Friday, August 31, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Right after the book Reading Lolita in Tehran was published, I read it eagerly with pride and prejudice. Proud of the fact that an Iranian had achieved such a well-received book, not on Iranian literature but on Western literature, and prejudiced for the author being an Iranian woman of my generation, if not of my socio-economic and cultural class.

We discussed the book in our book club, which consisted of seven women who all are ardent fiction readers, although only one of them has a literary career. There is one judge, one lawyer, one English teacher, three university professors (two sociologists, and one math teacher). I do recall we enjoyed the book tremendously. What my friends enjoyed most was Nafisi’s passion for fiction, her love of teaching, her teaching style, her interpretations of fiction, and the way she would relate various western stories to present life in a very different part of the world, Iran.

None of these women in our group is Iranian and I have not seen any of them interested in Iranian politics beyond being off and on worried about Israel getting hit by some sort of Iranian bomb or missile. Unfortunately, the energy spent on Iranian politics was wasted on our group.

The book did not fare any better for me, who is very concerned about Iranian politics. When my friends asked my opinion about the various situations described in the book, I humored them that I do not expect accuracy of any kind in a work of fiction. Indeed, I read the book as fiction. I found it a charming, intelligent, though depressing, blend of fact and fiction; a mixture of composite characters who could have existed among some of the then over fifty million people of Iran; and a creative drawing of past over the present or vice versa. I found the book written cleverly and imaginatively. However, I found it extremely bitter, sad, and pessimistic. I was surprised that none of the characters committed suicide; and there was no indication of any of them using Prozac (which is commonly used in Iran) even though they all were suffering. Had they been in the West, I’m sure some good percentage of them would have been on various anti-depressants.

I would have also congratulated the author for beautifully blending all these small anecdotes and stories and weaving them so vividly into the network of the works of fictions of four novelist, two of whom, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I like very much. I was hopeful she would recreate her Lolita wherever she went. Alas, Tehran was her first and last destination.

After almost four years I’m still waiting. I thought it would be very interesting to read Lolita in Washington, DC. First one would have to find seven young students to come so devotedly to read Jane Austin and F. Scott Fitzgerald no matter how they would have to bend their schedules. Second, I would have loved to have seen who would have tried Nafisi’s friends, all Toms and Daisies in DC who make a mess and don’t even expect anyone to clean after them. As a matter of fact, when reading the book for the first time, there were a few places in which I played the game of changing the names and the locations to see what would happen. I changed Khomeini to George Bush and Iran to the United States and the Guardian Council to the Supreme Court and felt not the slightest difference except a certain degree of depression.

In my defense, I have to say I have learned to read memoirs of this nature as fiction. When memory is mixed and tinted with the narrator’s interests, motives, pains and pleasures, and life, it could hardly be considered as solely composed of ‘events’ to convey any non-personal message. When the narrator is a participant in the events that are narrated and is indeed the hero of the story, then obviously we are reading fiction. This is particularly so when the narrator is an imaginative and creative person. When the characters assume other names or professions, when two or three of them become amalgamated into one, when they are relocated from one episode to the other, and when the narrator has strong ideas about the course of events and a strong desire towards certain directions for the whole story, very likely we get a fiction, though it might reveals many valuable lessons or historical insights.

The Iranian community was divided over this book. The monarchists and some independent anti-Islamicists praised the book and acknowledged the author on various occasions, while others denounced it for equally political reasons. The fate of the young musicians who played the Gypsy Kings in Tehran (see below) was repeated here. Neither of these praises or denunciation did justice to the writer since neither one concerned the book for its values, but for its author’s the politics. Judging from the writer’s lack of response, I think it did not matter very much to her. The book sold by the million and who cares about the rest?

Among the book’s critics, two had a chance to stand up due to the positions they held, though they both failed. Hamid Dabashi’s article published in Al-Ahram was probably the first criticism of this book, viewing Nafisi as a tool to implement “the New Orientalism” which portrays the East and the Islamic world and the Moslems as villains and preparing the ground for the West to “defend” itself against these demons. Dabashi’s article was just a plain and pure polemic against Azar Nafisi. He simply stated his ideas about the villains in Johns Hopkins and Princeton, and Azar Nafisi as a “comprador intellectual” who played into their hands and worked for them in their interest. What was strange in this article was that there was not even a single reference to the book beside its cover. Dabashi thought that it was designed to be suggestive and bore stereotyped “Orientalist” images about under-aged sexuality in Moslem countries and among Moslem women, and that the blurbs on the back cover by Bernard Lewis, whom he called Humbert Lewis, enforces his claim. He wrote that “whatever is in the book is like the cover of the book!”

The other criticism appeared in Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Jasmines and Stars, More to Read than Lolita in Tehran. The author in this book echoes Dabashi without any reference to him, again criticizing Nafisi’s politics and the school of thought she adheres to. Keshavarz, while objecting to the intent of Nafisi to portray Iran as “Orientalists” do, goes further and objects to the writer for not introducing the better side of Iran reflected in the poetry of Saadi and Rumi; or why she did not teach Farrukhzad. One wonders if Keshavarz noticed that Nafisi was teaching in the English Department and not Persian literature. Unfortunately, she missed the unique opportunity to evaluate the book as it is, since she is a woman close to Nafisi’s generation and is academically on her level.

After reading the Keshavarz’s book, I doubted my own comprehension of the book and felt compelled to consider if I might have been among the group that our views was overshadowed by the sense of pride we felt as an Iranian woman. Reading the book as a harmless story, while I did not agree with the author’s view on many issues, I was far from considering it as the first step towards World War III.

Indeed, I thought I made a huge mistake in not taking it as seriously as Dabashi and Keshavarz suggested. Taking to heart Keshavarz’s remark that we need the light and a window to look and see things differently, I thought she might have a point that I had let my initial excitement and my sense of pride overshadow the danger hidden in this text. So I decided to reread it, not as fiction but as a memoir and a witness to life in a certain period. I had to read the book in a new light.

So I read the book for the second time, intending to check the quotations Keshavarz brought from the book and also read it as facts and not fiction.

What I found in the new RLT was astonishing. The book is indeed more fiction than the I remembered. The story took shape after Vladimir Nabakov’s “The Magician’s Room,” a gifted writer and critic whose love of life, literature and film is taken away from him, is driven underground. He selects his visitor friends and refuses to see many others who wished to be part of his hidden kingdom. This Magician is apparently a model for one of the character of the book, called “my magician,” who in turn is pushed underground by the Islamic Republic. Our narrator in RLT, who is one of the privileged few admitted into the “my magician’s” circle, later on is transformed into a magician herself with a little touch of Dorothy in Wizard of Oz and a little bit of Alice in Wonderland, mixed with the elitism of Shahrzad of the A Thousand and One Nights. She reinvents her own kingdom and selects her own circle of friends, though unlike the other two magicians she does not advise them, but leads them to find themselves and to invent or re-invent themselves through their imaginations, through reading and discussing the works of noted writers. Later on in the book, the reader and the narrator together learn that many were wishing to be part of her circle as well.

She has a room of her own with a window to the Alborz Mountain with a painting in it as well. This room is described the same way as the other two magicians’ rooms are described.

As the narrator’s life resembles the stories she reads, her girls’ lives run parallel to the respective novels they study. I was not surprised to find the seven girls each fits to themes and motifs of the novels. Defiance, inventing and re-inventing their own image through the use of imagination, dreaming for the future, independence, audacious use of the imagination, hating and resenting men, being abused and molested, being under the thumbs of some father, brother or uncle, being control by family and being bounded by social and traditional customs, and above all the perception of one’s life through the eyes of others (something unique to Iranian women!) vs. independent-minded European heroines all respectively are sampled in each anecdote narrated.

There is an undeniable miniature quality in the book which is more suitable to fiction than memoir. Almost all the characters in it have some definite function and are portrayed only in order to display it. We see only that aspect of the character that is needed for Nafisi’s story come to life. Azin arrives when her sarcasm is needed. Nassrin comes with her hatred and resentfulness, and Mahshid with her meekness arrives on cue. The Magician arrives when Nafisi is short of breath for more sarcasm and needs help to finish her sentence. It is interesting that even the family members all arrive just in time to throw a resentful fist to the well-choreographed show of the hideous life in Islamic Republic of Iran as depicted by Nafisi. These seven girls seem touched up by our imaginative narrator. Each one of them is abused either by father, brother, uncle, boss, teacher and all together by Humbert-Khomeini so conveniently, something possible only in fiction. In reality, one would have to place advertisements in quite a numbers of newspapers to gather such a group, but of course if one has a good imagination it wouldn’t be that difficult.

“My magician” not only remains unknown to the end but also non-existing to the end. He remains a fiction in his fictitious room throughout the book and then vanishes into another fictitious world. I say so since in the Tehran University of those times, no one with his features could have remained unrecognized. I can summon any Tehran University graduate of that period for testimony.

The work of imagination is extended to the events as well. Though many events described in the narrative are real, such as the bus trip to Armenia or the serial killings, there are events that, if they happened at all, did not occur as narrated. A Bahai friend who knows the Bahai community very well, including how it operates, denied the Bahai’s story as it was described. After reading the book, she asked Nafisi who this Bahai was. Oddly enough, she did not remember the name and had lost contact with him! Some of the events in the University, beyond the general strikes, could raise some questions if they are taken as facts. It is not difficult to check and verify the events in Iran, no matter how insignificant they might be.

The narrator seems the most unreal person to me. The lack of kindness, compassion and love; the coldness and detachment; snobbishness and arrogance manifested all through the book are way beyond the image I have of Iranian women, particularly if she is a mother. I am sure there is wisdom hidden in the creation of such a character, although I do not see it. All the events appear as a backdrop for the narrator to pour out her rage, anger and frustration. There is not a single narrative which is not combined with the narrator’s harsh opinion and judgments. The reader is bombarded with her opinions and beliefs on every issue. In short, our vast country is becoming populated by abusive men who tyrannically rule over their wives and daughters, women who are subordinate to their men even if they have American educations, brothers who have nothing else to do but watch dog their sisters, and those who make a joke when someone sets himself on fire. In this nasty world, our narrator's criteria are not only the norm but the rule.

I cannot imagine that the principal of love, compassion and generosity is valued in any field more than literature. In writing a memoir, as in history, one must look at the events and persons involved with kindness and give them the benefit of the doubt since they are not present at the pages of our writings to defend themselves even if they are alive, and if they are not alive so much more power to that principle. The author is in great violation of this principle in her book if it is a memoir at all.

Nafisi has no mercy on anybody, dead or alive, in the book. Mrs. Rezvan is not spared the author’s nastiness even though in essence she is more on Nafisi’s side and identifies with her. Her only problem is that she adopts a different approach to live and survive in the Islamic Republic. Nafisi does not hesitate to show her contempt for her even though while writing the book she knew she had died of cancer. Her contempt for whatever is not Nafisi overrides even her commitment to the moral lessons she values in the novels she is teaching. I think when reading The Great Gatsby she turned the very first page quickly or choose not to quote the magnificent opening line by Nick, the narrator, which says:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Nafisi either forgets or does not know that Mrs. Rezvan is not the daughter of the mayor of Tehran and one of the six women representatives in the parliament. She had not been sent to England or Switzerland for school. She did not study in the United State and probably never had the kind of luxury Ms. Nafisi has. Still, she loves the kind of literature that Nafisi does and sees the good of it as well as she does. However, being in a lower station that Nafisi, she not only does not despise her, but idealizes her, helps her, fixes the pin in her scarves and checks on her not to get into trouble with authorities. Nafisi admits all this very openly, but we see her as one of the outcasts from Nafisi’s closed circle, coolly called by her family name and the title of Mrs. There is not a single positive word about her in spite of their family friendship. All this rage, anger, and criticism remains without any explanation. On pages 293-295 Nafisi does not miss the last chances to make clear how much she dislikes and resent this woman. She describes her last few years of her life with the same contempt she holds the previous years in, up to the last conversation when she is finally in dead bed

She was optimistic about the latest treatment, although her cancer had spread far. She asked me about my work, I did not tell her that I was healthy and writing a book and on the whole, enjoying myself.

The lack of compassion manifests itself not only in Mrs. Rezvan’s case. Those “her girls” took their share of it as well. And, gee, I hope they learned something. On pages 258-259 the girls are talking about love and marriage, Azin says

Nowadays, girls marry either because their families forces them, or to get green card, or to secure financial stability, or for sex—they marry for all kinds of reasons, but rarely for love.” Mahshid says: “Not all of them. Many women are independent. Look at how many businesswomen we have, and there are women who have chosen to live alone.” “Yes you are one of them, I thought, a studious working girl still living with her parents at thirty two.”

Needless to say, Nafisi herself lived with her mother though she was married and had kids. We Iranian readers understand this; sometimes the necessities of life make us do things which may not be our exact choice. Besides, not all of us prefer living alone. Many Iranians prefer living with their family, particularly their parents, even though it means sacrificing a bit of their privacy.

What amazes me the most is the silence of Iranian women scholars abroad regarding the various claims in this book. The image of Iranian women according to Nafisi is far from flattering. One wonders then who are those thousands women who have formed the most united organized oppositional body of politics in Iran. Who are those thousands physicians, lawyers, engineers, university professors, environmentalists, teachers, actresses, and journalists, accountant, etc.? One wonders if those millions of women who stick to their jobs and did not give up, those who went to the universities and courageously resisted the Islamic rules calculated to marginalize them, those who did not abandon their position, were not brave enough. Then how one defines courage? I’m sure if Henry James, with all his war record, would have been present in our time, he would have written a different version of Daisy Miller. He would have defined courage differently to give Iranian women pride of place.

Nafisi’s Iran is the most perfect imperfect world that could be created: a world of total malfunction. The men are all cruel and abusive, the women all crippled, the government is brutal, the dead remains on the ground without proper burial, the music is played out of tune, the clerics lie and cheat, the universities breed stupidity, people are all mean and bigoted, and mothers are all meek lambs lead by their husbands and sons, and, above all, no one is aware of all these maladies which surround them. The only thorn in this perfect imperfection is her few compliments to the giants of Iranian literature which seem to be there simply to save her from total embarrassment. Otherwise how could someone so committed to the magic of fiction give that power up and turn into reality?

Oddly enough in the book as a memoir we do not see anything of the real author’s experiences. We do not know how a wonderful French-educated father whose command of the French classics won him the Legion d’Honneur award marries her daughter at a very young age to someone whom she “despises.” We do not know how he did not insist that she have a profession prior to her marriage, as was very common even prior to her generation. We do not know what effect a mother who is one of the first six women representatives in the parliament had on her growing up. Was it half as effective as reading Jane Austin? If not, why bother with all this fuss. Let us get some books and read them and be done with all this nonsense. And finally, did Ms. Nafisi find a chance to ask her mother what they were doing in the parliament? How did she campaign? What was it like to be a woman and campaign to a seat in the parliament? What was the men’s reaction to that? Whom did she represent? How many people voted for her? What was her constituency? How did it feel to convince people, if she did at all, to trust her to advocate their cause and what were the important causes she advocated? What was her voting record? Did she ever vote against any bill? In favor of any? Etc.

If Ms. Nafisi would have answered a few the questions of this sort in her memoir and would have connected them to the readings she had done, it would have made a good memoir. Otherwise the book would remain as a solicitated fiction.