Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Reading Lolita in Tehran

Yesterday I received in the mail the book Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and I've been reading it nonstop ever since. I think every person everywhere should read this book.

Azar Nafisi is an English teacher who used to teach at universities in Iran. She was born in Iran, moved the the U.S. when she was thirteen, spent all her time here desperately missing Iran, then married an Iranian man in the U.S. and moved back to Iran - only to find that Iran had become drastically more repressive since the Shah had been replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. (The Tehran airport she arrived in was covered with posters proclaiming, "DEATH TO AMERICA! DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM & ZIONISM! AMERICA IS OUR NUMBER-ONE ENEMY!" and throughout her stay, she continually hears people marching and chanting "Death to America!" If more Americans had read this book before September 11th, they wouldn't have been so surprised at the idea that America is hated.) In spite of this, she remained in Iran for the next eleven years, attempting to teach English literature under a regime that gradually grew ever more brutal than she could previously have imagined. When told that wearing a veil had been made a condition of employment, she quit her job there rather than wear it - but soon afterward, wearing a veil became not merely a condition of employment but a condition of being allowed to walk down the street. She tried teaching at another university, veiled this time, but she quit this job in frustration when the government kept interfering too much in her students' schooling (mainly the women students, who had to enter the university through a separate gate on the side that led into a little room where they were thoroughly inspected for the slightest trace of makeup or any strand of hair not hidden under their veils before they were allowed in). After this, she gave up on teaching at universities for money, but she collected seven of her most dedicated women students and asked them all to meet at her house once a week for a free class where she could teach anything she liked, without any interference from the government. All the books she wanted to teach had by this time been banned, so she had to photocopy the books for all the students because trying to buy them on the black market would have been much too expensive. Despite this, she seems to delight in choosing the very most severely banned books of all, such as Lolita, with which she manages to build a remarkable discussion among her students of how some of them had personally experienced being molested, and how, contrary to other popular interpretations, all of them felt that the book took a clear stand against child molestation (Lolita's real name is Dolores, which is Spanish for "pains"; Nabokov finds continual ways to remind readers of her complete inability to escape, even at the same time that the unreliable narrator continually tries to twist the story in his favor). And throughout all this, every page that Azar Nafisi writes absolutely glows with the completeness of her faith in the power of literature to help these women escape from their repressive government.

There are many, many passages in this book that I would like to share, but there are some in particular that I can't bear not to share, no matter that they'll take a lot of time to retype, because in addition to being brilliant and powerful, I also identify with the emotions on a very personal level. Most of these passages involve the experience of witnessing a cultural war in which everyone seems to be passionately taking one side or another, yet somehow every single one of the various sides vying for power ultimately intends to destroy you, for one reason or another. Not, in my case, nearly so literally as in Iran, where the people chanting "Death to America!" throughout this book do indeed commit plenty of bloody murders upon any of their fellow Iranians who are suspected of having the tinies slightest thing in common with "America" or "the West" or "non-Muslims" - but certainly there are more situations than I can begin to count where the cultural debates presented in American mainstram media are debates in which the only sides presented are sides whose potential winning of the debate can only make me feel that my own side has lost. "Let's kill thousands of Iraqis and cover the country with radioactive depleted uranium" Bush versus "Let's keep killing thousands of Iraqis and keep covering the country with radioactive depleted uranium but use more diplomatic language to talk about doing so" Kerry? Pro-censorship feminists versus pro-"anything that isn't rape is automatically totally healthy and beyond critique" feminists? Homophobes versus "it's okay to be gay because it's not a choice" queers? I could go on, but I won't because it doesn't matter what my personal experiences of feeling totally unrepresented in cultural debates have been - what matters is that you've probably felt that way too, about one issue or another (or at least I hope you have, because it makes me feel better to think that other people can relate to this feeling) and that reading this book and seeing this author experiencing these feelings was a profoundly moving experience for me, and I want it to be for you too.

Throughout that year, between the fall of 1979 and the summer of 1980, many events happened that changed the course of the revolution and of our lives. Battles were being fought and lost. One of the most significant of these was over women's rights: from the very start, the government had waged a war against women, and the most important battles were being fought then.

One day, I think it was in early November, I announced to my students, after the last straggler had drifted in, that they had canceled class many times for their own reasons and I in principle did not agree with this, but on that day I would be forced to go against my own principles and cancel class. I told them I was going to a protest meeting, to oppose the government's attempts to impose the veil on women and its curtailment of women's rights. I had missed some of the large demonstrations against the revolutionary government's policies against women, and I was determined not to miss any more.

Unconsciously, I was developing two different ways of life. Publicly, I was involved in what I considered to be a defense of myself as a person. This was very different from my political activities during my student days, made in behalf of an unknown entity called the "oppressed masses." This was more personal. At the same time, a more private rebellion began to manifest itself in certain tendencies, like incessant reading, or the Herzog-like passion of writing letters to friends in the States that were never sent. I felt a silent defiance that may also have shaped my public desire to defend a vague and amorphous entity I thought of as myself.

From the beginning of the revolution there had been many aborted attempts to impose the veil on women; these attempts failed because of persistent and militant resistance put up mainly by Iranian women. In many important ways the veil had gained a symbolic significance for the regime. Its reimposition would signify the complete victory of the Islamic aspect of the revolution, which in those first years was not a foregone conclusion. The unveiling of women mandated by Reza Shah in 1936 had been a controversial symbol of modernization, a powerful sign of the reduction of clergy's power. It was important for the ruling clerics to reassert that power. All this I can explain now, with the advantage of hindsight, but it was far from clear then. . . .

I did not want to enter a debate with Mahtab and her friends, whose Marxist organization had tacitly taken sides with the government, denouncing the protesters as deviant, divisive and ultimately acting in the service of the imperialists. Somehow I found myself arguing not with Mr. Bahri [a student who supported all the Ayatollah Khomeini's policies] but with them, the ostensibly progressive ones. They claimed that there were bigger fish to fry, that the imperialists and their lackeys needed to be dealt with first. Focusing on women's rights was individualistic and bourgeois and played into their hands. What imperialists, which lackeys? Do you mean those battered and bruised faces shown on nightly television confessing to their crimes? Do you mean the prostitutes they recently stoned to death or my former school principal, Mrs. Parsa, who, like the prostitutes, was accused of "corruption on earth," "sexual offenses" and "violation of decency and morality," for having been the minister of education? For which alleged offenses she was put in a sack and either stoned or shot to death? Are those the lackeys you are talking about, and is it in order to wipe these people out that we have to defer and not protest? I am familiar with your line of arguments, I shot back - after all, I was in the same business not so long ago.

Arguing with my leftist students, I had a funny feeling that I was talking to a younger version of myself, and the gleam I saw in that familiar stranger's face frightened me. My students were more respectful, less aggressive than I had been when I argued a point - they were talking to their professor, after all, with whom they sort of sympathized, to a fellow traveler who might be saved. . . .

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 breaking with excitement, related to me what had happened, boasting about "the power of the 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, they 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. In the coffee shops, in the student union, even in the sunny streets of Norman, whenever the political Iranian students met they carried on heated discussions. Many quoted Comrade Stalin approvingly, spouting lines from a fashionable book, A Brief History of the Bolshevik Party or some such, about the need to destroy once and for all the Trotskyites, the White Guards, the termites and the poisonous rats who were bent on destroying the revolution.

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.

. . .

The spring semester [back in Iran, many years later] started ominously. From the very beginning, there were few classes. For the past year the government had been preoccupied with suppressing opposition groups, closing down the progressive newspapers and magazines, punishing former government functionaries and carrying on a war against the minorities, especially the Kurds. Now it turned its attention towards the universities, hotbeds of dissent, where the Muslim revolutionaries did not hold power. The universities played the role of the now-banned newspapers in protesting the suppression of progressive forces. Almost daily a protest meeting, talk or demonstration was organized at one of the universities, especially the University of Tehran.

One morning as I entered the department building, I could sense that something was wrong. An enlarged photograph of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who at the time was the speaker of the Parliament, was pasted to the wall opposite the entrance. Beside it was a flyer alerting students to a "conspiracy" to shut down the universities. Beneath the photograph and the warning, a large half-circle of students had formed, which seemed to contain smaller half-circles within it. As I drew closer, the students, some of whom I recognized as my own, made way and opened a space for me, in the middle of which I found Mr. Nyazi, arguing heatedly with one of the leaders of a leftist student organization.

Mr. Nyazi was vehemently denying that the government had any intention of closing down the universities. The other student pointed to Mr. Rafsanjani's speech at Mashad University about the need to purify the educational system and to trigger a cultural revolution in the universities. They went back and forth for some time, encouraged by murmurs from the crowd surrounding them. I did not stay to the end of the arguments; it seemed clear that there wouldn't be any. In those days the secular and leftist forces dominated the universities, and certain developments were not yet conceivable to some of us. To think that the universities could be closed down seemed as far-fetched as the possibility that women would finally succumb to wearing the veil.

It did not take long, however, for the government to announce its intention to suspend classes and to form a committee for the implementation of the cultural revolution. This committee was given the power to reconstruct the universities in such a way as to make them acceptable to the leaders of the Islamic Republic. what they wanted was not very clear, but they had no doubt as to what they didn't want. They were given the power to expel undesirable faculty, staff and students, to create a new set of rules and a new curriculum. It was the first organized effort to purge Iran of what was called decadent Western culture. The majority of students and faculty did not give in to this dictate, and once more the University of Tehran became the scene of a battle.

Going to classes became more impossible every day. We were all frantically shuffling from one meeting to another, as if by force of sheer movement we would be able to stop them. The faculty marched, and the students marched. There were many disagreements between the various student organizations.

The students convened demonstrations and sit-ins. I went to these demonstrations, although I felt no affinity at this point towards any particular organization. If the leftists had come to power, they would have done the same thing. This, of course, was not the point: the point was to save the university, which, like Iran, we all had a hand in destroying.

And so began a new cycle of violent demonstrations. We would start marching, usually in front of the University of Tehran, and as we moved, the crowd would increase. We marched towards the poorer areas, and, usually at a narrow alley or a particular intersection, "they" would come, attacking us with knives and clubs. The demonstrators would disperse, only to reorganize quietly further up the street. We walked the meandering streets and unpaved winding alleys and suddenly "they" would come again and attack us at the point of another intersection, with their knives drawn, and we would run again, and again we would meet at some other point a few blocks away.

I remember one day particularly well. I had left home early with Bijan; he dropped me off near the university on his way to work. A few blocks before the university, I noticed a group, mainly young people, carrying signs and walking towards campus. I noticed Nassrin [a 13-year-old girl who the author agreed to let sit in on university English literature classes as an unofficial student as long as she promised to write a paper at the end of the semester], whom I had not seen for a few weeks. She had some leaflets in her hand and was walking in the front row. At a certain street corner, she and another girl separated from the group and turned into the street. I suddenly remembered that Nassrin had never given me her promised paper on Gatsby [note: The Great Gatsby was already on the verge of being banned as indecent, pornographic and corruptive to students' morals, and the author was fighting valiantly for the right to continue teaching it, against the loud objections of some of her students who were ardent supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the nearly identical misgivings of her leftist students, who however were less vocal about their desire to censor the book, purely for the sake of not appearing to agree with the Islamic right wing about anything]; she had dropped out of my life as suddenly as she had entered it. I wondered if I would ever see her again.

I found myself walking with a group of chanting students who had appeared magically. Suddenly, we heard the sound of bullets, which seemed to be coming out of nowhere. The bullets were real. One moment we were standing in front of the wide iron gate of the university and then I found myself running towards the bookstores, most of which had closed because of the unrest. I took cover under the awning of one that was still open. Nearby, a music vendor had left his tape deck running; some singer's mournful voice lamenting his love's betrayal.

That whole day was one long nightmare. I had no sense of time or place and felt myself joining groups that sooner or later dispersed, drifting from one street to another. In the afternoon a large demonstration was convened. It soon became the bloodiest confrontation between students and the government. The government had bussed workers in from different factories, in addition to arming them with batons and knives to stage a counterdemonstration against the students. The workers were chosen because of the leftists' idealization of the proletariat as their natural allies.

Once the guns started to fire, we all ran in different directions. I remember at one point I ran into a former classmate of mine, my best friend from sixth grade, in fact. In the midst of gunshots and chants we hugged, and chatted about the almost two decades since we had last seen each other. She told me everyone was moving towards the hospital near the University of Tehran, where the bodies of murdered and wounded students were supposedly being kept.

Somehow, I lost her in the crowd and found myself alone on the grounds of the large hospital whose name had recently been changed from Pahlavi, the name of the last shah, to Imam Khomeini. The rumor now was that the police and guards had stolen the bodies of murdered students in order to prevent the news of their death from getting out. The students wanted to storm the hospital to stop the transfer of bodies.

I walked towards the main building, and now in my memory I seem to be forever walking towards that building, never quite reaching it: I was walking in a trance, with people running towards me as well in the opposite direction. Everyone seemed to have a purpose, some destination in mind - except me; I was walking alone. Suddenly, coming towards me, I saw a familiar face: it was [my student] Mahtab.

At that moment as I looked at her, paralyzed and frozen, she looked more than anything like a lost animal in danger. Perhaps it was shock that forced her to walk in a straight line, almost mechanically, and not swerve to the left or right, keeping near perfect balance. Imagine Mahtab walking towards me. Two girls block my view, and then she appears, wearing a loose beige shirt over jeans: she moves into my line of vision and our eyes meet. She was prepared to pass me by, but she stopped for a short second. So there we were, the two of us, sharing a moment in our ghastly search. She paused to inform me that "they" had managed to hijack the bodies from the hospital morgues. No one knew where the bodies had been transferred. She said this and disappeared, and I did not see her for another seven years.

As I stood there alone on the hospital grounds, with people rushing around me, I had a strange experience: I felt as if my heart has been torn from my body and had landed with a thump in an empty space, a vast void that I did not know existed. I felt tired and frightened. The fear was not of bullets: they were too immediate. I was scared of some lack, as if the future were receding from me.

The students kept a vigil on the grounds of the university, to prevent it from closing down. They kept their vigil until, in what almost amounted to a bloody battle - although the government forces were the only ones with guns - they were evacuated and the militia, the Revolutionary Guards and the police conquered the university grounds.

It was during one of these vigils that I saw Mr. Bahri. The night was filled with anxiety, as well as the false coziness of such events, as we sat on the ground in close proximity, exchanging jokes, information or stories, sometimes arguing away the pleasantly warm nights. He was standing alone in a dark corner, leaning against a tree. So what do you think of this? I asked him. He smiled a precocious smile and said, No, ma'am, what do you think? Mr. Bahri, I said slowly. What I think is becoming increasingly irrelevant. So irrelevant, in fact, that I think I will go home, grab a good book and try to get some sleep.

I knew I had startled him, but I had also startled myself. All of a sudden I felt as if this was not my fight. For most of those present, the excitement of the battle meant almost everything, and I was not excited, not in that way. Did it matter to me who closed the university down, whether it was my leftist students or the Islamic ones? What mattered was that the university should not be closed at all, that it should be allowed to function as a university and not become a battleground for different political forces. But it took me a long time, in fact seventeen more years, to finally digest and formulate this understanding. For the time being, I went home.
Tags: books
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