Reading Lolita In Tehran
Azar Nafisi

He kept repeating to his parents that he was having illegal dreams. p. 46

Is it possible to write a reverent novel, said Nassrin, and to have it be good? … There must be some blasted space in life, she added crossly, where we can be offensive, for God”s sake. p. 50

Nabokov describes a similar link to another world, a puddle that appears to Krug, his fictional hero [in Bend Sinister], at various points in his novel: “a rent in his world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty.” p. 56

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one”s individuality, that unique quality which evades description, but differentiates one human being from the other. That”s why in their world, rituals – empty rituals – become so central. p. 77

Later when I saw a slogan by Khomeini saying that the Islamic Republic survives through its mourning ceremonies, I could testify to its truth. p. 90

Then I found myself beating my fists against a tree and crying, crying, as if the person closest to me had died and I was now all alone in the whole wide world. p. 91

…the one thing these authors all had in common was their subversiveness. … I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. p. 94

Don”t go chasing after the grand theme, the idea, I told my students, as if it is separate from the story itself. The idea or ideas behind the story must come you through the experience of the novel and not as something tacked on to it. p. 109

I was reminded of a story I had heard and reheard about the Arab conquest of Persia, a conquest that brought Islam into Iran. By this account, when the Arabs attacked Iran, they won because the Persians themselves, perhaps tired of tyranny, had betrayed their king and opened the doors to their enemies.

But after the invasion, when their books were burned, their places of worship destroyed and their language overtaken, the Persians took revenge by re-creating their burned and plundered history through myth and language. Our great epic poets Ferdowsi and rewritten the confiscated myths of Persian kngs and heroes in a pure and sacred language.

My father, who all through my childhood would read me Ferdowsi and Rumi, sometimes used to say that our true home, our true history was in our poetry. They story came back to me then because, in a sense, we had done it again. This time we had opened our gates not to foreign invaders but to domestic ones, to those who had come to us in the name of our past but who had now distorted every inch of it and robbed us of our Ferdowsi and Hafez. p. 172

It belonged to an Armenian, and forever shall I see on the glass door next to the name of the restaurant, which was in small letters, the compulsory sign in large black letters: Religious Minority. All restaurants run by non-Muslims had to carry this sign on their doors so that good Muslims, who considered all non-Muslims dirty and did not eat from the same dishes, would be forewarned.

“Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Nietzsche. p. 180

There is something peculiar about the way they wear their chadors. I have noticed it in many other women, especially the younger ones. For there is in them, in their gestures and movements, none of the shy withdrawal of my grandmother, whose every gesture begged and commanded the beholder to ignore her, to bypass her and leave her alone. All through my childhood and early youth, my grandmother”s chador had a special meaning to me. It was a shelter, a world apart from the rest of the world. I remember the way she wrapped her chador around her body and the way she walked around her yard when the pomegranates were in bloom. Now the chador was forever marred by the political significance it had gained. It had become cold and menacing, worn by women like Miss Hatef and Miss Ruhi with defiance. p. 192

In The Tragic Muse, [Henry] James explains that his goal in writing is to produce “art as a human complication and social stumbling block.” p. 198

“I hope you believe me now when I tell about the need to put something into these kid”s heads[, said Mrs. Rezan]. The revolution has emptied their heads of any form or thought, and our own intelligentsia, the cream of the crop, is no better.” p. 200

The recurrent image in those days was that of an elderly, bearded, turbaned man call for unceasing jihad to an audience of adolescent boys with red martyrs” bands stretched across their foreheads. These were the dwindling remainders of a once vast group of young people who had been mobilized by the excitement of carrying real guns and the promise of keys to a heaven where they could finally enjoy all the pleasures from which they had abstained in life. Theirs was a world in which defeat was impossible, hence compromise meaningless. p. 209

I thought they had cheated; it was inconceivable to me that they could have re-recreated my lectures so precisely without notes. My colleagues, however, informed me that this was regular practice: the students memorized everything their teachers said and gave it back to them without changing a word. (p. 220) [Just as they learn the Koran.]

She said, “We envy people like you and we want to be you; we can”t, so we destroy you.” p. 222

“All time is unredeemable.” George Elliot, Four Quartets. p. 228

The first explosion sounded as I came out of a flower shop. A worker from the shop, some passersby and I stood to watch the cloud rising on the western horizon of the city. It looked white and innocent enough, like a child who has just committed a murder. p. 235

“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. p. 248

It was then that the myth of Islamic feminism — a contradictory notion, attempting to reconcile the concept of women”s rights with the tenets of Islam — took root. p. 262

The battle over culture became more central as more radical Muslim youths, intellectuals, journalists and academics defected to the other side. Disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution and confronted by the ideological void that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, they had nowhere to turn but to the Western democracies they had once so vehemently opposed.

Those whom the regime had tried to destroy or silence by accusing them of being Westernized could not be silenced or eliminated; they were as much apart of Iranian culture as the others, it”s self-appointed guardians. But what most frightened the Islamic elite was that these very elements had not become models of the increasingly disenchanted former revolutionaries, as well for the youth — the so-called children of the revolution. p. 277

“None of us can live in and survive this fantasy world-we all need to create a paradise to escape into. Besides,” he said, “there is something you can do about it.”
“There I?” I said eagerly, still dejected and dying for once to be told what to do.

“Yes, there is, and you are in fact doing it in this class, if you don”t spoil it. Do what all poets do with their philosopher-kings. You don”t need to create a parallel fantasy of the West, Give them the best of what that other world can offer: give them pure fiction — give them back their imagination!” he ended triumphantly, and looked at me as if he expected hurrahs and the clapping of hands for his wise advice.

“You know it might do you some good if you practiced what you preached for a change. Take the example of one Jane Austen,” he said with what appeared to me a patronizing munificence.

“You used to preach to us all that she ignored politics, not because she didn”t know any better but because she didn”t allow her work, her imagination, to be swallowed up by the society around her.

At a time when the world was engulfed in the Napoleonic Wars, she create her own independent world, a world that you, two centuries later, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, teach as the fictional ideal of democracy. Remember all that talk of yours about how the first lesson in fighting tyranny is to do your own thing and satisfy your own conscience?” he continued patiently.

“You keep talking about democratic spaces, about the need for personal and creative spaces. Well, go and create them, woman! Stop nagging and focusing your energy on what the Islamic Republic does or says and start focusing on your Austen.” p. 282

Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe. p. 329

Azar Nafisi”s Suggested Reading List p. 355-6:

1741 – Shamela by Henry Fielding.
1749 – Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
1814 – Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.
1814 – Thousand and One Nights, A by Scheherazade.
1816 – Emma by Jane Austen.
1847 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.
1856 – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.
1857 – Confidence Man, The by Herman Melville.
1866 – Alice”s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
1879 – Daisy Miller by Henry James.
1881 – Washington Square by Henry James.
1884 – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
1896 – Country of the Pointed Firs, The by Sarah Orne Jewett.
1903 – Ambassadors, The by Henry James.
1911 – Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad.
1914 – In The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka.
1923 – Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo.
1925 – Great Gatsby, The by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
1925 – The Trial by Franz Kafka.
1938 – Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov.
1939 – Address Unknown by Katherine Kressman Taylor.
1943 – Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank.
1955 – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
1957 – Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov.
1961 – Prime of Miss Jane Brodie by Muriel Spark.
1977 – Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa.
1981 – Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark.
1982 – Dean”s December, The by Saul Bellow.
1986 – Engineer of Human Souls, The by Joseph Skvorecky.
1986 – Summons to Memphis, A by Peter Taylor.
1987 – More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow.
1990 – Net of Dreams, The by Julie Salamon.
1992 – St. Maybe by Anne Tyler.
1995 – Stone Diaries, The by Carol Shields.
1996 – Emigrants, The by W.G. Sebald.
1996 – My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad.
2000 – Blind Assassin, The by Margaret Atwood.
2001 – Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler.
2003 – Baghdad Diaries by Nuha al-Radi.
2003 – Language Police, The by Diane Ravitch.
2003 – Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.


  1. Natalie says:

    A question for you. On page 322, Nassrin mentions a quote from “Bellow about people emptying their garbage thought all over you.” Do you know where I can find that?


  2. Jeff Hess says:

    Shalom Natalie,

    First, thank you for stopping in, for reading and, most importantly, for taking the time to write a comment. It’s all about the conversation.

    Like all the books in my chapbook, I no longer have a copy of Reading Lolita In Tehran to reference.

    But based on my notes I see that Nassrin references two of Saul Bellows books: The Dean’s December and More Die Of Heartbreak.

    I’m afraid that I’ve not read either book so I can’t tell you if the garbage reference is in either, but that is where I would start looking, if I were you.

    Good luck.



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