February 16, 2005

Reading Lolita In Tehran

I read Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi over my Internet break and found it very affecting. I could tell you how, but instead I'll share portions of the book now and again. I hope they'll motivate you to pick up a copy.

Nafisi was a professor of English literature who began teaching in Iran during the time of the revolution. The autobiographical narrative follows her ultimately futile struggles against accepting the imposition of mandatory veiling, the confrontations with the harsh views of conservative students and staff, and her decision to retire from teaching at university. She formed a private literature class with a small group of former female students where they explored what literature, even the ostensibly apolitical, meant in the context of their own lives.

Nafisi studied at university in the US just prior to the revolution, when everything was still up in the air. She relates this story from the Iranian student groups where she went to school.

At the time I lived in Oklahoma, one of our rival factions in the student movement, the most radical group within the Confederation of Iranian Students, convened a conference in Oklahoma City. I missed the conference, having gone to another meeting in Texas. When I returned I noticed an unusual air of excitement among both "our" people and "theirs." Apparently one of their members, a former running champion, was suspected of being an agent of the Iranian secret police, SAVAK. Some zealous members had decided to "extract" the truth from him. They had lured him into a room at the Holiday Inn and tried to get him to confess by means of torture, including burning his fingers with a cigarette. When they had left the room and were in the parking lot, their victim managed to escape.

The next day the door flew open in the middle of the conference, admitting several FBI agents with dogs and the "culprit," who was told to identify his assailants. One of our friends, who had previously admonished me for my anti-revolutionary clothes, her voice breakingwith excitement, related to me what had happened, boasting about "the power ofthe masses." By "masses" she meant the participants in the conference who had stood aside, creating an avenue for the agents, their dogs and the hapless culprit to walk through. As he passed by, the muttered threats in Persian. When he finally reached one of the leaders of that faction, the most popular in fact, a short, intense-looking guy who like many of his comrades had dropped out of college to become a full-time revolutionary and who usually sported a cap and coat in imitation of Lenin, he broke down and started crying and asked him in Persian why he had treated him so cruelly. The self-proclaimed Lenin of the Iranian revolution looked at him triumphantly, daring him to "spill" to the FBI. He could not bring himself to expose his tormentors and left with the agents, once more proving the justness of the oppressed masses.

The following day, there was a short report in The Oklahoma Daily. More than the report, it was the way so many students reacted that frightened me.

...Sitting in the student union drinking coffee or Coke, our comrades, disturbing the next table's flirtations, flared up and defended the right of the masses to torture and physically eliminate their oppressors. I still remember one of them, a chubby guy with a soft, boyish face, the outlines of his round belly protruding from under his navy blue woolen sweater. He refused to sit down and, towering over our table, swinging a glass of Coke precariously in one hand, he argued that there were two kinds of torture, two kinds of killing -- those committed by the enemy and those by the friends of the people. It was okay to murder enemies.

I could tell Mr. Bahri [one of her students after the revolution, a rigid theocrat and ieologue], now eternally bending towards me in some urgent argument: listen, be careful what you wish for. Be careful with your dreams; one day they may just come true. I could have told him to learn from Gatsby, from the lonely, isolated Gatsby, who also tried to retrieve his past and give flesh and blood to a fancy, a dream that was never meant to be more than a dream. He was killed, left at the bottom of the swimming pool, as lonely in death as in life. I know you most probably have not read the book to the end, you have been so busy with your political activities, but let me tell you the ending anyway --you seem to be in need of knowing. Gatsby is killed. He is killed for a crime Daisy committed, running over Tom's mistress in Gatsby's yellow car. Tom fingered Gatsby to the bereaved husband, who killed Gatsby as he lay floating in his swimming pool waiting for Daisy to call.

Could my former comrades have predicted that one day they would be tried in a Revolutianary Court, tortured and killed as traitors and spies? Could they, Mr. Bahri? I can tell you with complete confidence that they could not. Not in their wildest dreams. ...

It's an old story, a universal human story, and one that never seems to stick in the minds of hotheads the world over. Think Robespierre. When societies turn on their own, the aftermath is never pretty, often for those who least expect it.

Posted by natasha at February 16, 2005 09:39 PM | International | Technorati links |

Laura is also reading this book. I've got to entice her to come by and discuss.

Posted by: James R MacLean at February 18, 2005 11:10 AM