By Shamsudden Sani
Author: Azar Nafisi
Publisher. Random House Trade Paperbacks
Number of Pages 377
Date of Publication 2003
Badamasi Aliyu Abdullahi recently posted a saying that “in the storm of distraction, a book is a calming treasure” which quite descriptively, tells us the charm about this book. I spent the entire January calendar days devouring it! And it was well worth every second of it.
Sometimes in 1995, Azar Nafisi, then a Professor of Literature at the Allameh Tabataba’i University in Iran, left or rather resigned from her position, out of frustration and despair. She direly needed an escape from, in her own words, the totalitarian clutches of the country’s regime of her days; not only for herself alone but for her 7 most committed female students. This singular action allowed Nafisi to set up a side class which in reality becomes a book club to help members escape the daily reality.
In this deservedly controversial but beautifully written personal memoir,Azar Nafisi, chronicled her time with the 7 students in her home in Tehran over those years of the late 20th century. The author sneaks into the reader’s heart, charming us with her language and portrays the bondage occuring among the students with their respective background realities outside the classes. You can feel some fellowship with the author as she used Western literature to mirror her students’ daily reality life back at them. Adjusting through life must have been hard for them under the regime but with the enough-already exasperation and fossilized gender attitudes, the redemptive power of fiction becomes all of an immersive experience for them.
If you’re lucky,unlike me, to have previously read some classic Western literature books of the 20th century such as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, then you’re in for a good ride here and you can wrap the book around yourself like a warm blanket. I have had multiple points to strongly disagree with a seemingly unilateral narrative within the book but Nafisi argued that, she and her students are not Lolita and the Iranian regime is not Humbert Humbert. The memoir is characteristically a commentary on civil dissent and about perceived interpretation of freedom for women in a religiously charged society.
Based on the author’s unflinching interest in the classic Western literature, the book was categorized into 4 sections based on the times in her life and as she views it, the rythym of her life in Iran. These sections also correspond to literature books read by her 7 students. At each stop, they ruminate and digest the key takeaways from the book and reflect on their daily realities.
The first section, termed Lolita was all about the author’s perceived confiscation of an individual life and how individuality is at the centre of freedom. This is followed by James about ambiguity and how Nafisi feels the Iranian totalitarian mindset hates ambiguity and prefers life as black and white. The Great Gatsby, the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald comes in the 3rd section and talks mostly about the author’s reflection of her American dream and her own dream of revolution and how it was shattered.
The book concluded with a section called Austen, following Persuasion, a work of the English novelist Jane Austen known primarily for her six major novels, which interpret, critique and comment upon the British landed gentry at the end of the 18th century. This is Azar Nafisi’s way of saying capital NO as a woman and explores the subject of intimately personal choice.
As disagreeable as some of the perspectives potrayed in this memoir, Nafisi proved to be an excellent writer with impeccable sense of clarity and details. You don’t need anybody to tell you how much she loves and enjoys talking about literature but I must conclude by saying that I find this book a tad too patronising to the Western world for my liking. I am not surprised seeing the book being a New York Times Bestseller for 117 weeks as at the time it was published. If you do not have some solid current affairs background especially about the Iranian historical and political landscape bwfore reading it, one might likely develop a unilaterally jaundiced perspective about the subject matter.
Azar Nafisi, a Professor of Literature, born and raised in Tehran, Iran currently lives in the US where she’s resided since 1997.