The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- In times of siege, literature becomes more, not less, important

A ten-year-old boy wakes up his parents in horror because he has had another “illegal” dream. He has been dreaming that he was at the seaside with some men and women who were kissing each other. This is one of the dreams recounted in Azar Nafisi’s “memoir in books”, Reading Lolita in Tehran. The young women who made up the book group that met secretly in Nafisi’s home between 1995 and 1997 to discuss Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen also had recurring nightmares. But these nightmares had to do with forgetting to wear their compulsory veils. “Always in these dreams,” writes Nafisi, “the dreamer was running, running away.”

It is not dream, however, but waking reality that brings home the real banality of tyranny. In Khomeini’s Iran, literary texts (especially of the Western canon) are charged with corrupting the youth with Western decadence; writers, publishers, artists, students, ordinary men and women suddenly disappear and reappear either as corpses or as broken people; people live in fear of raids, hiding satellite dishes or meetings between men and women; a blind censor “watches” films day after day, making the required cuts. The girls in Nafisi’s book club are like young women anywhere, wanting to look attractive, wanting to meet men, wanting to understand their own lives. But these women cannot live an hour without worrying about the guardians of morality and culture who control every sphere of the women’s lives from what they wear to what they think.

The book goes beyond this small group and the texts they discuss with Nafisi to the University of Tehran, and the city itself. The university, an epicentre of “revolutionary activity”, is the setting for fanaticism, bloody demonstrations, fear, bravery and opportunism. With religion having been turned into the only official ideology, the Islamist presence in the city is inescapable. It’s as if the ayatollahs are lying in wait at every corner of day-to-day life. When Nafisi and her students read Nabokov’s Lolita, they see a link between Humbert Humbert and Ayatollah Khomeini. In an interview to an American magazine, Nafisi says, “The ayatollahs, by imposing their dreams on us, turning us into a figment of their imagination, did basically the same thing that Humbert did to Lolita… In the kind of universe (Nabokov) created, …the free individual always had to fend for herself or himself, and the biggest crime was confiscation of another person’s reality.” Again and again, this parallel is fleshed out.

I did feel some discomfort reading the book, and this discomfort peaked in parts; say when reading about Khomeini’s alleged advice to men to control their lust by having sex with animals. Perhaps it is a sign of the times: we know about too many places where the sexual fetishes of religious practitioners are allowed to run amok among people’s daily lives. There are, undoubtedly, the ayatollahs Nafisi writes about, or those of the taliban or its counterparts elsewhere; but we also know of the Hindutva thought police; or the priests who exert the grip of the church with regard to contraception, mostly in countries conveniently far away from western Europe.

But to get back to Nafisi’s Iran: it’s best, I think, to frankly acknowledge the anxiety to resist Western (or rightwing Hindu) stereotypes about Islam. It’s an anxiety that makes you wonder if Nafisi’s book, read today when the Islamic bogeyman walks tall in the West, only provides more fodder to the mills of stereotype reinforcement. But surely we need to constantly make the distinction between Islamists and Muslims even if the ignorant or the prejudiced can’t' Nafisi herself writes elsewhere of the danger of Islamism becoming the only face of Islam, particularly in the context of international discourse: “Islamism’s combination of visibility, virulence, and aggressive self-righteousness has allowed it to become the dominant lens through which the West judges the Muslim world and the Muslim-majority countries judge the West.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran has a cousin of sorts in a discovery I made in 2002 — the Chinese filmmaker Dai Sijie’s debut novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. The books are set in different times and places, and one is a parable-like novel and the other a detailed memoir punctuated with lit-crit of the books read by the group. But both books are about intellectual liberty, and more specifically, about the undying yearning for this liberty. Both books also have powerful material to shape into books; so powerful that there is the danger of the reality described being more important than the form and craft and worldview of the telling. I have to confess, again, that I began Dai Sijie’s book with a suspicion that it would be one of those books that take on the Cultural Revolution with all the advantages of hindsight, to say nothing of an eye on the Western reading market. Indeed the book is about two boys exiled to the countryside for “re-education”. The author was himself “re-educated” between 1971 and 1974, then left China in 1984 for France, where he now lives. But this little gem of a novel has the quality of a parable; it lifts the experience of yearning for freedom above its specific location in the mountains of western China. The novel has at its heart a simple, eloquent design, with Balzac, stories, storytelling and story-receiving exemplifying the craving for new worlds beyond the reach of regimentation. It is not living in the countryside or being part of the “people” and the ongoing necessities of the “revolution” that sees the students through their growing-up pains in terrified, lonely exile. It is literature that does — and in this case the literature consists of a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that the narrator secretly appropriates and makes his own. The story-lessons from another time and tradition help him woo the young seamstress and her father; and they transform the students as well as the young Chinese seamstress forever. What transforms them is the power to enlarge their imagination — a small but powerful legacy of growing up in a painfully circumscribed corner of history.

Different as they are, Nafisi’s and Dai Sijie’s books illustrate that in times of siege, literature becomes more, not less important. And you could substitute the word literature with dream, or imagination, or protest or offence. Tyrants everywhere know this, which is why people have been terrorized, jailed, tortured, even killed, merely for the act of reading — a freedom so many of us take for granted.

A tailpiece: both books are written by people who have physically left the places they describe; Sijie lives in France, Nafisi in the United States. This, of course, does not reduce the legitimacy of either their memories or their criticism. But there is a question posted on Nafisi’s website for dialogue between Muslim countries and the West that struck me: Is it more difficult, Nafisi is asked by a reader, to stay back and teach in Tehran where the students needed her more; or to live in self-imposed exile and teach those who have no real idea of what living in Tehran is like'

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