Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I think it's extremely important to read books about different regions of the world. This helps give insight to how people live in different cultures and can be extremely interesting. Within the past six months to a year I have read the Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Three Cups of Tea and this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. All of these are great books, though I will say this one is probably my least favorite of those mentioned. I was in the wonderful bookstore utopia, also known as the Half Price Bookstore, one day looking for Three Cups of Tea. The cashier was a very bookish sort and highly recommended Reading Lolita in Tehran if I enjoyed Three Cups of Tea. So, a few days later when I returned I purchased the audiobook version of said novel. After I had acquired the book I happened to mention it to Donna, David's mom, to see if she had read it. Of course she had. But, she told me to be prepared to be saddened while reading. Greaaaaat. But, I thought it couldn't be sadder than Khaled Hosseini's stories in the above mentioned novels. So, I set about listening to the novel in my car, like I always do.

The purpose of this novel is to serve as a memoir for an Iranian female professor, Azar Nafisi, including her time as a literature professor at the University of Tehran as well as at the University of Allameh Tabatabei. More importantly the memoir details the relationships she develops with different women in her classes, the secret class she conducts after being expelled and the way all of the women cope and manage with the changing society and day-to-day life around them. Nafisi is extremely intelligent and grew up in a time when Iranian women were allowed to become educated and display freedom in their ideas and dress. However, during the course of this book the Iranian Revolution begins and you learn from the author about the oppression, newly appointed revolutionary guards as well as new rules imposed on society.

There were a couple scenes that were hard for me to get through. Virginity tests executed on one of Nafisi's students (while with other female friends) was one scene that bothered me. Another excerpt that disturbed me regarded a friend of one of the student's fingernails being clipped so short that her cuticles bled...this a punishment for nails that were too long and "westernized-looking." Does that turn anyone else's stomach? Another sad detail of this book was that all the students' names were changed. This was because Nafisi wanted to protect the students these stories entailed. Nafisi even mentions how she cross-referenced some of the stories amongst different girls. Why? To throw off anyone reading her book trying to figure out who these girls were so they could be brought in and "punished" for whatever reason. There was one exception though-the students that are now dead. How sad that she could only share their names because there was no way for them to be punished for their actions. All of these instances within the book make me grateful to live in the society I do and realize how small and petty some everyday frustrations. Why be irritated about being cut off in traffic when at least you can paint your fingernails? I go for a pedicure once a month with my mom. When she fell and broke her hip a couple winters ago she wasn't able to reach her feet...this became a fun tradition born from her ill luck. This would not have been possible in the Iran that Nafisi describes in her memoir.

While there are many disturbing entries within the memoir, there is a lot of "good stuff" in it too. The camaraderie felt among the girls is heart-warming and despite the restrictions, many of the girls find ways around these morality regulations. One girl always paints her fingernails bright red, but to keep from being jailed, flogged or otherwise punished she wears black gloves in public, even when it's hot outside. Also, while reading you can very much tell that Nafisi is a great professor. There are times when she appears to go off on tangents about different books and explain her thought process about how she interprets and teaches them. In fact, it makes me want to read the ones I hadn't before. Obviously, I read The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice in high school. But, although it appears sick and twisted the book, Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov) that encompasses part of the title of this book intrigues me a little, perhaps enough to read it. There are a few others, but I won't get too deep into my thoughts over what I want to read next as stimulated by this book. I only have about 20 or so other books to read first.

If someone were to ask me if I would recommend this book for reading...I would say yes. BUT, I would tell them to be prepared and get in to the right mindset before they start. While I was reading this book I spoke with a friend that had just completed Push. Both of us were having problems getting through our books without being disturbed. Like I said before though, it is important to read such writings. Why again? Because it brings a little bit of perspective into your own life and helps you realize the blessings you do have...and let's you know that perhaps instead of squandering time on the negatives in life, it's better to truly enjoy the positives.

All that being said, it will be a little while before I read another female-oppressed novel...after reading this novel and The 19th Wife at the same time, phew! I was welcoming New Moon with wide open arms!

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