Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
By: Azar Nafisi
Society defines you.
No matter how many times you have heard it. No matter whether you choose to believe it or not. Society defines you. There are laws that help keep peace; there are laws for protection; there are religious laws. There are different laws in different countries, different laws in different religions, and men and women have different laws in some places. The women in Tehran were jailed for flirting, or beaten for not wearing their veils. They were married without their consent, forced into relationships, and killed or tortured without reason. They were stripped of all their humanity and left feeling emotionless, helpless, and alone. "Living in the Islam Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe" (329). In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov beautifully illustrates horrific accounts of Lolita's suffering. As the reader, I am on the outside catching a small glimpse into Lolita's world, I was not living it-- unlike the women in Tehran. Reading and discussing literature became Manna, Mashid, Nassrin, Yassi, Azin, Sanaz, and Mitra's safety against the war, murder, torture, and crime around them. They were comforted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, other great poets and authors, and yes- comforted by even Vladimir Nabokov.
These women related to these great pieces of literature, questioned the author's motives, and dreamed of far off places of West Egg, and longed for a relationship--with feelings and emotions--like Darcy and Elizabeth. They saw themselves as Lolita: alone and afraid, Daisy: longing for love, and Elizabeth: exploring what it means to be in a relationship. "A novel is not an allegory... It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you wont be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience" (111). The experiences told through this book are not only those of Azar, Manna, Mashid, Nassrin, Yassi, Azin, Sanaz, and Mitra but also those experiences within Lolita, The Great Gatsby, The Ambassadors, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, poets, authors, scholars, and the others in Tehran.
Azar Nafisi helps Manna, Mashid, Nassrin, Yassi, Azin, Sanaz, and Mitra through this troubled time in Tehran, by not only teaching them great literary classics, but re-establishes in them the human desire to think and feel for themselves. "Art is no longer snobbish or cowardly. It teaches peasants to use tractors, gives lyrics to young soldiers, designs textiles for factory women's dresses, writes burlesque for factory theaters, does a hundred other useful tasks. Art is useful as bread" (107).