Saturday, May 15, 2004

Lolita through the Looking Glass

Picture of Azar Nafisi

I recently finished Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, a memoir in books that truly renewed my enthusiasm for literature. Before leaving Iran to teach literature in the U.S., Nafisi led an underground literature class made up of a hand-chosen group of some of the best women students from her years of teaching English literature in universities before restrictions on that teaching career led her to resign. The book's first section focuses on that group of extraordinarily bright and gifted students (I wish my English classes had been filled with such students), but the rest of the book explore other chapters of her life, such as what it was like teaching "decadent" Western literature during the Irianian revolution, or what life was like during the long, hard war between Iraq and Iran. I'm so impressed by the way she blends her life-story with her reading of great books (mainly, but not only, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen), some of which I've read, some I haven't. She could have dwelt on the mass deaths--the statistics--but what I love is that, instead, she focuses on the cultural experience of life in Iran, evoking it using physical details as well as the metaphysical challenges.

I was lucky enough to get to see the Nafisi read in person while I was in the middle of this book. I was utterly smitten. She has a beautiful accent (not unlike Isabella Rossellini) and delivered a powerful message about freedom, literature and humanity. The large auditorium was full to capacity, and she answered questions until there were no more (a rare feat ). Many of the questioners had incredible backgrounds--a fellow Iranian woman who had also left the country and brought up the topic of atrocities; a sweet young first-generation Iranian-American man who thanked her for helping him understand his parents and heritage; a man who had lived through the Chinese Cultural Rev. and drew parallels between their experiences, etc. Nafisi (the picture above barely does justice to her beauty) was electrifying and seemed to be teeming with ideas--she could have spoken all night. If you can't get to see her read in person, check out her online Dialogue Project.

Reading this book has truly deepened my appreciation of Iranian films, such as Crimson Gold, the latest by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who directed my favorite Iranian film, The Circle. Crimson Gold adds a completely different perspective on Iranian society from Panahi's other films, which featured women and children as protaganists. This film concerns a working class male war veteran who works as a pizza deliverer, yet all around the edges of the story you get glimpses of the problems that face women and other social groups. (Jonathan Rosenbaum helpfully contrasted the film with Taxi Driver--both deal with frustrated war vets who simmer with rage until finally exploding in an act of violence--though I don't think Crimson Gold is quite as powerful a film.) The sequence that interested me most has the main character arriving at an apartment building to make a delivery and finding himself in the midst of some kind of dragnet operation, where men of dubious authority (no uniforms) are arresting guests of a party as they trickle out in small numbers (their crime? unmarried people dancing!). This is where having read Nafisi's book comes in handy: she describes religious gangsters patrolling the streets in minibuses and the criminalization of such things as open socializing. She also helped me to understand the relationship between Iran and the West (esp. the U.S.) as portrated here: an intriguing character in the film is a rich son of Iranian-Americans who has returned to Iran because of a kind of identity crisis. Her book is also helping me understand the importance of the theme of reality versus unreality. In a totalitarian society, everything one does to obey or even rebel creates a nauseating sense of unreality, a crisis of reality. What is real? What would life be like without the oppression? These ar e constant questions that undermine one's sense of the real. (I think we all have an element of this experience living in civilized society, but it is more pronounced under these extreme conditions.)

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