Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi

‘That room for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was! Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers…We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.’

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Azar Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. Shy and uncomfortable at first, they soon began to open up and speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading – ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Washington Square’, ‘Daisy Miller’ and ‘Lolita’ – their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran. Nafisi’s account flashes back to the early days of the revolution when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice.

Reviews of Reading Lolita in Tehran

  • ‘Through her tales of discussing Henry James and Nabokov over cream cakes and coffee, we get a highly unusual insight into the youth of a society about which we know little.’ Sunday Times Book of the Year

    ‘Anyone who has ever belonged to a book group must read this book…It is at once a celebration of the power of the novel and a cry of outrage at the reality in which these women are trapped. The Ayatollahs don’t know it, but Nafisi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic.’ Geraldine Brooks

    ‘I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafizi’s account of how she defied, and helped others to defy, radical Islam’s war against women. Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom – as well as a stirring account of the pleasures and deepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with great literature and with an inspired teacher.’ Susan Sontag