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Tales about the nightmare of Iran: Literature as survival

Date: January-February 2004

IWP Research Professor Juliana Pilon reviewed Azar Nafisi book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House: New York, 2003), in the January-February issue of The American Enterprise. Her review follows:

In the greatest epic of Western antiquity, Homer describes the odyssey of a hero determined to find himself by exploring the world and testing the limits of fate. Narrowly escaping death, Odysseus returns to the unconditional love of the saintly Penelope, and emerges from his harrowing ordeal in awe of the Olympic gods.

By contrast, the first literary genius of the East, spinning her tales a millennium ago, was a clever woman who defied her king-husband’s vow to kill her (as he had her predecessors) in blind revenge for his first wife’s infidelity. And so, by weaving reality and fiction, the queen of Persian imagination succeeds not only in postponing her death but indeed transcending it, her immortality secured as she captures the essence of man in legend and fable, with irreverence and humor. The salvation of Sheherezade owed nothing to the gods; it owed everything to the tantalizing mosaic of human experience and compassion.  

How ironic that Persia’s current regime should consider its most ferocious enemy to be Sheherezade’s life-giving gift, the free imagination. Like all totalitarian regimes, it seeks to dictate both behavior and thought. Azar Nafisi perfectly describes the fate of her countrymen today: “Whoever we were, … whether we observed certain religious norms or not, we had become the figment of someone else’s dream.”

A professor of comparative literature, in 1995 Nafisi resigned from the University of Tehran after refusing to dress according to the demeaning regulations of the self-styled Islamic regime. She didn’t mean to be a hero; but neither would she allow her spirit to be killed by the mindless new kings. Her superb new best-seller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which describes the nightmare that has been gripping Iran for much longer than one thousand and one nights, is testimony to that determination. The book is an amazing record of the literary discussions that Nafisi and seven young women held in her home for two years until she left for the United States with her husband and children in 1997.

Although her country has yet to emerge from a darkness blacker than the moonless underworld, this book charts the way.   An actor herself in the drama of her country, a compassionate, unselfconscious writer of subtle style with universal appeal, Nafisi, in the tradition of her medieval predecessor, also tells the stories of many others, carefully camouflaged for protection but as a result even more scrupulously accurate. In her subtle voice, the cryptic sketches become almost mythical.

All her protagonists, not only the women but also the men, have one thing in common with Lolita: they now belong “to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story” – far worse, evidently, than mere death.   Nafisi’s description of the early days of the revolution, the eight-year terror of the Iran-Iraq war when the fanatical regime was railing against its neighboring enemy as “Satan” the “heathen foe” (nevermind that it happened to be no less Muslim), but above all the spectacle of the nation’s rulers murdering its own children.

No wonder she turns to Henry James who wrote despairingly, as he watched the German destruction of the Rheims cathedral in 1914 which heralded the tragedy of another civilization: “We must for dear life make our own counterrealities.”   Those counterrealities are, for Nafisi and her students, sublime works of fiction which, far from providing an escape from grim reality, reveal rather its complexity while simultaneously denouncing its perversion.

How else but through literature to cope with a regime where girls are killed for “tempting” men by being too beautiful, imprisoned for walking with a man other than a husband or brother, and are now legally marriageable –often, to middle-aged satyrs – at age nine?

Yet these monsters not only go scot-free, they hold their “temptresses” responsible: the tactic of Lolita’s rapist, the articulate and manipulative, perverse Humbert, who “exonerates himself by implicating his victim.”   Yet Lolita triumphs, in the end, after a fashion.

She escapes him, she marries again, she loves at last.And Humbert, while seeking to defend himself, unwittingly exposes his own sickening, murderous sickness.

As do the tyrants of Iran.What Nafisi and her pupils discover in the novels they lovingly explore is the sense of individual dignity, of creating one’s own destiny, and discovering one’s self through both empathy and self-respect.

“This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel.It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow.” That is, East and West; mankind. Conversely, it is the lack of empathy that defines – and ultimately dooms – the autocrat of any race or sex.   It is ironic that while Odysseus found his soul through survival, Sheherezade found survival through her soul.

Ultimately, no Ayatollah can succeed in destroying her children. Nafisi has brilliantly, breathtakingly, demonstrated why.