Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

This is not so much a review, as a big political thing involving this book and the author of the last one I read.  I decided to make it a separate post from the one about Iran: A People Interrupted.  Mainly because otherwise the post would have been too disjointed; and because the stuff I want to write about right now is really about Reading Lolita in Tehran.  See, Hamid Dabashi really does not like Azar Nafisi.  Y’all, he really doesn’t like her – not in a box, not with a fox, not in a house, not with a mouse.  Look what he says about her:

Nafisi portrays Iran as a land where crazed (clergy) men are abusing virgin houris who are impatiently reading Lolita while waiting to be liberated by George W. Bush and his Christian Crusaders.

Sheesh.  Okay, now, I don’t like to dismiss things that people say without thinking about them thoroughly.  So I read Hamid Dabashi’s article in Al-Ahram about Reading Lolita in Tehran, and then I read a few other articles about it, and then I reread Reading Lolita in Tehran, to see what I thought.  And I end up feeling about Dabashi’s writing on Nafisi the way I feel about Philip Pullman’s writing on C.S. Lewis (except not so defensive).  He makes criticisms that I don’t think are invalid:  Why doesn’t Nafisi talk about reading Iranian writers?  There’s zillions!  Why does she focus so much on women’s victimization, rather than their political and personal agency?  And the cover – it’s really a picture of two Iranian girls reading a revolutionary newspaper, and to suggest that they’re reading Lolita takes away the true context of that picture, and the fact of women’s political participation in Iran.  (That’s not Nafisi but her publishers – and it is obnoxious, and it’s lazy.)  And Nafisi gives America SUCH A PASS in this book.

But even though I agree with him on some things (like I do with Philip Pullman on Lewis’s sexism etc), I think the level of vitriol is uncalled-for.  I think the validity of (many of) his points are undermined by his obvious, passionate, personal dislike of Nafisi.  Look at this here:

The publication of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro- American global domination. The factual evidence of the connection of Azar Nafisi to the US leaders of the neoconservative movement and her systematic deprecation of Iranian culture, and by extension local and regional cultures of actual or potential resistance to the US empire, glorifying instead a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of “Western literature,” are additional factors in placing her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire–the service delivered via the most cliché-ridden invocation of the most retrograde Oriental fantasies of her readers in the United States and Europe.

So Dabashi notes that teaching English literature has been fundamental to colonialization of various territories by the British and American empires, and criticizes Nafisi’s book for “glorifying a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of ‘Western literature'”.  This bugged me because in his book he talks about a list of books that were forbidden by the shah and his secret police, and how he used that list as “my core curriculum…the map of my liberal education”, and then goes on to detail the contents of the list – Jack London, John Steinbeck, Brecht, Zola, Stendhal, Shakespeare, etc.

Uh-huh.

I don’t want to be simplistic about this though.  Dabashi’s book later talks about major Iranian writers as well as works from our canon – so I guess he is annoyed that Nafisi’s class wasn’t reading these writers as well.  I can see how this would be annoying, given Iran’s grand literary tradition (Dabashi has a lot to say about this in Iran: A People Interrupted).  But I think it’s quite a leap to say that (through Reading Lolita in Tehran) Nafisi is therefore “a necessary ideologue in George W. Bush’s empire-building project”.

I don’t hold any brief for Azar Nafisi, God knows.  Her political leanings are very much not mine.  However, Reading Lolita in Tehran is well-written and a joy to read for that reason.  I don’t see any problem with her finding refuge in Western literature – it’s a matter of personal taste.  I do not love the idea that she somehow has a responsibility to portray those aspects of Iranian culture that Dabashi wants America to know about.  I am also not comfortable with the way Dabashi dismisses Nafisi’s description of her and her students’ experiences under the Islamic Republic as being solely (or primarily) politically motivated.  Actually, his dismissiveness of womens’ experiences irritates the hell out of me.  Like this, from another article:

The manufactured success of Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” opened the floodgates for women’s accounts of their abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq to appear in American bookstores, precisely at the time that the Bush administration unleashed its attacks on those same countries. Women were being abused by their men, their culture, and their religion! Someone must do something about these horrors! The U.S. army was doing precisely that, liberating these women, one Abu Ghraib torture chamber and Falluja massacre at a time. What is lost in this sordid scenario is the fact that women in these, as in all other, areas have been active agents of their own destiny, defying the culturally inherited and colonially acquired measures of their oppressions and abuses in terms domestic to their own history and culture. They need not have waited to read “Lolita.”

The problem being, apparently, that the women chose a bad time to talk about the fact that they’re being oppressed and abused.  What should they do, shut up about it until Bush is out of office?  The fact is, when Afghanistan and Iraq are in the news, that’s when books about Afghanistan and Iraq are going to sell.  Blame the free market, not the writers.  Either these women tell their stories to America now, or they may not be able to tell them at all.

An aside, because I really like the book: Reading Lolita in Tehran is a gorgeous book, and totally worth reading.  Just be aware that there’s more to the story than what she says (of course!).  Read it!  And then come back here and tell me whether you thought, when you finished it, MY GOD WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?  WE MUST INVADE IRAN INSTANTLY.  Cause, um, that’s not what I thought when I read it.

If you managed to get through this – what do you think?  To what extent should memoirists/nonfiction writers tailor their books to the political climate?  When they have lived through something terrible, what sort of balance should they strike between portraying their experiences as they lived them, and highlighting the political and personal complexities of the environment and individuals that oppressed them?

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8 thoughts on “Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

  1. I definitely don’t recall thinking MY GOD WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? WE MUST INVADE IRAN INSTANTLY after I read RLiT. But I was pretty out of it at the time; I could have missed something.

    I don’t believe memoirists/non-ficiton writers/or any writers, really, should tailor what they write to political climate. Doing so puts them at risk for losing an element of truth or honesty, or obscuring their voice.

    • Well, I agree with you of course – their story and voice are the most important things! But I’m just imagining if someone had written a memoir about Katrina that implied that New Orleans was all better now. That’s the closest parallel I can think of to Dabashi’s gripe with Nafisi – he’s angry because she’s saying what (he thinks) the country wants to hear, and (he thinks) providing a justification for the country to carry on with its hostile policies towards Iran. If someone were to write a book that implied what I know many people would prefer to think about post-Katrina New Orleans – that it’s essentially all better and the people who are still struggling are just whiners looking for more government handouts – that might be their experience but I would consider it insulting, untrue, and harmful to the situation. And I would wonder why they were saying something so obviously false about Louisiana, and political expediency might be something that would occur to me, particularly if they had close ties with FEMA as (Dabashi claims) Nafisi has with American neocons.

      That isn’t a very good parallel! But I’ve just been thinking a lot about it. When there’s a difficult situation whose successful resolution is deeply, personally important to you, I can see how it would be really frustrating to have someone espouse an easier-to-swallow (but simplistic) view, and then have it be super duper popular in book clubs all over the country.

  2. I didn’t really think about any of this stuff while reading the book. I just enjoyed the talk about literary works, and tried to absorb a bit of the Iranian politics and culture the book portrayed. I had no idea at the time how much of it was accurate or not.

    • I was the exact same way. Until I read Dabashi’s v. snarky comments about Azar Nafisi that he makes every opportunity he gets, it never really occurred to me to wonder what was being left out (if anything). However, now I have caught Iranian history obsession like it’s the swine flu, so I have been thinking about Iranian politics a lot more. America has its flaws, but when I read about countries with governments like this, I am so thankful to live in a country where we have so much freedom. Seriously, reading these books, I just can’t get over how much freedom we have here. Crazy.

  3. “I don’t see any problem with her finding refuge in Western literature – it’s a matter of personal taste.”

    This is something I’ve been telling people over and over again. I’ve had a few friends get actually angry at me because since my late teens or so I haven’t been reading all that much literature from my own country. This has to do with the fact that I love fantasy, and we don’t really have a fantasy literary tradition (though we do have some lovely Moorish fairy tales). Attempts to create one after the Harry Potter/LOTR movies craze resulted in Tolkien rewrites by eighteen-year-olds being published, which is not exactly the kind of stuff I want to read. People sometimes hold this against me, but I don’t see how my taste in literature automatically makes me a Victim of Cultural Imperialism.

    Anyway…rant over 😛 I want to know more about Iran, so I’ll read this for sure. I’ll keep in mind that it’s not the whole story, though.

    • It’s a weird concept, I think – if you have connections to somewhere, that means you must like everything to do with that place. I love Louisiana to bits, but Southern literature is SO MUCH not my thing. I had a professor in college who tried to talk me out of this, but really, it’s ridiculous to try to argue someone out of what they like or don’t like.

      Reading Lolita in Tehran is lovely to read – I’m afraid I haven’t emphasized this enough! I loved “listening in” on her class’s discussions of the literature they were studying. Whatever she thinks about the US and Iran and all that, her love of the books is obvious. And I love them too, so there is a feeling of connection for me.

  4. re Dabashi’s RLT review : “the level of vitriol is uncalled-for. I think the validity of (many of) his points are undermined by his obvious, passionate, personal dislike of Nafisi” — quite so!

  5. Thank you for posting this. Azar is definitely a Western-Liberal minded Iranian, but most likely she is probably oblivious to the grander idea of Western imperialism. I wouldn’t go to the extent of calling her an ‘agent of colonialism,’ because I am sure that wasn’t her intention. A lot of people like Azar are have neoconservative ideals unknowingly.
    It is not just Iranians, but rather many middle-to elite class non-Westerners who are ideal creations of the ‘Macaulay’s Children’ who were to be brown skinned, but ‘English’ in taste and thought. This really exists today, where a lot of these so-called Iranians are exactly Western-Liberal in their outlook in life.

    A good book to read that relates to this is “Black Faces, White Masks” by Franz Fenon.

    Debashi may have been a bit extreme, but I applaud him for speaking out. Azar’s book (perhaps unintentionally) created a very ‘uncivilized’ and ‘barbaric’ Orientalist view of Iran (completely ignoring it’s History and the European involvement — such as overthrowing Mossadeq and installing the puppet Shah).

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