(x-posted at Pax Americana)
As the drum beats for war with Iran grow louder, I find myself thinking more and more about Azar Nafisi's remarkable memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. I highly recommend it to anyone concerned about the current situation with Iran, including Bush administration supporters with some shred of humanity left. (I've written off everyone actually in the administration.) The book brilliantly depicts everyday life in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the deliberate, delicate manner by which even its most devout citizens must conduct themselves in order to avoid running afoul of the religous authorities. Michael Moore was pilloried for his depiction of Iraqi children at play in Farenheit 9/11; war supporters claimed he didn't show the ugliness and brutality of Hussein's Iraq. Moore countered by claiming the horror of Hussein's Iraq was no secret but the everyday life of Iraqi citizens might as well have been. Both ugliness and rare moments of exhiliration are vividly portrayed in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi, a professor of literature, advises her students that a novel, "...is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved with their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing." Though Reading Lolita in Tehran is not a novel, I recommend reading it the same way before deciding whether or not attacking Iran is a good idea.
Nafisi's memoir focuses on her time spent with a hand-picked group of dedicated students she selects for clandestine study of Western classics after ideological restrictions at her university sap her will to continue teaching there. Although there are male students she respects and admires, the students in her group are, by necessity, all female. A mixed gender class would be too risky and
the presence of male students might inhibit her female students from freely expressing their opinions. Through their study of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen, the women find refuge from and in some cases meaning in the strictures and privations forced upon them by Iranian society. One frequently hears about young Iranian men gathering in basements for underground screenings of pirated episodes of Baywatch, as if this was somehow evidence of the West's cultural superiority. It's worth remembering that our culture, our heritage, has something more to offer than tittilation and cruise missiles.
And Nafisi and her students have certainly had their share of experience with missiles: they endure Iran's prolonged and ultimately pointless conflict with Iraq, surviving, at Nafisi's count, 168 cruise missile attacks in the year 1988 alone. The war doesn't make them hate Iran's regime any more than they already did and at no point is a scheme hatched to overthrow the government, despite what many of those urging war with Iran presume will happen in the event of an American air assault. Even if they had the desire to incite a counter-revolution, they didn't have the means, a situation that hasn't changed to this day. This is an important point to remember, since it's very easy to get angry while reading this book and decide that, SOMETHING MUST BE DONE! But what? Indiscriminate bombing isn't likely to liberate these people but it is very likely to kill them.
The women endure the conflict with Iraq the same way they endure living in theocratic Iran: they use their study of literature to enrich that portion themselves they stubbornly refuse to yield to the religous authorities. It is an act of profound rebellion to differentiate your self, your "soul," in a country that demands conformity, that has drained all value from piety. One of the students in the book, Mahshid, wore the head scarf before the revolution as an act of personal faith; Nafisi notes that, 'When the revolution forced the scarf on others, her action became meaningless." It's a brilliant insight into how faith should operate in society, and the perfect illustration of why it is the faithful who should most insist on the separation of church and state.
Whether Nafisi's students still take refuge in literature or if they're even still alive is uncertain, but we can be sure they are not the only examples of their ilk and maybe, just maybe, they have passed their love of literature on to friends and children. It's impossible to say. Their situation reminds me of the literary refugees in Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, hiding in the forests with the world's great books comitted to memory so they can return the books' collected wisdom to society when it is once again ready to listen. Nafisi and her students are not nearly so altruistic in their rebellion - they are seeking the means of their personal survival, not their society's. Even still, their presence makes their society a little saner, a little more bearable, if only to them.
Bradbury's literary refugees survive the bombing of their city. Will Iran's?