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Art has the potential to liberate and empower a community and can serve as a threat to repressive societies, such as the Islamic Republic in Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.” In Iran, women are forced to wear chadors, avoid conversation with men, and are often punished for arbitrary actions. As Nafisi and her students delve into various novels secretly in her home, they make parallels to their own lives through works such as Madame Bovary and Nabokov’s Lolita.
Nafisi’s Tehran is not a republic, but a totalitarian regime that attacks individuality and strives for a uniform and subservient society.
Throughout the article, Nafisi shows that art and literature are powerful tools that have the ability to challenge totalitarianism by empowering a person’s individuality and by encouraging people to pursue their dreams and passions. Literature makes the efforts of a totalitarian society futile by broadening horizons and liberating a human being, while government continues to repress its citizens’ worlds.
To Nafisi, a society that strips its citizens from their identity and forces them to become a certain character is a society that practices totalitarianism. She writes, “Not just our reality but also our fiction had taken on this curious coloration in a world where…we simultaneously invented ourselves and were figments of someone else’s imagination (Nafisi 263).” The recipe for a totalitarian regime requires many ingredients.
It requires the dream of a dictator, powerful enforcement such as the military, and control over social media such as newspapers, TV shows, and radio.
The purpose of totalitarianism is to make a uniform society. By controlling social media, the government has the ability to oppress individuality. In Tehran, militias roam around with guns and machetes to evoke fear and enforce the harsh laws of the Islamic Republic and the views of Ayatollah. The strict laws and customs of Iran make it almost impossible for Tehran’s inhabitants, especially females, to think beyond what they are told. The constant control and regulation from the government constricts not only the power, but also the confidence to learn new things. Media plays an important part in this, with the Iranian censor banning books and scripting television and radio programs.
It is the oppressive principles of limiting knowledge and uniform society that make arts, such as literature, such a threat to totalitarianism. Because art emphasize on creativity and the expansion of views and ideas, it naturally contradicts the fundamentals of totalitarianism. Art also gives people a basis on how to live life. For example, Nafisi writes, “…What we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth. (Nafisi 248).” Nafisi and her students are not looking for a step-by-step process to follow; instead they are learning morals and beliefs that they can base their life on. By doing this, Nafisi’s students are expanding their world.
Lolita is then, in a sense, a gateway. By reading Lolita and other works, Nafisi and her students make connections with characters and analyze the similarities and differences of their world and the fictional ones they read about. From Lolita, they garner the strength to be seen in the smallest ways, such as painting their nails or revealing a little hair from their scarves. Amidst the dull backdrop of Iran, they make their life a little more colorful and bright by expressing themselves. Literature can also give new methodologies to deal with problems. In one of Nafisi’s readings, A Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s plan to keep the king entertained for a thousand an one nights to avoid her beheading is not only fascinating, but also encourages the idea of using creativity over violence. Literature not only stretches intellectuality and creativity, but also encourages goals. For example, Nafisi always wanted to teach classes of her own with people who were genuinely interested in literature. In fact, it was Nabokov that pushed her to create her class.
She writes, “There was something, both in his fiction and in his life, that we instinctually related to and grasped, the possibility of a boundless freedom when all options are taken away. I think that was what drove me to create this class. (Nafisi 263).” Nafisi takes from Nabokov’s readings that once a door closes, many more doors of opportunity open. In this sense, literature gave Nafisi the encouragement to resign from her position and start pursuing her dream. Sanaz is another example of how literature can provide encouragement. “Sanaz, who, pressured by family and society, vacillated between her desire for independence and her need for approval…(Nafisi 249)” The difficulty in deciding whether or not to stay with the class shows the independence and confidence that Sanaz developed by attending Nafisi’s class. Nassrin, another student, went as far as lying to her father for the very first time in her life in order to continue reading. Nima, a man, persuaded Nafisi to let him join. His desires to read literature lead him to deny societal expectations of gender segregation.
Looking closely, Nafisi often mentions works with strong female leads like Madame Bovary and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. These selections help empower Nafisi’s students as women and give them confidence to pursue their dreams and passions. Individuality is an important aspect of art that challenges totalitarianism. By encouraging uniqueness, literature goes against totalitarianism’s core beliefs of conformity. Individuality also empowers people to believe they are special enough to achieve their ambitions. At the beginning of the article, Nafisi reminisces about two of her old photographs. One of these photographs has her and her students dressed in their back chadors with their faces and hair covered. In the other photo, her students are without their chadors and in their unique casual and colorful clothing.
Nafisi dedicates a substantial amount of time for each of her students, describing their appearances and personalities. It is evident in her writing that Nafisi gives importance to the uniqueness of each of her students. She writes, “These girls, my girls, had both a real history and a fabricated one (Nafisi 265)”. It is the real history that asserts the girls’ individuality, and these histories are what help define their identities. In the Islamic republic of Tehran, an identity is taboo, as it encourages defying the norm that Ayatollah strives for. The idea of asserting an identity is not only empowering, but also liberating. Reading provides a healthy and distraction from everyday life to help create that identity. “There in the living room, we rediscovered that we were also living…and no matter how repressive the state became…like Lolita, we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom (Nafisi 264).”
Nafisi’s students come in and take off their robes and their chadors, revealing their true faces and colors to class. Nafisi’s home not only provides a comfortable setting to relax, but also provides an ambiance that encourages debate and the sharing of ideas. This process of sharing opinions broadens the horizons of Nafisi’s students. In a society where a strict censor regulates information of life outside of Tehran, books from the black market serve as the only inlets to the dynamics of the outside world. Probably the most important action that literature supports is questioning, questioning of everything. Nabokov is known as one of the first writers to use an unreliable narrator.
His works make readers think about what is true and what is fabricated. It is interesting that Nafisi finds more connections with her life as a Muslim woman in Tehran and with Nabokov’s writings. “We formed a special bond with Nabokov despite the difficulty of his prose…they [his novels) are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality’s fickleness and frailty (Nafisi 262).” The special bond that Nafisi mentions are the trap doors she finds in her own life as an Iranian woman. Just as her students question Lolita’s narrator, they question Ayatollah and his aspirations for them.
By doing so, they understand that what the government expects for them does not have to be what they should expect for themselves. Nafisi also writes, “Invitation to a Beheading is written from the point of view of the victim…who ultimately sees the sham of his persecutors and who must retreat into himself in order to survive (Nafisi 262).” From an Invitation to a Beheading, Nafisi and her students conclude that when society itself is in question, they must look inside themselves for answers on how to live their lives. All in all, by analyzing society the future becomes vulnerable to thousands of possibilities and not just the possibilities offered by the government.
The world that literature creates for people also encourages the pursuit of their dreams and ambitions. It gives them the confidence to be true to themselves and do what they love, giving people a more holistic lifestyle. In this way, literature makes the efforts of a totalitarian society useless because art values creativity and uniqueness, making it impossible for government to strip individuals of their individuality. Literature increases intellectuality in people, giving them well-rounded opinions and a more mature level of thinking. With these skills, the worlds of people expand; creating an unpredictable society that can be molded to various beliefs. Possibilities for the future become boundless and anything can seem doable. Through literature, the women of Tehran gain confidence to have dreams, and maybe even garner the courage to achieve those dreams.
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