Autumn 1995.Tehran, Iran.
Iranian writer Azar Nafisi left her job as the teacher of western literature in the University of Tehran when she was imposed to wear the veil in her classes. After that and before leaving to U.S.A., she gathered seven of her most committed female students to create a reading club and read and talk about western novels. Seven women who had the chance to read the novels that their government had forbidden. Seven women with seven different lives, who could find themselves in the shoes of characters like Lolita, Gatsby, Catherine Sloper or Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Seven women who lived with a religion that deprived them of their identity hiding their heads in public places or in presence of men. Seven women who decided to meet their professor Azar Nafisi to talk about those novels that portray a society, somewhere else, with the same fears and taboos than their own.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is the result of those meetings together with some interesting dialogues her students created in class when she was still teaching in the university. It is a marvellous reading of some of the greatest novels written in English, all of them lovingly treated, giving a fair space to each one of their characters. It lets you understand how “great” Gatsby is and why, it describes the way Humbert Humbert looks at Lolita while the seven girls in the group describe the way they feel observed.
Imagination in these works is equated with empathy; we can’t experience all that others have gone through, but we can understand even the most monstruous individuals in works of fiction. A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way a novel is called democratic -not that it advocated democracy but that by nature it is so. Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels -the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains. Not seeing them means denying their existence.*
All those novels were forbidden because of the fear to the progressive ideas they could implant, coming from such an “inmoral society”, but the truth is that all those novels show the same fears and taboos deeply rooted in every traditionalist society, either wester or eastern.
(while talking about “The Grat Gatsby”) She said sometimes she wondered why people bothered to claim to be literature majors. Dit it mean anything? she wondered. As for the book, she had nothing more to say in its defense. The novel was its own defense. Perhaps we had a few things to learn from it, from Mr. Fitzgerald. She had not learned from reading it that adultery was good os that we should all become shysters. Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they go whaling after reading Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that? And are revolutionaries devoid of personal feelings and emotions? Do they never fall in love, or enjoy beauty? This is an amazing book, she said quietly. It teaches you to value dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. Anyway, she enjoyed reading it, and that counts too, can’t you see?*
Nafisi gives us the opportunity to stay in that reading club or in her lessons when she was teaching in the University of Tehran. She teaches us how to read a book, how to introduce yourself to the book and let it talk. Because no matter your ideology or religion is, fiction will always show our nature as human beings.
Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.*
*Reading Lolita in Tehran. 2004 Random House.