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.
Posted by Jenny L at 8:58 PM