Secret texts

Reading Lolita in Tehran: a story of love, books and revolution

Azar Nafisi <em>I B Tauris, 350pp,

Few brands have been revived so effectively as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Fifteen years ago, the country was seen as a totalitarian state obsessed with sex and death. Today, Iranian cinema wins international prizes, Iran is praised for its modern intellectual culture, and political scientists have begun to promote it as a good model for democracy in Iraq.

Azar Nafisi is a unique witness to this "reformist" culture. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran describes the literature classes that she taught over two decades, following the Islamic revolution. Each chapter is organised around a particular text, class and historical period. She uses The Great Gatsby to introduce the first days of the revolution. The Iran-Iraq war is discussed through Henry James, the early reform period through Jane Austen and the further liberalisation of 1997 through Nabokov's Lolita.

Her seminars on western culture were considered dangerous by Islamists. She was threatened in the lecture halls, her texts were banned and her students were imprisoned, tortured and executed. Teaching literature became a way of encouraging her pupils to respond to the stereotyped morality, cramped imagination and lack of empathy that the regime sought to impose on its citizens.

Nafisi is alert to the ambiguities of her own position, her concealments and collaborations. She acknowledges that Iran is better than Taliban-era Afghanistan or Somalia, that the late shah's regime was tyrannical, and that there has been some relaxation by the contemporary government, particularly in Tehran. She describes the many private spheres in which Iranian women can evade the regime. But for all the nuance and empathy of her account, her conclusion is uncompromising: "Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe."

Nafisi maintains that despite the rise of "reformist" mullahs under President Khatami, the fundamental attitudes of the regime remain unaltered. The state is still able to interfere in anything that it considers immoral and it does so unpredictably and brutally. The degrading reality of life in Iran exists not only in extreme abuses (although raids and arrests and public executions continue) but in "constant assaults and persistent lack of kindness" in the personal and private sphere.

This is Nafisi's description of one of her female students taking a weekend break after the end of the Iran-Iraq war: "Sanaz and five friends had gone for a two-day vacation by the Caspian Sea, all properly dressed with their scarves and long robes. There were no alcoholic beverages in the house, no undesirable tapes or CDs. And then 'they' came with their guns, the morality squads, leaping over the low walls . . . taking them all to a special jail for infractions in matters of morality . . . they left the room twice - the first time to be led to a hospital where they were given virginity tests by a woman gynaecologist, who had her students observe their examinations. Not satisfied with their verdict, the guards took them to a private clinic for a second check . . . the girls were then given a summary trial, forced to sign a document confessing to sins they had not committed and subjected to 25 lashes."

Such episodes cumulatively reveal "the arbitrary nature of a totalitarian regime that constantly intrudes into the most private corners of our lives and imposes its relentless fictions on us".

There is nothing intemperate or sentimental in Nafisi's writing. Violent events and grand literary themes are handled modestly and elegantly. Her precise, restrained tone reinforces the credibility of her account. People who imagine that Iranian women are enjoying an "equally valid alternative model of life" should read this careful analysis of the republic's cruel and apocalyptic religious ambitions.

Ultimately, however, Reading Lolita in Tehran is not entirely satisfying. Although she describes how her pupils dress, move and speak, it is often difficult to differentiate between them. The narrative raises interesting questions about her relationships and her exile but there is little momentum in the story. Her response to Nabokov, though intelligent, is curiously muted, focusing on Lolita as a parable of totalitarianism and ignoring its black humour, sensuality and extravagant prose. Nafisi, who is flamboyant, courageous, unpredictable and emotional in person, expresses herself in measured, uniform and self-effacing prose. Even when describing the execution of a student, she only hints at her emotional response. She calls this her "casual impersonal manner . . . forcing others to listen to the most horrendous experience and yet denying them the moment of empathy". Her aim is to demonstrate how the regime has bleached the personality, emotions, thought and language of its citizens. She is vigilant enough to know that her own writing is a victim of this impoverishment.

Rory Stewart's book on Afghanistan, The Places in Between, will be published by Picador in 2004

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, 661 new crimes - and counting