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By Azar Nafisi
New York: Random House, 2004
ISBN: 0-8129-7106-X 347 pages

Bob Corbett
August 2015

Author Azar Nafisi returned to her native Iran in 1980 during the early years of the Iranian Revolution. She had been teaching and living in the U.S. The Iranian university she entered, and the society at large, was something she’d never experienced. The “religious” police and informers were everywhere. Dress, especially for women, was brutally policed as was the expression of ideas that in any slight manner wasn’t what the government wanted to be heard in public.

Professor Nafisi soon chose a select group of women students who were opposed to the strict Islamic government and its rules especially for women, and that group began to meet in secret in Nafisi’s apartment to discuss selected works, particularly those authors whose names lend themselves as a titles for the four main sections of the book – Vladimir Nabokov, and especially his novel “Lolita,” F. Scott Fitzgerald with special emphasis on “The Great Gatsby.” The last two authors were discussed more generally rather than with a primary focus on any particular work. These two authors were Jane Austin and Henry James.

Each of the four sections which were under the name of one of these authors treated issues which Nafisi seemed to fit with issues that came up in the writings of these particular authors, yet were intimately related to the lies of the 8 women in Irain..

My own response to this work is primarily very strongly positive. Azar Nafisi details the dramatic changes in society which hit Iran with the coming to power of the conservative Islamist government of Ayatollah Khomeini. This reader, and I would have to believe almost any reader, came away with a “felt” sense of the dramatic and horrible change of life imposed upon the Irani people, but especially the women.

I was deeply impressed with Nafisi’s ability to create strong feelings inside the reader of the “felt” sense of this dramatic cultural change and the profound impact on the lives of these women, the professor herself, the selected students, and other various women who entered into the narrative. I learned a great deal, and had my emotions deeply moved by the accounts of the disruptions and horrors visited upon women in this modern Islamic Iran.

However, I have to admit, I was much less attracted to the structure of this account. I think that Professor Nafisi is deeply learned in and dedicated to her literary studies of English literary, especially the 19th century and early 20th century. On the other hand, I found the constant attempts to squeeze the contemporary situation of Iran into a discussion of the western novels to be a great stretch of the imagination and it just didn’t work for me.

The strategy to focus on this group of 7 main students and the professor having these private and secretive studies in her apartment was a very useful plan, and allowed them to reveal much about the deeply “felt” sense of being a woman in the new revolutionary Iran, and especially the horrors of impact on women who had, especially under the government of the Shah, internalized much of the freedom and equality of woman in society.

Thus I find myself in a difficult position in straightening out my own feelings and sense of Nafisi’s work. I certainly learned a great deal about the Islamic government under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini and the dramatic effect on these women. Nafisi was certainly honest and open that there certainly were many other women in Iran who embraced the new regime, yet she revealed in great detail and convincingly that there was (is) also a sizeable set of women, most especially among younger and better educated women, who experience this new world of radical and conservative Islam as an profound oppression.

For me, however, the huge amount of the novel devoted to the analysis of the four main western authors and the seeming “similarity” of issues with the problems the 8 women (the professor and the 7 students) were experiencing was just not very successful. Thus I came away from the work feeling that about 1/3 of the 350 pages of this work were just not very relevant to the theme and certainly not very successful for this reader.

I feel badly about having come away with this judgement and feeling. I tried with significant effort to be sympathetic and to “see” the relevant connection of these four authors and a few others thrown in along the way, to help with the clarification and understanding of the toils, woes and troubles of these women trying to survive in the revolutionary world in this strange radical sense of Islam. But, alas, I just couldn’t make the significant portion of this account to seem relevant for me.

However, despite this frustration on my part (a frustration with myself as much as with the author) I nonetheless came away from the book thinking that I learned so much from the personalization of the feelings for the revolution in the case of these 8 women especially, Professor Nafisi and her 7 students.

The many discussions in the privacy of her apartment where they, first of all, removed there demanded “outer” garments they had to wear on the streets and in public, and then, along with the garments, they shed the hesitancy of speaking honestly and in great detail about their lives and the extreme difficulties they had in living any sort of a life in this revolutionary Iran that they could think to be a life really worth living. Further, the multiplicity of ways in which they dealt with it, and ways they learned to express themselves despite the brutal oppression they risked all the time, was beautiful and powerful to read and well worth the reading3 as a whole.

Eventually Professor Nafisi is unable to further endure life in the new Islamic revolution and she returns to live, teach and write in the U.S. (where she wrote this work). Further, several of her seven selected students (whose names and identities she carefully protects in the telling of their experiences) also left Iran for life in other parts of the world, especially Western Europe or the U.S. However, a few remained on in Iran and Professor Nafisi seemed unable to be able to stay in touch with them after coming back to the U.S.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the role of the discussion of the western authors and their works to this story, I am extremely satisfied that I read this work and was seriously educated by Professor Nafisi’s account of life in modern Iran. Alas, while the novel covers the period from 1980 to 1997 it does seem that relatively little has changed in Iran in the intervening years. It is so sad to me and I simply couldn’t even imagine having to live life in the world that Nafisi’s account reveals. It is a deep credit to her that she has brought this world to our attention and with such personal details as her own life and that of her special 7 students at the same time.

Bob Corbett


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