Sorry, Wrong Chador
In Tehran, 'Reading Lolita' Translates as Ancient History
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page C01
TEHRAN -- Reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" in Tehran can be a lonely experience.
Azar Nafisi's memoir of life and book groups after the Iranian revolution may be a huge bestseller in the United States, but it has yet to be translated into Persian. As a result, almost no Iranians have even heard of the book. Fewer still have read it.
Among those who have, however, reactions might fairly be described as mixed. As readers, they may be every bit as captivated as Americans by Nafisi's artful interlacing of remembered life under religious authoritarianism with the humane lessons of "The Great Gatsby," "Pride and Prejudice," "Daisy Miller" and, as advertised, "Lolita."
"The idea of the book is so brilliant," said one Tehran resident, who wished to remain unnamed so she could speak candidly about a system that still can cause problems for people who speak openly. "The intermingling of literary criticism and politics is brilliant. The style of writing is brilliant. I mean, it's a brilliant book.
"But it has nothing to do with Iran."
The problem, several Iranians said in interviews, is that Nafisi left Tehran seven years ago. Her highly personal account of 18 years living under the mullahs is as absorbing a history as might be found of this place in that time. But it ends precisely at what most people here call the dawn of a new era in Iran, the 1997 landslide election of Mohammad Khatami as president.
Nafisi, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, left the Islamic Republic of Iran just as Khatami swept onto it. The election of the gentle, bespectacled cleric (a librarian himself) augured a fundamental change in the atmosphere of the world's only theocracy.
In the end, Khatami failed to change the structure of Iran's government, which today remains dominated by clerics who answer only to themselves. But his election, and the landslides that followed for reformists, represented titanic public rejection of the suffocation Nafisi made so vivid in "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books." She used 343 pages and uncommon eloquence to describe the intrusion of the state (using the justification of religion) into every element of daily life.
"Personal space" became the journalistic shorthand for what was missing. And, since 1997, Iranians have gotten a measure of it back. Today young lovers hold hands on streets no longer patrolled by morals police. Satellite TV, nominally illegal, is the subject of feature stories in government newspapers advising parents on how to deal with kids addicted to it. A stroll in the affluent north Tehran neighborhood where Nafisi lived suggests the Islamic dress code can now be satisfied by a banana yellow coat pulled snug under the breasts by straps and steel buckles.
"Our situation is much better," said Zahra Ghaderi, 42, pausing in a shopping arcade near Tehran's center with her daughters, vivacious young women of 22 and 25 adorned in sunglasses, eye shadow and lime green handbags.
"We cannot compare our situation now with 10 years ago," said Doty Behrouzi, 37, at the counter of a shop stuffed with the vases and knickknacks that Iranians favor in home decorating. These include lifelike sculptures of sleeping kittens fashioned from dyed rabbit fur, the latest thing from China.
"We are more free now. The society has changed a lot, and so have the mullahs. Everything has changed, and they have to change as well."
The leopard skin on Behrouzi's lapels matched the print on her scarf, pushed back to show half her hair above penciled eyebrows. She has not read "Reading Lolita."
"I hope she gives a good impression of our society to the Americans," she said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company