Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Through the Word Prism
If, by some magic, we were all made to write the stories of our lives, chances are that we would all easily realise how much our lives resembled fairy tales. In our stories, we all encounter bad characters, our plots are concoctions of twists and turns that we cannot see coming and yet, we stand victorious even if we are defeated, simply because every new day brings a fresh start. No matter how much we suffer, it is still left as an option for us to stand up and change everything, just by thinking about it in a different way. Maybe the only story that we have to tell and read is the story of our life. That is why every book is such a sanctuary for many seemingly different people – every book is an interpretation of one’s own life; we read into them as much as possible and our worlds are inextricably intertwined with the worlds of the novels we read. Different settings are there merely to accentuate various aspects of a novel and that is the key to numerous interpretations which are all slanted by the epoch they were read in.
Reading a novel leaves a trace on the life of a reader, but it also provides the reader with a perfect asset for escaping the everyday grind. Sometimes, we need to hear that fairy tale just to make sure that there is something left for us worth fighting and struggling for – otherwise, we could just shrivel and die. We need to hear that no matter how much the odds are against us, we still stand a chance in the fight; not everything is lost even if we lose everything that is familiar to us. The novel I am about to present is based on all these premises.
In the country where the whole system and concept of living has been turned upside down, we find our main character and the writer of the book, trying to retrieve some of the rights which have been unjustifiably taken away from her. The progressive country she used to live in, turned into the country in which women can be stoned to death, where appearing in public without her hair covered with scarf meant a breach of the moral code and was punishable by law, where one strand of hair could provoke violent reactions from morality squads. Such a country was inconceivable to our writer and yet, that was her newly-clothed country, in which she was supposed to cover her head if she wanted to continue teaching at the University of Tehran. What was she to do if she was presented with such an ultimatum, one which opposed all her viewpoints so completely? She did the one thing she could – she turned to her books and, in the safety of the fictitious universe, she found her haven.
However, she was not alone in her endeavour to find her place in that new country. Her students, firmly guided by her strong will, began discovering the literary universe and found the sanctuary they craved. It was only in that universe that they could forget the ugly reality which kept on attacking them from all sides. It was with the help of Lolita, Elizabeth Bennet and Daisy Miller that they managed to find the strength they needed to confront the authorities which wanted to impose their rules and take their lives over from them. The healing power of literature enabled them to stand up for themselves and sail through all the perils they encountered. But for literature, they would have been lost to life.
All these pompous words might seem to be nothing but a smoke screen which shrouds the ugly truth in which I want to tuck away the nothingness of this book, but to be honest, other than this revelation of the old truth (literature being the best weapon against the solitude of a lone warrior in the battle for a lost cause) there is not much else that you can expect to find in this novel. Other than the healing comfort of the words which can change the whole perspective of one’s life, which can make a person determined not to let everything fall apart, you will find little else.
Whoever decides to open this book needs to be fully prepared for the journey into the land of imagination in which the brutality of daily life is juxtaposed to the transience of the ethereal beauty of the written word which can both heal and destroy. Playing with words can give someone the strength to survive a single day, but it can also be a dagger which will bring the eternal night.
Are you now scared of reading this fairy tale?