Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Summary and Analysis of "Gatsby" (Pages 81-155)


Part II, "Gatsby," opens with a scene of a woman arriving at the Tehran airport after seventeen years, looking around for a friendly face and finding only Anti-American signs and posters of Ayatollah Khomeini. Nafisi writes that she tries "not to see her, not to bump into her, to pass by unnoticed. Yet there is no way I can avoid her" (81). Yet as the chapter moves on, it seems that the woman may be a representation of Nafisi herself. On her way out of the airport, her carry-on bag is searched and when the guard sees her foreign literature he is disdainful but "he did not confiscate them--not then" (82).

Nafisi jumps back in time in Chapter 2, revealing yet untouched aspects of her life: her education abroad in Switzerland and the United States, her return to Iran when her father was jailed, her marriage just before her eighteenth birthday, and her move with her husband back to the United States (to Norman, Oklahoma). She soon grew disenchanted with this marriage and promised herself that she would divorce him as soon as her father got out of jail since her husband wanted her to be something she could not be but also refused to allow her a divorce. In Oklahoma, Nafisi attended political demonstrations and studied literature. Her family looked down on politics, saying that for fourteen generations their family members had been "hakims, men of knowledge" (84). She joined the Iranian student group at the University of Oklahoma, but could not reconcile this lifestyle with her true passion, literature. In 1977 she married Bijan, the same year the Iranian Shah made his last official trip to the United States.

A month after returning to Tehran, Nafisi went to the University of Tehran to seek a job in the English Department. She and Dr. A, the head of the department, talked about her dissertation, and she became the youngest member of the English Department at the Faculty of Persian and Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Tehran. In those days, the University of Tehran was the center of political activities, and the Islamic government responded by holding Friday prayers there every week, creating something of a "turf war" (89). Meanwhile, Nafisi delved into foreign literature with her classes. One day, while preparing her class syllabus, she received a call that a controversial clergyman central to the revolution had died and she and Bijan rushed to the university for a demonstration. When they reached there, two radical religious parties were fighting over who should get to carry the body. In the crowd, she lost her husband and her sense of purpose, finding herself eventually pounding her fists against a tree and sobbing.

As Nafisi continued teaching, her syllabus came to include authors like Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, whose books became harder and harder to find in bookstores. She brought The Great Gatsby to her first day of class in 1979, as well as Ada "as a security blanket" (92). On the first day of class, she asked her students "what they thought fiction should accomplish" (94) and told them that literature should force them to question things and feel unsettled. Nafisi introduced a few important students from her time at this university: Mr. Bahri, Mr. Nyazi, Mahtab, and the pair Zarrin and Vida.

Chapter 6 is introduced by a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini about criminals not having the right to trial, followed by a report of the execution of Omid Gharib in January of 1982 on charges of "being Westernized" (97). Skipping back to 1979, Nafisi says that there was seldom a day that her class schedule was not interrupted by a death, assassination, meeting, demonstration, or boycott. On a certain day in October, Nafisi stopped by an impromptu speech by a leftist History professor, who said she would be willing to "wear the veil to fight U.S. imperialists" (97) before attending a meeting with her student, Mr. Bahri, who she notes wrote one of the best student papers she had ever read. He informed her "that 'they' approved of my teaching methods" (98) and asked her to put more revolutionary material on her syllabus. She was so excited by this conversation that she reached out to touch his hand, causing him to withdraw his hands significantly; a colleague later explained to her mockingly that no devout Muslim man would touch a namahram woman.

Life continued on, with Nafisi attending meetings and watching films with other professors and moving on to teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to her students. Nafisi writes that she did not let despair impinge upon her life, but that she and her husband were sometimes surprised to see the trials of their "old comrades in the U.S. on television" (101), usually in which they denounced Islam. Nafisi notes that Bijan was always calmer than her watching these shows, and that she felt an incredible loneliness watching him so composed. In a rare piece of purely political writing, Nafisi writes, "In rejecting Bakhtiar [the person who took power briefly between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini] and helping to replace the Pahlavi dynasty with a far more despotic regime, both the Iranian people and the intellectual elites had shown at best a serious error in judgement. I remember at the time that Bijan's was one lone voice in support of Bakhtiar, while all others, including mine, were only demanding destruction of the old, without much thought to the consequences" (102).

In Chapter 8, Nafisi returns to her relationship with Mr. Bahri, who she says began to speak more in class and who she continued to privately conference with. They once spoke about the reason her grandmother now resented the veil which had once been a symbol of her relationship with God but now turned "the women who wore them into political signs and symbols" (103). Then, in Chapter 9, Nafisi suddenly zooms out again to the occupation of the American embassy or "nest of spies" (105) in Tehran in November 1979. The mood at the university was "both jubilant and apprehensive" (104) as members of both religious and leftist organizations pushed for hostages to be taken. People from provinces who didn't know what was going on were even bussed in to demonstrate by yelling anti-American slogans and burning the American flag. Nafisi compares the picnic-like activities of the provincial people to "an Islamic Woodstock" (105); she overheard groups of people discussing clear falsehoods about America.

In 1980, in the midst of this anti-American sentiment, Nafisi befriended an American reporter named Jeff, taking him up like others take up alcohol in times of stress. Furthermore, she continued her classes amid all this stress, introducing Mike Gold - who she quotes at the beginning of Chapter 11 in Part II as writing that "art is as useful as bread" (107) - as well as Maxim Gorky before her larger unit on The Great Gatsby. They began The Great Gatsby in November and continued reading it amidst the constant interruptions of meetings and killings, finishing it in January. Nafisi was taking a great risk in continuing to teach the literature she desired, as already dancing and female singing was being outlawed.

The students were baffled by The Great Gatsby, not understanding the idealism, passion, and treachery of the relationships and the American Dream as social phenomena, since "passion and betrayal were for them political emotions... Adultery in Tehran was one of so many other crimes, and the law dealt with it accordingly: public stoning" (108-109). Nafisi focuses on a particular passage wherein Daisy tells Gatsby that he looks cool as a way of telling him that she loves him; Nafisi asked her students not to attempt a grand theme but rather to look at the ways Fitzgerald placed the reader in the scene. While Mr. Nyazi and other students argued that there is no place for love in the current world, Zarrin fired back, "Why else do you fight a revolution?" (110).

Nafisi cancelled class one day in November to attend a protest against mandatory veiling for women, and her arguments with leftist students left her feeling as if she was arguing with a younger version of herself. Particularly, she saw her student Mahtab's face transform into her own, back when she lived in Oklahoma with her first husband. She uses this transformation to take her back into a memory of a conference in Oklahoma at which a group of people had tortured another young person suspected of being an agent for the Iranian secret police; the next day, FBI agents came looking for the assailants. Nafisi wishes especially that she could have imparted the knowledge gained from this experience in her youth to Mr. Bahri, or at least that she could have revealed the ending of The Great Gatsby to him to underscore the point that one should be careful what one wishes for. Nafisi proceeded to the protest meeting where she found two distinct groups of protesters: workers and housewives as well as intellectuals more used to demonstrations. Men jeered and threw stones while police tried to disperse the women with warning gunshots and by pushing them. At another protest a few nights later, the lights were turned off and a female speaker read her speech by the light of a flashlight. Nafisi breaks from this memory to say that she saw this speaker many more times after this protest, even in New York in 1999 when the speaker was "Iran's foremost feminist publisher" (116).

Also in November, Mr. Bahri and Mr. Nyazi spoke to Nafisi about two subjects important to the teaching her class. First, Mr. Bahri reported that her colleagues and university students were beginning to be accused of various missteps in class such as using obscene language, or even accused of being CIA agents, which resulted in their expulsion and/or jailing. Even Dr. A was put on trial for being "too Western" (118). Not long after this, Mr. Nyazi confronted Nafisi to lodge a complaint against The Great Gatsby. He promised that he came in good will, since he respected his professor, but after seeing that he saw no difference between a novel representation of American ideals and America itself, a notion Nafisi disagreed with entirely, Nafisi concocted the mischievous notion to put The Great Gatsby on trial in class.

At first, no students volunteered to take on the positions necessary for the trial: a judge, a defendant, and a defense attorney. Mr. Nyazi was, of course, set to be the prosecutor, and all other students the jury. It was decided that Mr. Farzan, a "meek and studious fellow" (121) would be the judge, Zarrin the defense lawyer, and Nafisi the defendant because no student agreed to speak for Gatsby. Nafisi prepared feverishly for the trial and on the day of the event she met Nassrin, brought along to class by Mahtab. Mahtab promptly informed the professor that the girl, whose English at fourteen exceeded that of many college students, had been so intrigued by the trial that she had read The Great Gatsby in its entirety. Nafisi interjects here that after the trial Nassrin asked to continue taking the class, to which Nafisi responded that she would have to write a fifteen-page paper at the end of the semester. Young student in tow, Nafisi entered her classroom.

The classroom was packed, a rarity during those times of political distractions. Nafisi positioned Mr. Farzan at the front of the classroom, Mr. Nyazi across the room from herself, and Zarrin, and "so began the case of the Islamic Republic versus The Great Gatsby" (124). Mr. Nyazi, as the prosecutor, went first, reading a long opening speech on Islam from a series of carefully written pages. At one point he asked the judge for order because of whispers and giggles from the audience, and after a number of minutes Zarrin called an objection to his speech about Islam without once mentioning the defendant, The Great Gatsby. Impassioned by this affront, Mr. Nyazi started to directly address the book, calling it "a rape of our culture" (126), and specifically addressed the adultery which he compared to what went on in Iran during the Pahlavi era, stating that "when [Mr. Wilson] kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God" (127). At the end of his severe speech, Vida countered from the crowd that perhaps Gatsby dying was the author giving him what he deserved, but Mr. Nyazi countered that "the whole of American society deserves the same fate" (127). Next, Zarrin was called to the front, circling Mr. Nyazi as she spoke and dressed elegantly and professionally. She, in the footsteps of her professor, immediately accused Mr. Nyazi of not being able to separate fiction from reality. When she has barely begun, Mr. Farzan spoke up with his own brief sermon on American decadence, which Zarrin waited through before asking to proceed. Zarrin called to mind the long history of putting discomforting books to trial, then expanded her case by pretending to call Nick to the stand as a witness and other characters from Gatsby as "exhibits" (130). Finally, she focused on being "careless" (131) as the major flaw of the characters in the novel, saying that people "who see the world in black and white, drunk on the righteousness of their own fictions" (132) are likewise careless. For the last step of the trial, the professor was called to the stand. Mr. Nyazi declined to cross-examine, so it was up to Zarrin, who asked Nafisi if she had anything to say in her own defense. Nafisi responded with a brief speech about reading novels to learn the complexities of the world before she was cut off by comments from multiple members of the class, at which point a ten-minute recess was called. This break was not entirely refreshing as Nafisi found Mr. Nyazi and Zarrin in a verbal fight because Zarrin accused him of calling her a prostitute. Returning to the classroom, Nafisi took more control of the atmosphere as the professor, opening the floor formally for discussion from the jury. Some leftist revolutionary students talked about the need to read more revolutionary literature and the fact that other literature simply distracts from the revolution at hand. Near the end of class, Zarrin spoke up once again, making a final statement that many people have loved literature without following the morals espoused in those stories, and ended by saying "can't you see?" (135) in a way Nafisi says revealed a true desire for people to understand. Class ended at the bell and without a formal vote; Nafisi quietly celebrated the fact that students may have been arguing, but they were arguing about literature rather than hostages and demonstrations.

In the days following, many students and other teachers were still talking and thinking about the Gatsby trial. On a certain day, Nafisi fell into conversation with a few students and regaled them with a few stories of her days in America. They told her that she would have liked Professor R, who taught film and drama until recently at the university. The students described the man as moody and unpredictable; he held classes at times for up to six hours, and as a last act of defiance before leaving, said that he disagreed with adding more classes on revolutionary literature and subjects. Nafisi reveals that this professor was, in fact, her "magician" (139).

Nafisi skips to the end of their unit on Gatsby in January in Chapter 21, during which she read the students a few final quotes and led a discussion. She directly addressed Mr. Nyazi for a final time on the subject, and she left the class feeling exhausted. She felt mournful and aimless as she walked the streets, seeing the changes that had taken place due to pollution, revolutionary fervor, and time. Spring semester began "ominously" (146) with few classes, a large photograph of Hashemi Rajsanjani hanging in the department building, more demonstrations, and even plans made by the government to suspend all classes. Violent demonstrations commenced with renewed vigor; Nafisi notes a particular time in which she, almost by accident, joined a march in progress and bullets came out of nowhere, forcing her to run for cover. In the rush, she ran into a friend from sixth grade who told her that people were moving toward the hospital, where the bodies of dead and wounded students were being taken. On her way there, she ran into Mahtab who looked terribly frightened and said that the bodies were somehow intercepted.

The students kept a vigil on university campus to prevent it from closing down, staying until they were evacuated by government forces. She ran into Mr. Bahri at one of these vigils and responded to a question from him in such a casual and defeated manner that it surprised them both. In this same tone, Chapter 26, the final chapter of Part II, begins, "One day in the spring of 1981... I discovered that the same decree that had transformed the single word Iran into the Islamic Republic of Iran had made me and all that I had been irrelevant" (150). Without much to do, she wrote in her diary, roamed the city with Jeff the reporter, and made friends with colleagues. She says the Revolutionary Committee came to her department and her "integrity as a teacher and a woman was being compromised by its insistence that [she] wear the veil under false pretenses for a few thousand tumans a month" (151-152), thinking again of her grandmother's struggles with veiling. The last pages of Part II detail professors who left the university or were expelled, including herself; the government making veiling mandatory; bombings and executions. In the last two paragraphs, Nafisi skips to the modern day to similar problems at Iranian universities nineteen years later, musing about what Mr. Bahri might be thinking now.


The idea of veiling becomes more complex in Part II, taking on political and religious significance both within the country and the world. Tellingly, Nafisi writes that one leftist professor told a crowd, "that for the sake of independence, she was willing to wear the veil. She would wear the veil to fight U.S. imperialists, to show them... To show them what?" (97). In this slide from quotation to critical narration, Nafisi calls into question how intentions for personal veiling were interpreted by others, the same issue her grandmother had when the veil, symbolizing to her a religious connection with God, was made into a political symbol in the first place. This passage allows us to understand that the politicization of veiling had gone a step further, to be wielded as an offensive measure toward the rest of the world, especially the United States, which led in the next few years to mandatory veiling for women.

As veiling continues to be a major political issue, Nafisi alludes interestingly to the ways women had to veil themselves even while protesting the veil. For example, at one political demonstration against the veil, women were forced to cover their faces and heads because of photographs being taken of them and rocks being thrown. In this way, a woman's face and body were being taken advantage of and necessarily covered because of the men and political issues present. Just after this, Nafisi presents the scene of another political demonstration, a speech given by a later famous Iranian feminist; the lights were turned out at this speech, which took place in a meeting space in the evening, leaving the speaker and audience effectively veiled from one another. To cope with this, someone stood next to the speaker with a flashlight so that only her paper and face were illuminated to the crowd, in effect a reverse-veiling.

Because Nafisi skips through time, she makes ample use of foreshadowing, even doing so when the reader has already read about future scenes. It may be posited that Nafisi does this to clarify the links between ideas and moments and to juxtapose certain elements of life at different time points in her life and the history of Tehran. One clear example of this foreshadowing comes in Chapter 7 of Part II through the repetition of the word "yet" - "Already our carefree mood seemed a little out of place, but we had not yet given up hope... In between these lunches we went to the Film Club, which had not yet been closed down... and still believed that the Khomeini crowd could not succeed, that the war was not yet over" (99). This repetition signals to the reader that they should remain vigilant of the differences between scenes before, during, and after the revolution with regard to mood, characters, political and social movements, and capabilities.

It is important to call attention to a later section of Chapter 7 in which Nafisi gives unfiltered political views. On page 102, Nafisi writes of the politician who took power between the Shah's defection and Ayatollah Khomeini's ascension to power, saying that her husband Bijan was a lone voice in support of him while others were solely set on upturning the status quo without real thought of the future. As Nafisi's story mostly focuses on the social repercussions and reverberations of these shifts in political power, when she gives her unguarded opinion it is a signal both of the importance of the topic to her and to understanding the way other parts of the book are presented. Furthermore, the troubled, secretive way in which she experienced those thoughts alone with her husband juxtaposes with the brave way she now can express them as an author in the United States.

Finally, there is much to say about the teaching and trial of The Great Gatsby. The reader should understand that books are not only written in foreign languages, but also in a foreign culture. As Nafisi writes, "passion and betrayal were for them political emotions;" Mr. Nyazi and many other students felt a kind of political, moral, and even somewhat personal attack from the characters and plot of the story. In the end, Nafisi did not force students to vote, perhaps even feeling that her side would lose due to the much more vocal nature of the classroom dissenters, but she felt gratified that the experience exposed the complexity of reading a work of fiction both within and outside reality to her students.