Reading Lolita in Tehran
Over the last two days of Pesach, while spending my very first Yom Tov in Passaic, I spent a LOT of time reading. This was for two reasons. The first was that I had a lot of free time on my hands (and who wants to study during a holiday?) since most of my friends had left town and the second was that I was completely absorbed in my book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi.
I absolutely couldn't put the book down, reading it until I was done, even a little while after Yom Tov ended. The narrative of Iran being taken over by the Islamic regime was very interesting and it was historic information that I must admit to not being aware of previously, but more than that, I was completely compelled by the book because it touched me very personally. I saw a lot of parallels between the lives of those in the book and my own, as well as fellow religious Jews.
The caveat that I must make is that, in many, and hopefully most, ways, I found the Islamic regime to go to a greater extreme than any religious Jewish group. Though there are those very extreme groups, they thankfully, have never come into legal power like what occured in Iran in the 1980s.
There were a few moments within the book that stuck out to me. The first, and this was more of a personal, rather than culture-wide illumination, was towards the beginning of the book, where Nafisi was describing her "secret" class that she held weekly with seven committed students in her home. They were challenged to look inside themselves and inside classical literature for the secret to living. Nafisi initially assigned her students to describe their image of themslves. Her students were unable to do so during the first few sessions, until they were more comfortable with the environment of the class, and when they were, they exposed themselves beautifully, in both visual art and word. I think it took the encouragement of Nafisi, their "teacher" to be able to expose their true selves when everything outside of her class was telling them to keep themselves hidden under a robe and veil (which was the law at the time).
I thought about that assignment myself, about writing my image of myself here on my blog, but I couldn't. First, I honestly am not sure exactly how I see myself. It's a contradiction at times - sometimes I feel one way, other times I feel the opposite, often depending on my mood du jour. But in general, I don't think I would feel comfortable being that open and that honest in this forum. No offense to my readers :)
The final section of the book struck me deeply. This section really delved into the women's personal lives, discussing relationships and maturity and the values the women held most important. And this is where I really saw parallels between the women of Iran under the Islamic regime and that of many Orthodox women I know (including myself).
Two scenes stand out in my mind. The first is when one of the students, a 27-year-old woman, admits to her teacher that she has a boyfriend. Because of her religious upbringing, she is having difficulty with this and says to her teacher that she "know[s] nothing, nothing about the relation between a man and a woman, about what it means to go out with a man." She later has so much trouble with this balancing act - the balance between being a good religious "girl" and being a human female, and additionally, the balance between her desires for her boyfriend to look at her with desire, as well as the respect that he offers her (which he insists must be separate, for there are girls you desire and girls you marry, he says), that she ends up breaking up with him and leaving the country.
The final scene that really blew me away was when another student says, in speaking about the hold that the religion has on her, "The worst fear you can have is losing your faith. Because then you're not accepted by anyone - not by those who consider themselves secular or by people of your own faith. It's terrible....ever since we could remember, our religion has defined every single action we've taken. If one day I lose my faith, it will be like dying and having to start new again in a world without guarantees."
That paragraph so eloquently puts into words so much. Nafisi's students taught me a great deal.