Category Archives: June 2009 Books

Reading Lolita in Tehran

One of our two books for June 2009 was “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi.  The riots over the election results keeping President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power were happening as we read this book. The passage quoted below from the book struck me as particularly enlightening about Iranian culture.

When reading this book, I thought time and time again of the repression and brutality of George Orwell’s “1984” against anyone who differed from those in power, and that power was maintained by violence and murder.  The revolution was a popular movement against the western-backed Shah, but soon it lead to repression of many of the people who supported it.  Women were greatly and still are suppressed, which is detailed in the book.

I’ve included a news story at the bottom of the post.  It describes funeral and mourning events that were repeated regularly.  People would be killed at these events, and then more mourning demonstrations would be staged to mourn those people. Even more deaths would occur. More funeral demonstrations. More deaths. And so on.

From “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, copyright 2003, The Gatsby section, Chapter 3.

In this section, Ayatollah Taleghani, a young, very popular, important and also controversial figures of the Iranian Revolution has died.

“Today is the day of mourning! Taleghani has gone to heaven today.” 

Over the next two decades, this particular chant would be used for many others, a symptom of the symbiosis between the revolution’s founders and death.  That was the first time I experienced the desperate, orgiastic pleasure of this form of public mourning; it was the one place where people mingled and touched bodies and shared emotions without restraint or guilt.  There was a wild, sexually flavored frenzy in the air.  Later, when I saw a slogan by Khomeini saying that the Islamic Republic survives through its mourning ceremonies, I could testify to its truth.

Additionally, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a new appreciation and a fresh perspective on books I have read, such as “Lolita,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Great Gatsby.”   Cathy

  Wikipedia Description of the Iranian Revolution.

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI (April 15, 2003)


A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi

347 pages. Random House. $23.95.

Azar Nafisi’s remarkable new book, ”Reading Lolita in Tehran,” is a memoir of the author’s life in Iran from the late 70’s to the late 90’s, but it is also many other things.

It is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students. It is a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs. And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Ms. Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, held a reading group at her house for seven of her former students. In the past, she and her students at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University had been attacked by the authorities for many offenses: for not wearing the veil, for not wearing it properly, for refusing to espouse a hard-line ideological stance, for studying decadent Western texts and for embracing the ambiguities and conundrums of fiction. While the members of the group, who came from different religious and political backgrounds, were initially shy about sharing their views and experiences, they gradually came to see their weekly meetings as a kind of sanctuary, as a place where they might share confidences both literary and personal.

Though this might sound to the American reader like some kind of Oprah Winfrey tea party, it quickly becomes clear that for these Iranian women, who had so little freedom in their daily lives, the group provided a rare opportunity to converse freely, to talk and laugh about their relationships with men and to refract their own daily hardships through the prism of classic works of literature.

They soon formed a special bond, Ms. Nafisi recounts, with the works of Nabokov, most notably ”Invitation to a Beheading,” with its lonely, imaginative hero whose originality sets him apart in a society ”where uniformity is not only the norm but also the law,” and ”Lolita,” which Ms. Nafisi reads as a chilling story about ”the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” Her students’ identification with this Russian émigré’s works, she notes, went deeper than their identification with his themes, to a shared sense of the precariousness of life. ”His novels are shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader’s feet,” she writes. ”They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality’s fickleness and frailty.”

She and her students find an analogy between Gatsby’s thwarted efforts to repeat the past and the Iranian revolution, ”which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream,” and they discuss the Jamesian heroines Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper as women who ”both defy the conventions of their time,” who ”both refuse to be dictated to.”

As for Jane Austen’s characters, Ms. Nafisi writes: ”Austen’s protagonists are private individuals set in public places. Their desire for privacy and reflection is continually being adjusted to their situation within a very small community, which keeps them under its constant scrutiny. The balance between the public and the private is essential to this world.”

Ms. Nafisi and her students themselves discovered — often after being warned, arrested or in some cases beaten and jailed — that there were no boundaries between the public and the private in the Islamic Republic of Iran: the government and its morality police told people what they could read, what they could wear, how they should behave. ”The colors of my head scarf or my father’s tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies,” Ms. Nafisi writes.

”Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture.” She adds that being accused of being Westernized in Iran in the 1980’s could result in years in jail, even execution.

Having grown up in Iran before the mullahs came to power, Ms. Nafisi writes of living in ”two different time zones simultaneously.” She had grown up in a prominent family (her father had been mayor of Tehran; her mother was one of the first six women elected to Parliament, in 1963), she had been educated in Switzerland and England, and she had lived in the United States. She returned to Iran in the late 1970’s, just as the revolution was cresting, and by the time her daughter was born several years later, ”the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother’s time”: the age of marriage was lowered to 9, adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death, and ”women, under law, were considered to have half the worth of men.”

Unlike her generation, Ms. Nafisi says, her students did not have a past to compare with the present. ”Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.”

In these pages, Ms. Nafisi, who had been part of the Iranian student movement in her youth, describes watching the revolution gather speed and run amok, and she blames ”the Iranian people and the intellectual elites” for ”helping to replace the Pahlavi dynasty with a far more reactionary and despotic regime.” She describes the purging of faculty members and students at universities and her own realization in the spring of 1981 that she had become irrelevant as a teacher.

Why did Ms. Nafisi stay in Tehran for another decade and a half? In part it was her devotion to her native country, her family and friends; in part it was the devotion of her husband, Bijan Naderi, ”to the idea of home.” In time many of her students also left, one going so far as to have herself smuggled out of the country overland through Turkey. Others stayed on in Iran and became teachers themselves. In this resonant and deeply affecting memoir, Ms. Nafisi pays tribute to all their lives and to the books that sustained them during some of the darkest days of the Iranian cultural revolution


Hundreds of Thousands Demonstrate in Iran; Mourn Dead
By ALI AKBAR DAREINI and NASSER KARIMI, Associated Press Writers Ali Akbar Dareini And Nasser Karimi, Associated Press Writers  June 18, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran – Hundreds of thousands of protesters wearing black and carrying candles filled the streets of Tehran again Thursday, joining opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn demonstrators killed in clashes over Iran‘s disputed election.

The massive protest openly defied orders from Iran’s supreme leader, despite a government attempt to placate Mousavi and his supporters by inviting the reformist, and two other candidates who ran against hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to a meeting with the country’s main electoral authority.

Many in the huge crowd carried black candles and lit them as night fell. Others wore green wristbands and carried flowers in mourning as they filed into Imam Khomenei Square, a large plaza in the heart of the capital named for the founder of the Islamic Revolution, witnesses said.

Press TV, an English-language version of Iranian state television designed for foreigners, estimated the crowd at hundreds of thousands and said the people listened to a brief address from Mousavi, who called for calm and self-restraint.

A Mousavi Web site said that the crowed exceeded 1 million.

Independent witnesses said that, based on previous demonstrations at the site, the size of the crowd appeared to be in the hundreds of thousands. Foreign news organizations are barred from reporting on Tehran’s streets.

The demonstrators had marched silently until they arrived at the square, where some chanted “Death to the dictator!” one witness said. Press TV showed protesters making V-for-victory gestures and holding pictures of Mousavi and signs that say “Where’s our Vote?”

A participant told The Associated Press by telephone that the rally stretched for more than three miles (5 kilometers) through downtown Tehran from the square.

Photos posted online showed Mousavi talking through a portable loudspeaker, dressed in a black suit and dark blue shirt as he raised a hand to address the massive crowd. The participant confirmed the authenticity of the images.

He described watching “a sea of people” march across a bridge in a constant stream for three hours.

“I remember one old man talking about how the will of the people has started and no one can stop it,” he added.

The participant and the witnesses spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

On their way home, some demonstrators held a candlelit gathering in front of Tehran University, where Mousavi supporters have accused pro-government militia of attacking students in dormitories.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands turned out in a huge procession that recalled the scale of protests during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Seven demonstrators were shot and killed that day by pro-regime militia in the first confirmed deaths during the unrest.

After dark Thursday — as they have done on other nights this week — people went to their roofs and chanted, “Mir Hossein!” in support of Mousavi, and “God is great!”

Ahmadinejad released a largely conciliatory recorded statement on state TV, distancing himself from his past criticism of protesters, whom he has compared to angry soccer fans and “dust.”

“I only addressed those who made riot, set fires and attacked people,” the statement said. “Every single Iranian is valuable. The government is at everyone’s service. We like everyone.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has urged the people to pursue their allegations of election fraud within the limits of the cleric-led system. Mousavi and his followers have rejected compromise and pressed their demands for a new vote, flouting the will of a man endowed with virtually limitless powers under Iran’s constitution.

Trying again to satisfy the protesters’ demands, the main electoral authority invited Mousavi and two other candidates who opposed Ahmadinejad to a meeting. Iran‘s al-Alam Arabic television channel said the three candidates would meet with the Guardian Council on Saturday.

The unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts close to Khamenei has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities.

Mousavi, who has said he won the election, says the Guardian Council supports Ahmadinejad and has demanded an independent investigation, as well as a new election.

The council’s spokesman, Abbasali Khadkhodaei, said Thursday that it received a total of 646 complaints from the three candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.

The council provided few other details, but the large number of complaints raised the possibility that even a limited recount could turn into a far larger and messier exercise than the government desires.

The regime has blocked communication channels, such as Web sites and mobile phone networks, to make it more difficult for Mousavi supporters to organize protests. The mobile phone network in Tehran appeared to go down at the start of Thursday’s demonstration, as it has intermittently since shortly after the election results were announced. Text messaging has been blocked almost constantly since Friday.

There have been widespread accusations of nighttime attacks on Mousavi supporters by pro-government militiamen, and protesters attacked a militia building after one rally, but both sides have been restrained, with uniformed police and other security forces standing by as protesters march calmly.

Monday’s massive gathering was followed by three days of marches along main Tehran avenues, presenting one of the gravest threats to Iran‘s complex blend of democracy and religious authority since the system emerged out of the Islamic revolution that brought down Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The ruling clerics still command deep public support and are defended by Iran’s most powerful military force — the Revolutionary Guard — as well as a vast network of militias.

But Mousavi’s movement has forced Khamenei into the center of the escalating crisis, questioning his role as the final authority on all critical issues.

The wild card is former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts — a cleric-run body that is empowered to choose or dismiss Iran’s supreme leader. Khamenei is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini‘s successor, and the assembly has never used its power to remove Iran’s highest authority.

Rafsanjani was a fierce critic of Ahmadinejad during the election, but has not publicly backed Mousavi. It is not known whether Mousavi has actively courted Rafsanjani’s support or if they have held talks.

But Iranian TV has shown pictures of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s daughter, speaking to hundreds of Mousavi supporters, carrying pictures of Khomeini.

A group of hard-line students rallied outside the Tehran prosecutor’s office Thursday, accusing Rafsanjani’s daughter and his son, Mahdi, of treason, state radio reported.

Protesters have focused on the results of the balloting rather than challenging the Islamic system of government. But a shift in anger toward Iran’s non-elected theocracy would sharply change the stakes and become a showdown over the foundation of Iran’s system of rule — the almost unlimited authority of the clerics at the top.

The Iranian government directly accused the United States of meddling in the deepening crisis. A statement by state-run Press TV blamed Washington for “intolerable” interference. The report, on Press TV, cited no evidence.

“Despite wide coverage of unrest, foreign media have not been able to provide any evidence on a single violation in the election process,” state radio said.

State TV on Thursday broadcast the purported confession of a man accused of conspiring with U.S. forces in Iraq to bomb targets inside the country.

U.S. officials shrugged off the allegation of interference. President Barack Obama said he shared the world’s “deep concerns” but it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling.”

The two countries severed diplomatic relations after militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution.

The government has blocked certain Web sites, such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites that are vital conduits for Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence. Many other sites, including Gmail and Yahoo, were unusually slow and rarely connect.

Mousavi has condemned the blocking of Web sites, saying the government did not tolerate the voice of the opposition.

In a statement, Google Inc.’s video-sharing site, YouTube, reiterated that its guidelines do allow clips depicting violence in Iran because of their journalistic merit. YouTube generally bans clips with graphic or gratuitous violence, but has made exceptions for video with educational, documentary of scientific value.

“The limitations being placed on mainstream media reporting from within Iran make it even more important that citizens in Iran be able to use YouTube to capture their experiences for the world to see,” the company said. “Given the critical role these videos are playing in reporting this story to the world, we are doing our best to leave as many of them up as we can.”

Iranian Press TV said Khamenei would lead the weekly prayers ceremony on Friday. There was no immediate word whether Ahmadinejad would attend, but attends the service whenever Khamenei gives it. Al-Alam said the three presidential candidates also confirmed they would attend.


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