The Arab Spring is an astonishing series of mass public protests that began in December 2010 and led to regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya…. These were breathtaking moments. And the rest of the world continues to watch events in Syria, just as we mourn the thousands of deaths in that uprising.
Successful revolutions, however, don’t always lead to democracy.
Consider Iran, now an international pariah state. In 1979, a man many consider a despot, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was ousted after two years of civil resistance. Pahlavi had nonetheless been supported by the United States and was seen as a secular, Westernizing influence. The overthrow was followed by a referendum which made the country – democratically! – into a religious Islamic republic, with a ruthless theocrat, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as its Supreme Leader.
Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita In Tehran: A Memoir In Books (2004) offers insight into how the progressive religious and liberal reformers lost ground to the rigid fundamentalists. All told through the lens of literature. This is Nafisi’s meditation on English-language classics, and on how they impacted her and her Iranian students. Some fell in love, some repudiated the Western imperialists who wrote them.
You don’t have to have read the classics listed here in order to understand Reading Lolita In Tehran; Nafisi offers short explanations. But think of Tehran as a guided reading list, a book club tour offered by a professor of literature so enamoured by words that she cannot stop glorying in them.
The author Henry James, she notes, was an American who decamped for England, and grew increasing disenchanted with US during World War II; the United States refused to join the good fight for many years. “The truth is that James, like many other great writers and artists, had chosen his own loyalties and nationality. His true country, his home, was that of the imagination….. James’ idea of home was bound up with the idea of civilization. In Sussex, during the war, he had found it difficult to read and impossible to work. He described himself as living under ‘the funeral spell of our murdered civilization.'”
Miller wrote to a friend: “We must for dear life make our own counter-realities.”
Nafisi’s book is broken into four sections. The first touches on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a stunningly written book. Yet Nabokov’s “hero,” Humbert Humbert, is a monster. A man utterly bereft of true empathy, the antithesis of what literature nurtures.
Its banning by multiple Western countries is mirrored in the slow descent into totalitarianism of the new Iran, where women are stoned to death for not covering up properly, where citizens are shot helter skelter by firing squads. Books are banned, because, Nafisi says, fundamentalists are “bluntly opposed to ambiguity” – they cannot see that simply telling a story in its shocking reality actually exposes evil. In the world of simplicity, only proper role models can expose truth.
Nafisi’s literary journey touches on The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (by Mark Twain), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Henry James’ Daisy Miller, and Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. Decadent Western values are on display in all of them.
All these books are filed in adult fiction. Reading Lolita In Tehran is in non-fiction, at 920. And beware to those who seek to unthinkingly condemn the Islamic Iranian revolution: Nafisi despises what has been done to her home country, but her empathy even extends to those who did it.
Nothing is simple in the world Nafisi lives in.
– Eleanor Brown, March 22, 2013