theocracy.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
I have such mixed feelings about this work. On one hand, there were moments when I was swept up in the narrative and feeling every breath of Nafisi's prose, and there were passages that worked to bring life and reading together in a way that made me see why the books were so necessary to the narrative. On the other hand, there were moments where I felt like I'd stepped into an undergraduate literature survey and was being lectured at, and there were also moments where I felt bored and/or frustrated with what felt like a lack of organization, and a very fragmented narrative.

I suppose my largest frustration comes from the way that the discussions of literature were integrated so fully in some ways, and then ignored so completely in the ways that (I felt) mattered. There'd be whole passages from Nabokov, Fitzgerald and the other authors represented, along with explanations, explications, and discussions of the literature, as one would find in any good classroom covering the books. But, why were these discussions necessary in such complete detail here? Essentially, that's what I was left wondering. Perhaps some of the bits and pieces would be more necessary for a reader who is unfamiliar with the works--I'm really not sure, since I have read them--but my interest was in knowing how and why these books in particular mattered so much to the women at the center of the story. What was clear was why reading mattered, but why these books in particular? And how did they impact the women who were fully enmeshed in Tehran and its customs, as opposed to the academic author? This, I'm not at all sure of, though I'd expected it to be a large part of the work.

At too many points, I felt like I was reading the equivalent of a journal put into prose, and that the only moves beyond that journal were attempts to explain the author's feelings about Austen, Nabokov, etc. But, for that, I could have read books about these authors and their books, as opposed to this memoir that I believed would allow for connection to another world and society, and to show the reach of these books. Yet, in the end, I'm afraid I was sorely disappointed.

What can I say? Would I recommend this book? Probably not. Would I read another work by Nafisi? Again, probably not.
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LibraryThing member Marse
Azar Nafisi is an English Literature professor in Tehran. No longer able to work because she refuses to wear the head scarf, she invites a select group of her female students to meet at her home once a week to study great works of English literature. The works are wonderfully familiar: The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice, and others. Through these readings, and the group of young women who read them, Azar weaves a fascinating tale about the lives of women in Iran after the revolution, but also the history of that revolution, and her own history as well. The reader feels that he/she is also part of the group, rereading these books with Nafisi, an excellent and insightful teacher, whose understanding of these novels is profound and inspired.… (more)
LibraryThing member bherner
I really wanted to like this book, but I didn't.
LibraryThing member lukespapa
Terrific and inspiring story of one woman's love for, and struggles with, her home country of Iran. Throw in some insightful literary criticism, unique teaching methods, and an eyewitness account of the revolution and you end up with a five star companion to Persepolis.
LibraryThing member earthfriendly
I liked the subject matter of the book, but not the style it was written in or the way it was organized. From what I'd heard about the book before I read it, I expected it to be mostly about the meetings of this secret book club and the lives of the students involved in it, but the story focuses much more on the author--the teacher-- and jumps around so much it's really hard to follow the events that happen to individual students.… (more)
LibraryThing member CarlaR
I really enjoyed this book. When I first picked it up I thought it was going to be a girly book about these women in Tehran reading books, and I had no hopes beyond that. What I ended up reading was not only about these girls and their backgrounds, hopes, and dreams in a place where you are not supposed to have dreams, but also how the books they read shaped their lives and how their life experiences determined how they interperated the books they read. Dr. Nafisi excels at bringing us into Iran under the strict regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini as well as showing us the different viewpoints of all of the characters, from the people who want to leave and be free to Islamic fundamentalists and those who fall somewhere in the middle. I would suggest this book to anyone.… (more)
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
: It gave me great pleasure to read this ‘memoir in books’. I read it very slowly checking out references and reading, or re-reading, major books Nafisi referred to. Her thoughts offer great insights into literature and politics, human nature, as well as an accurate description of what it is like to live under an oppressive regime.
I may even give Lolita another try. I have actually bought the annotated version of the book, and will try to read it without getting emotionally involved in it.
What is very apparent in Nafisi’s book is abusive treatment and subjection of women in Iran. Even though by the end of her book she writes that Iran has changed recently, and the laws oppressing women have somewhat relaxed, there has recently been a case of the 54-year-old Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who returned to Iran in 2003 on an assignment, and was thrown in jail, tortured and repeatedly raped by her jailors until she died of a fractured skull. She committed a ‘crime’ of wanting to take pictures of demonstrators who had gathered in front of a prison to protest the detention of thousands of political prisoners, and paid with her life for her boldness.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
This was an incredible story, more so because it is true. It is an excellent book which I think everyone should read. I couldn't help thinking of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale -- very frightening. To think that just years before the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, women in Iran were politically active in the Iranian Parliament, and then were being hounded by morality squads who would patrol the streets to make sure they didn't have offensive fingernail polish. Sad.

brief summary
Reading Lolita in Tehran took place in the 80s and 90s in Iran. The story opens with a meeting of Azar Nafisi's secret book discussion group, meeting at her house to discuss different works of literature. But beyond their discussions, these women are allowed to express themselves come the veils & the long robes and out come the blue jeans, the painted fingernails, the jewelry, and they can say whatever they want. The most important thing is they can freely use their intellectual gifts & talents as well as their imagination. In Iran (the Islamic Republic) the revolution took the country back to its past, in which women were less valuable than men and wholly subservient to the will of men.

The author describes her life & her acquaintance with this circle of women (and others) by discussing certain works of literature that she taught either at university (where she met these women) or at her home during their secret classes. For example, in the first chapter, entitled Lolita, Nafisi shows the parallel between Humbert taking control of poor Lolita and the mullahs in charge of "reforming" the country into the Islamic Republic. Whereas Nabokov's Humbert created the fantasy girl Lolita from the young girl Delores, not allowing her to develop into her own personality and become what she would normally become, In Iran, the fundamentalist elders recreated society into what they perceived as the original society of the prophets but from their own imaginations. In the chapter entitled Gatsby, Nafisi notes "What we had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven." In her Chapter Three, entitled James, she helps her students to discover different types of courage faced by female characters, and in Chapter Four, entitled Austen, we learn about how Austen's main female characters were all heroines, especially in Pride and Prejudice, where the main character makes choices that took her away from the norms of society.

Nafisi shows that her little circle of women had the courage to control their own lives, at least at an intellectual level, in the face of a fundamentalist society that clearly was a male-oriented order, down to the fact that the marriage age returned to nine years old and men could take "temporary wives" for as little as 10 minutes to satisfy their sexual appetites. Their source of escape is through these works of literature (and others) in which they can live in dreams & imagination to escape their reality if only for a short while. Furthermore, they can hope for change.

A wonderful story...I highly highly recommend it.
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