Azar Nafisi is a western-educated Iranian woman who returns to her native country after 17 years abroad (having left at the age of 13) to find it much changed by the politics of the seventies. For the next decade and a half, she works as an outspoken and inspired teacher of English literature at the University of Tehran. In her own words: 'Those were crucial days in Iranian history. A battle was being fought on all levels over the shape of the constitution and the soul of the new regime.'
Indeed, the reader watches with increasing horror as the deposed Shah left a political vacuum quickly filled by a government that encouraged vigilantes to brutally attack demonstrations from opposition groups. Violence was the name of the game as clerics like the Ayatollah Khomeini waged deadly battle in the name if Islam, though it has to be said that it was the ideology, and not the religion, that was at fault.
Women's rights, freedom of the press--these were among the first to go. Women could be fined or thrown into prison for not wearing the veil properly, for wearing make-up, for walking in public with a man not related to her, or for a myriad other petty 'crimes' of such sort. A little girl of 9 (8 and a half lunar years, to be exact) was deemed ready for marriage to any man of any age, while a man could take up to four wives and enter into 'temporary' marriages which they can then terminate as and when they pleased. Journalists, or anyone speaking out against the government, were likely to turn up dead in a matter of days. For 8 years, between 1980-1988, Iran waged war against Iraq and Tehran was bombed. Nafisi lived through all this and has quite a tale to tell. Her courage, integrity, compassion and sheer humanity shine through her narrative.
For refusing to take the veil, she is expelled from her position at the University. For the next two years, from the fall of 1995 to the year she left Iran for America, as the social conditions in her country continue to deteriorate (especially for the women), Azar Nafisi gathers seven of her best students in her home one day a week to read and discuss forbidden Western classics.
The book is structured into parts representing the works of Nabokov (Lolita; Invitation To A Beheading; Pnin), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Henry James (Daisy Miller; Washington Square) and Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice). This allows the author to correlate the themes of the various novels to the situation she and her students find themselves in real life. However, there is a great deal of overlap and discontinuity, jarring the reader who may well end up wishing for a more chronological narrative. Also, I have to agree with other reviewers who found the dearth of quotation marks annoying and sometimes confusing, though this is a minor peeve. Of more significance is a problem (again noted by other reviewers) of characterization. I had trouble distinguishing Nafisi's students one from the other, almost till the very end. But then, Nafisi was hampered by a reluctance to disclose the exact identities of her students, so that must have prevented a more vivid account.
On the first day of her teaching life in Iran, Nafisi asks her students why literature is important. She puts it to them that the greatest authors have in common their subversiveness, and that great fiction forces us to look at our world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind. Take nothing for granted, not traditions, nor expectations. Question everything.
And that is exactly what her best students did. Nafisi draws insightful parallels between classic works of fiction with the lives she and her students were living (if you can call it living) under the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic. Fictional characters and their attributes are analysed, themes of the various novels are explored. And all are related, with startling relevance, to life as these women knew it.
Forced to endure hardships and injustice in a brutal and stifling regime, where repression is their daily bread, these girls one by one look deep into their hearts and question their lives, hopes, and dreams. One by one, including their mentor, they make the choices that will determine their future.
By the end of the book, the reader understands and is finally able to answer Nafisi's question. Literature is important--more, it is relevant. The best fiction is a distilling of life; it concentrates it, extracting life's essence. Literature is the elixir of life, if you will. It can be powerful, intense, timeless, and startlingly relevant to real life. The greatest writers show their readers through their stories, what life is, and what it could be.
I would recommend this book to all classic literature buffs. Although to them, this would just be a reaffirmation of the power of literature. Though Art Majors might want or need to justify themselves to loved ones, prospective in-laws, science majors, strangers on the bus, etc. There's even a 'suggested reading' list at the end of the book. For the rest of us, if one is prepared to invest a good deal of time and patience in one book, and is willing to overlook some major and minor flaws, this is ultimately a rewarding read.
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