Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Summary and Analysis of "James" Part 2 (Pages 198 - 253)


Nafisi felt uncomfortable with the fact that students like Mr. Ghomi spoke out in class, both because she posited that he did so out of fear and lack of understanding and because his attitude may have made other students uncomfortable or less likely to speak up themselves. Mina, a fellow scholar of James, advised Nafisi to do a classroom exercise in which students looked at a chair from different positions in the room, demonstrating the differing perspectives readers might have on a book and even the differing perspectives people might have regarding the world and one another. She also began to have students write journal entries on what they read, allowing them all to express their opinions privately. Some students, like Miss Ruhi, mostly wrote summaries of the text and other materials rather than their own opinions. Mr. Ghomi wrote impassioned pieces that showed little attention to the texts but rather attempts to educate the professor on various topics of religion and politics. Mr. Nahvi wrote philosophical texts that were likewise politically biased.

Nafisi described her friend Mina to her magician using a quote from James: "a perfectly equipped failure" (201). She delves into the story of first meeting Mina at one of her last department meetings at the University of Tehran, hearing from other professors about her knowledge and the fact that she was recalled from sabbatical in the US where she was writing a book on Henry James. She reveals that Mina was also from a well-off, educated family and that they had gone on outings together as family friends during their childhoods, though Mina was older than Nafisi and a serious child. Mina lived as an adult with her mother in their large mansion, where she hosted Nafisi and Farideh one day after leaving the university.

In 1988, air strikes resumed on Tehran: 168 attacks that brought back the fears that had laid latent for a year and caused Nafisi and Bijan to cover their windows and move their children into a windowless room. On the night of the first missile attacks, Nafisi watched a documentary about a Russian filmmaker whose work was to soon be screened in Tehran. Though tickets were very scarce, her student Mr. Forsati gave her two extra tickets that he had come upon as the head of a Muslim students' association. Nafisi attended the screening of a film named The Sacrifice, an amazing feeling since she hadn't been in a movie theater in five years. After this diversion, Nafisi returns to discussing the air strikes; after a particularly scary day, she resumed the "routine" (207) of calling friends and relatives "to find out if they were still alive" (207) after the attacks. The population of Tehran reduced drastically as people fled the city in fear, but Nafisi remained, keeping the windows of their home taped over and moving her class to the second floor of the department building, though students immediately ran downstairs each time there was a bombing or announcement of the death of students or staff members during class time.

After one of these announcements, Nafisi found some of her female students laughing at the student who died, saying he must be having the ultimate union now with God after ogling and then shaming so many women in the name of religion. Nassrin went on to tell a humorous story about a teacher at a secondary school who told students that if they covered themselves, they would get their reward of strong young men later in paradise; she stopped this story only at Nafisi's shocked expression due to their jubilation in the face of death. Nassrin first tried to explain how awful their deceased peer was, but eventually told Nafisi simply, "You don't know what we have suffered... last week they dropped a bomb near our house... some twenty-odd children were killed" (211). She also opened up to Nafisi about her time in jail, talking about the nighttime executions of her friends and the rape of beautiful girls and virgins at the hands of guards.

In Chapter 23, Nafisi turns her focus to James's life, describing his living through the Civil War as a child and World War I around the end of his life. During the Civil War, James wrote fiction to "compensate for his inability to participate in the war" (213), but during World War I he felt that these kinds of words were impotent in the face of such inhumanity and turned to writing war pamphlets urging America to join the war effort. He argued throughout his life that insensitivity becomes a way to survive during wartime but that "feeling" (215) is the most important human attribute. Nafisi makes hardly any mention of or parallel to her own life or the Iran-Iraq War in this chapter, mentioning herself only to call attention to a few quotations of his that she had once written down.

One day, Nassrin brought Mahtab to visit Nafisi at the university. Mahtab sat in on Nafisi's class on another James novel, Washington Square, and then stayed after class to talk to her old (and future) professor. Nafisi asked her what she has been doing "all these years" (217). Mahtab responded that she was put in jail and had to stay there for two and a half years; Nafisi insinuates to the reader that she may have been raped there. Mahtab told her that she thought and talked about Nafisi's lectures while in jail, particularly with a student named Razieh who was executed. Mahtab was now married with a baby and another child on the way, invisible under her chador. After the students leave, Nafisi continued thinking about Razieh and about a particular time wherein multiple students had written out her lectures word for word in place of a term paper, supposedly not knowing any better. She says that later, in 1981, she saw Razieh at a demonstration wearing a chador and looking very small, but Razieh seemed to not want to be recognized so she did not say anything.

In Chapter 26, Nafisi again breaks from the harsh reality of Iran to delve into an analysis of of Razieh's favorite book from the class, Washington Square, focusing on the characters in the book, especially the "exceptional heroine" (223), Catherine. Nafisi writes that "respect for others, empathy" (224) is the core of the novel, that this attribute is what links Austen, Flaubert, James, Nabokov, and Bellow, and that lack of empathy was the central sin of the regime in Iran. Then comparing James and Austen, she says that when people go through trying times in James's novels their reward is not happiness, as in Austen's novels, but self-respect.

Chapter 27 starts off in mystery with Nafisi at an unnamed friend or acquaintance's house. There was no answer to the doorbell, and no note lying around when she let herself into the house. Nafisi called Reza, her unnamed friend or acquaintance's supposed best friend, from his phone to explain the situation, and he said he would be there in half an hour. To keep calm, she read some poetry to herself from his library: Four Quartets by Eliot. She cried at the end of the poem and was relieved when his friend showed up, taking on some of the burden of her anxiety. They waited together until the person came home - finally revealing, as the reader may have guessed, that it was the magician who Nafisi awaited. She writes that he was out with "the Kid" (229), a prior student who was actually never truly a kid but eighteen years old, now a good deal older and living with his grandmother doing odd jobs because as a member of the Baha'i faith he was not able to attend medical school. As it turns out, the Kid's grandmother had just died and the magician left in a hurry to comfort him. The Kid was even more distressed because there were no burial places for Baha'is, Baha'i cemeteries having been destroyed during the revolution. The magician had gone with the Kid to a garden outside of Tehran where people could be buried outside of the law; Nafisi felt that she had no way to truly connect with the magician over this story, which was so powerful as a recent tragedy.

Mr. Forsati began to bring Nafisi more illegal American movies, and soon she was able to request specific titles from him. On a particular day, Nafisi has friends over to secretly watch the movie Mogambo, which Mr. Forsati suggested. Two days later, there was a ceasefire, but the attacks resumed within the week. The universities were closed in late March 1988 and remained closed until the ceasefire; in this time of war, Nafisi says that the Iraqi dictator had become a household name and, surprisingly, the continued attacks actually led to more laxness for civilians in some ways: women were able to wear bright colors and makeup, and people drank and listened to music at parties. To be sure, people were still very afraid - the government even warned people about the potential for chemical bombs, causing more panic than preparation. Nafisi visited her friend Mina again during this time, who continued working on her book on James and translating from the privacy of her home. They spoke about James and about Nafisi's students, and Nafisi, thinking back, notes how little they talked about domestic matters like love and children, always staying on the subjects of literature and politics.

One of the last missiles before the true ceasefire landed near her home. As a result, one group of people ran toward the explosion while another group ran in the opposite direction, desperate to get away. After this, the war ended "suddenly and quietly"(238). However, for many in the government and militia "peace meant defeat" (239) and, as Nafisi writes, "the war with the external enemy was over, but the war with the domestic one was not" (239). After two months closed, the university reopened among continued secretive executions of political prisoners. Though Mr. Ghomi was still in the class and still called out his views, perhaps even more violently than before, Nafisi writes that she and the class stopped listening so much, and others learned how to respond. Nafisi focused her attention on her other students, even allowing herself to be persuaded to be Nima's dissertation advisor while he was still at the University of Tehran.

In June 1989, less than a year after the peace agreement, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died. Nafisi remembers that, at this news, an odd crowd gathered in her living room: her father, her mother, her brother's ex-mother-in-law, her son, and her daughter. Her daughter pronounced the wise words, "Mommy, Mommy, he is not dead! Women are still wearing their scarves" (242). The government announced forty days of official mourning and again the universities were shut down. There were public prayers and marches, and Nafisi recalls in great detail the day when Khomeini's body was transferred from his residence to a temporary place for prayer, bringing mourners as well as those who did not particularly like Khomeini but took advantage of the situation to bring a picnic and witness the event. When officials began to move Khomeini's body through the streets to the cemetery, there was such a crowd that they had to change plans and transport the body by helicopter; even then, when they arrived at the cemetery, people rushed the body and tore at its shroud, revealing one of the dead leader's legs before it was hastily re-covered. The government, wishing to lose no time in branding Khomeini a sacred figure, built him a hasty, gaudy shrine.

In Chapter 34, Nafisi does not anchor the reader to a particular time, though it seems like the scene must take place around the same time: an instance in which she looked around an antique shop for an old book to gift to Nima. She found an odd-looking pair of scissors and bought it "exactly because [it is] useless" (247), giving it to her magician and forgetting about Nima. In response, he led her to read a page from a Henry James novel. In the next chapter, the final chapter of Part III, Nafisi returned to the classroom to continue teaching James, even starting the chapter with a quote by James about doubt, passion, madness, and art. The class discussed courage on this particular day, before being disturbed by a noise outside the classroom. Though Nafisi tried to concentrate and keep teaching, they soon heard shouts that a student had set himself on fire, and they rushed out despite the loudspeaker warnings for everyone to stay in their classrooms. Downstairs, they were able to see a badly burnt person on a stretcher. Nafisi ruminates on the fact that a person who meant nothing to all of them in life can take on so much meaning and intrigue in death. In contrast to Khomeini's death, Nafisi ends Part III by noting that there was no public mourning at all for him, not even flowers or a few words said at the university; as Nafisi writes, "We did have class that afternoon. It did not go on as usual" (253).


The introduction of Mina, a family friend when Nafisi was young and now a fellow scholar of Henry James, presents a study in contrasts with Nafisi herself. Though Nafisi focuses on gender and particularly women in Iranian culture, politics, and religion, this feminism is not "intersectional" in the sense that she does not often bring up the struggles faced by women of different races, nationalities, and social classes (and mentions only rarely differences like religion, body type, and family structure). Mina, who lives in a mansion with her mother and seems more willing to disconnect from Iran, is said to have been raised in a wealthy, intellectual family just like Nafisi, revealing the life Nafisi could have led and reminding the reader that Nafisi might have been more similar to her than her characters from lower-class backgrounds. Like Mina, Nafisi certainly found herself bucking rules and withdrawing from society, but she did not attempt to keep up her connections with different kinds of women or use her love of literature to engage them directly.

Nafisi writes multiple times in the memoir about her process for choosing different names for her characters, since to give them their real names might put their lives in bodily, legal, or social danger. One pairing she calls special attention to is the couple Manna and Nima, whose names she says she rhymes to symbolize their closeness. However, the name Mina is even closer to the name Nima, and seems as if it could not be purely coincidental. Though neither Nima nor Mina are primary characters in the novel, with this move Nafisi seems to pair the two either as opposites or as two sides of the same coin through their names.

In this section, it is important to note that Nafisi begins to delve more deeply into feminist issues in Iran and the world, not only through the possession of women's identities through religious and political control but also the possession of women's rights to their bodies through rape. Primarily through her students, Nafisi reveals stories of girls touched by their uncles and raped and executed in prisons, relating these horrors unflinchingly to demonstrate both the reality and the resilience of women in Iranian society, aware of these stories but still willing to live and even to fight. Understanding the true stakes for women in the revolution, as well as the symbolic importance of protests over veiling, is crucial to reading the memoir.

In contrast to depictions of these atrocities, Nafisi also spends much of her time writing about the normalcy all must find within a long war. A scene that illustrates this normalcy comes in Chapter 29, just after Nafisi writes that universities were officially closed for a time in 1988. Nafisi writes, "The Iraqi dictator was by now a household name, almost as familiar as Khomeini, for he had nearly as much control over our lives...His name was mentioned frequently and casually. A major character in children's games, his every move, past, present and future, was a favorite topic of conversation" (233). Nafisi's light tone in this passage may be imagined to parallel the way in which people were soon able to lightly discuss the Iraqi dictator, likely unknown to them before the war, wherein he lost any darker meaning and became almost a celebrity for lack of happier things to think and talk about. Perhaps the most telling image in this passage is the fact that his name was even integrated into children's games, a reminder that children growing up at this time were also having to cope, finding ways to still be children yet also understand the complexities of a war that baffled even adults.

Nafisi ties together these contradictions in Part III - horror and normalcy - with her final paragraph. "He died that night... Nothing was said about him--no commemoration, no flowers or speeches, in a country where funerals and mourning were more magnificently produced than any other national art form... the only thing out of the ordinary about that day was that the loudspeakers for some reason kept announcing in the halls that classes would be held as usual that afternoon. We did have class that afternoon. It did not go as usual " (253). Repeated contrasts make this paragraph almost paradoxical - the country that upholds funerals as art, the subsequent lack of funerals even for such a publicly acknowledged death, and the march of life onward with normalcy and yet without. By using this paragraph to end Part III, Nafisi caps her feelings about the war years and her experience of life at the time, attempting normalcy, but achieving it only outwardly.