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.
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.
"It's dated," she said of "Reading Lolita."
"It's what the Americans think it's still like here. Wearing lipstick and putting a scarf on is not a major issue these days. It was when she was here."
Iranians who travel abroad are irritated by the persistence of the puritanical image of their society. The stark image of the chador -- the head-to-toe veil, black as night and so seductive as an image of severity -- no longer sums up Iran, they say.
"It's so dated. They don't know. They quote hearsay. They get a small thing and magnify it. And actually they put you in the position of being pro-Islamic Republic! I hate it!"
But she hates the memory of past fetters for all the reasons in Nafisi's book. This is the second point.
Iran's public may have pushed the mullahs back a few steps as a huge baby boom generation born after the Islamic Revolution has demanded basic private freedoms that no government could expect to deny and survive. But not all the children born after the revolution remained in Iran. Many of those who could afford to send their children abroad did so, into exile.
"My thumb's up for Azar Nafisi, because through this book she managed to get her revenge on the Islamic Republic," the bookseller said.
"That, to us, means a lot, because we all have this big grudge in our heart, this fire that needs to be quenched, for having lost so many friends, having gone through so many unbearable times, for our youth being confiscated from us, for our children having been taken from us.
"We all have this thirst for revolution in us. She got her revenge."
And she slammed her fist into her palm.