Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” (published 2003) is a controversial book, and that is reason enough to make one read it. However, it has a theme that is of utmost importance to every thinking person: How literature and art empower us and make us able to challenge the established world order. Other themes running through it of course, are intellectual freedom, censorship, oppression by the State, the status of women in general and more specifically in Muslim countries.
It is a very well written work, literary in its aspirations, as one would expect from the author (who was a professor of English literature at the University of Tehran), but at the same time a work that tries to record objectively a transition period in Iran’s history where after the ousting of the Shah, numerous contenders tried to fill the power vacuum, the Ayatollah Khomeini being finally the successful leader.
Within the space of a few months, Nafisi relates, Iran went from what was essentially a modern, westernised society to the non plus ultra Islamic Republic. Her loyalties were divided early on. Her western ways and previous life in the USA as a student were extremely attractive, but also her feelings of allegiance to her country and her desire to improve the lot of the common people, were important factors contributing to the conflict of her emotions. Nafisi concedes that Islam as a religion is the right of her countrymen, but has difficulty in reconciling herself with the fact that it should also drive the machinery of the state as absolutely and as brutally as it ended up doing.
The major theme running through the novel is that of free choice. The Islamic Republic wants to make people adhere to the law of the Koran by depriving them of any other choice except what the Koran prescribes. This is censorship to the ultimate degree. Nafisi argues that as free, rational, ethically and morally responsible adults, people should be educated so that they make the right choice, even if they are presented with many other wrong, but nevertheless even more attractive options. This is of course is nothing new, and Christian philosophy preaches the same point. The lot of women in an Islamic state is the other major theme and it is this, which she develops most fully as the lives of women are woven into the narrative at many levels.
One can learn a great deal by reading this book, but at the same time there are things that do not surprise one. The extreme cruelty of one human being to another is something that I have learnt gradually, but I am fully aware of at this stage of my life. The other thing is that fanaticism and extremes of politics, religion or ideology are capable of generating much hate and are responsible for the great majority of human suffering on this planet. The human spirit nevertheless soars above all this and as much repression one suffers, as many tortures and brutality are experienced, intellect can save one, one’s spirit cannot be broken if one’s resolved and true to oneself.