Azar Nafisi's memoir once again demonstrates the power of ideas in literature in an oppressive regime (think "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seanstress"). Nafisi is a western educated professor of English literature, who returns to Iran from the US and tries for a long time to live within the confines of the Iranian system. She is persuaded to teach at university and seems to have friends in high places who protect her even as her class explores ideas that aren't orthodox by the standards of the religious government. One senses she grew up in an influential and privileged family, but she doesn't provide much detail on her past. She does tell us of her days as a student activist, though, which she now sees as naively agitating for change without considering what would replace the Shah's government.
Finding the environment too difficult, Nafisi finally stops teaching and forms a private class of favorite students, who meet in her home weekly to discuss what she used to teach publicly. The class quickly becomes much more than that, as the personal and political color all they discuss. The group finds parallels (some rather unlikely I thought) between famous heroines--Daisy Miller, Elizabeth Bennett, Lolita--and their own struggles. Nafisi uses "Gatsby" as a window on American culture, the love of money, the seductive and destructive nature of the "American Dream." We see the divisions in the group itself, as one member wants to work within the system for her country and another dangerously flaunts traditional ways. The details of dress and behavior are fascinating--under their robes, these women wear jeans and T-shirts, Nike's and big earrings; letting a strand of hair escape from the veil becomes a political statement.
Interspersed throughout is a lot of heavy literary criticism--it made me want ot read some of these classics again, but at the same time I was a bit lost during discussions of books I missed in college.
Nafisi doesn't delve into her religious background and one senses she had a secular upbringing, but she sees the religious government as a tragedy for Islam. Just as Christianity has in the past been hijacked by those seeking political power, an excuse for war, or to cover up wrongdoing, so too is Islam being hijacked by men with a political agenda. This is a worthwhile and very timely book for those seeking a more sophisticated understanding of the Islamic world.
Tags: V.Nabokov People