29 April 2017

Reading Lolita in Tehran - a statement, a story, a reality not a book Review

Book: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Author: Azar Nafisi
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (5/5) a very rare rating for a book 

There are so many freedoms we take for granted, like reading a book called Loilta in a city called Tehran. 

Very rarely a book is written about books, the words of a reader. And very rarely a book which has Titilated generations, ends up becoming such a strong social statement. This is what Lolita in Tehran aims to be, a statement of an underground revolution of few burqa clad women, who by reading this book are revolting against the tenets of their society and country. 

The book title summarises the gist of the story. It is about reading Nobokov's famous Book Lolita in Tehran. A country seeped in conservative Islamic culture bans Lolita, a book depicting the erotic renderings of a paedophile. The same country where 9 year old girls are herded like cattle and married to old lusty men. An irony indeed, a scandalous  reality hidden behind the garb of being a bad influence on its women and men. Interestingly, most books with modern independent heroine protagonists are banned and considered un- Islamic. 

I don't consider myself an expert on religion or literature but a society which does not allow independent thinking is bound to be regressive. That is what is happening to Iran which is going back to the older ways rather than moving forward. The cultural, social and religious tyranny, restricts day to day living and thinking. Leaving no other options but the liberal citizens to runaway to other open minded countries. What would a simple citizen do - be patriotic and fight the tyrant or runaway to live a free life. Is there a way to reason with someone who refuses to listen. Following the age old traditions without questioning there relevance or logical reasoning at the first place. 

Along with the cultural eye opener, I fell in love with this book for the 8 rebellious women who imbibed the book love in its highest form. The main protagonist is the author, Azi Nafisi and the others are her select set of girl students who form a secret book club to read and share books which were banned from the university syllabus or prohibited to read. Each girl is special - Manna the poet, Mahshid is sensitive, Yassi the comedian obsessed with words, Azin the wild and outspoken, Mitra the calm with dimpled smile, Sanaz the independent yet traditional and Nassrin the Cheshire Cat. 

The secret book club and the intriguing book discussions makes this book a collectors dream. I have read many books, authors and they are all book lovers but nothing like the ones in this book. There love for books is not a hobby, it's a passion fueled by the will to live and think in a society which restricts it. 

The classics have been critically analysed and reviewed from multiple aspects of time, religion, society, gender, politics, marriage and love. Each nuance discussed carefully and beautifully like peeling of layers of onion delicately leading to the core of a shared experience. I found myself sitting in that book club hearing their conversations, feeling there emotions and watching their expressions. So many stories unfolded while discussing these books. Each character found its link to the story, interpreted in its own way. Ones freedom is another's rebellion, ones shyness is another's weakness, ones choice is another's selfishness, ones belief is another's chastity. 

When Professor Nafisi calls these women as my girls, believe me I felt they were my girls too. The same girls I have grown up with, fighting similar social orders and disorders, trying to be independent and live freely.  While not on the same scale, this is the struggle all girls have to fight and continue to fight. Because it's the women who can make this world simple and liveable while the men try to mark it with rules and boundaries. 

This book is for all the women and their journeys. Everything I felt and experienced while reading this book made me a more mature and grateful person for the small mercies.  A book that adds so much to you as a person is bound to stay with you forever. This one will stay as long as I read and whenever anyone asks me to suggest a powerful book to read, this will be my first recommendation. Dedicated to all those who are changing the world just be reading books! 

Further reading inspirations from book. Nafisi teaches western literature and these classics are a must read-  
- Vladimir Nobokov's 'Lolita' and 'Invitation to the beheading'. 
- Scheherazade (A Thousand and one nights) 
- Mike Gold (proletarian) and Maxim Gorky were intrusively subversive in their political aims: others like Fitzgerald's (Great Gatsby, The Nigger of the Narcissus) and Mark Twain, were in my opinion subversive, if less obviously so. 
- Muriel Spatk's The prime of Miss Jean Brodie 
- Adventures of huckleberry fin
- moby dick
- the scarlet letter
- Daisy Miller 
- The Dean's December 
- Jane Austen 
- Billy Budd
- Around the world in eight days 
- Hamlet
- Loitering with intent 
- Madame Bovary
- Anna Karenina 

Now some pearls of words from book, which will stay with me much after finishing the book. One can feel the love for books oozing in every word - 

Reality has become so intolerable, so bleak, that all I can paint now are the colors of my dreams. 

Readers were born free and ought to remain free. 

Poshlust, Nobokov explains is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely cleaver, the falsely attractive. 

There on the brink of the void, I could invent the violin or be devoured by the void. 

Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. 

Yassi's poem is called "How Small are the Things that I like." In it she describes her favourite objects - an orange backpack, a colourful coat, a bicycle just like her cousin's and the green gate of the university. A magical entrance into the forbidden world of all ordinary things she had been denied in life. 

Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defence 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. 

Nobokov calls every great novel a fairy tale. First let me remind you that fairy takes abound with frightening witches who eat children and wicked stepmothers who poison their beautiful stepdaughters and weak fathers who leave their children behind in forests. But the magic comes from the power of good that force which tells us we need not give in to the limitations and restrictions imposed on us by Mcfate, as Nobokov calls it. 

Azin would often bite the corner of her lower lip and launch into tirades about love, sex and men - like a child throwing a big stone into the pool; not just to make a splash, but to wet the adults in the bargain. 

"Today is the day of mourning! Taleghani has gone to heaven today." That was the first time I experienced the desperate, orgiastic pleasure of this form of public mourning: it was the one place where people mingled and touched bodies and shared emotions without restraint or guilt. There was a wild, sexually flavoured frenzy in the air. Later, when I saw a slogan by Khomeini saying that the Islamic Republic survives through its mourning ceremonies, I could testify to its truth. 

That first day I asked my students why one should read fiction. I wrote on the board one of my favourite lines from the German thinker Theodor Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one's own home." I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned tradition and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in wonderland, through different eyes. 

The novel was an American classic, in many ways the quintessential American novel. Some cite its subject matter, the American dream, to justify this distinction. We in ancient countries have our past- we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future. 

A novel is not an allegory. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't r able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. 

James did not like his heroes and heroines to be infallible. In fact, they all make mistakes, harmful mostly to themselves. Their mistakes, like the tragic flaw in a classical tragedy, become essential to their development and maturity.

I had a theory that some gifts should be bought for their own sake, exactly because they were useless. 

We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. - Henry James 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine year old virgin wife. 

"Did you fall in love?" It was a joke among my friends and colleagues that I could never resist posing my obsessive question to married couples. 

It is not accidental that the most unsympathetic characters in Austen's novels are those who are incapable of genuine dialogue with others. They rant. They lecture. They scold. This incapacity for true dialogue implies an incapacity for tolerance, self reflection and empathy. 

Modern fiction brings out the evil on domestic lives, ordinary relations people like you and me. Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to see others, hence to empathise with them. What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us as well as the worst. We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others. 

I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions. 


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