“Reading Lolita in Teheran: A Memoir in Books” – by Azar Nafisi

“All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us – James and Bronte and Nabokov and Jane Austen”

 

It is almost ironic that in a society where ‘a matter of life and death’ has become more than an expression and translated into reality and where the word ‘freedom’ has been void of its essence, one would speak of ‘matter of life and death’ about literature. Yet, once the primary feeling of irony and curiosity has cooled down, we are submerged with pain realizing that indeed, literature was a matter of life and death. I do not even dare venture use the word ‘sympathy’ towards the author and the ‘girls’ because I’m afraid that would imply I would actually have a slight idea of what they have gone through in the society of Iran before and after the Revolution. Yet it is in the midst of this fear and hopelessness that this small group of women manages, for better or for worse, to include literature in their lives and relationships.

This book revolves around the unimaginable situation of fear and often absurdity that people in Iran, especially women, have to go through, and oppression in multiple forms in the name of religion is indeed the foundation of this memoir. But more than this, this book is a great testimony to the true and too often disregarded value of literature. To the unfounded and ignorant criticism that literature is too remote from ‘real life’ and therefore holds no significant usage, Azar Nafisi shows that literature is more than words written by far-away authors in far-away times and places. True, literature often allows us to escape from reality and find comfort in a world where all mundane worries disappear for a short while. But what if people are confronted with so much terror and what if these chains are so suffocating that the only sign that they’re still dignified human beings living their lives can only be found in books where authors sometimes have themselves experienced similar situations and manage to explore the complicated dynamics and levels of humans? What if the regime has taken such a grasp on their lives that they cannot think, analyze, complain or even imagine without being engulfed in it? Through Nafisi, we can further reassure ourselves that literature is not a place to go hide from reality. Rather, it is a place where we are forced to reflect on our lives and thoughts, it is a place where we can gain energy, passion and courage, so long forgotten, so that we can face again our reality.

 

“I have a recurring fantasy that one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions. To have a whole life, one must have the possibility of publicly shaping and expressing private words, dreams, thoughts and desires, of constantly having access to a dialogue between the public and private worlds. How else do we know that we have existed, felt, desired, hated, feared?”

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