Summary and book reviews of Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita In Tehran

by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita In Tehran
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2003, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2003, 384 pages

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Book Summary

Nafisi’s luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran.

We all have dreams—things we fantasize about doing and generally never get around to. This is the story of Azar Nafisi’s dream and of the nightmare that made it come true.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading—Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller and Lolita—their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran.

Nafisi’s account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi’s class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work that preached falsehoods of "the Great Satan," she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and stood as the sole witness for the defense.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice.

Chapter 1

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women--to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction. One persistent male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he, Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about the books we were reading.

I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me. Nassrin once responded mischievously, You yourself told us that in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ. Manna pointed out...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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 ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

USA Today - Stephen J. Lyons

..an inspiring account of an insatiable desire for intellectual freedom in Iran before, during and after the 1979 revolution that ... began a period of fervent anti-Americanism in the country.

The New York Times - Michiku Kakutani.

... an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

The story of the nymphet Lolita and her guardian/rapist Humbert Humbert strikes different chords in different places, thus reminding us of the limitless power of literature ...

Booklist - Kristine Huntley

Nafisi's determination and devotion to literature shine through, and her book is an absorbing look at primarily Western classics through the eyes of women and men living in a very different culture.

Publishers Weekly

This book transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb as all three. Nafisi has produced an original work on the relationship between life and literature.

Kirkus Reviews

And, without once sinking into sentimentality or making overly large claims for the relative might of the pen over the sword, Nafisi celebrates the power of literature to nourish free thought in climes inhospitable to it.

Author Blurb Geraldine Brooks, author of Nine Parts of Desire
It is at once a celebration of the power of the novel and a cry of outrage at the reality in which these women are trapped. The ayatollahs don’t know it, but Nafisi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic.

Author Blurb Susan Sontag
Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom.

Author Blurb Bernard Lewis, author of What Went Wrong?
A memoir about teaching Western literature in revolutionary Iran, with profound and fascinating insights into both. A masterpiece.

Author Blurb Jacki Lyden, National Public Radio, author of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba
... mesmerizingly, she reveals the shimmering worlds she created in those classrooms, inside a revolution that was an apogee of kitsch and cruelty. You will be taken inside a culture, and on a journey, that you will never forget.

Reader Reviews

ern

I was extremely surprised when I read of even ONE person who was disappointed with this book (although if someone didn't understand the basis of this novel, I can see how they would be confused). The author's poignant prose actually reads like ...   Read More

Donna Fricke

For the past 2 years, friends kept asking if I'd read Reading Lolita in TehranText, and I kept answering that it was in my stack. Well, I've finally gotten to it and what a treasure it is. Not only does it give what seems to me (I've never been to ...   Read More

Mahsa

A great connecting book to my soul and my experiences. It pictures the values of Iranian people desires apart from what the regime make them to do.
A picture of the young people craving to discover more and more about lide even in the repression ...   Read More

gallahawk

This was a powerful book evoking strong feelings; I was actually angry with the Iranian religious regime as I read it. The author did a great job of comparing the lives of herself and her students in their own political situation with the ...   Read More

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