June 18, 2007


Yes. Better. I will return late Wednesday/Thursday with your regularly scheduled Lamentations of My Exceedingly Sheltered Existence (Subtitle: I Am Spoiled, Hear Me Whine.)

So.... for June, we are discussing Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi! I found this book a little difficult to read. Some of the discussions of various novels were way too troublesome to sort through. I wanted to know more about the author herself and her experiences navigating such troubled waters during a time of political, religious and social upheaval. And those sections? Did not disappoint and made this a worthwhile read.

Oddly enough - despite the fact that I went to grade school in a teeny Kansas town (population 1,000 and I could ride my bike easily from one end of town to the other) and only had 40 students in my class, during the Iran Hostage Crisis I had a classmate of Iranian heritage (her father was Persian, her mother American). Despite everything going on with the hostages, despite the letters my 3rd grade class painstakingly wrote to the hostages, I knew that Iranians were not evil, cold people that the newspaper depicted. I knew this because Jennifer H. wasn't evil - she was a sweet girl and I still remember her goofy grin and laugh to this day. And I knew she loved her father. And she told fun stories about her visits to Iran (they ate their meals on the floor! How cool was that?). Over the years in college, I had the opportunity to meet many more Persians from many, many different stances and religions and I learned that the Persians have a colorful history and mix of personalities. For me, reading this book set during such a volatile time was simply fascinating.

Here are the "standard" reader's guide questions I came across for the book. Please feel free to add YOUR own as well. I don't think it is necessary that each and every question be answered, I would consider these to be "starters".
  1. On her first day teaching at the University of Tehran, Azar Nafisi began class with the questions, "What should fiction accomplish? Why should anyone read at all?" What are your own answers? How does fiction force us to question what we often take for granted?

  2. Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation upsilamba (18). What does the word upsilamba mean to you?

  3. In what ways had Ayatollah Khomeini "turned himself into a myth" for the people of Iran (246)? Also, discuss the recurrent theme of complicity in the book: that the Ayatollah, the stern philosopher-king, "did to us what we allowed him to do" (28).

  4. Compare attitudes toward the veil held by men, women and the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran. How was Nafisi’s grandmother’s choice to wear the chador marred by the political significance it had gained? (192) Also, describe Mahshid’s conflicted feelings as a Muslim who already observed the veil but who nevertheless objected to its political enforcement.

  5. In discussing the frame story of A Thousand and One Nights, Nafisi mentions three types of women who fell victim to the king’s "unreasonable rule" (19). How relevant are the actions and decisions of these fictional women to the lives of the women in Nafisi’s private class?

  6. Explain what Nafisi means when she calls herself and her beliefs increasingly "irrelevant" in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Compare her way of dealing with her irrelevance to her magician’s self-imposed exile. What do people who "lose their place in the world" do to survive, both physically and creatively?

  7. During the Gatsby trial Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to "distinguish fiction from reality" (128). How does Mr. Nyazi’s conflation of the fictional and the real relate to theme of the blind censor? Describe similar instances within a democracy like the United States when art was censored for its "dangerous" impact upon society.

  8. Nafisi writes: "It was not until I had reached home that I realized the true meaning of exile" (145). How do her conceptions of home conflict with those of her husband, Bijan, who is reluctant to leave Tehran? Also, compare Mahshid’s feeling that she "owes" something to Tehran and belongs there to Mitra and Nassrin’s desires for freedom and escape. Discuss how the changing and often discordant influences of memory, family, safety, freedom, opportunity and duty define our sense of home and belonging.

  9. Fanatics like Mr. Ghomi, Mr. Nyazi and Mr. Bahri consistently surprised Azar by displaying absolute hatred for Western literature — a reaction she describes as a "venom uncalled for in relation to works of fiction." (195) What are their motivations? Do you, like Nafisi, think that people like Mr. Ghomi attack because they are afraid of what they don’t understand? Why is ambiguity such a dangerous weapon to them?

  10. The confiscation of one’s life by another is the root of Humbert’s sin against Lolita. How did Khomeini become Iran’s solipsizer? Discuss how Sanaz, Nassrin, Azin and the rest of the girls are part of a "generation with no past." (76)

  11. Nafisi teaches that the novel is a sensual experience of another world which appeals to the reader’s capacity for compassion. Do you agree that "empathy is at the heart of the novel"?

  12. How has this book affected your understanding of the impact of the novel?


Leah said...

I didn't manage the book this month (no, seriously, I didn't even get it from the library, that's how behind I am), so I'm going to have to enjoy the comments instead of contributing!

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

I forgot to bring it back from my parents' house in May but I remember it pretty well.

Upfront, I bought the book for the Nabokov chapter. I had read Lolita when I was pretty young (13ish) and going through a phase where I protested my parents banning TV (yes, I didn't watch TV from the ages of 11-18 except 1/2 hour a week and the smattering of times I was at someone else's house) and while I'm glad I read all these classics as a child-I was reading for plot and building vocabulary but I wasn't getting a lot of exposure to the hidden meaning. When I picked up Reading Lolita a couple of years ago, I got sucked into the Chapter on Lolita and really began to see *why* it is considered such a masterpiece.

IMO this chapter was my favourite out of the whole book-contrasting the manner in which Humbert robs Lolita of her freedom and her choice by lying to himself that she really wants it and it's for her own good contrasts well to the actions of an authoritarian government. It isn't even about veiling or Islamic theocracies-it's the attitude of every authoritarian regime that takes away choice from human beings through the use of coercive power.

I don't remember enough details about the book to answer all of these questions but a few that struck me from memory-

a) Ambiguity is what makes literature and art so dangerous. I do feel that the best books out there don't leave us with all the answers. Hidden underneath plot, protagonists, metaphors and similes are statements that question commonly held views or make dangerous statements. For instance, Elizabeth subverting social class to marry Darcy as his intellectual equal strikes to the very mores of the day-not just crossing class boundaries (she is a gentleman's daughter as she insists, but the mother? :-)) but the idea that Darcy marries a woman for her mind. Gatsy the renegade, a foil to show the shallowness of the ruling class.

Artists can hide their disagreements with prevailing philosophies in the tools of their trade-music, paint, words. When you arrive at those statements, you have this sense of "wow, I wonder why he thinks that?"-allowing the mind to puzzle and reason is a dangerous thing to regimes that rely on extremely black and white notions. WAY more than if you just tell the other person the opposing viewpoint. When you absorb the mind in an endeavour, the ideas stick more than when they're shout at you...basically the concept of hidden ambiguities and their danger are what affected my understanding of the novel-and not just the novel, but all art.

b) I am not an Islamic scholar but my impression is that politicising the veil and making it required robs women of the statement they choose to make with it, which is that it is a covenant with god rather than a duty of citizenship. That said, I do think that the ritualistic aspects (as opposed to philosophical viewpoints) of all religions are statements on how society should be run rather than philosophical commentary on the state of man-so they are politicised statements in and of themselves and we ought not to be surprised when they end up making people miserable, be it the veil or the caste system or whatnot.

Jane said...

I'm cowed by all of the reader questions from the back of the book, so I'll just share my impressions.

Nafisi's descriptions of her life before and after the revolution reminded me strongly of "The Handmaid's Tale," even though she actually had a fairly privileged life compared to many. All I could think as I read was, "There's no reason that something like this couldn't happen anywhere...including the U.S."

Kerry said...

I really liked the integration of the western novels...for me they were a familiar touchstone, and it was interesting to see them from an Iranian vantage point.

I'm kind of curious about how the narrator herself fits into Iranian culture. There aren't many places in the book where she touches on any cultural differences she might feel herself with America or "the West," and since a big part of my motivation for reading this book was because I realized my own ignorance about Iran, I can't really judge whether this is typical or the book might be skewed by her unusually pro-Western prospective or what.

Cagey said...

If you see anything that you would like to comment on - still feel free to join in. We won't laugh and point, I promise.

Ironically, I have seen the TV adaptation of Lolita, but have NOT read the book. I see now how the movie did make the story tawdry and that was WAY more to that story than shown. I would be curious to read it now, but honestly, I don't care for Russian authors.

I am not a Islamic scholar, either, but I did practice and study Islam for over 4 years. I think you hit the nail on the head - wearing hijab for some women is a point of pride, when it is a CHOICE. To politicize it took away the meaning and specialness of it. I think the author did an excellent job illustrating that. It's interesting that you use the word "ritual" because I was going to mention how this book brought up fond memories for me of the ritual of putting on the hijab. I preferred to wear it tightly, not loosely and I had a specific technique in wrapping it that in a way, for me, was calming. All my experiences wearing hijab were positive ones, but they were by CHOICE. I think the author also did an excellent job of trying to explain how she felt different/irrelevant while wearing it. For me, it was mixed. I did wear it in Pakistan for anonymity - when crossing the borders from Punjab to NWFP I attracted less attention and help ensured we wouldn't be hassled by the border guards. Elsewhere, I primarily wore it to protect my dark hair from the heat - it was hot without the scarf, actually. When I wore the hijab in the US, it was for religious reasons that evoked a sense of quietness and humbleness for me. However, if I had been forced or pressured to wear it, I would have been furious.

Cagey said...

I agree - I didn't really care for the questions offered, but thought I should throw them out there for "thinking points". You're right - this could happen anywhere. I think Nafisi did an incredible job conveying how subtle and slow the changes actually were.

I did get bogged down by some of the novel analysis, but agree that it provided a touchpoint for those maybe not familiar with Persian culture. Furthermore, Nafisi did an excellent job choosing the novels - she covered a wide enough variety that it would be probable that most of her readers could relate to at least one of them.

You bring up an excellent point as to whether the author herself fits into Iranian culture or not. I can't answer that because the Persians I have known were much like her - educated and open to western ideas.

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

I have to agree with Cagey on that last statement-I've found Persian women to be extremely liberal and very well-educated, to boot. My mom seems to have always had a Persian female friend or two and they've all been like Nafisi...though significantly more bourgeois :). I don't know if the sample was skewed in any way or not.

I think in general the impression created in the US media of ethnic groups can be somewhat one-sided. What they're showing is not a lie, but it's not necessarily the whole picture either.

I appreciate books like this for challenging the images we're more accustomed to.

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

By the way, Cagey, I hate russian literature myself (have only ever successfully completed Lolita and Anna Karenina but failed at Brothers Karamazov, Master & Margherita...among many others) and I find Lolita to be quite different. The prose is spare and modern. But it is a very sad and disheartening book, and while I read it because in my 13 year old mind it was drrrty and I was getting away with something under my parents' noses-in fact it was a very well written read that isn't actually all that lurid.

Disturbing? Yes. Would I have understood many of the implications without Nafisi's analysis...I read it too young but I think these days I might have had an idea or two.

Cagey said...

re: media portrayals.... The media tends to put out a One Stop Shop image of muslims which does nothing to give credit to the particular CULTURE from which the muslim comes. An Arab muslim tends to be the dominant image/stereotype the media portrays. I'd be lying if I hadn't met many Arabs that fit that stereotype to a T - I have, unfortunately. However, many folks don't realize that Persians are not ethnically Arab and have a very, very different culture. Furthermore, they are Shia, not Sunni - although, this book didn't really lend much light on the differences.

Overall, I found muslim women to be just like western women - you get all sorts of classes and demographics. In the muslim crowd , you see shy gals, rowdy gals, outspoken gals, quiet gals. JUST LIKE US. I hate, HATE the stereotype of muslim women as "quiet, demure, and oppressed". There are women in all cultures who are oppressed. I've seen here in the USA, as I'm sure all of us have.

Speaking of stereotypes, it has to be appreciated that the author gave a nice insight of the stereotypes that Iranians had of western women. Considering that many muslims get their perceptions of us from entertainment sources, that should concern us. I remember one of my Pakistani friends telling me how disappointed she was when she first moved here and found out that living here wasn't like the TV show "Dallas"!

Kerry said...

I don't think I was expecting "quiet, demure, and oppressed" especially, but I am a little surprised that I didn't really get a sense of differentness at all, in terms of Nafisi (There was more with some of the other women she portrayed...but since it is her voice telling the story I feel like she is the most important). Maybe that's the point...that there is no difference. But if it is, that's in pretty direct contrast to similar books I've read from, for example, African authors, which tend to show a permutation of strong, intelligent women that I can connect to and identify with, but is also notably non-Western.

On a slightly less thought-intensive note, I thought one of the best images of the book was Sanaz's Persian style dancing, and the way the girls in the class knew she would be the one who knew how.

Cagey said...

My rant about "quiet, demure, oppressed" was really directed towards the mainstream media, not this book.

I was actually quite shocked with how brave the author was in the face of some pretty tense situations. I think I would have been more of a coward.

Rozanne said...

I didn't get around to reading the book, but I really want to after reading all the comments!

And, Cagey, you should really, really read Lolita (one of my fave books of all time--it's so well written it takes my breath away) esp. if the only way you've been exposed to it is through the TV version w. Jeremy Irons in it. I thought that version was just terrible and I was shocked at how off Irons seemed to be in his portrayal of Humbert Humbert. Weirdly, there's an audiobook version that Jeremy Irons reads in which he does a ***superb*** job of capturing the nuances of the book. I'd really recommend that you check that out. I'll bet your library has it.

Bethany said...

My problem is my own ignorance. I have read ONE of the books the women discussed. I know almost nothing about Iranian histroy.

I want to read the other books and learn more about Iran and then read this book again.

Diana said...

I read this book, I think, about a year ago and was struck by the incredible bravery of the women. I kept wondering what I'd have done, as someone who deeply values learning and loves reading above all passtimes. I'd probably have hidden my books well in my house but I am a coward at heart and I don't know if I'd have been brave enough to join the book group, but maybe I would have. If I really knew and trusted the others in the group.

The Persian women I've met have also been highly educated and quite outspoken, but, as previously stated, they are the ones over here. I've never traveled to the Middle East.

I, too, have only seen 'Lolita' as a film, the 1962 movie with James Mason. I think I'll try to get the audio verson that Rozanne suggested. (Thanks, Rozanne!)