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A Memoir in Books

Written by Azar NafisiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Azar Nafisi


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On Sale: December 30, 2003
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-079-3
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely–their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous masterwork gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny, and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.


Chapter 1

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women-to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction. One persistent male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he, Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about the books we were reading.

I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me. Nassrin once responded mischievously, You yourself told us that in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ. Manna pointed out that I was no Miss Brodie, and they, well, they were what they were. She reminded me of a warning I was fond of repeating: do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth. Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own recommendation and choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but perhaps Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.

A couple of years after we had begun our Thursday-morning seminars, on the last night I was in Tehran, a few friends and students came to say good-bye and to help me pack. When we had deprived the house of all its items, when the objects had vanished and the colors had faded into eight gray suitcases, like errant genies evaporating into their bottles, my students and I stood against the bare white wall of the dining room and took two photographs.

I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing against a white wall. They are, according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head scarves, covered except for the oval of their faces and their hands. In the second photograph the same group, in the same position, stands against the same wall. Only they have taken off their coverings. Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.

The one to the far right in the second photograph is our poet, Manna, in a white T-shirt and jeans. She made poetry out of things most people cast aside. The photograph does not reflect the peculiar opacity of Manna's dark eyes, a testament to her withdrawn and private nature.

Next to Manna is Mahshid, whose long black scarf clashes with her delicate features and retreating smile. Mahshid was good at many things, but she had a certain daintiness about her and we took to calling her "my lady." Nassrin used to say that more than defining Mahshid, we had managed to add another dimension to the word lady. Mahshid is very sensitive. She's like porcelain, Yassi once told me, easy to crack. That's why she appears fragile to those who don't know her too well; but woe to whoever offends her. As for me, Yassi continued good-naturedly, I'm like good old plastic; I won't crack no matter what you do with me.

Yassi was the youngest in our group. She is the one in yellow, bending forward and bursting with laughter. We used to teasingly call her our comedian. Yassi was shy by nature, but certain things excited her and made her lose her inhibitions. She had a tone of voice that gently mocked and questioned not just others but herself as well.

I am the one in brown, standing next to Yassi, with one arm around her shoulders. Directly behind me stands Azin, my tallest student, with her long blond hair and a pink T-shirt. She is laughing like the rest of us. Azin's smiles never looked like smiles; they appeared more like preludes to an irrepressible and nervous hilarity. She beamed in that peculiar fashion even when she was describing her latest trouble with her husband. Always outrageous and outspoken, Azin relished the shock value of her actions and comments, and often clashed with Mahshid and Manna. We nicknamed her the wild one.

On my other side is Mitra, who was perhaps the calmest among us. Like the pastel colors of her paintings, she seemed to recede and fade into a paler register. Her beauty was saved from predictability by a pair of miraculous dimples, which she could and did use to manipulate many an unsuspecting victim into bending to her will.

Sanaz, who, pressured by family and society, vacillated between her desire for independence and her need for approval, is holding on to Mitra's arm. We are all laughing. And Nima, Manna's husband and my one true literary critic-if only he had had the perseverance to finish the brilliant essays he started to write-is our invisible partner, the photographer.

There was one more: Nassrin. She is not in the photographs-she didn't make it to the end. Yet my tale would be incomplete without those who could not or did not remain with us. Their absences persist, like an acute pain that seems to have no physical source. This is Tehran for me: its absences were more real than its presences.

When I see Nassrin in my mind's eye, she's slightly out of focus, blurred, somehow distant. I've combed through the photographs my students took with me over the years and Nassrin is in many of them, but always hidden behind something-a person, a tree. In one, I am standing with eight of my students in the small garden facing our faculty building, the scene of so many farewell photographs over the years. In the background stands a sheltering willow tree. We are laughing, and in one corner, from behind the tallest student, Nassrin peers out, like an imp intruding roguishly on a scene it was not invited to. In another I can barely make out her face in the small V space behind two other girls' shoulders. In this one she looks absentminded; she is frowning, as if unaware that she is being photographed.

How can I describe Nassrin? I once called her the Cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing at unexpected turns in my academic life. The truth is I can't describe her: she was her own definition. One can only say that Nassrin was Nassrin.

For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Mountains became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.

The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics-Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean's December and, yes, Lolita. As I write the title of each book, memories whirl in with the wind to disturb the quiet of this fall day in another room in another country.

Here and now in that other world that cropped up so many times in our discussions, I sit and reimagine myself and my students, my girls as I came to call them, reading Lolita in a deceptively sunny room in Tehran. But to steal the words from Humbert, the poet/criminal of Lolita, I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won't really exist if you don't. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.

If I write about Nabokov today, it is to celebrate our reading of Nabokov in Tehran, against all odds. Of all his novels I choose the one I taught last, and the one that is connected to so many memories. It is of Lolita that I want to write, but right now there is no way I can write about that novel without also writing about Tehran. This, then, is the story of Lolita in Tehran, how Lolita gave a different color to Tehran and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov's novel, turning it into this Lolita, our Lolita.


And so it happened that one Thursday in early September we gathered in my living room for our first meeting. Here they come, one more time. First I hear the bell, a pause, and the closing of the street door. Then I hear footsteps coming up the winding staircase and past my mother's apartment. As I move towards the front door, I register a piece of sky through the side window. Each girl, as soon as she reaches the door, takes off her robe and scarf, sometimes shaking her head from side to side. She pauses before entering the room. Only there is no room, just the teasing void of memory.

More than any other place in our home, the living room was symbolic of my nomadic and borrowed life. Vagrant pieces of furniture from different times and places were thrown together, partly out of financial necessity, and partly because of my eclectic taste. Oddly, these incongruous ingredients created a symmetry that the other, more deliberately furnished rooms in the apartment lacked.

My mother would go crazy each time she saw the paintings leaning against the wall and the vases of flowers on the floor and the curtainless windows, which I refused to dress until I was finally reminded that this was an Islamic country and windows needed to be dressed. I don't know if you really belong to me, she would lament. Didn't I raise you to be orderly and organized? Her tone was serious, but she had repeated the same complaint for so many years that by now it was an almost tender ritual. Azi-that was my nickname-Azi, she would say, you are a grown-up lady now; act like one. Yet there was something in her tone that kept me young and fragile and obstinate, and still, when in memory I hear her voice, I know I never lived up to her expectations. I never did become the lady she tried to will me into being.

That room, which I never paid much attention to at that time, has gained a different status in my mind's eye now that it has become the precious object of memory. It was a spacious room, sparsely furnished and decorated. At one corner was the fireplace, a fanciful creation of my husband, Bijan. There was a love seat against one wall, over which I had thrown a lace cover, my mother's gift from long ago. A pale peach couch faced the window, accompanied by two matching chairs and a big square glass-topped iron table.

My place was always in the chair with its back to the window, which opened onto a wide cul-de-sac called Azar. Opposite the window was the former American Hospital, once small and exclusive, now a noisy, overcrowded medical facility for wounded and disabled veterans of the war. On "weekends"-Thursdays and Fridays in Iran-

the small street was crowded with hospital visitors who came as if for a picnic, with sandwiches and children. The neighbor's front yard, his pride and joy, was the main victim of their assaults, especially in summer, when they helped themselves to his beloved roses. We could hear the sound of children shouting, crying and laughing, and, mingled in, their mothers' voices, also shouting, calling out their children's names and threatening them with punishments. Sometimes a child or two would ring our doorbell and run away, repeating their perilous exercise at intervals.

From our second-story apartment-my mother occupied the first floor, and my brother's apartment, on the third floor, was often empty, since he had left for England-we could see the upper branches of a generous tree and, in the distance, over the buildings, the Elburz Mountains. The street, the hospital and its visitors were censored out of sight. We felt their presence only through the disembodied noises emanating from below.

I could not see my favorite mountains from where I sat, but opposite my chair, on the far wall of the dining room, was an antique oval mirror, a gift from my father, and in its reflection, I could see the mountains capped with snow, even in summer, and watch the trees change color. That censored view intensified my impression that the noise came not from the street below but from some far-off place, a place whose persistent hum was our only link to the world we refused, for those few hours, to acknowledge.

That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was! Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers, we moved in and out of the novels we read. Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it. We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.
Azar Nafisi|Author Q&A

About Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi - Reading Lolita in Tehran

Photo © Stanley Staniski

AZAR NAFISI is a visiting professor and the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. She has taught Western literature at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Iran. In 1981 she was expelled from the University of Tehran after refusing to wear the veil. In 1994 she won a teaching fellowship from Oxford University, and in 1997 she and her family left Iran for America. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic and has appeared on countless radio and television programs. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Azar Nafisi

Random House Reader’s Circle: In Reading Lolita in Tehran, you wrote about how it was not until you returned to the land of your birth, Iran, that you realized the true meaning of exile. Can you explain that seeming paradox, and do you still feel that way almost ten years after returning to the U.S.? Are there layers or levels of exile, just as, perhaps, there are of home?

Azar Nafisi: Well, I think there are definitely different levels to exile. Physical or geographical exile is the most obvious, but I think the most excruciating is feeling exiled or out of place in your own home. For instance, when I went back, I had been dreaming of returning home to Iran since I was thirteen–which meant that the Iran I had created in my mind would already have been very different from the one that actually existed. In addition, I was returning to revolutionary Iran, where everything that I had called home–the streets of my childhood, their names–had changed. Some of the movie houses where I had gone to see films with my family had been burned down. Everything that I had considered to be a part of my life and my identity was now being questioned or challenged by the new regime. And I was told that even my faith, the traditions and the religion of my parents and ancestors, had now been confiscated and redefined. Everything that had been so familiar was taken away. It was like living in an alien movie.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno says that the highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home. One thing that the Islamic revolution taught me is that we should never feel too smug, too much at home. You can lose your home in a war or a revolution or, as we experience it here in America, in an earthquake, a fire or a tornado, or it can just simply be taken away from you. The only way you can truly, permanently preserve your home is to constantly question and redefine it for yourself, to keep it alive inside you. You can preserve it through memory. One reason I wrote this book was to retrieve the home that I had lost, through narrative and through telling the story.

RHRC: That’s really beautiful–can you talk a little more about how the role of reading and perhaps how sharing these stories with these women was a sort of stab to exile?

AN: You know, the first time I really had the feeling of exile was when I left Iran at thirteen. The moment that the airplane door closed I realized that nothing I could do would take me back to Iran, to my own home, to my parents and relatives. I understood that the only way I could keep my home with me was by preserving it through memory–because no one has the power to take away your memories–and through maintaining a connection to its language and literature. I had brought with me several books by Iranian poets, and every night I would just open them at random, books by Hafez, Rumi, and this contemporary Persian woman poet, Foroguh Forokhzad, and simply reading these words would bring back to me everything I loved about my country. Ultimately, that was also how I made myself at home, first in England and later in America. As I read Dickens or Austen or Mark Twain or Virginia Woolf, their books became ambassadors from the new world that I was traveling to.

So language and literature were incredibly important to me, but when I went back to Iran during the revolution, it was very difficult to publicly communicate what I wanted to say because so many things were censored, so many things were not allowed. Because of this, the books I read with my students became a means of communication, of conveying what we wanted to say to one another. The books became our world, and they became our home, and they opened us up to ourselves. You ask whether, after ten years of living in the U.S., do I feel the same? Yes–I think that this connection to my home and to myself through literature is one of the most constant things in my life, something that I will always have. I haven’t lost Iran; I have Ferdosi and Hafez and Rumi–and now books have allowed me to feel at home in the U.S. as well. In fact, I basically have not changed much at all: in Iran I taught and wrote and was concerned about women’s rights and human rights; my first book was on Vladimir Nabokov. Here, I also teach and write, have the same concerns, and my first book was about reading Nabokov, among others, in Tehran. Now, of course, I worry about reading Lolita in Washington, D.C., or in fact not reading Lolita in Washington, D.C.!

This reminds me of an anecdote: When my family migrated to the U.S. in 1997, my children were in their early teens, and at first, of course, they were not feeling at all comfortable, and they pined to go back to Iran. But my daughter, like me, loves to read, and the first work of Shakespeare’s that she read in school was Romeo and Juliet. She was so excited that she came home and said to me, “Mom, listen to these words!” She quoted a line about Rosaline, where Romeo says, “She’s fair she’s wise, she’s wisely fair,” or something like that. When I heard that note of excitement about Shakespeare in my daughter’s voice, I knew she was going to be all right, that she’d found her home. The real home we have transcends ethnicity and nationality, gender, sex, and religion. It is a universal space where we can all live.

RHRC: Reading Lolita in Tehran was originally published five years ago. If the book is a lens through which Western readers can view Iran and also themselves, how has the perspective of that view changed with the distance of time and intervening events? And how have your perceptions of the book and of Iran changed?

AN: Well, this is a rather difficult question, because a book is like a child. Once it leaves you, once it’s out and interacting with the world on its own, there isn’t much one can do to control it. But in terms of my own perspective on the book and whether things in Iran have changed, I have two things to say. One is that my purpose in writing this book was not to talk about just politics. What I really wanted to investigate was how people cope when they live under an oppressive reality. How do they create for themselves open spaces through their imaginations? That is really the main theme of the book–imagination’s role in opening spaces, in resisting tyrannies of both politics and time.

That was the first purpose, and the second was to address the question of breaking down boundaries. I wanted to show how a girl who has never left the Islamic Republic of Iran, who has never seen the U.S. or France or England, can, through these books, connect with places she has never been to. And then not only connect with them but interpret them in a way that feels fresh. That, I think, is how we become equal to one another–if we can interpret and imagine those we have never seen. So that was the main purpose of the book. Politics and political transformations are secondary to it.

As far as changes in Iran go, the system is still the same. I mention in the book that the Islamic Republic is like the month of April: you have periods of sunshine followed by storms and rain, you have open periods of liberalization and then you have tighter, more closed periods again, as we’re seeing right now. But the basic structure has remained the same. The laws are basically the same, which means that people’s reactions to these laws and to this system are also basically the same. The most important change, I think, is that more and more people are using nonviolent, increasingly democratic means for resisting oppression. Some of the students in the book have become teachers; they have been working within the society to try to change the system, and they have affected society. Some of the revolutionaries, who at the beginning wanted to expel people like me from the universities, have been expelled from their places of work–these people are now calling for secularism and democracy. Some of them have been jailed and tortured, and some of them, like me, live in exile. They are also writing about issues that relate to freedom and democracy. And so those changes are happening.

RHRC: Mentioning a novel in your title that was and still is controversial here in the U.S. was an inspired choice because of the novel’s overt subject matter. Humbert Humbert’s pursuit and abuse of the nymphet he calls Lolita clashes with Western ideas of the Islamic fundamentalism that characterizes the Iranian state. But really, as you go on to demonstrate, it’s not just reading Nabokov in Iran that is a subversive act, but also reading Austen, James, Bellow, and others. Could you expand a bit on this conflict between the Islamic Republic and what you call the Republic of the Imagination, and what separates the two?

AN: I focus on the conflict between the Islamic Republic and the Republic of the Imagination because I’m talking about a specific place and time. But conflict with the Republic of the Imagination is not limited to the Islamic Republic. We’ve had so many examples of it in oppressive societies, both in the East and the West. The most obvious would be Fascism in Europe, or what went on in Eastern Europe, or what is going on in China right now, or in Cuba. It is even more important, though, for us to remember that this sort of oppressive and absolutist mindset can also exist in a very democratic society such as the U.S. Here we have “Banned Book Week,” and many books in this country are banned from certain libraries, or certain schools do not teach them. The whole idea is that imagination is always subversive, and it’s dangerous to absolutist or narrow-minded mindsets. As you say, it is obvious why Lolita is subversive, but even writers like Jane Austen or Saul Bellow or Henry James, writers who we may think of as socially or politically conservative, even their works are subversive. Every great work of fiction not only reflects the themes and the events that it explains but it also, at the same time, resists and questions them. Fiction explores not just how reality is but how it could or should be. The whole structure of the novel is democratic. I think that fiction is based on what has been called “Democratic Imagination,” because it is multi-vocal. Take a novel like Pride and Prejudice, or any of Jane Austen’s novels–each one is filled with voices of different characters who are in constant conversation and, most of the time, disagree with one another. And because the author is not dictatorial, and does not impose her own voice or opinions upon her characters, she allows them all to discuss and debate from different points of view. It is that polyphony, that democracy of voices, that becomes so very dangerous to an autocratic mind-set. Jane Austen herself was the daughter of a clergyman, and was supposed to have been a very prim and proper lady. Yet in her books she makes fun of everyone, including the clerics themselves. I was once told that Jane Austen was antireligious because of Mr. Collins’s character–but in her books she has both ridiculous clerics and very upright and lovable clerics. She shows us that, as human beings, we can be so many different things. Great writing usually transcends not just the prejudices of its times but also that of its own author. Fitzgerald might have loved wealth and the wealthy, and in one sense was the victim of this obsession, but in Gatsby his most pointed criticism is against the very wealthy– Tom and Daisy–and the careless way they use other people. That is why it is narrow-minded and wrong to judge a work of art by where its author comes from. The text is a living entity that is the product of its author’s mind and at the same time independent of it.

Something else about the novel that is so dangerous to an autocratic mindset is its use of humor and irony. Of course, the most tragic example is the case of the fatwøa against Salman Rushdie. Rushdie was being tried, not because he insulted Islam–he didn’t–but because his novels are so playful. They don’t fit within any category or within any norms or within any rules. And with imagination, the only thing that is sacred is the permission to be profane. In the novel, you have to be true to yourself, you have to be funny, and critical, and self-critical, and allow even the villains to have a voice. That is why, I think, imagination becomes so subversive of any absolutist mindset, whether it belongs to someone in Iran or to someone in the United States. They would both react to it in the same manner.

And there is one more thing about the novel that I’d like to mention, and that is the issue of ambiguity. Absolutist mindsets want everything black and white–and you don’t have to be a ruler in the Islamic Republic to see the world that way. We see it every day in our own society here in America, especially in terms of the politicizations and polarizations that are going on, where we constantly demonize one another, and we believe that what we do is always good because we belong to the “good guys.” It’s so easy to abdicate responsibility, to always have someone else take responsibility for everything that is bad. Self-righteousness in all its forms, and no matter what viewpoint it presents, right or left, is one of the great villains in great works of fiction. The novel explores ambiguity and paradox and contradiction and doesn’t let you get away with anything, because every individual in a novel is responsible for his or her actions. If Elizabeth Bennet in the end is happy and marries Darcy, it is because she has been the most compassionate character in that novel. She is sympathetic because she is self-critical, she sees that she has been blind, and she has suffered for it. So novels teach us about self-reflection, self-criticism, and ambiguity, and all of these become very dangerous to the black-andwhite mindset, this kind of politicized and simplistic attitude that is so prevalent today, and not just in political circles.

RHRC: Can Western readers who take so many freedoms for granted truly understand a writer like Nabokov? It seems as though the experience of life in a totalitarian state that is structured along religious lines is central to his novels. And by the same token, then, can Western readers truly understand what it’s like for a woman to live in a place like modern Iran?

AN: I think the whole point of reading is not to read about things we are familiar with that make us feel safe and good. It is so boring to read just about ourselves. And once Western readers take freedoms for granted then they’re really in trouble. One of the things that has bothered me since I’ve come to the U.S. is this idea, in a lot of colleges and universities, or even high schools, that everybody likes to read or talk only about themselves. So if you’re African American, you teach African American literature and you read African American literature and you write about African Americans. Now, I believe the whole point of writing and reading is to learn about things and people that you don’t know. As a writer, I start with a topic I think I know, and of course in part I do know, but for me writing a book always becomes a journey of discovery. You are discovering that stranger within you, and for readers, when they open a book, there are two faculties, two miraculous faculties that the act of reading and writing depend on, which form the basis of our imaginations. The first one is curiosity. We read because we want to know what we don’t know. Both science and literature have that magic about them, that idea of discovery. And the other great thing is that as soon as you enter this world that is both familiar and unfamiliar and you set out on this journey of discovery, then you discover empathy. Empathy is as much an integral part of writing as curiosity is, because this is the only way we communicate as human beings. As individuals, how much do you and I know about one another? Stories put us inside the experience of others and make us feel and see what we have not felt or seen before. Through this, you come to the shock of recognition, that there is this universality of experience. And that is why when Western readers read Nabokov they have this shock of recognition–they realize that both the best and the worst that his characters represent can exist inside themselves. They can be both Humbert and Lolita. They can be both Pnin and Pnin’s horrible wife, Liza. They can empathize with women in Iran because when they read about women living in Iran, they realize that those women are not very different from the women living in the States–they both dream about a future for themselves and for people around them; they fall in love, are jealous, are betrayed, love music, love poetry, love to hold hands. And so I think that reading Nabokov and reading Rumi, reading any great work of literature, always brings us close to one another. That is why it is so marvelous that so many people in Iran are now reading and becoming enthusiastic about writers and thinkers from other parts of the world, and the same should happen here. When a British man named Dick Davis, who teaches at Ohio State University, translates and writes about some of the greatest poets and writers in Persian literature, I, as a Persian who has lived with these texts all her life, find insights about my culture and myself that I had never thought about. This is how a genuine exchange of cultures should be: a constant dialogue about ourselves and others, a constant critical observation and questioning as well as a celebration of ourselves through the eyes of others.

But one last thing about Western readers–in the book, I mention Saul Bellow’s quote about the characters who survived the ordeal of the Holocaust: “Will they survive the ordeal of freedom?” Bellow talks in his books about how what threatens the West is its “sleeping consciousness.” I do think that what is most dangerous for Western readers is when they take freedom for granted, when they feel too much at home, when they don’t look at themselves through the eyes of others. So I definitely think they should start reading their Nabokov and feeling a little bit not at home. That has become my obsession since I came to the U.S., the way we belittle imagination at the expense of sound bites and simplifications, and how politicization and polarization and the cult of celebrity has overtaken genuine thinking and imagining. Without the poetic vision to look at the present critically and to envision its future potential, without embracing the paradoxes and complexities that thought and imagination place in our way, how can we thrive as a dynamic and growing culture? What I fear is that through dismissing humanities in our system of education, through politicizing every field to the extent that we neglect to read just for the pure sensual and intellectual pleasure of reading, we will be trapped by what Bellow calls “the atrophy of feeling.” And this is what should worry us–the inability to feel and to think.

RHRC: You write about the “myth of America.” Is there a “myth” of Iran that we have here in America, and do you think that these two myths are on a collision course?

AN: One thing I can tell you is that when I came to the U.S. I was really surprised at how politicized the view of Iran had become. It was really very frustrating at the beginning because when I lived in Iran I felt as if the government had confiscated all the images we had of ourselves and had reduced them to one image, its own image. I had hoped that when I came here, people, because they are free to read and to know, would see the multiplicity of images that exist in Iran–the contradictions, the paradoxes. But unfortunately I felt that the dominating images of Iran were those that the government had talked about. It was a very “reductionist” mythology, the myth about Iran. First of all, one thing that bothered me was that, since the Iranian Revolution, since 1979, all of a sudden these different countries that have very different backgrounds and histories and traditions like Malaysia, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia–all of them are now reduced to one component, which is religion. And so they are all now called “the Muslim world.” We never do that with, say, Europe and America. France, Germany, Britain, and the U.S. are all Christian majority countries, but we don’t call them “the Christian world.” But we do call all those other countries that have much less in common than Europe and the U.S. “the Muslim world,” and then we reduce the religion itself to the most extreme form of it. It is like saying that all of America is what Mr. Jerry Falwell said it is, because it is a Christian country, without realizing that religion itself, in order to be dynamic and thrive, has to leave people free to interpret it in different ways. It cannot be an affair of the state. The state cannot tell us that there is only one religion, one ideology, and all of you should act accordingly.

So when I came here, when I would talk about my country or myself, people would say, “Oh, but you’re Western.” You know, as if “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was just something that Americans had invented, and women who lived in Afghanistan or Iran didn’t want to be free or pursue happiness. Or the fact that I dressed the way I did–or talked the way I did, this was all “Western.” Well, a hundred years ago, women who lived during my grandmother’s time, they also were asking for the same kind of freedoms that the women in the West were asking for. They fought for their freedoms. Iran had a constitutional revolution; at the time of revolution we had two women ministers–one a minister for women’s affairs–and these were not freedoms that the government had given us or that the Shah had given us–these were freedoms that the Iranian women had achieved after decades of struggle.
So there was a “myth” of Iran in this country, and it was a very politicized and distorted mythology. It has little to do with the Iran that I know, or its history. And Iran has existed for at least 2,500 years. Half of the history was not even Muslim, it was Zoroastrianism. And even when we talk about Islam, what Islam are we talking about? Whose Islam? In my book, which only depicts a very small portion of Iranian society, several different characters are Orthodox Muslims, and they’re all so very different. My student Razieh, who was a believer, an Orthodox Muslim girl who never took her veil off, was murdered by a regime that calls itself Islamic. My student Mr. Bahri, who belonged to the Islamic Student Association, defended me and tried to keep me at the university while my own secular colleagues were trying to expel me. So whose Islam are we talking about? Why am I less Muslim than the women who are married to the rulers in Iran, or who hold office? My family was there for six hundred years, they served Iran the way theirs did. So these are the questions that come to my mind when I talk about the “myth” of Iran in America. These are the questions that are troubling, and I think that the only way we can do away with this sort of mythology is, in fact, to go back to focusing on a people’s culture and history. And that is why stories become so important.

RHRC: Turning from myths to dreams, you have described the Iranian Revolution–or rather the Islamic Republic that evolved out of the revolution of 1979–as a terrible, beautiful dream. I’m reminded of the American dream that Gatsby pursues or embodies, which you so memorably put on trial in Reading Lolita in Tehran.

AN: Yes, that is wonderful. I remember there is a gorgeous scene in Gatsby where Nick talks about how Gatsby’s dream was tainted by reality. It sort of ruined the dream and destroyed him. And that is the thing with dreams–we should be careful with them. Pursuing dreams, having a dream is wonderful. But imposing a dream upon reality is very dangerous. So although I am absolutely in love with imagination, and I think that without imagination reality does not, in fact, exist, at the same time I think that we should be careful not to impose our dreams upon our own reality or the reality of others. (Humbert is a good example of what happens when we do that.) Revolution was beautiful because the Iranian people wanted to change their lives. And they wanted to better their lives–they wanted to have more rights, to have more rights to political participation. It became terrible when a group of people confiscated that dream and tried to impose their own image upon the whole of society. That is when the dream becomes destructive, and that is what makes it so dangerous. I mention in the Gatsby chapter about how, when I was a student and a dissident, I also was living inside that sort of dream. Fortunately I survived it. Some didn’t.

RHRC: I was struck by the almost schizophrenic attitude toward Western, specifically American, culture depicted in your book. For example, at the same time that repressive measures were at their height in the country at large, you were still able to teach your classes in English and American literature. And not only teach them, but teach them to students–young men and women who were hungry for this literature, even if, like your student Miss Ruhi, they didn’t realize it at the time. What accounts for this love-hate relationship?

AN: Well, you mention the schizophrenic–one of Iran’s best thinkers, Dariush Shayegan, has written an entire book on this schizophrenic perspective, so I will not go into that. But just to answer the question briefly–this just shows that what the government was trying to impose on the society was not accepted by the society as a whole. Iran had a past, and that was a past when both girls and boys would go to college. They would sit together, they would study together, and they would study English and French and German literature as well as Persian literature. This was a country where its women had been active in all walks of life and had been fighting for their rights to have jobs and be equal to men for almost a hundred years, so these values were so ingrained within the society that the government could not completely change them. It could distort them, but it also had to accommodate them. For example, they tried to segregate the universities the way they are in Saudi Arabia right now. But it didn’t work, so they had to have universities where both girls and boys participated in the same class, but the girls sat behind the boys, or sat in a different part of the room. And everything that came from the West– English literature had been taught at the universities for many decades–they couldn’t just take it out.

And that is the most important thing about ideas and imagination: that people who tried to eliminate them at the beginning of the revolution were infected by them as time went by. So Miss Ruhi and a lot of my students, who at first were very much opposed to Western literature, when they read the books in class they discovered them to be enlightening and eye-opening. For that, we have to be thankful to the Islamic Republic because a lot of people who were traditional and who would not otherwise have sent their sons or daughters to the universities did so, exposing them to these new thoughts and ideas. But this shows that the people wanted one thing and the government wanted another. So you do have repressive measures, you do have censorship of these books, you do have teachers who would delete the word “wine” from Hemingway’s stories–but at the same time you have debates about great works of Western literature. The same is true, of course, of Iranian literature. Even more than Western literature, some of our greatest, especially contemporary, writers were also banned and censored. And the more they were censored, the more there was a thirst for their books, especially among the young.

RHRC: Perhaps the most difficult thing for a Western reader, male or female, to come to grips with in your book is the hostile, effacing style of the Islamic Republic toward women. Was this aspect of the revolution inevitable, and have things improved at all in recent years?

AN: One aspect of the Islamic Republic that comes in the name of religion is confiscation of religion and the use of it as an ideology. Women have now become the canaries in the mine in Iran, as well as in many Muslim majority societies. If you want to know how free a society is, you look at its women (in this country, too, women, gays, and minorities are the canaries in the mine) because they symbolize individual rights, which are the most dangerous thing for a totalitarian state. If you remember, during the times when the Soviets were in power they used similar measures. They would say that wearing makeup was Western and decadent. Women’s clothing had to be very uniformlike and without ornaments. In China, men and women were supposed to wear a specific kind of clothing. Western books by authors such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Sartre, and Camus were banned in the Soviet Union–they were called bourgeois. This is the same kind of mechanism that is working now in the Islamic Republic. Women have become symbols of democracy and of openness.

I think this is a good time to mention that the question of the veil in a country like Iran is not whether the veil is good or bad. The issue of the veil is that the veil should be a symbol of faith.

And as such, every woman should have the right to choose whether she wants to wear it or not. No government or state should tell its people how they should worship God, and in fact no government or state should tell its people that they should worship God. It should be completely free and private. So the issue of the veil in Iran is the issue of choice. My grandmother never took off her veil until the day she died, and she lived a long life. She always wore the veil. But she was very much disturbed by the way the government was imposing the veil upon not just Jews and Christians and atheists but also upon Muslim women like my own mother, who did not want to wear the veil. For her the veil was a symbol of faith, but if every woman was forced to wear it, whether she believed in it or not, then it would become a symbol of force and a political symbol of the state. Many of my Muslim students who wore the veil before the revolution also rejected this imposition. For thirty years now, the Iranian government has used every method it could to make women adjust to its rules, but women have found ways of evading it–women in the streets wear lipstick or show their hair, wear colorful clothing and listen to banned music, hold hands. So they have resisted without using violence, without using political protests. They have just refused to comply.

Have I made it clear enough that people, no matter where they come from, all like to be free? That freedom is not a Western idea? There was one more thing about that myth, the myth of America, that I wanted to mention. The way that some people talk about so-called Muslim societies as if they are sort of trapped by what they call culture and religion, and there is no way that they can change. But this is a double standard, because we should remember that in the West, in the mid-nineteenth century, women did not have the right to vote, that there were many people in the U.S. and Europe who were saying that a woman’s place was in her home, and that the Bible says so. America has a history of slavery; until the late 1950s and early 1960s the buses and restaurants were segregated and a lot of blood was shed in order for African Americans to gain equality. And the arguments that were used against women and against abolition are the same kind of arguments that are now used against change in relation to women’s rights in Muslim majority countries. Because, if Sharia laws are Muslim culture, then slavery and burning witches in Salem are the culture of this country, not Emerson and Thoreau and Martin Luther King. And the Inquisition is the culture of Europe, not St. Thomas Aquinas or Dante or CortŽs. People should understand that we have our Hafez and Rumi and great poets and great philosophers, and that we also have a set of traditions that are regressive and oppressive and need to be changed. There are so many apologists for this sort of thought who say that people over there, you know, the “natives” over there, they deserve what they’re getting. This is their culture and the West should not criticize it because, you know, we taint it. They do not differentiate between the state and the people, and take the state’s view of religion and tradition and history and culture as the only one. So if you criticize the Islamic Republic, according to some, you are criticizing Islam and Iran.

RHRC: In describing Iranian women, you wrote, “What was alien to us was Eros, true sensuality.” Is that because of the veil and Chador and the attitudes they both symbolize and embody, or for other reasons, and how might this insight apply to Western women?
AN: I think that every culture, especially a Puritan culture, has had this trouble with Eros, or true sensuality, because usually the views on women go from one extreme to another: either they idolize women and worship at their altar, or they see them as sluts and objects for sexual fulfillment. So it has been a struggle and a challenge for women to articulate themselves as sensual human beings. To gain complete equality you need to also be able to articulate who you are, what your desires are, physically and intellectually and emotionally. That has been denied in Iran in a much more obvious manner. In the West, sometimes it has been distorted, sometimes it has been overemphasized, but I think that it still remains a challenge. The advantage in the West is that if we feel that one aspect of our lives has been deleted or ignored or banned, we at least can express it. In Iran, for women to be able to express their sensuality, this is still a challenge.

RHRC: In the epilogue of Reading Lolita, you brought us up to date on what had happened to your students and friends. How are they doing now? Did you ever learn more about the fate of Mr. Bahri? What about your magician? And Mahshid, who believed that she could affect change from within the system, from behind the veil?

AN: One of the most amazing things about books–and I have mentioned it several times whenever I talk about my book–is the way they connect you to people you should be connected to. They connect you to strangers, who all of a sudden, through your book, come into your house and become close friends. One thing about Reading Lolita is the way it has connected me to my past. Since the book came out, there have been e-mails and letters in which people remind me that they used to be my students. Some of them are from Iran, some are from other parts of the world. And the strangest thing is that I sometimes go to a meeting and give a talk, and suddenly a face rises from the past, someone who has been a student of mine. I had this experience at Rutgers University; I had it in San Francisco, where my student Azin was sitting in the front row as I gave a talk on my book. That has been an amazing experience. As for Mr. Bahri, I have not heard from him; I don’t know what has happened to him. I hope that I will at some point. And the magician is still the magician, as reclusive as he had been before, since he still does not belong to this club. And Mahshid, the last time I heard from her–she used to call me on birthdays and on New Year’s–she was doing fine. She was as wonderful as ever. So they are all doing fine from what I know.

RHRC: Do you ever regret your decision to leave Iran? Do you think you will ever return?

AN: Well, of course, I always think that I will return. I don’t know if I will stay or if I won’t, but the right to return is of course a thing that I reserve for myself. And no, as I mention at the end of the book, and I was not exaggerating or just saying it, I don’t think that Iran has left me. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I left Iran when I was so very young; I was about thirteen. Since then the idea of returning has sort of defined my life. But I learned that you cannot rely on geographical location. I genuinely believe in that portable world. And I also feel very much at home in America. America has been very generous to me and, although this might sound like a clichŽ, I believe this generosity is possible because America is still unique, because it is still a country of immigrants. One of the signs of feeling at home for me is not feeling at home, not being complacent. Once you start criticizing things and questioning, you know that you’re feeling at home, and I am questioning and wanting to change things, in fact, I want to help organize a march on Washington demanding support for humanities in our education system and reading, and although I hate slogans I think one of our slogans should be: Readers of the World Unite!! so I think that I feel good over here as well. But I haven’t left Iran; I never did.

RHRC: And what of Iran? What future do you see for your homeland and for the generation of men and women coming of age there now?

AN: You know, I do not like to be unreasonably optimistic; I have to be really cautious and careful about that, because I think that that sort of optimism is very cheap. But I think hope is very important, and very precious. I do have a great deal of hope for Iran, mainly because of the young people. My generation was actually the generation that took too many things for granted. At least I myself was too ideological to see the world the way I wish I had seen it. But this generation has had to fight for every right and bit of freedom that they have, and hopefully they will have far more in the future. When we talk about individual rights, they have suffered with their flesh and blood. So many of them have been flogged and jailed and fined and penalized for just wanting to dress the way they want to, or to see the kinds of films that they want to, or to express their love for one another freely. So on that very basic level, this young generation has felt the preciousness of individual rights and has paid a high price for it, so I think that they will really cherish it.

And another thing that I saw in Iran, and unfortunately I did not see an awareness of it here, was the way this new generation connects to the world. When I was in Iran teaching, when it came to ideas and imagination, there was no east or west there. The kinds of philistine and narrow-minded arguments and debates that go on here in some circles did not really exist there. People appreciated Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper as if they were their fellow citizens. They read Bellow and Nabokov as if they were their relatives. There was a genuine desire to connect to the world, and the way that they connected to the world was through the best that the world had to offer. And that is where my hope for Iran lies. If you read the news about Iran you find two trends: one is that the former revolutionaries, who have now become distant and who are now asking for democracy and for openness and for secularism, are questioning the very system that they themselves were part of. Then you see the children of the revolution who are also going in a different direction, who are also questioning and who also want to create a life that is open. And at the forefront of these struggles you see the women. I mean, Iranian women have been amazing in trying to retrieve the rights they had, and also in linking not just to the world outside but in bringing to our attention the fact that they have a history of their own. The idea that if they want to be free, if they want to have a choice, they don’t have to simply quote people from the West. They can just reference their own past. And so there is a new dialogue with the past that is very healthy. In this I have my hope. I have always said that I hope change will come to Iran through democratic means. There will be a lot of terrible things happening as well, but also a lot of good things. So I would like to end with hope. That was the whole purpose of Reading Lolita in Tehran, to show that we lived in a society that was oppressive but that the hope was in these young people who saw the world differently, and because they saw the world differently they were changing themselves and the world around them. They were never victims; Iranian women have never acted as victims. The first step to take to come out of this situation that makes you a victim is to understand that you are not a victim, that the power is with you. I mention this in the first chapter of the book, especially when discussing Invitation to a Beheading, when the first step toward liberation is to refuse to dance with your jailor and to find your own unique way of expression. If Iranian women were not that powerful, why would the government have to spend so much energy and so much power and so much force to change them? They are dangerous because they are powerful, and so therein lies the hope.

I want to remind you of what Nabokov wrote when he was asked to tone down his criticism of the Soviet Union during World War II: “Governments come and go, only the trace of genius remains.” That statement certainly came true for Eastern Europe. When you tell your own story, you take control over reality. In Iran, reality had power over us. And one way of negating that control was by telling our own stories. When you tell your story from your own perspective, then those people lose their power. It’s like Scheherazade, in A Thousand and One Nights. She changed the King through telling the story, and that was the whole idea of my book.



“Resonant and deeply affecting . . . an eloquent brief on the transformative
powers of fiction–on the refuge from ideology that art can
offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive
faith in the voice of the individual.”

“[A] vividly braided memoir . . . Anguished and glorious.”
–CYNTHIA OZICK, The New Republic

“Certain books by our most talented essayists . . . carry inside their covers
the heat and struggle of a life’s central choice being made and the
price being paid, while the writer tells us about other matters, and
leaves behind a path of sadness and sparkling loss. Reading Lolita in
is such a book.” –MONA SIMPSON, The Atlantic Monthly

“A poignant, searing tale about the secret ways Iranian women defy the
regime. . . . [Nafisi] makes you want to rush back to all these books to
experience the hidden aspects she’s elucidated.” –Salon

“A quietly magnificent book . . . [Nafisi’s] passion is irresistible.”
LA Weekly

“Azar Nafisi’s memoir makes a good case for reading the classics of
Western literature no matter where you are. . . . [Her] perspective on
her students’ plight, the ongoing struggle of Iranian citizens, and her
country’s violent transformation into an Islamic state will provide
valuable insights to anyone interested in current international events.”
–HEATHER HEWETT, The Christian Science Monitor

“An intimate memoir of life under a repressive regime and a celebration
of the vitality of literature . . . as rich and profound as the novels
Nafisi teaches.” –The Miami Herald

“An inspiring account of an insatiable desire for intellectual freedom.”
–USA Today

“Transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history,
though it is superb as all three . . . Nafisi has produced an original
work on the relationship between life and literature.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Nafisi’s passion for books is infectious, and her description of the
effect of the revolution on its people is unforgettable.”
–Rocky Mountain News

“[A] sparkling memoir . . . a spirited tribute both to the classics of
world literature and to resistance against oppression.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Nafisi artfully intertwines her own coming-of-age in pre-Revolutionary
Tehran with the daily frustrations of her pupils. . . . [She] relates her
girls’ moving stories with great sympathy.” –Entertainment Weekly

“[Nafisi] reminds us why we read in the first place.” –Newsday

“As timely as it is well-written . . . As the world seems to further divide
itself into them and us, Nafisi reminds her readers of the folly of
thinking in black and white.” Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Readers will have a new appreciation for the worn Nabokov and James
titles on their bookshelves after reading Nafisi’s engaging memoir.”
–Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Nafisi’s writing has painterly qualities. . . . She is able to capture a
moment and describe it with ease and melancholy. . . . Reading Lolita in
is much more than a literary memoir; it becomes a tool for
teaching us how to construe literature in a new, more meaningful
way.” –Library Journal

“Brilliant . . . So much is right with this book, if not with this world.”
–The Boston Globe

“I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafisi’s account of how she defied,
and helped others to defy, radical Islam’s war against women.
Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections
about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the
ordeals of freedom–as well as a stirring account of the pleasures and
deepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with great
literature and with an inspired teacher.” –SUSAN SONTAG

“A memoir about teaching Western literature in revolutionary Iran,
with profound and fascinating insights into both. A masterpiece.”
–BERNARD LEWIS, author of What Went Wrong?

“Anyone who has ever belonged to a book group must read this book.
Azar Nafisi takes us into the vivid lives of eight women who must
meet in secret to explore the forbidden fiction of the west. It is at once
a celebration of the power of the novel and a cry of outrage at the reality
in which these women are trapped. The ayatollahs don’t know it,
but Nafisi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic.”
–GERALDINE BROOKS, author of Nine Parts
of Desire
and Year of Wonders

“When I first saw Azar Nafisi teach, she was standing in a university
classroom in Tehran, holding a bunch of red fake poppies in one hand
and a bouquet of daffodils in the other, and asking, what is kitsch?
Now, mesmerizingly, she reveals the shimmering worlds she created
in those classrooms, inside a revolution that was an apogee of kitsch
and cruelty. Here, people think for themselves because James and
Fitzgerald and Nabokov sing out against authoritarianism and repression.
You will be taken inside a culture, and on a journey, that you will
never forget.” –JACKI LYDEN, author of Daughter of the
Queen of Sheba
Discussion Questions|Suggestions|Teachers Guide

Discussion Guides

1. On her first day teaching at the University of Tehran, Azar Nafisi began class with some questions: “What should fiction accomplish? Why should anyone read at all?” What are your answers to these questions? How does fiction force us to question what we often take for granted?

2. Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation upsilamba (18). What does the word upsilamba mean to you?

3. In what ways had Ayatollah Khomeini “turned himself into a myth” for the people of Iran (246)? Discuss the recurrent theme of complicity in the book: the idea that the Ayatollah, the stern philosopher-king who limited freedoms and terrorized the innocent, “did to us what we allowed him to do” (28). To what extent are the supporters of a revolution responsible for its unintended results?

4. Compare attitudes toward the veil held by men, women and the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran. How was Nafisi’s grandmother’s choice to wear the chador marred by the political significance it had gained (192)? Also, describe Mahshid’s conflicted feelings as a Muslim who already observed the veil but who nevertheless objected to its political enforcement.

5. In discussing the frame story of the murderous king in A Thousand and One Nights, Nafisi mentions three types of women who fell victim to his unreasonable rule (19). What is the relevance of this story for the women in Nafisi’s private class?

6. Explain what Nafisi means when she calls herself and her beliefs increasingly “irrelevant” in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Compare her way of dealing with this irrelevance to the self-imposed exile of the man she calls her “magician.” What can people who “lose their place in the world” do to survive, both physically and creatively?

7. During the Gatsby trial, Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to “distinguish fiction from reality” (128). How does Mr. Nyazi’s conflation of the fictional and the real compare to the actions of the blind censor, who retains the authority to suppress performances when he cannot even see? Discuss the role of censorship in both authoritarian and democratic governments. Can you think of instances in the United States when art was censored for its “dangerous” impact upon society?

8. Nafisi writes: “It was not until I had reached home that I realized the true meaning of exile” (145). How do her conceptions of home conflict with those of her husband, Bijan, who is reluctant to leave Tehran? Also, compare Mahshid’s feeling that she “owes” something to Tehran to Mitra’s and Nassrin’s desires for freedom and escape. Discuss how the changing and often discordant influences of memory, family, safety, freedom, opportunity and duty define our sense of home and belonging.

9. Fanatics like Mr. Ghomi, Mr. Nyazi and Mr. Bahri consistently surprised Nafisi by displaying absolute hatred for Western literature—a reaction she describes as a “venom uncalled for in relation to works of fiction” (195). What are their motivations? Do you, like Nafisi, think that people like Mr. Ghomi attack because they are afraid of what they don’t understand? Why is ambiguity such a dangerous weapon to them?

10. The confiscation of one’s life by another is the root of Humbert’s sin in Lolita. Discuss how Khomeini likewise acted as a “solipsizer,” robbing individuals of their identities to promote total allegiance. What does Nafisi mean when she says that Sanaz, Nassrin, Azin and the rest of her girls are part of a “generation with no past” (76)?

11. Nafisi teaches that the novel is a sensual experience of another world, that it appeals to the reader’s capacity for compassion. Do you agree that “empathy is at the heart of the novel”? How has this book affected your understanding of the impact of the novel?

12. Nafisi’s account of life in the Islamic Republic transcends national and geographical boundaries. Discuss how the experience of censorship, fundamentalism and human rights, as well as the enjoyment of works of imagination and the desire for individual freedoms, may be similar in totalitarian societies and in democracies such as ours.

Suggested Readings

It is impossible to compose a reading list of all my favorite books, so I have listed only those that are pertinent to Reading Lolita– those works of fiction I referenced most while teaching English literature in Tehran. I have not included books I discuss in the text, otherwise they would have been part of this list.

Jane Austen, Persuasion Saul Bellow, The Dean’s December; Herzog; More Die of Heartbreak Heinrich Bšll, The Clown Emily Bront‘, Wuthering Heights Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes Diderot, Jacques Le Fataliste Henry Fielding, Tom Jones and Shamela Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary Sadeq Hedayat, Buf-e-Kur (The Blind Owl) Henry James, The Ambassadors Franz Kafka, The Trial and In the Penal Colony Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin Iraj Pezeshkzad, My Uncle Napoleon Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea Scheherazade, A Thousand and One Nights Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

- Azar Nafisi

Teacher's Guide


Teachers: If you'd like a printable version of this guide, download the PDF attachment at the bottom of this page.

Reading Lolita in Tehran chronicles the life of Azar Nafisi, a Professor of English, during her years in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The book offers great challenges to young readers, and promises to enlighten them in a myriad of ways. Nafisi’s experience in Iran will provide opportunities to discuss several key themes in class, such as: personal freedom, social obligations, tyranny and democracy, love and commitment, ethics and moral courage. Although few younger students will find themselves in as extreme a situation as those living in revolutionary Iran, many of their experiences can be explored through empathetic reflection.

Nafisi’s book is rich and flexible enough to be read at any number of levels, thus making it appropriate to high school, freshman, and upper-class college study. Moreover, because of its focus on personal narrative, literary analysis, and historical context, it has an interdisciplinary quality that will enhance any teaching focus one may apply. Since it is a “memoir in books”, one obvious way to teach it is to make explicit connections to the books Nafisi features; e.g. The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice can be assigned along with the corresponding section of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Class discussion can then focus on: a. Nafisi’s interpretation of the novel(s), b. her students’ responses (often very critical or enthusiastic), c. the book’s many reflections on the function and value of literary study. In addition, the book’s engaging personal voice and perspective will make these important but distant historical events closer and more intelligible to most students, thereby providing opportunities to discuss world politics, religion, and human rights, as well as research and writing projects.

In what follows, various subheadings are employed to introduce teachers to the text, to offer a handy source of historical information, and to provide study questions and essay topics. The writing assignments ask the students to focus attention on specific issues that can be effectively handled in a limited number of pages, as well as in a range of forms including expository, personal, research, and literary analytical.


Azar Nafisi is a professor at Johns Hopkins University. She won a fellowship from Oxford and taught English literature at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University in Iran. She was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil and left Iran for America in 1997. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic, and is the author of Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.


Historical Contexts
Mohammed Reza Shah succeeded his father to the throne in 1941 and ruled Iran until his overthrow in 1979. Although many acknowledge him for his efforts to industrialize and modernize the nation, his rule was both dictatorial and oppressive, thus fomenting opposition from a wide spectrum of the religious and secular populations. Chief among his critics was the powerful Shia scholar, Ayatollah Khomeini. Although the Shah exiled Khomeini in 1964, the Ayatollah still maintained a powerful core of disciples dedicated to the deposition of the Shah. Increasing political unrest throughout 1978 reached its zenith by the end of the year and the Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979. Later that year, the Shah entered the US seeking treatment for cancer (he died two years later in Cairo, Egypt). Because the US would not extradite the Shah to Iran for trial, the US became a target of revolutionary ire, resulting in the taking of hostages at the US Embassy by a motley group of students. The hostage crisis finally came to an end after 444 days.

Meanwhile, the Ayatollah Khomeini had returned to Iran after his long exile spent in Turkey, Iraq, and France. On April 1, 1979, Iranian voters cast their ballots in a national referendum establishing an Islamic Republic. However, this did not make for a stable and fluid political transition. Throughout the year, rival political groups, ranging from conservative Islamic to communist, struggled to create a new nation, to write a constitution, and to determine a foreign policy; indeed, the whole identity and set up of the nation was up for debate. The Islamic Republican Party’s conservative agenda was most successful and strict policies and new laws were implemented. For women especially, the influence on their daily lives was immediate and intense. Although Reza Shah had “unveiled” Iranian women in 1936, they were forced again to adopt what the new regime defined as proper Islamic dress: either a chador or a long dark robe.
(For more on women’s issues see the summary of section three).

During this same period, Iran was besieged by its neighbor, Iraq. Throughout 1980, Iran and Iraq fought over a border which had been in dispute since the modern nation of Iraq was created at the close of World War I. This culminated in September 1980 with Iraq staging a full-scale military invasion of Iran, which ushered in eight years of armed conflict. Iraq thought it could take advantage of the political instability within Iran, and secure gains easily. However, Iranian resistance proved far greater than was expected; for their part, the new Iranian leaders used the war as a test for its own citizens’ loyalty to the Islamic Republic. Anyone expressing dissent could be accused not only of counter-revolutionary activities, but treason. In this way, many were sent to fight in the front, jailed, or executed

The effects of this war were widespread and deadly: not only was poison gas used against troops, but civilians were routinely targeted with missile and rocket attacks. The war caused the death and injury of more than a million people. Despite all this destruction and death, the war did not resolve the border dispute.

Since the late eighties, a reform movement has tried to change Iran’s political, cultural, and religious environment. Indeed, since a majority of the population was born after the 1979 revolution, many young people in Iran are eager for such reforms. Leaders such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami have advocated for more tolerance in cultural and political affairs, have opposed censorship, and arbitrary government. Their efforts have frequently been thwarted by conservative leaders, most notably, the Council of Guardians, which has the power to disqualify candidates for office.

Section I
The very earliest paragraphs of Reading Lolita in Tehran not only establish the general context of the book, but also introduce its key terms and themes.

Azar Nafisi begins with a description of a dream she fulfilled in her final years of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran: to hold a private literature workshop with a select group of dedicated students. Over the course of this first section, Nafisi introduces us to the seven students in the group and recreates their discussions about two primary texts: Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and Lolita. In so doing, she makes both implicit and explicit connections between these novels and the lives of these women living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and by extension, explores the links between literature and reality generally.

Nafisi characterizes her seven students one by one as they enter her home on their first workshop; for instance, Mahshid is distinguished as one who willingly wore the veil before the revolution, and who was jailed for five years because of her “affiliation with a dissident religious organization” (13), whereas Azin is described as sporting a kimono-style robe, and wearing large golden earrings and pink lipstick. The contrast between these two women demonstrates that a great deal of heterogeneity among Iranian women’s dress, attitudes and beliefs yet prevails, despite the regime’s attempts to define them only as Muslim women (28).

The discussions pertaining to Nabokov’s two novels highlight their exploration of the relationship between the individual and tyranny: “What Nabokov captured was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises and where you no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner” (23). Since the Islamic Republic is just such a totalitarian regime, the students and Nafisi are insightful readers of Nabokov’s book; they experience similar aspects of arbitrary rule and find relief in the reading of such experiences.
Although the new Islamic rules of behavior affected all Iranian citizens, Nafisi explains that after the revolution, women’s position in society was significantly curtailed specifically due to the implementation of the so-called Islamic dress code; indeed, “the streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey rules are hurled into patrol cars, flogged, fined…” (27). Perhaps the most powerful illustration of this life under tyrannical rule is the unfortunate experience of Sanaz. Without any justification, she and a group of friends are arrested, subjected to “virginity tests”, forced to sign “confessions” and sentenced to 25 lashes for vague accusations of vice (72-4). The sense of frustration, violation, and helplessness in the face of such abuses of power would be unbearable if it were not for the escape made possible in literature. This points to the book’s major theme of the relationship between literature and reality. Although it is true that literature provides solace, escape, and joy it also inexorably leads back to reality: “Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our own realities about which we felt to helplessly speechless” (38-39). Thus, art not only serves to enhance life through the experience of beauty, it helps us to understand our own reality.

Section II
In the second section, Nafisi goes back in time to recount her return to Iran in 1979 after many years of living abroad. She experiences an uncanny feeling of unfamiliarity while awaiting her luggage at the airport. Although happy to be home, the changes wrought by the revolution give her a sense of uneasiness. When going through customs, a young guard “picked up [my books] disdainfully, as if handling someone’s dirty laundry” (82). Although she notes that the guard did not confiscate her books, Nafisi warns us that this would come later. Such an observation indicates that the revolution for which they had such high hopes, would result in a more closed off society.

In September 1979, Nafisi began teaching at the University of Tehran, a year which concurred with the critical events of the Islamic Revolution, including the rise of Khomeini, the American hostage crisis, and the forced veiling of women. Nafisi decries the summary trials and executions of religious, political and cultural leaders. During this time, many of her colleagues were purged from the university, and her own position was in jeopardy, especially with regard to the content of her courses and her public stand against the veil.

Although Nafisi’s classes were routinely interrupted by major revolutionary events, she managed to lead the group through readings of important literary works, most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. According to Nafisi, this novel, while seemingly apolitical, has an important revolutionary quality. Many of her students however, object to it as immoral and decadent because its characters are adulterous. One might argue that the high point of this section is the “trial of Gatsby” which Nafisi organizes and her students stage. The trial discussions not only express a valuable reading of the novel itself, but also demonstrate what kinds of lines of inquiry or interpretation are appropriate in literary analysis.
In her closing remarks on the novel, Nafisi seeks to channel her students away from a narrow condemnation of the characters’ immorality, and instead to have them focus on the theme of the dream. Although one might say that Gatsby’s theme of the dream is quintessentially American, Nafisi eventually demonstrates the link between his dream (and its destruction) and the destruction of the revolutionary dream of many Iranians.

Section III
In the third section of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi narrates the events of the years 1980-1988, which included not only ongoing revolutionary activities but also the war with Iraq. On the personal front, in 1980, Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil; she subsequently pursued an independent writing career, bore two children, and, after a long hiatus from teaching, she took a full-time job at Allameh Tabatabai University where she resumed the teaching of fiction.

The coming of the war directly upon the heels of the revolution impacted life in Iran thoroughly. The new regime used the war as a weapon against anyone expressing dissident political views; anyone critiquing the government was labeled a traitor. In addition to traditional military battles, the civilian populations of Tehran and Baghdad were subjected to a brutal campaign of missile and rocket attacks. In much of this section of the book, Nafisi describes their experiences of blackouts, sirens, air raids and deaths as well as the psychological impact and coping mechanisms of living under such pressures; e.g. after missile attacks there would be a regular round of phone calls amongst family and friends confirming everyone’s safety. Nafisi and her husband struggled to decide the safest location in the apartment for their children to sleep, and moved them several times. For entertainment and diversion, many people watched movie videos procured on the black market or from banned satellite dishes. The anxiety and threat of constant attacks were frequently compounded by the pro-war propaganda of the regime. For instance, Nafisi specifically describes the revolutionary motorcycle squads who would circle missile attack sites, sometimes barring help to the victims, so that they could chant victory slogans.

Nafisi’s return to teaching was both a compromise and a thrill for her. In leaving her position at the University of Tehran, she had taken a moral stand against the regime’s mandatory policy of veiling. However, many saw this as a moot point since the imposition of the veil affected all women in all walks of life: in short, Nafisi would soon be wearing a chador or robe anywhere in public anyway. In a meeting with her student, Mr. Bahri, he asked her why she wanted to jeopardize the revolution for a “piece of cloth” (164). Nafisi protests the regime’s confiscation of the veil as a symbol for its fight against “Western Cultural Imperialism” by refusing to wear it in her official capacity as a professor, despite the fact that she must wear it as a private citizen. It is for this reason that her return to teaching is so fraught with difficulties for her. Although some advise her to teach because the spreading of ideas is a useful form of resistance to the oppressive policies of the regime, she struggles with the fear that she is compromising her moral position, and being a hypocrite.

Nevertheless, after much soul searching, Nafisi agrees to accept the position at Allameh Tabatabai University where she teaches Henry James among her other novelists. This section resembles others of the book in that Nafisi introduces us to a few key students and recreates for us some of their responses to two main texts. In this case, we have the return of some of the same students, such as Nassrin and Mahshid, as well as some new ones, such as the virulent and uninformed Mr. Ghomi. Two texts take center stage this time: Henry James’s Washington Square and Daisy Miller, novels which challenge her students very much. The character of Daisy Miller in particular became an obsession with the students; she is both an example of courage and misbehavior, and, like Gatsby, some readers see her as immoral and believe that she actually deserves the death she suffers in the end.

Although James’s prose is difficult, Nafisi shows that his world, or “counter-reality,” was a powerful antidote to the ugliness of the world that he saw in both the American Civil War and World War I. Nafisi shows that the students, citizens of Iran, could thoroughly understand and appreciate his dramatization of lack of empathy because that is what they experienced everyday at the hands of those currently in power. According to Nafisi, James illustrates the way in which compassion is central to the novel as a genre and lack of it defines the villain. Moreover, like the protagonists of James’s novels, the people of Iran can strive to achieve an “aura of victory” by maintaining “self respect,” even though this may not also include “happiness” (225).

The end of the war unfortunately does not bring relief to the people of Iran. For those not in the war it was a kind of anticlimax. Although the ceasing of missile attacks was certainly good, there was a prevalent feeling of “disillusion and disenchantment” (239) since Iran lay in ruins, and the nation suffered from rampant unemployment. For many of those young men who truly believed in the war, it was even worse. This fact is illustrated in the final chapter of the section. Nafisi narrates a typical day in class. As she is making her final comments on the theme of courage in James’s work, a student in another class immolates himself. Although he was a veteran of the front, little was known about him. Nafisi wonders whether he was privately mourned since there was never any official commemoration or memorial. He represents the average young man who had gained a sense of “purpose and power” with the war, but who “lost all that as soon as he returned from the front” (252).

Section IV
In the final section of the book, Nafisi returns to the description of the literature workshops with which the memoir began. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the primary novel that acts as a touchstone throughout the section. The reading of Pride and Prejudice offers interesting insights into the nature of love and communication, as Nafisi and her students cope with the challenges peculiar to women living under the regime’s oppressive interpretation of Islamic tradition. The author thoroughly develops this theme in this section, although it has an important presence throughout the memoir, in repeated stories of vice squads’ arbitrary powers, the sexual molestations that pass for security searches, and the arguments about the veil itself. It seems that the regime is intent on controlling all aspects of their sexuality. In one provocative statement, Nafisi observes that: “Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe” (329).

Of course, one key issue is the veil. In section three Nafisi had referred to her grandmother’s wearing of the veil as a special pious act which defined her personal relationship with God and which was not political in nature. In the fourth section, she elaborates on this theme by discussing Mahshid’s relationship to the veil: she willingly wore it before the revolution, and yet after it becomes mandatory for all women, it is oppressive to her. Although this may seem confusing if not downright contradictory, the reason is clear: in making it mandatory for all, the special significance of it in her life as a choice has been nullified. No one in looking at her could tell if it were her desire to veil or if it were simply thrust upon her. This results in self-doubt, depression, and self-loathing.

Because mandatory veiling (either in the form of a robe or a chador) is so important, it has tended to overshadow the debate about other issues that are equally important to women; for example, marriage, divorce, and child custody laws, and access to education and health care. Indeed, some have argued that keeping the veil in the forefront of women’s issues has been an effective way to detract attention away from other issues of grave importance to women.
Nafisi gives a brief history of marriage laws in Iran to make the irony of women’s position in Iran clear. The main point is that they are living in a time warp, where four generations of women have had wildly different experiences. In the early twentieth century the age of marriage had been raised to 18; women were being elected to parliament, and women enjoyed rights comparable to those of women in Western democracies. However, after the revolution, the family protection law was repealed, thus negating many of the rights of women both at home and work. The age of marriage was lowered to nine, the punishment for adultery and prostitution was stoning, and women were considered to have half the worth of men (261). Whereas Nafisi and her mother enjoyed a relative degree of freedom, her young daughter’s position in society has regressed. In fact, it is more akin to that of her own great-grandmother.

Throughout this section, the author presents many other problems commonly faced by women. She demonstrates the difficulties of open courtship through the experiences of Sanaz and Yassi (263, 269-70, 278-80, 283-88) and they all voice their frustration that then-President Rafsanjani, hailed by many as a liberal reformer, had advocated the ridiculous rule of “temporary marriage” (259). The narration of the plight of Azin exposes the discriminatory divorce and child custody laws (272, 286). Nafisi even touches on the ambiguous psychological effects of Iran’s oppressive laws by describing Nassrin’s fundamental alienation from her own body (295-96).

Multiple personal anecdotes illustrate Nafisi’s own frustration with the situation in Iran; for example, she notes that menopause is little discussed or understood among many women and their husbands (302). In another scene she is in a café with her friend known as “the magician” when the Vice Squad arrives for a raid. Since they are not related, it is illegal for them to be together like so, however, Nafisi initially refuses to part from her friend since they are not doing anything wrong. It is the constant pressure of this level of control by the government that she and the women of the group find unbearable.

Despite the current deplorable situation, there is still hope for reform and improvement. Nafisi notes that although the younger generation did not have the chance to benefit from the earlier establishment of women’s rights, the knowledge that such rights existed in the not-too distant past, inspires them to work for more in the future. It is precisely for this reason that the question of leaving Iran for the West is so tantalizing, and yet vexing for these women. Not only Nafisi, but nearly all the girls in the group, struggle with the question of whether to flee the country to attain greater personal freedoms, or stay and fight for change at home.

In this section Nafisi does not make as many explicit connections between the literary text (Pride and Prejudice) and their lives as she did in previous sections; for instance, in section two she made a very explicit connection between Gatsby’s dead dream and those of the Iranians. Nevertheless, in several passages here (265; 266-69; 304-07; 315) she devotes her attentions to a thorough reading of Pride and Prejudice, highlighting how Austen incorporated a multiplicity of voices which coexist within the texture of the novel, and which need not cancel any other voices out. This stylistic technique is mirrored in the novel’s plot, in which characters “risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose” (307). Naturally, there is an implicit connection between this and Iranian women’s struggle to regain the right to choose how to live their lives.

In the memoir’s brief epilogue, Nafisi tells us that she left Iran on June 24, 1997 and now lives and teaches in the US. She concisely describes the efforts of some of the younger generation to reform and liberalize the political system in Iran and she provides a few parting sentences about each of the women from the literature workshop, many of whom have since immigrated to the West.


Section I

Discussion Questions:
1.Who is the Blind Censor? How does Nafisi utilize this figure to help articulate what she and her girls hope to do in their weekly workshop? (24-25)
2.What is the meaning of “poshlust”? (23)
3.How do the students explain Nabokov’s mysterious word “upsilamba”? Why was the concept so intriguing to them?
4.What are the three kinds of women in 1001 Nights? How might women in Iran relate to their problem?
5.How did Invitation to a Beheading relate to life in Iran (23, 67)?
6.What happened to Sanaz when she went on a brief vacation with her friends?

Writing Assignments:
1.Expository: In her explanation of the workshop, Nafisi writes not only about their literary discussions, but also about their lives in Iran. In an expository essay, show what their lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran were like. Refer to specific situations as Nafisi describes them.
2.Personal: Nafisi narrates the incident of Sanaz’ arrest and punishment although she and her friends are completely innocent. Was there ever a time when you felt yourself to be a victim of injustice?
Tell the story and explain how you felt. What, if any, lasting changes have you experienced as a result of this injustice?
3.Literary: Of Lolita, Nafisi writes: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her” (41). Write a literary analytical essay in which you explain this quotation.

Section II

Discussion Questions:
1.Why does Nafisi feel so exhilarated and yet uneasy at the airport? (81-82)
2.Describe Nafisi’s experiences abroad. How do they relate to her life in Iran? How do they contrast? (82-86; 113-15)
3.According to the author, what should the “best fiction do”? What do you think? (94)
4.In Iran during this time, show trials and executions were routinely aired on television; how did Nafisi feel when she saw the arrest of the general who had been responsible for the framing and imprisonment of her own father? (101)
5.What happened at the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979? Why was it called “the nest of spies”? (104-06)
6.During the trial of The Great Gatsby
what are Mr. Nyazi’s arguments against the novel? (124-28)
7.How does Zarrin answer Mr. Nyazi? How does she defend the novel? (128-35)
8.How did Nafisi ultimately feel about the outcome of the trial? (136)
9.The author shows that the regime placed writers in a position of high esteem.
Why was this a problem? (136)
10.Nafisi states that “I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s” (144). Please explain this quotation.

Writing Assignments:
1.Expository: What is Mr. Nyazi’s objection to The Great Gatsby? Do you believe these are valid and useful ways to respond to literature? In contrast, what does Nafisi say about the function of literature?
2.Personal: Nafisi begins with an explanation of a return to her home where she felt strange. In an essay please describe Nafisi’s experience and then relate it to an experience that you have had. Have you ever felt out of place at home? Why?
3.Research: Throughout this section, Nafisi alludes to major political developments. In a research paper, please explain the
revolutionary events in Iran between the Shah’s leaving (January 1979) and the beginning of the Iraq war (Summer 1980). Use Nafisi as one of your sources.
4.Literary: Of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby Nafisi writes: “It is about loss, about the perishability of dreams once they are transformed into hard reality. It is the longing, its immateriality, that makes the dream pure” (144). Write an essay in which you explain and support this statement.

Section III

Discussion Questions:
1.What happens during Nafisi’s discussion about the veil with her student, Mr. Bahri? (164-65)
2.Describe the missile attacks and bombings that the residents of Tehran experience.
3.How does Nafisi use the term “irrelevant” to describe herself? (169)
4.Who is Mrs. Rezvan? What does she encourage Nafisi to do?
5.What are the students’ responses to Daisy Miller? Do you agree with them? If not, what do you make of the novel? (194-98)
6.What happens when the female students were mocking one of the male students who had died in the war? What does Nassrin say? What does Nafisi say? (210-12)
7.What is the relevance of the narration of Henry James’s biography in chapter 23? How especially does the quotation about “counter-reality” gloss James’s art? (216)
8.According to Nafisi, in what way is Catherine Sloper an unusual heroine? (223)

Writing Assignments:
1.Expository: In this section, Nafisi explains why she resisted wearing the veil in 1980, and how she accepted dismissal from her job at the University of Tehran because of it. Later, however, she returned to teaching at Allameh Tabatabai University, and consented to wear the veil in class after all. Explain the initial dilemma and the steps she took in deciding to go back.
2.Personal: Have you ever gone through an experience where you had to stand up for your convictions and take the punishment? Have you ever had to compromise your principles? Write an essay that tells the story of your ethical decision, and why you had to change your mind.
3.Research: In this section Nafisi refers to the Iran-Iraq war. Write a research paper in which you identify the events leading up to the war, its key characteristics, and results. Use Nafisi as one of your sources in order to show how the average citizen coped with the war.
4.Literary: According to some of Nafisi’s students, Daisy Miller is an immoral character and by extension, the novel is immoral. Write an essay in which you either agree or disagree with this assessment.
5.Literary: Nafisi points out that in Washington Square, Catherine Sloper is an unconventional heroine. Write a character analysis of Catherine which shows how she is unconventional. Explain if you think that Catherine does, as Nafisi suggests, reach a kind of victory at the end of the novel.
6.Literary: Write an essay in which you show how both Daisy and Catherine show distinct kinds of courage.

Section IV

Discussion Questions:
1.Explain in what way “four generations of women–my grandmother, my mother, myself and my daughter–lived in the present but also in the past” (262).
2.How does Nafisi use dancing as a way to describe and understand the novel Pride and Prejudice? (264-69)
3.According to Nafisi, what is the relationship between the personal and political? (273)
4.How does the magician challenge her when she complains to him? (277-82)
5.What is the “Ordeal of Freedom” of which Nassrin speaks? (323)
6.Before the revolution, Mahshid voluntarily wore the chador; explain her feelings about mandatory veiling. (326-28)

Writing Assignments:
1.Expository: In this section, Nafisi and her husband finally decide to leave Iran and immigrate to the United States. Explain their feelings about this and the steps leading up to the decision.
2.Personal: Write about a time when you did not have the power to change a situation and the only option was to remove yourself from it.
3.Research: Nafisi writes that women in Iran once enjoyed rights comparable to those of women in the West. Write an essay in which you explain the status of women in Iran: begin with the reforms of the early-twentieth century and describe the legal status of women after the revolution. Use Nafisi as one of your sources.
4.Literary: After her discussion with the magician, Nafisi admits that: “Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world–not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires” (282). Explain this quotation by directly utilizing texts of your own choosing.


Ayatollah Khomeini: Charismatic leader of the revolution and holder of the office of Faqih until his death in 1989.

Chador: Islamic dress for women characterized by a tight black head covering and a long flowing cape; along with robes, the chador is a common form of public attire for women in the Islamic Republic.

Council of Guardians: Twelve-member council which ensures that legislation of the Majles (Iranian parliament) conforms to the principles of Islam and the constitution. Also approves candidates for elected office; in recent years it has rejected many potential candidates from running for office.

Faqih: Official governmental position translated as Supreme Spiritual Leader; although he is not supposed to interfere with the daily business of government, his role is always to ensure its adherence to the principles of the Islamic revolution.

Great Satan: Disparaging name applied to the United States by Khomeini and his followers.

Imam: A clerical position in Islam; Khomeini was sometimes referred to as “the Imam”.

Islam: Religion based on the revelation of the prophet Mohammed.

Islamic Republic of Iran: Official name adopted by the nation after the revolution of 1979.

Mohammed Reza Shah: The monarch of Iran who ruled from 1941 until he fled the revolution in January 1979.

Muslim: Adherent to the religion of Islam.

Persia: Ancient name for the nation of Iran. The word is of Latin derivation and has been used in recent years by those
who wish to distance themselves from the current Islamic regime.

Saddam Hussein: Former Iraqi President who invaded Iran in 1980, touching off the eight year Iran-Iraq war.
Tehran: The capital of Iran.

Veil: A general word used to refer to Islamic dress for women; it can range from a simple headscarf to a chador.


-Winner of the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Book Sense
-Winner of the Frederic W. Ness Book Award
-Winner of the 2004 Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award
-Finalist for the 2004 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir
-A New York Times Bestseller


This guide was written by Filiz Turhan, an Assistant Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College. She is the author of The Other Empire: British Romantic Writings about the Ottoman Empire (Routledge) and articles on the Romantic period and contemporary Muslim and Middle Eastern literature.

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