I was out of the office and on the road all day today, and part of it was spent in a college town. I live in a small town that is nearly an hour to the nearest bookstore, so I took the opportunity to stop into one and pick up Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran. I’m about 50 pages into it (I read fast and took a long lunch) and finding it enormously compelling so far. Nafisi is an excellent writer and she manages to transport even this American male into the world of an Iranian woman living under the rule of the Ayatollahs. “It is amazing,” she writes, “how, when all possibilities seem to be taken away from you, the minutest opening can become a great freedom. We felt when we were together that we were almost absolutely free.” Thus she describes the exhiliration that she felt each Thursday morning, when her girls, as she calls them, gathered at her house to study great books.
Nafisi taught English literature in Tehran, but resigned when she could no longer stand having to change her personality so starkly in public. She tired of having to police her own conduct so carefully, to keep her head down to avoid attention, of having to be obsequious to men rather than have them treat her as an intellectual equal, of even having to avoid a professional handshake that might bring down the wrath of the cultural watchmen that policed even the most mundane of interactions between men and women. So she quit, and began to teach clandestine literature classes in her home.
The book begins with Nafisi, having moved to America and beginning the book, looking at two pictures of the girls in her class, pictures taken in her empty home on the day that she left Iran. One picture shows them all in the clothing that they were forced to wear in public; the other shows the brightly colored clothes that they wore underneath, the clothes they wore in the privacy of Nafisi’s home during their weekly classes. Reading how her girls would come into her home and feel free to take off the dark robes and headscarfs that they were forced to wear, and show the gaudy earrings they were wearing underneath, the orange t-shirts and tight jeans, is revelatory. The mere act of running their fingers through their hair as they spoke about Jane Austen becomes an act of defiant freedom.
In a mere 50 pages, she has reminded me so vividly of the power of books, of ideas, to change the world. Even when they don’t change the external world directly, they can change us internally, giving birth to the potential for us to transcend our lot in life. In our spoiled society, we take that freedom so much for granted that we forget how powerful it can be.