Fighting Words: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Amy DePaul

Orientalist fantasy? Neoconservative propaganda in a literary guise? The debate over Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Publisher: Random House
Subtitle: A Memoir in Books
Author: Azar Nafisi
Price: $14.95
Length: 384
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 081297106X
US publication date: 2003-12

One of the more remarkable literary success stories in recent years is Reading Lolita in Tehran, a 2003 account of life in revolutionary Iran by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian expatriate and former English professor. With its nimble sentences and interlacing of personal history, political rumination, and literary criticism, Reading Lolita quickly became an international bestseller and was translated into 32 languages.

The story of seven Iranian women who gather in secret to discuss Western novels in defiance of Islamic authorities, the book earned unqualified rave reviews from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Christopher Hitchens, and magazines of every political stripe. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called the book “an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction…and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.”

You might expect that any book with reviews this good and readers this plentiful is probably a feel-good story with a universal but inoffensive message, something along the lines of J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular and critically well-received Harry Potter series, which ends with the triumph of good over evil. But as it turns out, Reading Lolita has proven to be anything but an innocuous read, particularly in light of escalating tensions between the US and Iran. Instead of affirming common values, Reading Lolita has prompted bitter disputes, first among Iranian academics in the US and later including non-Iranian professors and writers, critics in Iran, and feminists.

“How could a memoir about repressed women getting together to read the classics in a country run by clerics generate so much hostility?” asked Firoozeh Papan-Matin, a professor at the University of Washington, in a recent paper defending Nafisi.

The basic accusation against Reading Lolita is that in detailing the most egregious abuses of power by Islamic authorities in Iran, painting all Iranian women as helpless and miserably oppressed, and celebrating Western canonical literature as a refuge for clear-thinking Iranians, the book serves neoconservative foreign policy interests, subtly reinforcing arguments for American intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

“The book fed into a fantasy of what the Middle East should be,” says John Carlos Rowe, a professor at the University of Southern California. The fantasy, he explains, is a depiction of the Middle East as “scary and exotic” and ultimately “orientalist,” a term typically used to describe essentialist Western stereotypes of Eastern exoticism. For Rowe and others, the concern is that Reading Lolita highlights Iranian oppression to instill receptivity to neoconservative foreign policy.

It’s not that Iran’s abuses of power should be ignored, Rowe says, but they should be examined in historical context. “If you want to criticize Iran, fine, but let’s get more of a nuanced look,” he says. For example, he notes that “there is very little attention given to the Shah in Reading Lolita. That’s troubling," Rowe says. "The Shah had a repressive regime with a secret police that was murderous.”

Rowe is one of many critics who have raised questions about Nafisi’s elite pedigree and associations. Both of Nafisi's parents held political office in Iran during the Shah’s reign. And Nafisi's employment at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, a foreign-policy school, is highly unusual, Rowe points out, given that her academic credentials consist of a Ph.D in literature.

Such a teaching appointment shows the way that literary writing is being deployed to influence readers ideologically, according to Rowe, and Nafisi's associations suggest her complicity with the project. Put more simply: “Neoconservative interests are using culture for political ends,” Rowe says, and Nafisi's books is one of many such tools.

In addition to the SAIS connection, Nafisi’s reported friendship with Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz has incensed many critics. In Reading Lolita’s acknowledgments, Nafisi thanks “Paul” (presumably Wolfowitz, though Nafisi has not confirmed this) and gushes over Princeton professor and Dick Cheney adviser Bernard Lewis -- father of the term “clash of civilizations,” a phrase that neoconservatives like to invoke in justifying confrontation between the US and Islam. (Nafisi, for the record, has said in interviews that she does not support the war in Iraq.)

Adding to the perception that Nafisi is a cultural agent of the neocons was the eagerness with which notorious hawkish types embraced the book, starting with Lewis, who called it, “a masterpiece”, in a blurb for the back cover. In the conservative Weekly Standard in 2007, Reuel Marc Gerecht cited Reading Lolita to bolster his case for a first strike of Iran: “Although some Western female journalists have tried to depict Iranian women as liberated under their head scarves and veils,” Gerecht wrote, “the phenomenal global success of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran has also made it more difficult to view the Islamic Republic’s internal ethics, particularly regarding women, benignly.”

Not only did critics claim Nafisi's book legitimized neoconservative foreign policy, Reading Lolita was also challenged on feminist grounds. Some accused Nafisi of exploiting women’s hardships in Iran to promote the need for American interference, whether political or military. They point out that Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi is one of many Iranian women who are leading their own human-rights movement without help from American regime-changers.

Also, there is far more to women’s lives under Islamist rule than stonings and headscarves, Nafisi’s critics say, pointing out, for example, that family planning is highly successful there and that female university students outnumber male ones in Iran, constituting at least 60 percent of the student population.

Some of the criticism of Nafisi, however, has consisted of unfair ad hominem attacks. In 2006, Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi wrote an essay about Reading Lolita for the Cairo-based newspaper Al Ahram in which he not only mercilessly ripped her for collaborating with neoconservatives but even accused her of manipulating the book’s cover image of two young women in headscarves to suggest an orientalist sexual fantasy. (Nafisi has said in interviews that she had little to no influence over the cover, noting that it does not appear remotely sexual.) Dabashi also compared Nafisi to Lolita herself and Bernard Lewis to Humbert Humbert. Then, in a follow-up interview with Z magazine, he called Nafisi “illiterate” and “pathetic”, likening her to Abu Ghraib poster girl Lynddie England.

Nasrin Rahimieh, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, believes the Dabashi article ended up generating sympathy for Nafisi. “His attacks were very polarizing,” she says. “Among Iranian diasporic academics, there was a sense that you just don’t do that.”

Offensive or not, Dabashi’s article garnered a lot of press attention, confirming the emergence of Reading Lolita as a cottage industry. To this end, the number of academic and popular-press articles on the book continues to grow (including my own forthcoming academic essay, as well as this article itself). Titles include “Reading Nafisi in the West”, “Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho”, “Reading and Misreading Lolita in Tehran”, and so on. And then there’s Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran, by Fatemeh Keshavarz, a book-length refutation of Nafisi’s work.

Meanwhile, Nafisi is not the only Iranian memoirist drawing readers’ interest. At least nine other memoirs or collections by Iranian women in exile have surfaced in US bookstores in the past 10 years, including Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, the basis of a recent animated feature.

Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, who heads the North American studies program at the University of Tehran, is a critic of diasporic memoirs, saying they demonize Iran and get important historical facts wrong, exacerbating relations between the US and Iran at a time when American neoconservatives are openly calling for confrontation. “With the threat of another tragic war looming,” Marandi says, “I felt that this issue is something that academics like myself have a duty to deal with.”

Fair enough: with its vast readership and influence, Reading Lolita in Tehran undoubtedly should be examined critically and rigorously. But characterizing Nafisi as nothing more than a dupe of neocons unfairly diminishes her literary insights, and perhaps more important, negates the truth of what she and other women who opposed Islamism suffered during the revolution.

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