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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

April 12, 2003

READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN

A nice book review by Yardly in The Washington Post is a good indication of what an oppressive society --in this case Muslim--does to literature, thinking, free expression.
In 1995, Azar Nafisi resigned the position she had held for eight years as professor of literature at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. Under the rule of the mullahs, "life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms," she writes in "Reading Lolita in Tehran." For a time there had been "a period of relative calm and so-called liberalization," but now "universities had once more become the targets of attack by the cultural purists who were busy imposing stricter sets of laws," especially for female students.

Nafisi finally could take it no longer. She resigned, but the desire to teach and read remained strong. She decided to continue to teach, but in secret. She invited seven of her best students to meet in the living room of her own house to talk about the books they were reading, books by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen:

"I had explained to them the purpose of the class: to read, discuss and respond to works of fiction. Each would have a private diary, in which she should record her responses to the novels, as well as ways in which these works and their discussions related to her personal and social experiences. . . . I mentioned that one of the criteria for the books I had chosen was their authors' faith in the critical and almost magical power of literature, and reminded them of the nineteen-year-old Nabokov, who, during the Russian Revolution, would not allow himself to be diverted by the sound of bullets. He kept on writing his solitary poems while he heard the guns and saw the bloody fights from his window. Let us see, I said, whether seventy years later our disinterested faith will reward us by transforming the gloomy reality created of this other revolution."[more]