Friday, January 9, 2009

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

This is a book that I have wanted to read for a very long time, and it finally seemed the right time just after the holidays. This book is part memoir, part book discussion, and part intimate look inside the lives of Iranian women during the 1980's and 90's.

Nafisi, an Iran native who studied in the U.S. before returning home, is a professor at the University of Tehran, teaching Western Literature to her students. Through her unique perspective as an intellectual and academic, we see the changes that occur in Iranian life, where human rights are slowly being eroded, the western culture, particularly the Unites States is viewed as the epitamy of all things evil, and free thought is attempted to be regulated by the increasingly fundamentalist government. Nafisi's classes are popular, despite the fact a few students only enroll in them to challenge the literature being studied. Eventually, when she refuses to comply with the new rule that all women must wear veils in public, she is expelled from the university.

When she finds herself with extra time on her hands, she decides to hold a class out of her house, for a select few of her favorite and most promising students. As they meet weekly in her living room, the women begin to shed their veils, along with the constraints of life and open up to one another. As they study different works of great literature, each is able to apply what they read to their lives, and learn to share some of the hardships they have encountered as a result of the greater restrictions on their personal freedoms. As time goes on, Nafisi convinces her husband to leave Iran with their children and emigrate to the U.S., leaving the members of the group, all able and highly educated, to make their own mark on the world.

While I obviously wasn't expecting this book to a light and fluffy romp, it was heavier than I expected, and took me longer to read than I anticipated. I think part of the reason for my perception is that I, sadly, have not read most of the books that were being discussed (I know, I am a poor excuse for a librarian!) and the one I do remember reading (The Great Gatsby) I read well over 20 years ago. I would definitely recommend reading at least some of the works (Lolita, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice) featured prior to reading this book, I believe it would greatly enhance the parallels being made. I really enjoyed this book because Nafisi successfully portrays how the arts enrich our lives, no matter who we are and where we live, and gives me a peek into a culture I do not know very much about. One point that was reinforced by reading this book is that despite all of our differences, at the heart of things, we are all human beings yearning for beauty and freedom in our lives.

If you enjoy Reading Lolita in Tehran, here are some additional titles that might appeal to you as well:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. This unique autobiography, told in the form of a graphic novel, covers Satrapi's life from the age of 10, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran began, until the age of 14, when her parents sent her to Europe for her own safety.

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez. When Rodriguez volunteers to go to Afghanistan as a nurse's aid, she has no idea her skills as a hairdresser will be much more in demand. This book chronicles her experiences and struggles opening up a beauty school in this culture.

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. This is an extraordinary look at behind-the-scenes life in Kabul by Norwegian journalist Seierstad, who lived for 3 months with Sultan Khan, a bookseller, and his family.

My Forbidden Face by Latifa. This is an interesting perspective from the author, who was only 16 when the Taliban overtook Kabul and placed severe restrictions on women's rights. Located in our Teen section.

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