'Reading Lolita in Tehran'

Chris Gelken

I rested the book on the arm of my chair and gazed through the living room window at the majestic peaks of the Alborz Mountains rising in the distance. "Wow," I thought, "She just described my day. In fact, she has just described my week, my month and my year." I double-checked the publication date. First released in 2003, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a personal memoir of life in Iran before, during and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, up to her departure from the country in 1997.

But the insights offered by this remarkable book are as relevant today as they were when it reached the New York Times bestseller list -- and remained there for two years.

The book is constructed around university professor Nafisi's personal experience in dealing with the dramatic changes that came with the Islamic Revolution.

Giving further depth and color to the narrative are the thoughts, fears, ambitions and disappointments expressed by a small group of her students attending a private, independent and informal literary class at Nafisi's home.

Reading the book was a particularly moving experience for me, given that I did so from the illusory security of my Tehran apartment. While the view from my window was indeed dominated by the Alborz, in the left lower corner of my eye was the high wall surrounding the infamous Evin Prison, running like a scar across the landscape.

Because Nafisi's 343-page personal memoir is by no means a homage to the benevolent rule of the mullahs, it comes as no surprise to learn that the book is not widely available in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The copies that are making the rounds were usually picked up in airport bookshops around the Persian Gulf, as was mine in the Dubai duty free.

Nafisi skillfully tells her story, at least in part, through comparisons with characters in the handful of foreign novels she used to teach her small and private literature appreciation class.

Azar Nafisi left Tehran just before the 1997 election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president. Critics of the book say it is dated and no longer presents a fair picture of life in the Islamic Republic.

If considered simply as a history book, critics say it may offer a fair reflection of how things were in the early years of the revolution. But they claim it doesn't present a true representation of life in today's Iran.

Up to a point they may be right, I would beg to disagree that the book has little or nothing to offer those interested in contemporary Iran.

"Life in the Islamic Republic," writes Nafisi, "was as capricious as the month of April when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms. It was unpredictable. The regime would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown."

The alleged period of sunshine enjoyed during the reformist Khatami years, has given way to the thundershowers and threats of war under the ultra conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Morality crackdowns are once again fairly common. Black clad female policewomen challenge young girls for showing too much hair or wearing too much makeup. Reports of harassment and arrests are commonplace.

It was not unusual for my wife, a Chinese national and a journalist with PressTV in Tehran, to be stopped and cautioned for "bad hejab" -- for not following the strict Islamic dress code.

"The unveiling of women mandated by Reza Shah in 1936 had been a controversial symbol of modernization, a powerful sign of the reduction of the clergy's power," Nafisi wrote, "It was important for the ruling clerics to reassert that power."

And reassert it they do -- frequently and forcefully.

Nafisi described life in Tehran as like living in an "Islamized version of a Soviet novel."

Many of Nafisi's comments and observations resonated deep with me -- some 10 years after she had left Tehran.

"Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation, was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules," she wrote.

She could have been describing life as an anchor and program host with PressTV, Iran's bold adventure into international English-language broadcasting.

While it was easier for the men, the female anchors and staff were under constant harsh scrutiny.

"How well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one's work, but the colour of one's lips? The subversive potential of a single strand of hair."

Nafisi's description of the dilemma facing female professors in the early 1980s would equally describe the situation experienced by female journalists working with PressTV more than a quarter century later.

Not long after its launch in June 2007, the dress code for female anchors was suddenly and inexplicably tightened -- and whereas previously the viewer might have caught a "subversive glimpse" of hair, after the new rules came into effect, all hair was carefully tucked way under tight hejab and headscarf.

A recurring theme in Nafisi's book is, "The daily struggle against arbitrary rules and restrictions."

What frustrated Nafisi in the 1980s also frustrated local and expat journalists with PressTV in 2008.

Daily notification of new and arbitrary restrictions was making it increasingly difficult to function as an objective news organization. While I would hesitate to use words like censorship or propaganda, there was a definite sense that the boundaries of our earlier freedoms were being drawn in.

It was becoming suffocating.

As Nafisi's memoir progresses, it becomes obvious that she too is feeling increasingly trapped by her circumstances and needs to escape.

She writes of "going to a place where everyday life was not such a battleground."

After almost a year in Tehran, my wife and I had also grown weary of the daily routine of checking if her wardrobe would be acceptable to the morality squad before we left the house.

There's a saying about life in Tehran before and after the revolution. Before 1979, the saying goes, Iranians did their praying in private and their drinking in public. After 1979, the drinking was done in private and praying most conspicuously done in public.

Apart from that, you could say that very little has changed.

Everything is possible in Tehran, everything is available. For a price.

Iran is a country tightly bound to the point of suffocation by rules and regulations, and the national pastime of Iranians is breaking them.

But the excitement of late night taxi runs to the seedier side of town to buy illicit liquor, or of sneaking a flask of bootleg whisky into a restaurant to spice up the obligatory coke or lemonade -- well, it begins to wear off after a while and it just becomes another tiresome aspect of living in the Islamic Republic.

Might as well eat at home, at least you can leave the bottle on the table.

Despite the generally depressing standard of living in Iran, I disagree with those Iranian expats writing from Europe and the Americas about the need for regime change. Iranians are tired of revolution, and regime change isn't the answer.

Almost nobody I spoke to was in favour of it, given that the alternative would most likely be a Washington-installed puppet.

They just want the folks currently running things to lighten up a bit. Well, lighten up a lot.

But this willingness of the overwhelmingly young population to maintain the existing system but in a more benevolent form, as opposed to another revolutionary change in government, will not last forever.

The incessant rules wear you down. And it doesn't really matter if you are currently enjoying one of April's sunny days or one of its showers, to paraphrase Nafisi, the bottom line eventually becomes, "You don't want a nicer jail warden -- you just want to get out of jail."