Like the Republic of Imagination that I read last year, this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran that I read this year in Arizona, was brilliant. Both are written by Azar Nafisi. This one is an odd little book. It is written by a young Iranian professor of English literature who now teaches at an American University, but tells us about her first years as a professor in Iran during and after the time of the Iranian Revolution. She started sort of a book club at her home when she felt suffocated by the oppressive regime while teaching in the University of Tehran. She went home to escape and took some of her female students with her. The professor and her students rebelled. They rebelled not with guns, bombs or conspiracies. They rebelled by reading American and English literature! In their hands that was a revolutionary activity.
All of the women lived in a totalitarian society where officials were wary of the Professor but didn’t really know what to do about her. Some of them learned how to resist. Some of them suffered serious consequences, but that is not really what the book is about. The book is about literature as rebellion.
Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.”
One of the most amazing scenes in the book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsbyon trial. Her students play the roles. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her more radical female students from her book club. It is a remarkable achievement. According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” It is a revolt against moral hubris in favor of what I have come to call moral humility or restraint.
The Iranian officials tried to prescribe what all the people should do, how they worship, how they love, what they read, and what they think. It tried to restrain them totally. The women became revolutionaries not by any overtly political acts, but only by readingand thinking. None of them fired a gun. Yet, the women learned how literature can defeat ideology. This is what Nafisi in her second book called “the Republic of Imagination.” Nafisi sees literature as revolutionary force opening the mind to possibilities. Imagine please, Jane Austen as a revolutionary!
Its books like this we should read when we are forced to confront authoritarianism. Times like now.