The author is Azar Nafisi, an intelligent female (two strikes right there) professor who resigned from her job at the university in Tehran in 1995, primarily as a form of protest to the institutions remarkably repressive policies in regards to just about everything.
Once she became free of the Orwellian environment under which she had worked and attempted to educate her students, she secretly organized a group of seven of her brightest and most open-minded female students to gather with her once a week in her home to study and discuss classic works of western literature that had been banned from even mentioning in her classroom. For the next two years, under a fair amount of appropriate paranoia, they devoured works by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen and Vladimir Nabakov, the author of the aforementioned Lolita in the title.
In the first chapter, Nafisi immediately engages the reader by describing the tension under which she began her risky literary enterprise:
In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women -- to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction. One persistent male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he, Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about the books we were reading.
I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Sparks The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and asked, which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me. Nassrin once responded mischievously, you yourself told us that in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ.
Manna pointed out that I was no Miss Brodie, and they, well, they were what they were. She reminded me of a warning I was fond of repeating: do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth. Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own recommendation and choose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but perhaps Nabokovs Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.
A couple of years after we had begun our Thursday-morning seminars, on the last night I was in Tehran, a few friends and students came to say good-bye and to help me pack. When we had deprived the house of all its items, when the objects had vanished and the colors had faded into eight gray suitcases, like errant genies evaporating into their bottles, my students and I stood against the bare white wall of the dining room and took two photographs.
I have the two photographs in front of me now. In the first there are seven women, standing against a white wall. They are, according to the law of the land, dressed in black robes and head scarves, covered except for the oval of their faces and their hands. In the second photograph the same group, in the same position, stands against the same wall. Only they have taken off their coverings. Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.
Just about any American would take for granted Nafisis fervent desire to have this weekly book discussion group, and even more incomprehensible that it should have had some of the more nightmarish elements that it did for her dream to actually come true. Everyone who came to her home to read and debate these forbidden works did so at considerable risk. All were former students, though some were conservative and others more progressive minded, and some were as religious as others were secular. All were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but as soon as they began to open up, the world of ideas introduced to them through the art of literature led to self-discovery, a growing sense of esteem and, most remarkably, the ability to see themselves in the stories they devoured, be they Pride and Prejudice, Daisy Miller or Lolita.
Nafisis remarkable story incorporates fascinating details of the early days of her countrys revolution, tracing events from the students protests at the University of Tehran to a time when a radical Islamist in Nafisis class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which led to a strange trial where the character of Gatsby was actually put on the stand. Her perspectives on the Iran-Iraq war give the reader a very rare look into a country and way of life that is still elusive to most of us.
In the end, what the reader takes away from this luminous book is that art (and in this case literature) is not only necessary, it also can save lives, open minds and expand hearts. The books these women read, as the author says, not only became essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity. Any work that shares that sentiment with such moral imperative and emotional clarity should be treated the same way. Dont miss this one.