Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran has scored a surprising amount of popular success, currently ranked around #300 at Amazon, and amassing close to 300 comments there as well. For a fairly literary and even somewhat didactic work subtitled “A memoir in books,” that’s pretty good.
I think part of its success (aside from its great title) is that it’s the type of book that especially appeals to women’s book groups—in fact, that’s how I came to read it. Most of the members of my book group talked about the book’s main theme: the shocking and depressing ways in which Iranian women’s lives have been stunted and twisted by the authoritarian and misogynistic theocracy in charge in Iran, and how Nafisi and her students somehow managed to feed their spirits by the clandestine study of some of the classics of Western literature.
Apparently, literature can help keep people who live under a totalitarian system sane—the Soviet dissidents also provided evidence of that. But, although of interest, that was not the theme I kept noticing and marveling at when I read the book; no, a very different aspect of Reading Lolita in Tehran kept grabbing my attention: the tendency of literary and intellectual youths in free societies to gravitate towards leftist causes that would end up curtailing that very freedom.
Author Nafisi is currently a literature professor at Johns Hopkins. The biographical blurb on the flyleaf of her book states that she had formerly been an English professor at the University of Tehran but was expelled for refusing to wear the veil, and that she later emigrated to the United States in 1997.
But Nafisi’s story, and her relationship to the revolution that devastated her country, is far more complex and ironic than that. The year 1997 was not her first emigration from Iran; she had left at the age of thirteen and been educated in England, Switzerland, and the US, only returning during the pivotal and fateful year 1979 to her beloved and much-longed-for homeland.
And what a homecoming it was! She writes:
The dream had finally come true. I was home, but the mood in the airport was not welcoming. It was somber and slightly menacing, like the unsmiling portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and his anointed successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, that covered the walls. It seemed as if a bad witch with her broomstick had flown over the building and in one sweep had taken away the restaurants, the children and the women in colorful clothes that I remembered. This feeling was confirmed when I noticed the cagey anxiety in the eyes of my mother and friends, who had come to the airport to welcome us home.
Nafisi learned through bitter experience that you can’t go home again, although you can try.
The terrible irony of her story arises because Nafisi herself was part of the revolution that ended up destroying her country. Her tale resembles that of so many youthful visionaries, dabbling in politics like a bunch of naive Mickey Mouses (Mice?) in Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” not realizing until too late the horrors their machinations will conjure into existence.
Nafisi married early, at eighteen, and attended college at the University of Oklahoma during the 1970s. Her plunge into political activism was as casual (and as literary) as it was leftist:
I joined the Iranian student movement reluctantly. My father’s imprisonment and my family’s vague nationalist sympathies had sensitized me towards politics, but I was more of a rebel than a political activist–though in those days there was not much difference between them. One attraction was the fact that the men in the movement didn’t try to assault or seduce me. Instead, they held study groups in which we read and discussed Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In the seventies, the mood—not just among Iranians, but among American and European students—was revolutionary. There was the Cuban example, and China of course. The revolutionary cant and romantic atmosphere were infectious, and the Iranian students were at the forefront of the struggle.
So, revolution was a mood, an essence, something infectious in the air—rather like bacilli, as it turns out. Nafisi describes the group as markedly Marxist in philosophy and in style, sporting “Che Guevara sports jackets and boots…and Mao jackets and khakis.”
For Nafisi herself, romanticism and literature seem to have been the primary motives, passed somehow through the alchemy of her homesickness and transmuted into political activism:
[I] insisted on wearing long dresses outside the meetings…I never gave up the habit of reading and loving “counterrevolutionary” writers—T. S. Eliot, Austen, Plath, Nabokov, Fitzgerald—but I spoke passionately at the rallies; inspired by phrases I had read in novels and poems, I would weave words together into sounds of revolution. My oppressive yearning for home was shaped into excited speeches against the tyrants back home and their American backers.
Once in Tehran, Nafisi began to realize that the unsettling airport scene had been only the tip of the iceberg. She soon came to bitterly regret the mindless revolutionary zeal of her youth, and to realize that her revolutionary dream had turned into a nightmare, as they so often do:
When in the States we had shouted Death to this or that, those deaths seemed to be more symbolic, more abstract, as if we were encouraged by the impossibility of our slogans to insist upon them even more. But in Tehran in 1979, these slogans were turning into reality with macabre precision. I felt helpless: all the dreams and slogans were coming true, and there was no escaping them.
Although the revolutionaries back in Oklahoma and elsewhere had been decidedly leftist, the revolution they helped birth was a restrictive theocracy. One of the most interesting portions of the book describes how those leftists, at least in the early stages, managed to rationalize and excuse such clear signs that things had gone sharply awry as the imposition of the veil and the subjugation of women.
Nafisi was not one of those excusers, however; she describes her horror at the relentless approach of the suffocating clasp of the mullahs, a chill embrace undreamt of in her leftist days in Oklahoma.
And it got worse, much worse; there are many passages in the book that reminded me uncannily of what it must have been like for French revolutionaries to have watched the unfolding of the Reign of Terror (those who survived, that is), not to mention Stalin’s ex-comrades viewing the purges of their ranks:
In later months and years, every once in a while Bijan [Nafisi's husband] and I would be shocked to see the show trials of our old comrades in the U.S. on television. They eagerly denounced their past actions, their old comrades, their old selves, and confessed that they were indeed the enemies of Islam. We would watch these scenes in silence…I turned and asked Bijan, Did you ever dream that this could happen to us? He said, No, I didn’t, but I should have.
“No, I didn’t, but I should have.” What quiet words of chilling despair! And indeed, one wonders how it was that smart people could have been so dumb; by the mid-to late-1970′s, when Nafisi and her friends were supporting a leftist revolution in Iran, surely the jury was no longer out on the fact that this was a road that would lead to the revolution swallowing its own as well as many others. But we see such a phenomenon again and again, as history repeats itself in its winding, twisting path.
In Nafisi’s case, she seems to have been mainly a romantic, interested in literature almost to the exclusion of other topics—such as history, apparently. Unfortunately for her, she had to learn the lessons of history the hard way, from personal experience. And so, too, did her revolutionary Iranian comrades-in-arms, unfortunately for them—and for us, and for the world as well. They could never have guessed at the trajectory their lives would follow from those long-ago days of sartorial playing at being revolutionaries, sporting Che and Mao jackets, to their final moments in the executioner’s chamber.
And, if you can believe this interview, the Iranian students who took the Americans hostage in the last year of Jimmy Carter’s administration were hardly more serious or more focused than Nafisi herself. Read it and weep.
Nafisi’s story underscores the fact that there does seem to be something in the literary mind that is especially susceptible to romantic ideals of revolution, that doesn’t accept that institutions of government will always be flawed, that seeks a sort of misty perfection, and that believes in the power of youth to proclaim those ideals merely by taking to the streets and wishing it very, very hard.
[ADDENDUM: I'm well aware that all major political change is susceptible to being overtaken by unplanned and unwanted forces. That included our American Revolution, for example, and that's why the drafting and adoption of our Constitution was so vitally important. That's also why, as a neocon who had advocated regime change in Iraq, I waited with trepidation to see what the results of the Iraqi elections and constitution drafts would be.
So far, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of that country, as long as forces in the West continue to protect Iraq in its process of establishing some sort of true representative government, with checks and balances and guarantees of liberty and human rights that are unusual for that part of the world. Those things are our only hope against tyrannnies on both left and right.
But as Nafisi describes them, the leftists who wanted so much to overthrow the Shah did not even seem to care about those petty little details when thinking about what would take his place. They broke quite a few eggs, but instead of an omelet they got Humpty Dumpty. Are there any horses and men who can ever put him back together again?]