Keep on nagging

Joanna Biggs

  • Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Azar Nafisi
    Windmill, 336 pp, £8.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 09 948712 8

It is Tehran, 1995, and our heroine is getting ready:

Too excited to eat breakfast, I put the coffee on and then took a long, leisurely shower. The water caressed my neck, my back, my legs and I stood there both rooted and light … I smiled as I rubbed the coarse loofah over my skin … I put on my oversize bathrobe – it felt good to move from the security of the embracing water to the protective cover of a bathrobe wrapped around my body … I spent longer than usual choosing my clothes that first morning, trying on different outfits, until I finally settled on a red-striped shirt and black corduroy jeans. I applied my make-up with care and put on bright red lipstick. As I fastened my small gold earrings, I suddenly panicked. What if it doesn’t work? What if they won’t come?

Ordinary Iranians! They shower like us, loofah like us, dress like us, paint their lips like us! They even use the sort of sentences we – if we wrote for Grazia – might use. This is the way Azar Nafisi’s bestselling literary memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, begins. Nafisi is getting ready for the first meeting of her book group: she has resigned from her teaching post at Allameh Tabatabai University but will see a group of students every Thursday morning. The memoir covers the two years during which the book group meets – in 1997 Nafisi and her family emigrated to the US – and tells the stories of the students’ lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran and what happens when they read banned Western classics, in particular Lolita and Pride and Prejudice. The book was enormously successful on its appearance in March 2003, winning praise from Margaret Atwood (‘All readers should read it’) and Susan Sontag (‘I was enthralled and moved’). It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks and has been translated into 32 languages. Its popularity created a market for Iranian women’s memoirs, which still spill, inevitably blurbed by Nafisi, into the bookshops: most recently Haleh Esfandiari’s account of her arrest and imprisonment by Ahmadinejad’s regime and Nahal Tajadod’s rather less edifying Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes, in which she bribes passport clerks with tins of French coffee.[*] And now there is more from Nafisi herself: the alluring-sounding Things I’ve Been Silent About fills in what happened to her before 1995 and what has happened since.

Part of the appeal of Reading Lolita in Tehran was its unexpected familiarity. We think we’re going to get something exotic, but when we open the book we find cord jeans, book groups and people nursing cups of coffee: nothing unusual for 2003. That year was a high point in the life of the mediatised book group: Oprah’s Book Club had just returned from a year’s break and Richard and Judy were about to launch a UK version. (It was also a good year for coffee: by 2003 there were 425 Starbucks branches in the UK, up from 50 in 1998.) Consumers across the Anglophone world faithfully bought books, nearly finished them and then joined the members of their book group around a tub of houmus and a screw-top bottle of wine. Inadvertently or not, Nafisi had caught the zeitgeist. How glorious she made the humble book club seem! It wasn’t about getting as many others as possible to agree with your view of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, it was about the ‘right to free access to imagination’. Pride and Prejudice, she told us, performs democracy: ‘Austen’s ability to create … multivocality … is one of the best examples of the democratic aspect of the novel. In Austen’s novels, there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist … All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative.’ Just as Nafisi’s book group would look at Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Earnshaw and see themselves, rebelliously pulling off their headscarves and discussing banned books, Western readers would look to them to put their wine and houmus in a more serious light.

If readers were seduced by Iran’s familiarity, it’s because it wasn’t familiar. Nafisi’s book group had to photocopy Lolita in order to read it and to lie to their families about where they were going. But perhaps this was also what we wanted to hear. That Iranians wanted to throw off the chador, that they wanted to read our books, that they wanted to be saved by the West. This was one strand of Bush and Blair’s argument for invading Iraq, and Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in mid-March 2003. Nafisi didn’t support the war, but she thanked its academic architect, Bernard Lewis, in her acknowledgments for ‘opening the door’. The popularity of the book made Nafisi a target – Hamid Dabashi, a Columbia academic, intemperately compared her to Lynndie England – but Reading Lolita in Tehran is political in the way we like Iranian women to be political, arguing against censorship and for women’s freedom – and then suffering for it. The book fulfilled a particular fantasy of the power and usefulness of reading the Western canon at a certain point in time.

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[*] My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran by Haleh Esfandiari (Harper Press, 230 pp., £16.99, January, 978 0 00 728654 6); Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes by Nahal Tajadod, translated by Adriana Hunter (Virago, 247 pp., £11.99, March, 978 1 84408 513 2).