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Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Last Summer of Reason

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Last Summer of Reason
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

The Last Summer of Reason, by Tahar Djaout

Reviewed by Betsy Ross

What role does literature play in a repressive theocracy? That is a topic each of these novels, one by an Iranian-born professor of English literature and the other by an Algerian writer, addresses. In the process, each gives a glimpse into the Muslim world, giving us a chance to see behind the veils and the homogenous images Islam invokes in Western society. It also provides us a chance to take stock of our own inching toward theocracy - the merging of religious beliefs and political ideology - telling a cautionary tale if we are willing to hear it.

Azar Nafisi, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, taught in Tehran during the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her book is a memoir about leading a clandestine book group of Iranian women in her home to study Nabokov (thus the title Reading Lolita in Tehran), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen. Because of their Western (and thus dissolute) ancestry, these books were forbidden reading in the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, as Nafisi points out: "We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent - namely ideology."

According to Nafisi, these books not only provided escape from a harsh society of unyielding rules, but also provided these women a way to understand their lives: "What Nabokov captured was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises, where you can no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner." That confusion dominated society in Iran. It was a confusion born of a politic of rules that was supposed to free you, yet more often annihilated you (both figuratively and in reality).

The Islamic Republic intended to erase the individual, nowhere more obviously than in the dress of its women, in which stray hairs extruding from a veil, disrupting the landscape of sameness, could be cause for beatings by the government "vice squads." Thus do we, Westerners, play into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists when we see all Muslims as monochrome. And, indeed, it is this view that allows us to depict an entire society as "evil;" Ms. Nafisi forces us to see the individual. Reading Lolita in Tehran feeds, with details about individuals, our natural instinct towards empathy. And empathy, Nafisi reminds us, is the natural enemy of "evil": "Evil... lies in the inability to "see" others, hence to empathize with them.... We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others." More on that later.

Tahar Djaout wrote the novel, The Last Summer of Reason, shortly before his assassination by Islamic fundamentalists because he "wielded a fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors." It is about a man who doubts, who owns a bookstore, who is an outsider in his society, like Djaout himself was. The conflict between the fundamentalists and others is captured in the following dialogue between a young hitchhiker and Boualem:

"Excuse me, Uncle, but to me you seem beleaguered by the confusion of those who are lacking in faith. I apologize in advance, for I hope that I am wrong."

"Son, it is a risky business to set oneself up as the judge of others, for one is mistaken more often than should be allowed."

"He who preaches truth is not mistaken; he often encounters adversity, but error does not lie on his path."

This rock-driven certainty, having become the basis for all reasoning today, brings back the memory of some of the last discussions he had with his son. Kamel, worked over by his school and neighborhood, had finally yielded to the pressure. With head down, he joined the group cooped up in the meadow of certitude... He had made it very clear that he did not need a father whose target of sarcasm and pillory he would be...."

Literature in the world of Boualem (as in the world of Djaout) is a threat to the established order, and so Boualem, as owner of a bookstore, is stoned in the following incident:

The first stone that hit him was thrown by a girl. Twelve years old, maybe, no more. But a girl already ripe, a person of the present time, settled into the limpid logic of exclusion and stoning. At the bottom of her little heart, she is completely blameless. She is on the side of the new right: the side that allows you, without remorse, to exclude those who do not share your convictions.

Both Nafisi's memoir and Djaout's novel execrate the societies from which they come, that have so erased from the landscape literature in favor of ideology; empathy in favor of certitude; vibrancy in favor of uniformity. Yet in providing details of daily life and of individuals, Nafisi and Djaout introduce us to hues of Islamic society; and from these hues we are invited towards empathy.

Which leads me back to Nafisi's statement that: "We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others." To what extent have we, as a nation, turned "blind censor" toward "evil" nations? It is not that I do not believe in evil, it is that the declaration of it seems to absolve us from any responsibility of empathy. Thus, pronouncements about "evil empires" and "axes of evil" cause me to gulp just a bit. Are we not, as a society, kinder when we are more prone to empathy than certainty? Nafisi wrote that what frightened her about Iran most was "this persistent lack of kindness," promulgated by a theocracy "that constantly intruded into the most private corners of our lives." Djaout meant the same when he wrote about a culture that "allows you, without remorse, to exclude those who do not share your convictions."

If books really do play the role of adding depth and contour to our experience of our world, may we read The Last Summer of Reason and Reading Lolita in Tehran, and consider each a cautionary tale about the dangers of mixing religious beliefs and political ideology.

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