In a house in Tehran in the 1990s eight women were talking about literature. Someone was thinking of Jane Austen and the famous opening of Pride and Prejudice, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Since the Iranian authorities had decreed that girls could be married off at the age of nine, one of the women in the group proposed a local variation: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife." Another woman carried the parody a stage further: "Or is it a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man must be in want not just of one but of many wives?"
These women were in the home of Azar Nafisi, a professor of literature. Having realized that the rules imposed on universities by the Islamic Republic made teaching impossible, she had officially retired. But she was keeping that part of her life alive by assembling seven excellent students to talk about books and their connections to life.
Every Thursday for two years, they took off their long robes and scarves and took back some of the humanity that the government and the mullahs wanted to deny them. They made the free discussion of novels their form of rebellion.
Nafisi, who left Iran in 1997 and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., has turned that experience into a uniquely rich and evocative work of literature, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House). She braids together an account of literary discussion with a personal history of Iran under the theocracy installed by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The book chronicles, among many other things, Nafisi's appalling collision with reality. In the early 1970s, studying in America, she was a student rebel. Unlike most of her contemporaries, however, she had the dreadful experience of seeing her politics produce results. As a leftist Iranian at the University of Oklahoma, she gave passionate speeches "against the tyrants back home and their American backers." She supported the revolution against the Shah, and after he abdicated, in 1979, she and her husband returned to Tehran.
They eventually discovered they had helped install a monstrous dictatorship. She found herself living in a place where men were afraid to look into the eyes of a woman, and women were flogged for wearing a veil improperly. Women learned that they were to show the world only the oval of their faces, framed by a scarf -- and, incidentally, no coloured shoelaces. They discovered they must not lick an ice cream cone in public.
"We all helped create this mess," Nafisi's husband said. As she watched oppression moving into every corner of society, she realized that they had replaced the Shah "with a far more reactionary and despotic regime." Iran moved from authoritarian government (which was terrible) to totalitarian government (which turned out to be much worse). In America the word "revolution," as she and her friends used it, implied freedom. In Iran it meant the opposite.
Within the safety of an American university the most vicious slogans she uttered seemed safe. She could shout (as she now puts it) "Death to this or that," knowing she was dealing in purely symbolic terms. "But in Tehran in 1979, these slogans were turning into reality ... all the dreams and slogans were coming true, and there was no escaping them."
Studying F. Scott Fitzgerald, she and her students found parallels with their national horror. Islamism was a dream "that became our obsession and took over our reality ..." They considered that same process central to The Great Gatsby. In his pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby "wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?" As they read Lolita, they saw that Humbert Humbert's crime was to confiscate the life of a 12-year-old girl. Nabokov, they decided, was depicting the way totalitarian government reshapes people who are unfortunate enough to live under it.
A totalitarian state makes subtlety more or less illegal. In the new Iran, admitting the existence of moral ambiguity was itself subversive. Teaching in university, she discovered that Islamist students wanted every book interpreted within a narrow, obvious morality. This meant that even an easy novel by Henry James, such as Washington Square, seemed to them either a puzzle or an affront. Why didn't these characters just do what was right? Why didn't the heroine obey her father?
Some of her university students found The Great Gatsby so decadent that Nafisi arranged to subject it to a mock trial in class, with students as prosecutor, defence and jury and Nafisi taking the role of the accused novel itself. Because the students used the book to express their response to the regime, this event becomes a marvellous set piece in Nafisi's story, a summary of all her themes.
Much in her book remains mysterious. She can't give the names or specific biographical details of her students, because some of them remain in Iran. We can't know the name of the man she calls "the magician," a brilliant Iranian friend who withdraws from all institutional life, somehow retains his individuality, and frequently offers Nafisi a shrewd and ironic commentary on the society around them.
There's something much more mysterious: Why isn't Reading Lolita in Tehran depressing? Nafisi doesn't shield us from the darkness she lived through. We sympathize with the anguish of her tyrannized students, grimace at the insane edicts of God-maddened clergymen, gasp at the ingenious ways that humans find to make each other miserable. Nafisi leaves her readers aghast at the thought that all this is done in the name of God. Yet her book lifts the spirits and warms the imagination. How can that be? Art has its ways, and her book demonstrates that in Azar Nafisi we meet not only a remarkable teacher but also an artist of great style and originality.