Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Summary and Analysis of "James" Part 1 (Pages 157 - 198)


Part III of Reading Lolita in Tehran is called "James." Chapter 1 starts off with a bang. On September 23, 1980, war was announced between Iran and Iraq. Nafisi writes that, though historians have now gathered the facts to point to reasons how and why the war began, to citizens of Iran it came as a total surprise. The war lasted from 1980 to 1988, eight years of war that "left over a million dead and injured;" though it at first seemed to bring citizens together nationalistically, the fact that the government took the war as an attack on not only Iran but also Islam created even more polarization within the country. For some reason, this social climate brought out a desire for collection in Nafisi, who began to save pictures and articles about young men who martyred themselves. Adding to this tragic and hectic climate was the fact that the government never set up a cohesive program for safety, such as when they called for people to go to shelters though they had nowhere to go.

Chapter 3 of Part III creates immediate juxtaposition, returning to an encounter between Nafisi and her friend and colleague Laleh soon after the government put into law that women should be veiled in the workplace. She announces exuberantly that she had been expelled from the university, attempting to make light of the fact that she had lost her source of income as well as "a job she loved and was good at" (160). She says that a guard literally blocked her from entering the university without her head covered; in response, she made a run for it, pursued by the guard. She ran all the way to the office of the department head, who shooed away the guard but said he would report the incident. She was then given the offer to comply or be fired, so she "marched out, a free woman" (163). Zooming out briefly, as she often does, Nafisi reports that Laleh was forced to make a living by sewing for two years before being hired at a friend's school.

A few days later, Nafisi has a meeting with Mr. Bahri where he attempted to convince her to comply with the new rules. He asked her why they "were making such a fuss over a piece of cloth" (165), which Nafisi found ironic. They both seemed to realize it was futile to continue this discussion between people so unequal in the matter, and they walked out solemnly, this time with a purposeful lack of gesture from Nafisi to shake hands. After this, she went to an English bookstore and bought books with a "greedy urgency" (166), picking out more than she had the money to buy. The bookstore owner all but laughed at her, telling her that nobody would take them away from her because nobody knew who they were or wanted to read at a time like this.

Soon, the government further restricted the public exposure of women's bodies, requiring them to be covered by a chador or scarf and robe, and punishing violators with fines and lashings. With the combination of war and losing her job, Nafisi felt completely adrift. She created mental games to take her mind off the situation like pretending that her whole body disappeared beneath her robe. She says that this game may have begun when she was scolded by a female guard for what she was wearing beneath her robe and then rubbed roughly on the face with a tissue though she was not wearing makeup. While she continued to struggle with her "irrelevance" (169), Bijan was able to keep his job at a private architectural firm. In 1982 her niece was born, and before the war was over she herself had two children: Negar in 1984 and Dara in 1985. During the war, she also joined a book group on Persian classical literature, meeting on Sunday nights to read passages aloud to one another. Nafisi began to take on more responsibility in the group and this spurred the beginning of her career writing articles on modern Persian fiction and translating English poems.

In Chapter 7, Nafisi returns again to the matter of "the magician," describing his famed detachment from most people. One day, she says, she called him out of the blue and they met in his living room; she was exceedingly anxious but he appeared quite calm. Nafisi alludes or foreshadows the fact that they later became much more intimate, but she feels that this first meeting lives on forever in her conception of their relationship. Eventually, she says, she spent time with him about twice a week, meeting at his home or for walks or at restaurants. He called her a "lady professor" and told his friends that she was "very American--like an American version of Alice in Wonderland" (175-176).

Suddenly, though Nafisi does not give an exact year, universities wanted her to teach again. Tehran University asked her to come back, but she refused. She taught a few courses at the Free Islamic University and the former National University, but did not stay long at either. Nafisi says that the lack of progress in the war and the aftermath of the revolution caused governments to want their "Westernized" intellectuals back at universities, since having expelled all of these people made them only more powerful in some ways and severely depleted the teaching staff in the country. Mrs. Rezvan from the Department of English at the Allameh Tabatabi University began to express interest in Nafisi in 1987, to which, over a series of meetings, Nafisi responded that she would not wear the veil in class. Nafisi began to feel very anxious about this decision about whether or not to forgo her values to teach and called a meeting with "the magician" (180) at a restaurant. He responded that "obviously [she] must teach" (181), but Nafisi says she "was in love with the idea of moral imperatives and taking a stand and all that" (181) and countered that he also refuses to teach. He scolded her for using him as a model and told her that if she loves teaching, she should teach. He said that she could deal with morals later and that people will always talk behind one's back no matter what decision one makes.

Nafisi went to the department at Allameh Tabatabai and conceded that she would teach wearing the veil but demanded to be allowed to teach what she saw fit. Soon, she began teaching her classes, though she "always wore [her] veil improperly" (184). She says that the school didn't keep its promise either as they "never gave up on trying to force [her] to teach and act more acceptably" (184). During this time, air raids were still going on often in Tehran, and Nafisi describes a particularly scary time in Chapter 11, intermingling the scene with quotes from the book she was reading at the time (Daisy Miller) and discussing the normalcy within the terror of friends and family members checking on one another in the middle of the night.

Two weeks into Nafisi's second semester at Allameh Tabatabai, a letter was pushed under Nafisi's door: "The adulterous Nafisi should be expelled" (189). She says that though this word had become devoid of meaning, purely an insult, it still hurt that this mentality ruled their lives at the time. Though the department received this letter as well, they did not take action either on the perpetrator or on Nafisi. Instead, she continued teaching Daisy Miller by Henry James, noting that two of the students in this class were Mahshid and Nassrin, who was now around twenty years old since seven years had passed since Nafisi taught The Great Gatsby at Tehran University. Nassrin stayed after class and recounted her last seven years briefly to Nafisi, saying she was at one time arrested along with her friends, many of whom were executed. After this, Nafisi returns to naming more students in her class: Mitra (who will later take part in her private class), Hamid (Mitra's future husband), and Mr. Forsati (who she calls one of "a new brand of Islamic students... not particularly devoted to the religious ideals" [193]), Mr. Ghomi, and Mr. Nahvi. This class studied the way in which the novel as a narrative form transforms people's ideas about relationships with one another and to society; they began with Wuthering Heights and moved on to two of James's more accessible works, Daisy Miller and Washington Square. Nafisi did not expect these books to be controversial, but she writes that the characters Daisy and Catherine became "obsessive subjects of discussion" (194). During a lecture about Daisy's character, Mr. Ghomi halted Nafisi to ask what "makes these women so revolutionary" (195). Hearing silence, Mr. Ghomi attempted to answer his own question by saying they, the students, were more moral because they had experienced war against evil, to which Mahshid responded that James lived through two wars. After class, Nafisi remained silently sitting in her chair when a few female students came to tell her that a majority of the class disagreed with the things a few male students said but were too afraid to speak up. In another lecture on the book, a timid girl asked if "Daisy was a bad girl" (196), which Nafisi attempted to answer by looking to a scene at the Colosseum.


While the first two parts of the memoir were named "Lolita" and "Gatsby," "James" marks a shift from sections named after novels or characters to two parts named for authors. It is unclear why Nafisi makes this choice, since her classes throughout the book were never on a particular work or author and in every part she discusses many works both from the few main authors of the book and from an assortment of other works. However, in this naming scheme there is a certain broadening from the investigation of certain works as literature and as particular representations of and escapes from reality, to themes spanning across works and authors, such as evil and courage.

Nafisi focuses in Chapter 4 on a particularly ironic instance in which the privilege and fickle nature of Muslim men in Iran allowed them to use words to craft and condemn the lives and struggles of women. She writes that, in response to her not wanting to wear a veil in class, her student Mr. Bahri said he "could not understand why we were making such a fuss over a piece of cloth. Did we not see that there were more important issues to think about, that the whole life of the revolution was at stake? What was more important, to fight against the satanic influence of Western imperialists or to obstinately hold on to a personal preference..." (165). This quote is almost satirical, though it may need to be taken with a grain of salt as it is being recorded through Nafisi's memory and, at her own admittance, are not his exact words. However, the sentiment is clear - the veil is a political issue insofar as it can work offensively to fight against Western influence, but not political in the sense that women have no right to protest it on moral or legal grounds. Like any good politician able to twist common and even positive words with enough passion and spin, Mr. Bahri wielded the term "personal preference" as if describing fanciful desires rather than decisions one has the right to make for oneself.

Some of the most memorable scenes in Part III, and even the whole novel, are those in which the anxiety of revolution and war drove Nafisi to odd compulsions and extremes. For example, Nafisi collected pictures and news stories of martyrs, gorged with her friend Laleh as a coping mechanism for the changes and expulsions being made at the university ("Our appetites that day seemed insatiable" [163]), and seemed almost manic on a trip to an English bookstore ("I started picking up books with a greedy urgency... I didn't have enough money to pay for them all" [166]). This obsession and hoarding provides a window into Nafisi's then overwhelming anxiety. Her facade of normalcy broke down during these moments when she felt the need to supply her body and mind with sustenance while she could.

Similarly, Nafisi created a dark game of her body not existing as a way of mentally dealing with the legal mandate to cover her body. In this game, Nafisi represented the way women were made invisible by laws that took away their right to show their bodies and personal identities to the world, similar to the implications made when she looked at the pictures of her students in their scarves and robes and then out of them, saying that they had become individualized in the latter. However, at other times in this and other sections, Nafisi shows that being covered by a chador still could not keep a woman safe from scrutiny, detailing instances in which she and others were chided for having hairs out of place, wearing nail polish under their gloves, or even not wearing the correct clothing beneath their robes.

Finally, this section is quite important for the new role Nafisi takes on within it - that of a mother. No moment better demonstrates the importance of this new role and new phase in life, coming in such a complicated and frightening time, than the scene in which Nafisi heard an explosion nearby and reached unconsciously for her stomach though both of her children had already been born. This moment encapsulates Nafisi's dual anxieties: the normal anxieties of a new mother and the intense anxiety of living in a war zone. However, her decision to have children at this time shows that even though she and other women feared for the lives and health of their children, being born under such stress and then having to grow up in this troubling era, they still saw the worth in bringing another generation into Iran and into the world.