Posts Tagged ‘Nafisi’

Reading Lolita in Tehran

September 8, 2012

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian educated in Oklahoma, taught English literature at Tehran universities. Or tried to. Eventually that became impossible, and devolved into a secret seminar in her apartment, with a selected group of female students meeting weekly to discuss literature free from the regime’s tentacles. Her book is Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Azar Nafisi

We Americans know Iran’s regime is oppressive, especially toward women. Or sort of know. In truth most of us haven’t the faintest idea. So acculturated are we to our version of “normal” human life that we instinctively imagine even a nation like Iran as more similar than different. It isn’t. It’s a totally bizarro inversion of our “normal,” and Nafisi’s book shows this.*

One story concerned a group of girls on a brief seaside vacation together. Relaxing on a verandah, it was literally invaded by one of the “morality police” goon squads. The girls, properly dressed and all, even under Iran’s suffocating rules, were doing nothing “wrong.” Nevertheless, trolling for people to mess with, the goons accused them of acting “Western” and hauled them off to jail, where they remained for forty-eight hours, subjected to repeated virginity exams. After trial, they were each given 25 lashes. But this was actually a comparatively benign outcome. Such stories could end in execution.

Iran’s true believers are obsessed with “morality” – and its supposed lack in the “decadent” West. It’s all about sexual morality. And sexually they are fubar. Male-female relations, compared to ours, are mostly a bitter human desert. They act as though men can’t handle a glimpse of female hair or skin. Of course, they may not have sex with anyone not their wives; but a “temporary marriage” of an hour with a prostitute solves that problem. And supposedly a girl dying a virgin goes straight to Heaven; so they solve that problem too before executing any girl. I guess in such cases even the sham marriage is dispensed with. (Is Allah fooled?)

Khomeini — the real “Great Satan”

This is not sexual morality but perversion, virulent and pervasive.

And of course sex is but a narrow sector of morality; what is conspicuously absent in Iran’s “morality” obsession is any concern for actual human well-being. That is the true alpha and omega of morality and Iran reflects its very antithesis. Nafisi nails it: “Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all others flowed.”

The book also usefully recaps the 1979 events. After the Shah’s fall, there was a window in which Iran’s future was up for grabs. Most people wanted an open, secular, democratic constitution. So how did that majority lose out to Khomeini and his medieval vision? Violence. Sustained, unrestrained, brutal ultra-violence. Many thousands killed. And why not? After all, it was God’s work. That sanctifies any and all horrors. “Lack of empathy” indeed!

Say what you will about America’s religious fundamentalists and their political assertiveness, they don’t even think of shooting opponents, and that’s a very big difference. Non-violent politics is so ingrained in America (and other advanced democracies) that we’re oblivious to how utopian this actually is.


I recently wrote about Pakistan’s being fubar too, again mainly by religious fanaticism. The latest story involves a mentally handicapped Christian girl, Rimsha Misah (said to be 11, her age is disputed), accused of Koran burning. Imprisoned with hardened criminals, she has been granted bail, but still faces the death penalty; her family is in hiding; local Muslims want to burn them all alive. Their imam says he can’t control them. While a Muslim cleric (same guy??) has been charged with planting the burned pages on Rimsha. Meantime the body of a missing Christian boy, Samuel Yaqoob, also 11, has been found showing hideous torture. (You really don’t want to click on that link.) And in Pakistan, most women incarcerated are there for the crime of – get this — being raped.

Western culture is incomparably more moral than Iranian or Pakistani culture.

Reading a book like Nafisi’s always poses the question: why not just leave? But it’s never so simple. Is leaving – and leaving behind all those who can’t leave – a cop-out? In today’s Syria, thousands choose to stand and fight rather than give up and leave. But in Syria at least there is a fight going on. In Nafisi’s Iran, no fight was even possible, and staying literally risked death. Writers and intellectuals are regularly murdered by the regime. Yet she considered it her home, and agonized over the choice.**

In Nafisi’s discussions of literature; of her favorite authors Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Austen, James; the theme of choice looms large. It is through making choices for ourselves that we live our humanity. In the end, Azar Nafisi did make her choice.

Welcome to America.

* She mentions a student who visited abroad and was shocked by the sense of freedom she felt there. In Syria! Everything is relative. (I remember a group of U.S. peace activists, years ago, returned from confabs with Assad and Iranian officials, burbling how decent they seemed. What fools, I thought.)

** My grandfather similarly took his family out of 1930s Germany; but for them, the fortunate ability to leave was hardly a choice at all.