meditations on: “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

It is bitterly cold outside, so I haven’t the heart to venture out for a midnight stroll.  I was feeling drowsy earlier, but now sleep seems out of reach, so I’m going to write this instead.

I have almost finished reading Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about her experiences in Iran, and the secret literature class she taught there, once the regime started banning “immoral” books.

I feel like I should start out by admitting that I haven’t actually read Lolita (something I feel guilty about), though it is on my reading list, but I think Nafisi’s work will give me added insight into it when I finally do.

The book has been a tough read for me.  Not b/c of convoluted prose, but b/c of the frustration that builds in me as each paragraph reveals another indignity that Nafisi and her pupils suffer at the hands of the fascist regime which holds them captive.  It has also stirred up a lot of complicated feelings towards the Middle East, Islam, and religion in general.

Ironically, it is v. easy to be angry at the women.  Why don’t they fight harder, I wonder?  Why don’t they take to the streets unveiled, and assert their rights?  Why do they buy into the rhetoric that tells them they’re unclean, immodest, and unworthy of respect?  Surely the govn. wouldn’t kill ALL of them if they refused to comply w/ the stupid regulations that prevent them from running to class, wearing pink socks, or eating apples “too seductively.”  Right?

They did try to resist, you say.

Well, not hard enough obviously.

Yet, if I think about it carefully, and am honest w/ myself, I have to wonder…what would I do?  Would I go to prison for the sake of the sun on my skin?  Is death worth the feeling of wind in my hair?  Not having been there, I cannot really know the answers to these questions.  In my most passionate moments, the best thing I can imagine for myself in that situation is death.  A quick death, none of this languishing in prison, none of this being raped by a guard (since virgins may go to heaven) and then shot.  A good death–swift but memorable.

But people have a perverse tendency to survive, and perhaps I would have just kept my swathed head down, stayed inside watching snatches of illegal TV and listening to forbidden music, and hoped that it all would soon pass.

I used to be able to counteract my sympathy w/ doses of anti-religious feeling.  They see what their religion has done to them, to their society, how it stultifies and ossifies everything it touches…and yet they cling to it.  It has also helped that they are anti-Western, disgusted by what they see as our “decadent” (a favorite word) and “imperialistic” (another favorite) culture.  I see now, though, that they are just largely confused.  The West, and America especially, is both frightening and enticing…and utterly unknown.  It’s funny to hear Nafisi’s students speculate about what “American girls,” must be like, how brash and impetuous we must be; they express surprise at the idea that we might ever get jilted by men or have our hearts broken.  This complements observations from my friend Jim*, who is currently w/ the Peace Corps in Northern Africa.  He says the “female PCVs to talk a lot about the harassment they get….Some of it comes from everyone’s perception of foreign women as loose, so people (men and women) will push them to do things that women normally wouldn’t do (dance in front of men at a wedding).  There is no concept of dating here, and also no concept of men and women having any kind of friendship without sex.  So when a bunch of us PCVs will hang out or crash at each other’s places locals probably assume [they] are having sex.  As I understand it many Moroccans think we’re all sleeping around and that the women are whores.  Not all by any means, but plenty.  Men get away with it because we’re men, it’s real annoying to be asked if any girl you’re walking next to is your lover….”

One of the things that struck Sayyid Qutb (one of the original Islamic militants, whose sophistic pamphlets and religious writings formed the base of much of al-Qaeda’s contemporary viewpoints) when he studied in America, was the freedom of women.  And to put it bluntly, this fact drove him a little insane.  “A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her….”  Whoa there, Qutb.  Projecting much?

The prurience, the baseness of it all!  And I thought Americans were repressed.

So you can understand that I wasn’t exactly distraught at the plight of these people, who had nothing nice to say about me or “my kind.”

Nafisi’s book has been instrumental in allowing me to see their humanity, and in helping me come to terms w/ their circumstances and their religion in a way that even more emotionally powerful novels like A Thousand Splendid Suns didn’t do.  I even feel sorry for some of the Muslim men, who are under intense pressure to be some sort of masculine ideal, and aren’t allowed to look to their natural partners for support, since women have been completely marginilized–practically eradicated from public sphere.

Really, I’m just lucky that I didn’t have some kind of religion forced upon me at a young age, the way parents might press an arranged marriage upon their child (to steal a metaphor from one of my favorite professor’s lectures).  Furthermore, I have had an education that would have enlightened me even if my parents had failed to do so.  And I have the luxury of having a life enjoyable and stimulating enough that I do not need to cling to faith as my only solace.  I do not need to obsess over the pleasures of an afterlife, b/c I am free to recognize the beauty in this (my only) life.  I believe in moral courage for its own sake; I do not quake beneath the eye of some watching wrathful deity.

There’s nothing I can do to “rescue” the women of Iran, or Iraq or Afghanistan.  Some of them probably wouldn’t even want my help, should I extend the offer.  What I can do is hear them, on their own terms.  The best, truest thing I can think to give them is my empathy, untainted by dislike and callow pity.

And what difference does that make, you ask?  A wise question, читатель.  I’m afraid all I can tell you is that it has made a difference in me, defeated some of the barriers I had erected, added another dimension to my heuristic evaluations.  Practically inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

But in my little scheme, the book is looming quite lg.  Hope the feeling lasts.

*Name has been changed.  I didn’t ask him if I could quote him here, and I want to respect his privacy.

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