Book of the week: Reading Lolita in Tehran

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  May 20, 2003 at 10:38 AM
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SAN DIEGO, May 20 (UPI) -- The voice of Iranians women is being heard, at least abroad, if not in their own country.

Two books well worth our attention are "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi and "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi.

Although very different in style they are quite similar in content: they recount the fall of the monarchy, the revolution, and the hardships of daily life in Iran under the rule of the ayatollahs.

"Persepolis" is a graphic novel, something new to mainstream American readers, but quite common in France, Satrapi's adopted home. Her story is told through the eyes of Marji, a little girl who looks up with wonder and confusion at the adults around her, demanding an explanation for the incomprehensible world in which they live.

Satrapi's stark black and white ink drawings are almost like caricatures, but then so is life in Iran.

Satrapi writes with irony and wit, but even when the situation is outright funny there is an undercurrent of poignancy, because living under such conditions isn't really funny at all.

Take, for example, when Marji was 10 years old, and female students were issued veils at school and told to wear them at all times. The cartoon shows little girls tying the veils together and using them as a jump rope or pulling them over their head and pretending to be monsters.

Some of the illustrations are shocking, depicting torture, dissidents being lashed or with hot irons applied to their backs. It didn't take much to be considered a dissident, either -- all it took was a lock of hair escaping from under the veil, or, for men, wearing a shirt tucked in, the garb for a fundamentalist Islamist being a full beard and the shirt worn hanging out.

Through Marji's eyes readers see the hypocrisy of the regime as well as that of ordinary people. The neighbor who last year wore a miniskirt now self-righteously parades in a full chador, and even Marji's own father, who considered himself a liberal leftist but still thought the maid should "know her place." When the maid falls in love with the neighbor's son, he nips the romance in the bud by pointing out that she is not his daughter but the maid, and "in this country you must stay within your own social class."

Marji learns early on to dissemble. She tells her classmates that she spends all her free time praying, and helps her grandmother flush all the alcohol in the house down the toilet to avoid getting caught by the Revolutionary Guards.

She learns to mourn, too. Her best friend emigrates to the United States, and her favorite uncle, Anoosh, is arrested. Marji visits him in prison and he gives her a swan made of bread and calls her "Star of my life." That was the last time she saw him; he was accused of being a Russian spy and executed.

Friends and family members disappear, are imprisoned or killed. Marji's mother is attacked by two bearded men who insult her and threaten to rape her. Shaken, she takes to her bed for several days.

The Islamic government decrees that all women should be veiled.

"Women's hair emanates rays that excite men. That's why women should cover their hair! If in fact it is really more civilized to go without the veil, then animals are more civilized than we are."

When her father is called in by the school principal and told to make sure his daughter wears her veil correctly, he retorts, "If hair is as stimulating as you say, then you need to shave your mustache."

During the war with Iraq, young boys were lured into the army with the promise of going straight to paradise when they died. Mrs. Nasrine, Marji's family's maid, showed them a plastic key painted gold. "They gave this to my son at school. They told the boys that if they went to war and were lucky enough to die, this key would get them into heaven."

Marji is now a teenager, and goes to her first party, dressed as a punk rocker. The drawing above the one showing the youngsters dancing is one of young boys exploding on the minefields, their golden keys on a chain around their neck, illustrating without words the difference between a normal teenager's life and the crazy, surreal fate of the young warriors.

After a bomb destroys their neighbor's house, the family finally decides to send Marji away to safety, first to Vienna and then to France. At the airport, Marji turns around for one last look at her parents, and sees her father carrying her mother, who has fainted. "I turned around to see them one last time; it would have been better to just go."

Satrapi lives in Paris, where she is at work on a sequel to "Persepolis."

("Persepolis", by Marjane Satrapi, Pantheon Books, 153 pages, $17.95.)

"Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books"" by Azar Nafisi, tells the same story of revolution, repression, broken dreams and, finally, exile. But hers is a narrative where life and novels intertwine, a memoir in which she draws parallels between reality and fiction.

Nafisi returned to Iran from the United States to teach English literature at the University of Tehran. She had been a student in Norman, Okla., and had lived the life of the average student. Her memories of those years are of reading Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, Ovid and William Shakespeare, Mao Zedong and Lenin, of singing revolutionary songs, demonstrating against the Vietnam War and watching movies by Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini.

Upon her return, she quickly got into trouble for refusing to wear the veil, and for teaching decadent Western literature. She spent hours at the library and used bookstores trying to find the banned novels she wanted to teach: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, Jane Austen and Vladimir Nabokov.

The readings gave rise to heated discussions among the students and, one day, when a radical Islamist protested the immorality of Jay Gatsby, Nafisi decided to put him on trial with herself as the only witness for the defense.

She found parallels in the novels to their lives. Gatsby's dream, for instance: "He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?"

After her expulsion from the university, Nafisi chose her best female students, the ones most dedicated to the learning of English literature and invited them into her home. They came wrapped in their chadors, the shy and the outspoken, the virgin and the married, the religious and the rebellious. From identical ghostlike shadows, once the black shroud was discarded, they metamorphosed into seven distinct young women, each with her own style, temperament and character, and each with her own story of repression.

Nassrin had been sent to the disciplinary committee to have her eyelashes checked because they were too long; she was suspected of using mascara. Manna's sister's friends were admonished for eating apples in public: "They were biting their apples too seductively!"

How ironic that their mothers' generation had had more freedom. "They could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women."

The Islamic revolution lowered the legal age of marriage to 9 and made stoning the punishment for adultery and prostitution. Women were accused of being prostitutes if they looked at a man, if they touched a man or if they went out in public without a male member of their immediate family: a father, a brother or a husband.

"Those of us living in the Islamic Republic of Iran grasped both the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected. We had to poke fun at our own misery in order to survive."

Satrapi's daughter was punished for wearing colored shoelaces, for running in the schoolyard and for licking ice cream in public.

"Was this rule the rule of Islam? What memories were we creating for our children? This constant assault, this persistent lack of kindness, was what frightened me most."

Satrapi and her students met every Thursday at her home to discuss forbidden texts. Their thirst for these novels was a cry for freedom, a grasping at hope that reality denied them.

"In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayal, horrors and infidelities of life."

So they read "Pride and Prejudice," "Washington Square," "Daisy Miller" and "Lolita," all novels with great heroines, oppressed, repressed or persecuted, by society, by their families or by men. They are all defiant heroines, refusing to comply, refusing to be dictated to. Even Lolita, when she finally has a chance, gets away from Humbert Humbert. So Daisy Miller and Catherine Earnshaw, Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett are revolutionary heroines, all the more so, because as Nafisi points out "they make no claim to be radical."

As are Nafisi's students, each a heroine in her own way, struggling to live as normal a life as possible under an irrational regime that punishes women for having long lashes, for laughing loudly or shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex.

These sessions were sometimes the only sane moments in a topsy-turvy world, and enabled them to escape into a world of magical transformation and imagination.

For anyone reading these two books, especially back to back as I did, it is a sobering experience. I lived in Saudi Arabia for four years, where I had my share of humiliating encounters with the "religious police," and I can affirm that it is inhumane to live in such repressive societies. Sad to say, the Shiite mullahs in Iraq are now demanding that the sale of alcohol be banned, that women be veiled and that cinemas be shut down. Iraq is in danger of falling prey to a fundamentalist Islamic regime similar to Iran's, something that Nuha al-Radi, author of "Baghdad Diaries," predicted when interviewed by United Press International a few weeks ago.

Nafisi left Iran in 1997 and is now teaching at Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Washington with her husband and their two children. Some of her students have also left Iran for England, Canada or the United States.

("Reading Lolita in Tehran", "by Azar Nafisi, Random House, 343 pages, $23.95.)

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