Sorry, Wrong Chador
Worries about what Americans -- or any outsiders -- think of Iran underpin a fair amount of the local backlash to Nafisi's book. One Tehran bookseller said most of what he had heard about it amounted to backbiting. "The usual resentment of success," he said.
But a more finely grained response was detected by another book merchant, a friend of Nafisi's who appears in "Reading Lolita." A striking woman with her own career in letters, she is identified in it only as "the bookseller," a relative anonymity that she told a visiting reporter she prefers, for the sake of privacy in a society where discretion is valued.
"I think I was the first one in Iran to read this book," she said, nursing a cup of tea behind her desk in an office overlooking a side street in north Tehran. A mutual friend brought an autographed copy from Nafisi's first bookstore appearance in the States -- when the prospects for "Reading Lolita" still appeared modest. The bookseller simply wanted to read the work her friend had talked about on walks under the towering sycamores that line the elegant neighborhoods below the snow-capped mountain range that frames Iran's capital.
"When I think about the nights, days, walks we had, the dreaming, what she would do, if she ever manages to get out . . ." the bookseller said, her voice trailing off.
She had seen Nafisi teach English literature at universities in Tehran, and marveled watching a woman she knew as almost painfully shy in private transformed into a dazzling lecturer. "She teaches with every cell in her body," the bookseller said. "These students who became her private students, they were mesmerized by her. Such was her power as a teacher."
Seven female students made up the Thursday morning study group that American readers recognized as a book club. "That was her domain, and we didn't want to interfere. She only had it for a year."
The bookseller also recognized another character, the reclusive male figure who glides in and out of the narrative. He is a charismatic teacher who withdrew from public life after the 1979 revolution. He remained available for sage advice to a select few. These were acolytes who knew the number of times to let his telephone ring, or the significance of a window shade at half staff.
"You have to be our age to know 'the magician,' " the bookseller said, dismissing a suggestion that he does not exist. "He has been in isolation for 25 years. No young people would know him." Nafisi describes her book not as history but as a remembered world in which some names and details have been changed to protect people. So, the bookseller said, "he too has had the benefit of some cocktail of fact and fiction, intermingled."
But the problem Iranians have with the book is not liberties taken in the name of memory or discretion.
She sipped her tea.
"Most of the people that I know who have read the book react negatively to the book," she said. "It is true -- before Khatami, the pressure on people was suffocating. That's very true, and she's correct in putting it all down.
"But people were so thirsty for the little freedoms that were bestowed on us after Khatami. We immediately forgot how terrible the situation was a few years ago. When you pick up a book and read about those times . . ."
The sentence faded off.
There were two issues here, the bookseller explained at length. One was obvious.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company