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Reading Lolita in Tehran

‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ is a beautifully written memoir about the life of the protagonist, Azar
Nafisi, and her family and working life, as a Western Classics Lecturer in universities in Iran during
the Iran-Iraq war and under Ayatollah Khomeini. My favourite aspects of the book were examples of
Azar’s rebellious acts of defiance against the patriarchy and people in power such as her friendship
with the man called ‘The Magician’ and how he provided her with her cache of western classic
literature as he had a secret bookstore.

This in itself funnelled my other favourite aspect of the book,
which was that Azar not only collected books through her teaching career, but also favourite
students, who she invited at one point in the book, to gather at her home in secret where this group
of women would come to together, to share their lives over coffee and pastries, and spend days
xeroxing books, and dissecting and discussing them, as well as the men in their lives, from husbands
or husbands to be, to brothers and fathers as well.

This memoir is rich in detail, from the taste of the coffee to the bitterness of Azar’s defiance in how
she refused to wear the head scarf and how it affected her sense of self, stating that when she
succumbed to wearing the head scarf, she would often draw her hands and arms in, pretending as if
she had no hands. The book was drawn up thematically between the different tomes that Azar
taught, from Lolita, to Gatsby, James and Austen. Later in life, once Azar would wear the veil, she
taught at a university where the students, even the revolutionaries, loved her teaching style, but
condemned the literature themselves, culminating with a group of students putting the characters
of The Great Gatsby on trial, with them finding the character Daisy to be immoral.

I haven’t found anything that I dislike about ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ – it is a cultural snapshot and
moment in time, of a Western educated woman trying to fit back into the culture that she came
from and realising that she didn’t have a space there anymore, which resulted in her fleeing back the
United States of America. This memoir is beautiful, and was part of The New York Times bestseller
list in 2003, and I predict that like its forbearers that Azar taught, it too will become a classic in itself
as well.