We work in the dark,
we do what we can,
we give what we have,
Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.
The rest is the madness of art.
Telling about life is not an easy feat, even less if that life must make his way through the cracks of the ideological, political, religious, moral and social walls, erected to control, to segregate people.
Azar Nafisi, the author of this book published by Random House, admits that it was difficult to give a comprehensive overview of the radical change that her existence underwent after the establishment of the Islamic Republic that Ayatollah Khomeini wanted and after the ouster of the Shah in 1979. Her memories, “mischievous beggars”, emerge sometimes in a confused and blurred way, as fragments of thoughts running so rapidly that they can not be caught.
“One day in the spring of 1981 … I became irrelevant …”: this is annihilation of women on a sacrificial altar, built by the New Man, conceived by the Shiite theologian. “A stern ayatollah, a blind and improbable philosopher-king had decided to impose his dream on a and a people and to re-create us in his own myopic vision” took women as scapegoat for society’s ills and corruption, caused by its westernization, and they suffered an inexorable process of dehumanization, from sensory deprivation, expropriation of civil rights, degradation of body and mind. But “the worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes” as in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: “the jailer invited Cincinnatus to dance” and after that , “he regretted that the swoon’s friendly embrace had been so brief “, “dancing with the jailer, participating in the execution”.
It inevitably leads to the literary memory of Primo Levi, Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum, victims of racial laws during Hitler’s dictatorship, and Nabokov, Kundera and Grossman during the Stalinist government, just to name a few.
“Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted it or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.” Her need to survive brings the young professor of English Literature at the University of Tehran to express her own “existential stance” through what Nabokov called “insubordination in its purest form”, her curiosity. Thus gives birth to the idea of a seminar, illegal and restricted to the most talented students in her class, girls coming from different towns and social backgrounds, having different religious beliefs, but united by their deep “absolute commitment to works.”
The great masters of the counterrevolutionary English literature ” emissaries of that forbidden world which we would turn into something more pure and golden than it it ever was or will be”, they satisfy girls’ touching demands for help and repay their loyalty, catalyzing the power of their minds to the philosophical and imaginative speculation, and opening to them new worlds, with which compare their individual experiences: “A novel is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters, become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing … ”
Each woman brings with her, in the living room where they meet, her own experience of physical and moral pain: the repertoire of the violences is as wide as the number of male perversions. From blows to sexual harassment among home walls, arrests, and fake confessions, judgments of guilt in show trials, summary executions, to oblivion of the memory due to the denial of the right of burial, comfort for those who remain, roots in the ground where family history was born, and even worse, the sentence in this life and in the beyond, perpetrated by prison warders who, trying to deny the reward of paradise to virgin prisoners, married them and deflower them, before leading them to the gallows.
The key aspect emerging from this story is that this seminar is not just a shelter or a sublimation of reality, but the chance for these seven young chosen women, heirs of Sheherazade, to find in the world of written and read words the way to redeem their identity and dignity, “Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry”.
It is through the work of chiseling of their minds, they awaken their consciousness of themselves, which can be summed up, in more familiar terms, in the cogito ergo sum.
As Nafisi quotes what Fitzgerald wrote in the Preface of The Nigger of the Narcissus by Conrad: ” the artist appeals to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity and beauty and pain … and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations in illusions, in hope, in fear which binds men to each other, which bends together all humanity- the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”
And also talking about The Great Gatsby: “A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil …”
Quoting Adorno, ‘The highest form of morality is not feel at home in one’s home.’ Nafisi explains: ” that most great works of the 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 questioned traditions and expectations when they seem to immutable … consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.”
It is through the lens of literature as a “epiphany of truth”, which must be examined the relationship between the narrative dimension and the effective one: “Not only the most ordinary activities gain a new luminosity in the light of our secret, but everyday life sometimes took on the quality of make-believe or fiction … ” always remembering ” do not, under any circumstances , belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life..”
It is the way they “stop dancing with the jailer”, that stems the invasion of private spaces, the influence of each gesture, the confiscation of the most intimate moments and desires, made “for us to become one of them.”
When they come in their teacher’s house, veils fall from their heads, they untie their hair and show colourful clothes and nails. The mythological appearance falls and reality shows itself for what it has become: the devastating failure of a dream. As Gatsby’s death demonstrates: ” It is about the loss, about the perishability of dreams once they are transformed into hard reality. It is longing, its immateriality, that makes the dream pure.” and again “Dreams are perfect ideals, complete in themselves. How can you impose them on a constantly changing, imperfect, incomplete reality ? “.
Becoming ” a figment in someone’s else dream” means the voluntary and arbitrary will to ignore people’s feelings: it is the lack of empathy to Nabokov, blindness to James, insensitivity to Austen. The action’s outcome is already written, without any chance of appeal: the destruction of the object or of the manipulator.
As the courageous heroines Catherine Sloper or Daisy Miller they face off in dignified silence “the cruelty not under extraordinary circumstances but ordinary ones, committed by people like us ..”, as Austen found out, and create, during the weekly meetings, an intimate and affectionate space, in which they invent a new language.
After many years, centuries, in distant lands, familiar places to Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen, they create one of the most vibrant and fertile communion between reader, text and author.
Reading this book is not easy, not because of the knowledge about the authors’ works, since this lack is made up for by Nafisi in a clear, straightforward writing style, but what it is really needed for addressing this text, is knowledge about human soul, which we are driven to, as the result of compassion, according to its Latin origin “feel together”.
Title: Reading Lolita in Teheran. A memoir in books
Publishing House: Random House