Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Essay Questions

  1. 1

    On her first day of teaching at the University of Tehran, Azar Nafisi began class with some questions: "What should fiction accomplish? Why should anyone read at all?" Based on the book, how do you think Nafisi would answer this question? How would you?

    Azar Nafisi seems to believe two main things with regard to reading - that it can and should present an escape from reality, and that it can allow a reader to work through complex issues (though she does not feel that a book itself can be said to pass judgement on these issues). For example, Nafisi reads The Great Gatsby as an exploration of love, adultery, greed, decadence, and especially "carelessness" (131). She does not, as some of her students do, feel that it espouses these ideas as positive or advocates spreading these ideas to readers. Thus, Nafisi seems to feel that books, including her own, should present complex problems but not preach solutions. Instead, books should provide an imaginative and emotional look into the lives and relationships of characters.

  2. 2

    Discuss the recurrent theme of complicity in the book: the idea that the Ayatollah, the stern philosopher-king who limited freedoms and terrorized the innocent, "did to us what we allowed him to do" (28). To what extent are the supporters of a revolution responsible for its unintended results?

    Nafisi's novel communicates the theme of complicity through the silence of many characters in the face of a vocal, violent movement. Nafisi must herself battle with how outspoken and resistant she will act toward wearing a veil in the classroom. Wearing a veil would allow her to continue doing what she loves, educating young people and broadening their worldviews, but could be seen as forwarding or being complicit in a movement that was taking away more and more of the freedoms and rights of women. Through Nafisi's thoughts, we see that she does believe the supporters of a revolution are responsible for its results, but through her actions the reader comes to understand how hard it is to keep one's life, identity, and sanity during a revolution.

  3. 3

    Compare attitudes toward the veil held by men, women, and the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran. How was Nafisi's grandmother's choice to wear the chador marred by the political significance it had gained (192)?

    The responses of characters in the memoir to the veil are inextricably tied to gender, age, religion, and political affiliation. While women and men of an older generation have spent their lives seeing the veil as a religious choice symbolizing to themselves and others a connection with God, younger women and men have come to see it primarily as a political object, wielded by male-dominated political parties to exert control over women's bodies, identities, and lives. Male privilege allows male characters to act much more flippantly about the veil, however.

  4. 4

    In discussing the story of the murderous king in A Thousand and One Nights, Nafisi mentions three types of women who fell victim to his unreasonable rule (19). What is the relevance of this story for the women in Nafisi's private class?

    A Thousand and One Nights is a Persian folktale about a king who slew virgin after virgin because of his queen's betrayal but is finally halted by the storytelling of one virgin, Scheherazade. Nafisi writes that there are three kinds of women portrayed in the story, all of them victims: those who betray, those who are killed before they have the chance to betray, and Scheherazade who uses her imagination to give her the courage to risk her life. While Nafisi never tries to directly equate the fictional texts she discusses and the reality of her life in Iran, imagination and intelligence as the way for a woman to survive is definitely an important message that Nafisi attempts to instill in her students and the reader.

  5. 5

    During the The Great Gatsby trial, Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to "distinguish fiction from reality" (128). How does Mr. Nyazi's conflation of the fictional and the real compare to the actions of the blind censor, who retains the authority to suppress performances when he cannot even see? Discuss the role of censorship in the novel as it pertains to Nafisi's classes and Iranian society.

    Nafisi comments on the irony of powerful men passing judgement out of fear rather than understanding both in the case of the blind censor and the students like Mr. Nyazi, who get away with vocally rejecting literature, even writing whole dissertations on the issues arising from it without reading or understanding the purpose of the text itself. Nafisi feels that art, especially literature, is supposed to present spaces for people to explore complicated issues, while men like the blind censor who claims to protectively limit her exposure to outside entertainment from within the government and the students who argue with her about the inclusion of certain works of literature in her classes too often intermingle fiction and reality. At times, Nafisi uses this fact as a teaching moment, such as when she has the in-class trial of The Great Gatsby. At other times, her lack of control in the matter scares her so much that she feels the need to run to the bookstore and buy up all the English literature she can.

  6. 6

    Nafisi writes, "It was not until I had reached home that I realized the true meaning of exile" (145). How does Nafisi's conceptions of home conflict with those of her husband, Bijan, who is reluctant to leave Tehran?

    While Bijan feels an allegiance to and wants to stay in Iran throughout the revolution and its aftermath, most of the other primary characters in the book, including Nafisi herself, want to exile themselves from their motherland by leaving Iran for the West, especially America and Canada. While Nafisi leaves Iran for America twice - after her first marriage and in 1997 when she leaves for good - the quote in question regarding the "true meaning of exile" describes her experience when arriving back in Tehran. For Nafisi, she feels more in exile when being regarded as a threat or nuisance in the place that was once her happy home than when she left it, taking her good and bad memories with her.

  7. 7

    Fanatics like Mr. Ghomi, Mr. Nyazi, and Mr. Bahri consistently surprised Nafisi by displaying absolute hatred for Western literature - a reaction she describes as a "venom uncalled for in relation to works of fiction" (195). What are their motivations?

    Nafisi presents characters throughout her teaching career who confronted her privately about the subject matter she taught in class, Western literature, as well as about specific texts she chose to teach. Though she does not demonize these characters, often demonstrating great care for them, she does on the whole present them as fearful and closed minded. In effect, Nafisi writes that these people did not understand literature because they conflated fiction and reality, which she believes are mutually exclusive. These people, through their religious and political ideologies, sought certainty and control in all things. When they did not understand a work, they came to fear its potential use. While Nafisi does not begrudge them this lack of understanding, she fears and resents the times at which these kinds of people made decisions for the lives of others.

  8. 8

    The confiscation of one's own life by another is the root of Humbert's sin in Lolita. Discuss how Khomeini likewise acted as a "solipsizer," robbing individuals of their identities to promote total allegiance. What does Nafisi mean when she says that Sanaz, Nassrin, Azin, and the rest of the girls are part of a "generation with no past" (76)?

    Nafisi focuses on the confiscation of the lives of women during and after the Iranian Revolution through the symbol of the veil. For example, Nafisi describes two pictures of the students in her private class: one with them wearing the garb they must wear outdoors and another with them stripped of these robes and head coverings, revealing their individual looks and personalities. Because the rising tension, Iranian Revolution, and Iraq-Iran War lasted so long collectively (spanning roughy from 1975 to 1988), children, adolescents, and young adults during this time had to grow up only understanding by proxy what it would mean to feel comfortable and happy in their homeland. Nafisi uses comparisons between her experience and the experience of her grandmother, mother, students, and children to demonstrate the different ways people in Iran experienced Khomeini and his political successors' shaping of Iran.

  9. 9

    Nafisi teaches that the novel is a sensual experience of another world and appeals to the reader's capacity for compassion. How does this book lived up to that notion?

    Reading Nafisi's memoir can cause a variety of emotions from confusion to outrage to empathy. Nafisi places the reader in a complex position by stating from the outset that literature should not be viewed as a direct representation of reality, yet writing a memoir representing a harsh reality marked by fear and the mundane in a time of violence and change.

  10. 10

    Nafisi's account of life in the Islamic Republic and the pursuit of joy through fiction transcends national and geographical boundaries. Discuss how censorship, fundamentalism, human rights, the enjoyment of works of imagination, and the desire for individual freedoms may be similar in totalitarian and democratic societies.

    The control of people's bodies and identities is not confined to Iran, the Middle East, or totalitarian nations. In democratic societies, including America, there remain large issues of gender, racial, religious, and socioeconomic inequality, including censorship and limited access to education and political capital. Nafisi, as an Iranian writing from America, does not explicitly make these statements, but would likely encourage a reader to do as she does for the works of literature she reads and discusses with her students in Iran: read curiously, critically, and with an eye toward social issues.