Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reading Gatsby in Tehran

In Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, I got an unexpected look into life in Iran from about 1980 through 1997, when the author left the country.  What surprised me was how many choices were allowed in a country which I understood opposed anything "Western".  For instance, it never occurred to me that women are wearing jeans and t shirts under their chadors, or that such clothing would even be available for purchase in Iran.  I was also surprised that women could divorce, e-mail and travel outside of Iran.  Of course, women could not travel outside of Iran without their husbands, but the fact that they were permitted to go to places like London or the US at all was news to me.  However, while that was what life was like in 1997, based on news reports, I think that Iran must be more restrictive now.

Much of the book, Reading Lolita is spent with the author, Azar Nafisi, and her students, a group of women who are interested in Western literature.  One of the books that they discussed was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  I expected that Lolita  would be intolerably scandalous for Iranian culture, and was shocked to realize that with one simple plot twist, it would have been perfectly acceptable.  The problem for Iranians was that Lolita (actually, Dolores) and Humbert were not married.  The problem for Americans was that Humbert was sleeping with a 12 year old, and blaming her for it.  The American issue with Lolita is no concern at all for the Iranian hardliners, because a woman can be married at the age of 9 in Iran, and it is perfectly understandable that a woman of that age could seduce an older man.  The Great Gatsby,  by F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, was considered absolutely outrageous when Dr. Nafisi taught the book in Iran.  Her students were horrified by the glamorization of American excesses and lax morality.  The fact that the reader is supposed to be judgemental for just those reasons was lost on Dr. Nafisi's more conservative students.

As I mentioned earlier, while this book is a memoir, it reads more like fiction.  Dr. Nafisi is a talented story teller, and as an added perk, she brings the reader up to speed with mini-lectures on the classic pieces of literature that may have been missed in college.  I would like to see another epilogue, written now by one of her students who stayed in Iran.  It would be interesting to hear about whether Western literature is being taught at all, what women are wearing, whether foreign travel is permitted, and what rights women have gained and lost since the late 1990s.

Next up on CD:  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Still reading:  You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs

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