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.


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?