11 reviews

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi

Published: 2003-12-30
Kindle Edition : 0 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 5 of 11 members
We all have dreams—things we fantasize about doing and generally never get around to. This is the story of Azar Nafisi’s dream and of the nightmare that made it come true.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning ...
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"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is the astonishing true story of young women who met in secret each week to read and talk about forbidden Western classics--and their lives and loves--in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Editorial Review

An inspired blend of memoir and literary criticism, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a moving testament to the power of art and its ability to change and improve people's lives. In 1995, after resigning from her job as a professor at a university in Tehran due to repressive policies, Azar Nafisi invited seven of her best female students to attend a weekly study of great Western literature in her home. Since the books they read were officially banned by the government, the women were forced to meet in secret, often sharing photocopied pages of the illegal novels. For two years they met to talk, share, and "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color." Though most of the women were shy and intimidated at first, they soon became emboldened by the forum and used the meetings as a springboard for debating the social, cultural, and political realities of living under strict Islamic rule. They discussed their harassment at the hands of "morality guards," the daily indignities of living under the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime, the effects of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, love, marriage, and life in general, giving readers a rare inside look at revolutionary Iran. The books were always the primary focus, however, and they became "essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity," she writes.

Threaded into the memoir are trenchant discussions of the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, and other authors who provided the women with examples of those who successfully asserted their autonomy despite great odds. The great works encouraged them to strike out against authoritarianism and repression in their own ways, both large and small: "There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom," she writes. In short, the art helped them to survive. --Shawn Carkonen


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Discussion Questions

Questions from Publisher's Reading Guide:
1. On her first day teaching at the University of Tehran, Azar Nafisi began class with the questions, “What should fiction accomplish? Why should anyone read at all?” What are your own answers? How does fiction force us to question what we often take for granted?

2. Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation upsilamba (18). What does the word upsilamba mean to you?

3. In what ways had Ayatollah Khomeini “turned himself into a myth” for the people of Iran (246)? Also, discuss the recurrent theme of complicity in the book: that the Ayatollah, the stern philosopher-king, “did to us what we allowed him to do” (28).
4. Compare attitudes toward the veil held by men, women and the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran. How was Nafisi’s grandmother’s choice to wear the chador marred by the political significance it had gained? (192) Also, describe Mahshid’s conflicted feelings as a Muslim who already observed the veil but who nevertheless objected to its political enforcement.

5. In discussing the frame story of A Thousand and One Nights, Nafisi mentions three types of women who fell victim to the king’s “unreasonable rule” (19). How relevant are the actions and decisions of these fictional women to the lives of the women in Nafisi’s private class?
6. Explain what Nafisi means when she calls herself and her beliefs increasingly “irrelevant” in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Compare her way of dealing with her irrelevance to her magician’s self-imposed exile. What do people who “lose their place in the world” do to survive, both physically and creatively?

7. During the Gatsby trial Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to “distinguish fiction from reality” (128). How does Mr. Nyazi’s conflation of the fictional and the real relate to theme of the blind censor? Describe similar instances within a democracy like the United States when art was censored for its “dangerous” impact upon society.

8. Nafisi writes: “It was not until I had reached home that I realized the true meaning of exile” (145). How do her conceptions of home conflict with those of her husband, Bijan, who is reluctant to leave Tehran? Also, compare Mahshid’s feeling that she “owes” something to Tehran and belongs there to Mitra and Nassrin’s desires for freedom and escape. Discuss how the changing and often discordant influences of memory, family, safety, freedom, opportunity and duty define our sense of home and belonging.

9. Fanatics like Mr. Ghomi, Mr. Nyazi and Mr. Bahri consistently surprised Azar by displaying absolute hatred for Western literature — a reaction she describes as a “venom uncalled for in relation to works of fiction.” (195) What are their motivations? Do you, like Nafisi, think that people like Mr. Ghomi attack because they are afraid of what they don’t understand? Why is ambiguity such a dangerous weapon to them?

10. The confiscation of one’s life by another is the root of Humbert’s sin against Lolita. How did Khomeini become Iran’s solipsizer? Discuss how Sanaz, Nassrin, Azin and the rest of the girls are part of a “generation with no past.” (76)
11. Nafisi teaches that the novel is a sensual experience of another world which appeals to the reader’s capacity for compassion. Do you agree that “empathy is at the heart of the novel”? How has this book affected your understanding of the impact of the novel?

Suggested by Members

Discussion questions are available online.
by Librarian50 (see profile) 12/12/09

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Nancy S. (see profile) 05/04/18

  "Reading Lolita In Tehran: A Memoir in Books"by Gail C. (see profile) 05/09/17

I did find this book informative and insightful. However, it took me a while to get through it.

by Mary B. (see profile) 02/14/17

  "Truly hard to read"by Alice N. (see profile) 08/17/14

While I didn't love the book and found it really hard to read, (from the standpoint of the topic, not the writing) I think we should read this book. I found it pretty incredible that educat... (read more)

  "Lolita in Tehran"by Jane C. (see profile) 07/21/14

the book was hard to get into but once I did it was good. I liked the references to other familiar fiction books

by Julie M. (see profile) 06/10/14

  "Reading Lolita in Tehran"by Julie M. (see profile) 04/25/13

Of 9 members, only 1 person finished the book. And we finish our books... This was so unorganized it was difficult to make heads or tails of it. The book read more like a reading guide than anything... (read more)

  "Not one member liked it! Horrible!"by Hina M. (see profile) 10/25/12

A number of people in our book club could not even finish this book. Of those who read it, not one person had anything positive to say about it. It was slow, boring, and poorly written. If you value... (read more)

  "Time Wasted I'm Never Going to Get Back"by Hina M. (see profile) 07/06/11

We've read quite a few books in our book club, but this one was definitely the worst book for us all. First, the author did not use any quotation marks which made it difficult to figure out which character... (read more)

  "Reading Lolita in Tehran"by Kim B. (see profile) 12/13/09

It's like 4 seperate books in 1. A lot of the book is difficult to get through becuase it feels like a literary dissertation.
I enjoyed the second section- Gatsby- the best becasue it had
... (read more)

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