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Reading Lolita in Tehran, and in Baghdad, and in Hungary, and in New York

Robert R. Thompson

For whatever the hardships, people will read.

Imagine being a writer, reviewer, or reader in what was Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The literary realm was strictly controlled. Writers were required to pay obeisance to Saddam in their work. Iraqi poet Imad Kadhum notes in a BBC News report that writers "were in trouble if we did not praise Saddam in our poetry or stories." (28 April 2003) Playwright Aziz Abdul Sahib says, "There were always security members at my plays and sometimes (the plays) were not allowed."

But when it came to Saddam, reviewers fawned over the dictator's writings. Yes! Saddam wrote! He apparently penned two, perhaps three novels. An Iraqi "critic" wrote that Saddam's second novel, al-Qala'ah al-Hasinah showed an "innovation which nobody has managed to achieve during the past century." Take that, James Joyce! The novel's convoluted, even risqué, plot, which would make even Newt Gingrich, another frustrated politician-author blush (see his incredibly turgid works, 1945, or Gettysburg), is detailed at BBC News (20 March 2002).

As we know, in repressive regimes the acts of writing and reading can be dangerous. Imad Kadhum pointed out that under Saddam, "A lot of (writers) may have been killed, and to this day we don't know what has happened to them." Similar literary oppression occurred in Russia and East Europe under communism. It happens today in many countries around the globe. It even happens in America, albeit in the classroom and the library, and without the threat of jail or death.

Oppressive, or free, governments have the power to threaten, intimidate, and control writers and readers. But they are often hard pressed to stifle the literary realm. People want to read. Under communist rule, samizdadt, or underground literature, circulated throughout the Soviet Union and the East European communist regimes. This surreptitious activity promoted the circulation of books, poems, articles and plays of authors not well known, especially in the west, as well as writers renowned for their literary achievements.

The Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn was not permitted to leave the Soviet Union to accept the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. Eventually he was forced to leave, and go into exile in the U.S. in 1974. The Soviet communist leadership denounced him, and the underground readers devoured his work. In particular he attacked the communists in his vivid detailing of Soviet crimes against the Russian people in the multi volume The Gulag Archipelago. Vaclev Havel of the former Czechoslovakia went from jail to the nation's presidency when communism fell in 1989. But first, the regime harassed and jailed him in the attempt to quash his plays and writings. But, I learned during my visit to Prague last year that Havel's works were read and passed through the underground fraternity of Czech readers.

This literary tyranny has a long history. As Elaine Pagel notes in The Gnostic Gospels, the early Christian church's patriarchs tried to stop "unpalatable" writings. "Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed," said Pagel. Politics and religion still intertwine to try to control readers' choices. Iranian scholar Azar Nafisi's recent book, Reading Lolita in Tehran highlights the difficulties and dangers of teaching and reading literature in Iran, the "Islamic Republic". The desire to "Read Lolita in Tehran" provides an apt metaphor for any attempt to circumvent any regime's attacks on readers and writers. Professor Nafisi's is a somber depiction of life under strict Islamic law, which is promulgated by Iran's Mullahs, the nation's religious leaders, and enforced by young thugs known as "Religious Police". Yet her story is also encouraging, for whatever the hardships, people will read.

Not willing to wear the veil, an Islamic requirement forced on all women in Iran, and, unable to teach what and how she wanted, Professor Nafisi left the university in Iran in 1995. She writes that between her 1995 resignation and 1997, when she and her family finally left Iran, she was able "to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women � to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my own home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction."

But it is clear from her story that to Iran's religious leaders there are no "harmless works of fiction". Professor Nafisi and her class read classical Persian and western works. They reveled in the curriculum, Lolita and The Great Gatsby, and works by Henry James, and Jane Austen. The young women were willing to endure harassment and intimidation by their family members and others, as Professor Nafisi had at the University of Tehran, in order to pursue their "(Dedication) to the study of literature . . . (and) its almost magical power."

The class was not "political", yet its very existence was a statement of resistance. "Once evil is individualized," Nafisis writes, "becoming part of every day life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination."

The attempt to stifle the imagination in Iran continues. A friend of mine is Iranian. He and his family have lived for some time in America, though his parents still live in Tehran. Ten years ago it was not possible for him to visit his parents. Now he can. And his visits reaffirm what Nafisi writes. If somewhat more liberal about travel into an out of Iran, the regime, he notes, maintains its grip on people's lives. He is not harassed or intimated during his visits. But, what Iranians read, what they watch, what they wear � all are liable to attack from the Religious Police.

And what are these attacks about? "Decadent" western literature? Religious belief? No, my friend says, it is about power, about political power masked as "religion". "The mullahs," to him, "are devious and duplicitous." Are they, I wonder, "evil?" For him, in their denial of freedom they are like any tyrannical regime. But worst of all "They don't care about their people, though they claim to be 'protecting' them. The people are there only to be used and controlled." And here he echoes Nafisi. She suggests this regime attitude is, in a sense, evil. For her, "Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime . . . "

I saw a similar manifestation of such "evil" firsthand on my first trip to Hungary in 1988, when communism still ruled over that nation. Neither I, my colleagues, the Hungarians, or for that matter most of the world, realized that in June of 1988, Hungary was on the cusp of freedom. Hungarians would soon start the chain of events that would topple the Berlin Wall, and end East European communist rule in November 1989. But during June of 1988, although Hungary was more "liberal" than some other communist nations, Hungarians could still be, and were, attacked by the police, for example, for celebrating the heroes of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union and communist rule.

Also at the time, Hungarians still were careful about what they read, especially in school. Our group of professors visited a school in the city of Pecs in southwest Hungary. The school day was done, but a mixed group of 13 to 16-year-olds were participating in an "unofficial" English class. They weren't in danger. But the communist controlled government only tolerated classes such as this, we were told, since students were required to learn Russian, the language of Hungary's "fraternal" communist protector, the Soviet Union.

The memory of that meeting remains vivid. We sat outside. It was hot, but more comfortable than the un-air conditioned classrooms in the drab, shabby, greenish school. The students were shy, but soon begin to talk about their reading. Some of their collection, we saw, is a collection of ragged, much passed around English grammar books. What excited them most, though, is that those basic texts were the key to the world of literature that they have just begun to sample: Mark Twain, Jack London, Charles Dickens. As we prepared to leave, we shared a conspiratorial smile with the students. This group of Hungarian teenagers and American professors found common ground in a literary world.

That meeting remains so distinct in my mind because here in the U.S., though literary struggles do not threaten death, or one's incarceration, they can be bitter and fierce. I remember an early encounter with this debate. It was the early 1960s and I was about to enter junior high school. The particulars are a bit hazy today, but the memory does stick in my mind. This is due to the vitriolic response of one of my classmate's mother to a book. She had just found out that we would read The Catcher in the Rye. She was livid, railing against the book as immoral, obscene, and disgusting. She was determined her son would never read this awful book. She went on and on at great length and with growing intensity. The book was a threat to the nation!

The 40 years since this fight, what many call America's "Culture Wars" have intensified. People battle over school curricula and reading lists. Libraries face attack over the "propriety" of their acquisitions. Libraries also hold "Banned Book Weeks" to rally public support for books of all kinds. As a ninth grader, my daughter needed special permission to read school Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Whether it is Walker's book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or, still!, The Catcher in the Rye, American "mullahs," both conservative and liberal, work to inflict their political agenda on American readers of all ages, both inside and outside of school.

It is ironic that, in America, our democracy guarantees the freedom to read and write; but it also gives power to those who "know" what is "proper" and what isn't. Banned Book weeks can highlight threats to certain literature. But libraries these days must fight for funding, too. I live in Pennsylvania where the current state budget drastically slashes library budgets. This forces cutbacks in personnel and operating hours, and constrains book acquisitions.

Whether in Iraq, Iran, Hungary, or America, the desire of writers to write, and of readers to read, goes beyond politics. Professor Nafisi is clear in that the essence of the controversy over Reading Lolita in Tehran. And I believe that the young people that I met in Hungary, and also my Iranian friend would agree. In an interview in The Atlantic online (May 7, 2003) she says, "One aspect of democracy is that different areas and fields can be free from politics. Of course they are interrelated . . . (but) freedom for a great book is freedom from the tyranny of the ever-presence of politics . . . this is an existential fight for millions of people who have no political claims, in order for them to live their ordinary lives."

Admittedly, there is something of a paradox here for people who don't believe that every facet of existence is a political statement, who want only to read, to enter that "magical" literary world, and to empathize and imagine need to act. But their act is political, even if only through clandestine reading. Governments, or groups, fear the power of imagination, because it may threaten their power. They fear the growth of a sense of empathy with a community of diverse people and disparate ideas.

Those who wish to control our reading, in any country, believe that there are no "ordinary lives". For them there is no sense of a common humanity. And ultimately, they believe that they have the right and the power to constrain our reading. They are wrong. For, Professor Nafisi reminds us, as Nabokov writes: "Readers are born free and they ought to remain free."

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