Reading Lolita in Tehran Prompt B

Monday, December 8, 2008


Hey guys:

Sounds like you guys are enjoying the book as well! The detail that Vanessa notices in the front cover of the memoir maybe suggestive of the women’s defiance against the limits society has placed on them. What once use to be a religious sacrifice has turned into a signal of political allegiance and it seems that Nafisi wants to use the cover to portray the possibility of defiance, not through violence but through subtle and personal subversion. You seem to have also noticed their appreciation of the daily activities that many may take for granted due to its simplicity or insignificance. However it is evident that when even the simplest right is taken away, its impact is greatly felt and one experiences a deeper gratitude to even something as simple as a book club. It is in times of suppression when “we “rediscover and even covet all [the] things we took for granted.” (55) For the women involved in the group, it is much more than just discussions on selected books. By defying their social expectations, each woman is taking a personal stance against the atrocities that they so unjustly have to fight. Though they are not actively protesting their forced submission to unjust rules, they submissively protest the coverings forced upon them by taking off their robes when in the presence of each other, they resist the ignorance that society expects of them and they find an escape from their harsh reality through literature. Nafisi seems to say that for one’s voice to be heard it is not necessary to physically fight or shout, but rather actions, though simple in manner is a form of protest as well. What I love most about this book so far is that it shows the true power of literature. It shows literature not just in the conventional sense but rather in a way to show its ability to question and push one to reflect upon ideas that we accept or society pushes us to accept.

I really like your observation of Nafisi’s use of color as well. I had not noticed that before. Thanks for providing all those examples! After taking a closer look at it I too see a connection between color and individuality as well as a parallel with the lack of color to the lack of freedom and rights. Distinction seems to be emphasized whenever color is used in Nafisi’s distinction. The women are no longer associated with the same black covering that they wear in public, but rather by their individual styles of clothing and accessories. Throughout the first part of the memoir, Nafisi asks us to “imagine” and picture what their world must be like. In my mind, I see the living room in which they have their weekly meetings to be splashed with an array of color, where as the outside world in which they all must reenter is sadly black and white.

As to the description of Sanaz’s walk home, I find it very revealing as to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences a Muslim woman living in Tehran must undergo. This prohibition that they face daily declares that “whoever [they] are…was not really important… [they] had become the figment of someone else’s dreams.” (28) They live not by their own identities but rather by the identities someone else has envisioned for them.

Ashley, I agree with your thought as to the impact of the veil upon the woman. It serves as a garment that blurs the lines of distinction between each individual and groups woman as one. Nafisi emphasized through Sanaz’s experience, as you have pointed out that, that woman are defined by the men in their lives and lives in subordination to them. They have no individuality for it is taken away by their forced way of dressing as well as overshadowed by the male figures in their lives.

Great comments you guys! Now back to more reading : )


Hi Ashley,

Responding to your post, I agree that when Nafisi speaks directly to the readers, her words seem to not only address the readers but apply to them as well. She truly has provided a new perspective for me at looking at works of literature. That I believe is one of the reasons I like reading this book so much as well. It becomes more than just words but rather experiences that we all have the ability to partake in if we “hold [our] breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny.” However, I believe that she is not only speaking of “entering the world of Muslim women” but she is also asking readers to apply this motto to all literature that they undertake. By reading novels and truly empathizing with the characters, whether one approves of their morals or not is the best way in understanding the actions and feelings of the characters. Nafisi’s ability to empathize with characters and relate them to her life and the lives of others is a commendable gift. She allows the novels she reads to become a part of her and in that way she broadens her views and perspectives of society.

The other quote you chose goes along the same lines as the first one: “It is only through literature…” It reinforces the idea that literature provides a pathway to experiences that one may otherwise have no access to. In Nafisi’s memoir she speaks of women who are oppressed by society, women who have once experienced freedom but also have experienced it being taken away unjustly as they are left powerless, only able to watch as the events unfold. As you said, Nafisi wants readers to empathize and not judge. For empathy is the best way towards understanding. In her memoir, she documents her journey home, a place in which she held her dearest memories of home to find it irreversibly changed.

As to your question of Nafisi alluding to a Christ figure and her students as her follower, I see your point but I don’t believe that she is. She is in many ways like her students and is not in a better position. She finds that all that she once believed was beautiful about Tehran to be questioned as the Revolution takes place. Women lose their rights as individuals, innocent lives are lost, and students are corrupted and forced to form divided groups. She feels “paralyzed and frozen…like a lost animal in danger.” “The fear was not of bullets…[but] some lack, as if the future were receding from [her].” (149) As a woman in Tehran, Nafisi experiences all that the other women experiences as well. However she does help to bring together a group of women to support, listen, and understand each other.

At the end of the novel, why do you guys think that Nafisi and her students lose contact? Did their relationship just exist because of the conditions of the time or was it a natural separation. By losing contact, is it a symbol of leaving the past behind?


Hi Vanessa!

In your post for part 2, I agree that the Gatsby section of the memoir veered off from storyline in the beginning in which a group of oppressed women join together to not only study novels, but also regain their own identities. However, I believe that the Gatsby section is a necessary part of the memoir because it provides background information as to the political and social atmosphere of the time. The Gatsby section also reveals a lot about the character of Nafisi herself. As you have stated, Nafisi is a rebel, not in the traditional sense of the word, but in a more subtle way in which she defies the oppression the Tehranian society has forced upon its citizens. She has returned to Tehran in search of the nostalgic feeling of home, to find, in her horror, a country transformed and changed from that in her memory. As Nafisi rewinds to the past in the Gatsby section of the memoir, she opens and introduces herself as “a young woman [who] stands alone in the midst of a crowd at the Tehran airport…” (81) The “dream” that “had finally come true” (82), however, was not the one she had envisioned. The years she had spent abroad leaves her clueless as to the changes in her home country. She soon discovers that the “mood…was not welcoming. It was somber and slightly menacing…” (82) Nafisi reveals her naïve self upon her return but is soon rid of it as she contemplates the “discrepancies, or essential paradoxes, in [her] idea of “home.” (86) What she once identified herself with, her nostalgic memories of home is no longer and she is left to question, not only where is her home now, but also who is she in relation to the new country she so unexpectedly step foot in. She is lost in deciding on “the familiar Iran [she] felt nostalgic about, the place of parents and friends and summer nights by the Caspian Sea” and “this other, reconstructed, Iran about which [she] talked in meeting after meeting, quarreling about what the masses in Iran wanted.” (86)

Also, I completely agree with you on your opinion that Nafisi is a courageous woman. You say that she is “in the wrong place at the wrong time” but I believe that it is that essential fact that allows her to write such a powerful story of one woman’s struggle against a place and a time in which she does not seem to fit at all. Nafisi herself is a contrast between the Middle Eastern views in Tehran and Western views in America. Having the opportunity to experience both, she is able to separate what she believes is moral from the immoral.

Though I did not enjoy the Gatsby section of the novel as much as I had the Lolita section, I find that it reveals more about the author herself. She brings us back to her teaching days and shows the struggle she underwent to uphold the innocent and peaceful image she once held of Tehran. What is most interesting in the Gatsby section, I find was the description of the divide between the students in her class according to the political groups. This divide illustrates the situation of the country in even a class room environment. The political atmosphere that she incorporates in this section not only serves as a backdrop, but also shows the personal impact it has on her. She shows the changes she has undergone, from an innocent young teacher eager to educate students on the masterpieces of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and Austen to a stronger and more independent woman who finds a new definition of home and of herself.

Lastly to address your question as to the relation between the novel of The Great Gatsby with the situation in Iran at the time, I believe that Nafisi wanted to demonstrate that like the story of Gatsby, in which one man tries to recreate the past, Iran, trying to bring back unjust rule will no doubt lead to its own destruction. It is both, Gatsby’s and Tehran’s unwillingness to move forward that will lead to disaster.


Hey Vanessa,

I think we have all noticed Nafisi’s ability to engage the readers into the events of her life through her vivid descriptions. Not only does she tell us of her emotions but she gives philosophies that are wise and relatable. She truly shows the significance of literature to lives of not only the oppressed, but everyone. Literature has the ability to play both a minor and a significant role in one’s life. I find that by putting ourselves into the shoes of women living in Tehran, we can feel and experience the horror that must have been running through their minds as the period of uncertainty and revolt was on the rise. Imagine living during a time in which one must go against one’s moral beliefs to avoid death. I find it difficult to envision such a situation. Though the choice seems obvious, what would you do in times of such danger, betray one’s beliefs or comply?

Another topic that you brought up that occurs repeatedly throughout the memoir is the idea of the individuality of women. In Tehran this individuality, not only for women, is put into question and denied as each is forced to wear a veil. The veil creates a suffocating uniformity that deprives each woman of her own identity. The veil is unjust and like you have stated places woman in an inferior position. Though Nafisi addresses this idea of society’s suffocation of individuality, she also hints at the idea that it is one’s acceptance of such oppression that ultimately leads to such atrocity. In the example of Invitation to a Beheading, Nafisi mentions that it is the main character, Cincinnatus C. that fails to assimilate to society and as a result of this failure, it is not him that lives in a surreal world, but those who has put him in exile. The whole story is ironic in that it is the people, supposedly in positions of powers that live in a fictitious world, where as Cincinnatus C., the supposed victim, is able to maintain a sense of reality. In many ways this story relates to the woman in Tehran, where a world of surrealism is enforced upon them. However it is up to each individual woman to maintain their own reality.

Vanessa, I really like your comment that fiction is meant to “question reason.” Reading the book makes me wonder a lot about the concepts we accept in our society and the images we associate to certain groups or beliefs. In many ways Nafisi addresses the power of a group as well as the power of an individual. She poses Tehran and its supporters of the unjust rule, whether forced or not, as the group, but also shows that an individual has the power to reject the ways of society.


Hi Ashley,

I’m glad that you brought up the character of Mr. Bahri in your posts. I agree that he is a quite interesting and unique character in Nafisi’s life as well. As you have mentioned, there seems to be a tension that exists between them two. I find that much like the tension in the society of Tehran, the tension between Mr. Bahri and Nafisi are based on the contrasting views of gender as well as other societal standards. To me Mr. Bahri represents one who is trying to assimilate to the changing ways of society yet still holds doubts as to the morality of the changes. He is a student, still young and easily influenced. Nafisi addresses Mr. Bahri with a title of respect to show that despite their difference in views she still is able to empathize and understand his opinions. Through their example, Nafisi shows that despite having different opinions, it is still possible to up hold a relationship with someone who thinks differently. The tension exists not only because of their differences in thoughts but also because of the ideas society has created of what is right and what is wrong. Even innocent interactions between a male and female must be carefully carried out for it is not “right” for men and women to touch. He is also one of the few men in the novel that appears to maintain respect for women despite the changing times and men’s growing superiority.

Hey Vanessa, me again!

Reading the memoir, I find that it is not that Nafisi wants us to like her work but to have an understanding of it: of not only her struggles and experiences but also the struggles we all may encounter. She shows the importance of one’s identity, as one’s knowledge of oneself is most important in avoiding defeat in the threat of having one’s identity stripped away. The quote the you incorporated in your post about Nafisi’s feeling of irrelevancy to her society seems to show how despite the fact that she is in her home land she does not feel at home. She had once mentioned before that the most powerful kind of literature is one in which makes you feel uncomfortable in your own home. It is possible that Nafisi is trying to relate her experiences to those one would gain from reading a great novel. Though she feels a strange new foreignness in a place which she once held such familiar feelings towards, she still forces herself to remain, to face and to fight the forces that has taken away those nostalgic feelings.

Reading Lolita in Tehran Prompt A

Hi Guys!

I just finished reading part one, Lolita, and I find the book really intriguing. The technique that Nafisi uses to write her memoir is very unique. She weaves in the novels she discusses along with her life as well as pieces of her students’ lives in her memoir. In this way she shows a connection between fiction literature and reality. Part of the reason why I find the memoir so intriguing is because it makes me think. Nafisi poses many new concepts and views of looking at literature that I have never thought of before. She shows the power of literature, the escape it provides, the thoughts it provoke, and the many interpretations it leads to through her recollection of the experiences she held with her students.

In the beginning of her memoir, she describes two photographs, both of the same 7 students, but one shows all dressed in black, with head scarves, where as the other shows an array of colors and styles. The difference between the two photos, though of the same essential seven students are significant. The uniform dress of Iranian woman stifles their individuality. In the eyes of the public they are inferior. I have heard of the strict regulations Middle Eastern society sets upon women but to read about actual feelings and thoughts of the victim brings a new light to its severity. The second picture, where all the girls remove their coverings, reveals the individuality that lies beneath. In this way, as Nafisi opens her memoir, readers already see the struggle women must put up with in order to keep their identity under the suffocating covers of society.

Quickly, the weekly Thursday meetings can be seen as more then intellectual conversation but also as a place where for a “few precious hours [they] felt free to discuss [their] pains and [their] joys, [their] personal hang-ups and weaknesses; for that suspended time [they] abdicated [their] responsibility to [their] parents, relatives and friends, and to the Islamic Republic.” (57) In an environment secluded away from the harsh reality they face in society, all seven females attack their personal conflicts through discussions of revered works of past literary heroes. Through their journey, Nafisi subtly draws parallels between the questions and concepts drawn between Lolita and An Invitation to a Beheading to each girl’s actual realities. It is interesting to see the different perspectives and opinions each woman brings to the discussions. The idea that arises from An Invitation to a Beheading, that “the forces of evil…are ridiculous and can be defeated” (23) shows that the oppression faced by the women in Middle Eastern society can be defeated. However, in the face of evil the mass population has no choice but to succumb and abide to survive. This subordination brings about a question as to why is it that we allow such atrocities even though we together have the power to stop it. There of course can be a variety of reasons, but what do guys think?

I find Nafisi’s brief descriptions of Cincinatus C. and his situation as a prisoner to be quite interesting, possible second book? Or even Lolita?

Also what do you guys think is the significance of the magician that she briefly mentions? When she asks us to “imagine” what do you guys see as the image she is trying to portray with her descriptions of the secluded living room? Could the mountain tops she sees outside her window be a symbol?

Again I really like this book so far. Hope you guys are enjoying reading it as well!


“The first day I asked my students what they thought fiction should accomplish, why one should bother to read fiction at all…I explained that most great works of imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questions traditions and expectations when they seemed immutable…” (94)

Nafisi makes a powerful statement as she identifies that the power of fiction lies in the fact that it may be unsettling to one and question what one may hold as true. I believe that she is right, in that literature needs to be able to question the accepted and present ideas contrary to what society may accept without question otherwise. The power of literature lies in the fact that it may “make you feel like a stranger in your own home.” What one may have never questioned or never given thought to is written in another perspective to challenge one’s previous beliefs, either making it stronger or making one doubt it. Literature should challenge us and present new ideas. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, I find that Nafisi does exactly that. She not only calls for readers to take a closer look at the rights of women in society but she also places a strong emphasis of the power of the individual to change what is wrong in society. Though the women conform by wearing the veil in public they still manage to maintain their identity and individuality by not conforming to the political party’s beliefs. As she takes us on her experience from a naïve new professor who is yet unaware of the political instabilities in Iran, to one who sees the social divide and questions her place in it, Nafisi demonstrates that in the midst of the chaos and injustices, by not doing anything, and allowing a “repeating [of] the past… [it has] wrecked their lives in the name of a dream…” (144)

In many ways, literature has the ability to teach us lessons, lessons though not immediately obvious that are nonetheless present. It is up to each individual’s interpretation to find what that lesson is. As Nafisi refers to the novel of The Great Gatsby, she gives us examples of different interpretations of the novel, varying amongst students with different beliefs and different backgrounds. Though some views of Gatsby is less sympathetic than others I find that the idea that Gatsby represents is what makes him so relatable and yet so detestable. He represents the desperate hold one may have on the past, a hold so strong that it is only when destruction of the beholder occurs that it will end. Nafisi thoughtfully parallels Gatsby’s self destruction with that of the situation she describes in Iran. It is not that she condemns any specific opinion, but she offers both sides a fair trial. “Those who judge must take all aspects of an individual’s personality into account.” (118) As the memoir continues, I find myself becoming more aware of the rights I have, both as a female and as an individual.

Not only does Nafisi successfully make comparisons between novels and her life as well as the life of others, she demonstrates that it is only through literature that “one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless.” (118) This ability to empathize, I agree, is crucial in being able to truly appreciate works of literature. Nafisi gives readers reasons as to why literature is so power. She indirectly praises the works of literature through her integration of them into her own memoir. What do you guys think that “fiction should accomplish”?


From the very beginning of the novel in which Nafisi recalls the two photographs and describes her students, she places special emphasis on Nassrin. Nassrin, who “lived in so many parallel worlds” (297), is a character in Nafisi’s life that represents the clashes between the many different expectations of society, of oneself, and of one’s heritage. In writing her memoir, Nafisi describes her relationships with each of her students in which they share with her personal stories and experiences but seems to find it difficult to exactly define Nassrin. In her attempt to describe her, she finds that “she’s slightly out of focus, blurred, somehow distant.” (5) Like a Cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing at unexpected turns in [Nafisi’s] academic life…one can only say that Nassrin was Nassrin.” (5) Nassrin is an interesting character to me because she lives in three different worlds. She lives in world, a “reality” created for her by society. One in which women are considered to be subordinate, and one in which women must not show any trace of individuality or identity. She is also caught in a world in which she must build with lies to her parents in order to maintain their idea of traditions. She lives in a world where people define for her what is acceptable and proper, yet despite being in such oppressive realities, she finds refuge in Nafisi’s book club. She finds that though such harsh realities exist, the “relation between fiction and reality” (6) may be just a thin line between acceptances of rules imposed upon her or her will to fight for what she believes in. In many ways, Nassrin is an example as to the pull society has on an individual. Even when she is “without the veil, she slumped, as if she were trying to cover something.” (296) The oppression that she has put up with leaves her unable to know how to embrace herself and leaves her feeling naked when it has been taken away.

Another character that I find to be intriguing is the magician Nafisi occasionally visits and mentions. His presence and significance in the novel is vague, yet he brings about an air of mystery that leaves readers and even Nafisi asking, “was he ever real…did he invent me?” (Epilogue) He has isolated himself from society and this isolation allows him to view the Revolution from an outsider point of view. Nafisi’s vagueness about him makes me wonder whether he was part of her imagination, a sort of escape from reality. What do you guys think about the magician? Does he truly exist?

It is interesting that Nafisi writes a memoir in which the stories of others, whether it be stories from novels or stories from the lives of her students, become such a distinct part of her that in describing each one, we learn about her views as well. Nafisi integrates all her experiences with the Revolution, with her students, and with her personal life to shape a memoir that ultimately shows “the relation between fiction and reality.” The relationship between the two is ever changing, depending on one’s views. What is once fiction can ultimately become reality.


“How do you get away with those nails…I wear gloves, she said. Even in summer I wear dark gloves. Polished nails, like makeup, were a punishable offense, resulting in flogging, fines and up to one year imprisonment. Of course they know the trick, she said, and if they really want to bug you, they’ll tell you to take off the gloves…It makes me happy, she said in a thin voice that did not suggest any trace of happiness. It’s so red it takes my mind off things…and then she burst into tears.” (271)

Reading this passage, it really struck me as to how restricted and how much the oppression has impacted the women. I realize that everyone is fighting their own battle, some more strongly than others, but nonetheless fighting a battle that seems never ending, against the forces that strips them of the rights that they have once experienced. In this passage a simple action, one that I can relate to, painting one’s nails must be hidden from public view. “Even in summer [she] wears gloves.” I empathize with not only the discomfort of having to wear gloves during the summer, but also the indignity that something as simple as painting one’s nails for self expression must be concealed. A front seems to be put up by Azin as she lies and says “it makes me happy.” It is evident that she tries to distract her self from the horrifying nightmare turned reality as she states that the “red [of the nail polish] takes [her] mind off things.” Throughout the memoir, Nafisi continually brings up subtle yet sudden events that truly show the magnitude of the changes each woman living in Tehran at the time must face. They have to adjust to a completely new lifestyle and hide what once was defined as normal. This change in societal standards is so sudden that I question whether it is possible to happen in America. Though probably most unlikely, it is nonetheless a possibility. Reading this novel makes me question the possibility of the impossible. The citizens of Tehran are in a sense living in a surreal world in which they had not envisioned as their future. Having to struggle to do something as simple as painting nails makes one appreciate the rights they have even more.

As Nafisi has previously questioned, why is it that “Lolita or Madame Bovary fill us with so much joy? Was there something wrong with these novels, or with us? (47) I believe that it is not that we enjoy the pain of others for our own satisfaction but because “regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance.” (47) The stories we may encounter, though tragic and heartbreaking are nonetheless stories that show a struggle nonetheless shows an effort at which we try to fight against the injustices imposed upon us successful or not.


“A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost…Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all others flowed. My generation had tasted individual freedom and lost; no matter how painful the lost, the recollection was there to protect us from the desert of the present.” (224)

Like many of the other statements Nafisi makes in her novel, they are all thought provoking and makes me think of concepts that I have never bothered or even considered exploring. Unlike the valiant image we all hold of heroes, Nafisi describes a hero, not to be the physically strong individual who saves the day, but rather simply, as an individual to maintains his identity and integrity “at almost any cost.” Thinking about that statement, the task , though sounding pretty simple, is in fact difficult to uphold in times when one’s life is threatened. In Tehran, woman are threatened if their veils are not worn, and many, going against what they know is right must embrace the cruelty. There seems to be then, a very thin line between what is heroism and what is not, is saving one’s own life or the lives of others by going against one’s integrity not heroic?

Nafisi has asked repeatedly throughout the memoir for readers to “imagine” and ultimately to empathize with the situations that she describes as well as the pain and the suffering the woman undergoes. The ability to experience what the characters in a novel experiences is what sets apart the astute reader from the regular reader. I agree with Nafisi in that not being able to empathize can be considered an evil, one that blinds one to the feelings of humanity and allows no room for sympathy or kindness. As Nafisi continues to weave her life as well as the lives of the group of woman she shares so little and yet so much in common with, she does so in a way in which we see each one grow to become an individual. At the start of the novel, though each was given a different name, it was hard to distinguish who was who since their traits were so vague and indistinct. However as each begins to shed not only the physical veil that they cover themselves with, but also the veil which we all in some ways wear, they become distinct individuals.

Also in Nafisi’s statement that I have quoted above, she asks us to ponder what happens when the protection of the past is not enough to shield the harsh reality of the present “desert.” Where do we turn to when reality seems to be a nightmare, a surreal world? In times such as those that the woman in her memoir faces, it is ourselves that we must turn to.

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