Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010 all rights reserved

Two city blocks north of “Ground Zero” – the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – an Islamic group wants to build a community center and mosque and, understandably, many Americans are outraged. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam leading the project, is hardly a radical figure: for years he has been an important envoy for the United States in Islamic countries, working for peace and tolerance between cultures. The problem seems to be one of perception: because the wounds from the 9/11 attacks are still raw, many feel the project is insensitive at best and passive aggressive at worst. There is so much fear and misunderstanding surrounding Muslims in this country that it is virtually impossible to have a rational discussion about any aspect of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Whether or not the Islamic cultural center and mosque get built, this situation offers us an opportunity to learn more about Islam, the religion and the culture, so that we may differentiate between suicidal militants and devout followers of the Prophet Muhammad.

There are many excellent books, both fiction and non-fiction, which can help us understand the Islamic world. One in particular, Reading Lolita in Tehran, provides insight into the deep cultural differences that exist between Americans and Muslims. In addition, this book provides an inside account of life during the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how a relatively small group of Islamic fundamentalists seized power from an American-backed monarch with an army at his disposal. The author, Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor of English literature who was educated in Great Britain and the United States, returned to Iran in the midst of the revolution. Like many of her countrymen, she resented the Shah and his corrupt and brutal regime, despite benefitting from the cultural changes he implemented on behalf of women. The Pahlavi monarchy did have many faults, just the same it opened Iranian society to western culture and actively encouraged students to travel abroad for their education. As a student in the United States, Dr. Nafisi participated in protest marches against the Shah and hoped that Iran could become a nation of laws as opposed to men with absolute power. When she began teaching in Tehran, Dr. Nafisi believed that she was free to teach the literary works which she had studied in the United States, by authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Jane Austen, and Henry James. Other than perhaps Nabokov and Flaubert, these authors are not particularly controversial, but to the Islamic fundamentalists who were slowly taking control of the society they were instruments of western decadence.

Iran’s civil troubles date back to the late 1800s when Great Britain received exclusive rights to that nation’s tobacco markets, through a series of opportunistic deals with the monarchy. Islamic leaders organized boycotts against this policy and developed into a formidable political force, eventually ending the British tobacco monopoly. Unified and energized by success with this boycott, these Islamic leaders recognized their ability to influence the population. In reaction, Shah Reza, a former general in the army who was supported by Great Britain, outlawed traditional Islamic clothing and sexual segregation. He further infuriated the mullahs by replacing ancient Islamic laws with secular ones modeled on those of America and western European nations. His police enforced the new laws by ripping chadors and burquas off women and requiring men to shave. Rather than marginalizing the Islamic extremists, the Shah’s policies only strengthened their resolve to save Islam from ruin. In 1941, the Shah was forced into exile.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Reza’s son, became Iran’s ruler that same year, following an invasion by Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Like his father, the younger Shah continued to modernize the country, believing that once the nation tasted freedom from the stranglehold of Islam, the mullahs would finally lose their ability to call the populace to action. In an effort further to weaken the religious extremists in Iran, the Shah banned the headscarf and encouraged women to pursue education and careers. For the intellectual elite, especially those who had been educated in the west, this was a golden age. However for those who opposed the Shah’s effort to westernize Iran, it was a time of repression and tyranny. The tipping point came when the Shah’s policies resulted in economic hardship – inflation and shortages – which led to widespread protesting and demonstrations. Ironically, the Shah was undone by his own loosening of social restraints because liberal intellectuals joined the Islamic militants, finding unity in their anger. It wasn’t long before the revolutionaries became too numerous for the Iranian security forces to control. At the height of the uprising, a group of students seized the United States Embassy in Tehran, inadvertently creating a standoff that lasted 444 days. This action served to strengthen the radical wing of the revolution and to silence the voices of moderation. According to Ayatollah Khomeini, the hostage taking united the people of Iran and put the world on notice that they would no longer tolerate foreign intervention. The truth was that absolute power rested with the Islamic extremists and any Iranian voicing opposition faced torture and death.

While history was being made by protestors in front of the Iranian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC, and by the hostage takers in Tehran, Dr. Nafisi began teaching Iranian students how to read some of the great works of English literature. Because of her family’s stature and her impressive teaching credentials, Dr. Nafisi was more or less left alone for her first few months at the University of Tehran. Things began to change, however, as the balance of power shifted. Instead of teaching literature to students with a genuine interest in understanding works considered important by the developed world, Dr. Nafisi found herself defending Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James to the polite but hostile Islamic fundamentalist male students who began populating the university. These young men were unwilling and unable to understand and appreciate the works for their literary or historical merit, and instead challenged the morality of any fictional character that questioned social norms or conducted her- or himself in ways that were at odds with their rigid beliefs.

Dr. Nafisi resigned her teaching position when she was ordered to wear a headscarf. Even though she had been part of the movement to overthrow the Shah, Dr. Nafisi began to understand that she and others had been naïve in thinking that a fair and democratic government would emerge. Bookstores closed overnight, free thinking went underground, and women once more became invisible. To an intelligent and educated professional woman, this was unacceptable, so Dr. Nafisi decided to start a revolution of her own by inviting a select group of her female students to study forbidden literature in her home.

Dr. Nafisi’s descriptions of her clandestine literature classes help the reader understand how things we Americans take for granted can be confusing and senseless to foreigners. Take The Great Gatsby, for example. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel describes a group of wealthy young wastrels and their decadent lifestyle during the “Roaring Twenties”. This era was uniquely American, a time of loosening morals and self-indulgence during a wild stock market boom and the gin-soaked prohibition years. With money flowing like water and sobriety on the wane, women could act like Daisy Buchanan and cheat on their husbands without fear of ruin. Additionally, the notion that a man would reinvent himself in order win the love of a married woman is absurd in a culture where marriages are arranged and women can be stoned to death for adultery. Even Dr. Nafisi’s most dedicated students had difficulty relating to this story.

Reading Lolita in Tehran sheds light on the fear and resentment that exist deep within many Muslims toward Americans while at the same time it reveals a silenced majority who are fascinated by all things American. The Islamic fundamentalist view of American culture is that our standards of modesty are quite low, we take our freedom to say what we will to extremes, and alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant. The biggest cultural division has to do with sex. American women are free to do whatever with whomever (as long as no one gets hurt), to dress provocatively, and to divorce and re-marry at will, whereas Islamic tradition values modesty, chastity, and obedience in women.

Dr. Nafisi, now an American citizen, wrote this book as a memoir, although the Iranian characters in the book have been completely changed so that no one could guess their identities. The young women took a risk to meet with Dr. Nafisi weekly, going so far as to lie to family members and friends. Initially, the meetings were all business, but as time went on bonds formed between the women which transcended personal biases and social stratifications. It was an enriching experience for teacher and students alike, except that in the end, when Dr. Nafisi and her family decided to leave Iran for the United States, she felt as if she done some of them a disservice.

Now that the United States is finally drawing down our forces in Iraq, many in Washington will start to focus on Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not seem interested in joining the world community; in fact, he almost appears to be daring the United States to take military action. Meanwhile on the home front, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy, who had genuinely hoped that their Islamic cultural center would foster tolerance and understanding between Americans and Muslims are finding that their good intentions have stirred up a tidal wave of controversy. Whatever the outcome, whether the project goes ahead as planned, moves to another site, or gets canceled, everyone would be well-served to become better informed about Islam. Reading Lolita in Tehran is an important book for Americans to read: not only will it help us understand Muslims better but also how, if we’re not careful, the ideals upon which our nation was founded could easily become irrelevant.

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