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Reading Lolita in Teheranis not an especially feminist treatise: Men, Nafisi makes clear, also deny their identities and desires in modern Iran. Nafisi watches them through the veil, always the veil, as they strain uneasily to avoid her gaze even as they endeavor to woo her back to the university she left in protest. (“How will a man know whether a woman he’s agreed to marry is bald?” asks Yassi, Nafisi’s youngest, wittiest student.) After Khomeini’s death, Nafisi reflects on the man not as a dictator but as a poet and scholar of Rumi who adored his blond granddaughter, who lost a significant war and who forcibly manufactured a republic that even loyal adherents recognized as a fraud. “Like all great mythmakers, he had tried to fashion reality out of his dream, and in the end, like Humbert, he had managed to destroy both reality and his dream.” If Lolita represents anyone, anything, to Nafisi, it is Iran: a country, and a people, whose obstinacy endures even after decades of beatings.
An evanescent bloom of tolerance shriveled after Khomeini’s death in 1989, and by the late ’90s, intellectual life in Iran had turned into a lethal shell game. A scholar who sponsored an appearance by V.S. Naipaul to standing-room-only crowds was found mysteriously murdered; a traveling group of writers (some of them, Nafisi implies, not even very good writers) were nearly pushed off a cliff in a bus commandeered by a driver in service to the regime. Nafisi and her husband and children left Iran for a new home in Washington, D.C., in 1997, but not easily; a country, Nabokov observed, keeps its citizens bound by their heartstrings.
She now teaches English to the lucky students of Johns Hopkins University, sharing her insights not only on Nabokov but also on the Iranian novelist Iraj Pezeshkzad, and her newest discovery, Zora Neale Hurston. A few of her students fled as well, to England, Canada, California. Three of her girls continue to meet in Teheran — to read, write, and remind themselves that while their physical beings have vanished under their veils, in their imaginations, through fiction, they will always be whole and free.
Azar Nafisi reads at Pacific Asia Museum, Thursday, April 24, 7 p.m. See Readings for details.
READING LOLITA IN TEHERAN: A Memoir in Books| By AZAR NAFISI | Random House | 347 pages | $23.95 hardcover