Reading Lolita in Tehran
We all have dreams—things we fantasize about doing and generally never get around to. This is the story of Azar Nafisi’s dream and of the nightmare that made it come true. For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading—Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller and Lolita—their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran. Nafisi’s account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi’s class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work that preached falsehoods of “the Great Satan,” she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and stood as the sole witness for the defense. Azar Nafisi’s luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice. From the Hardcover edition.
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Which of the following best summarizes the warning that Nafisi, the author and narrator, gives her students?
Women in Iran are required by law to fully cover themselves in loose-fitting clothing and a headscarf, but there are many interpretations of this law. Below, you can see the type of conservative dress that Nafisi is describing, as well as women in more modern dress. (This annotation contains an image)
While one does not need to have read Lolita in order to appreciate and enjoy this book, it is important to understand the general plot of Nabokov's novel, its reception by the world, and its general themes and motifs. Read the summary of this classic novel below and then consider the following question: Why would reading Lolita in Iran be controversial? (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following best describes what Nafisi means when she says that the living room was a place of 'transgression' for the women?
In order to understand the importance of this story, it is essential that you understand the historical significance of the Iranian Revolution. Follow the link below to learn what caused the revolution, who rose to power, and how the revolution changed Iran forever. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following general ideas about the Iranian government is supported by these two highlighted sentences?
As Nafisi introduces each other the characters, she gives the reader important information about these characters in order to highlight specific aspects of their personalities. Watch this video to learn more about how authors develop characters. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following inferences about Iranian women is best supported by the highlighted sentence?
In this paragraph, Nafisi is developing an important idea/question: is it is always best to tell the truth? Mark Twain once said, "Lying is universal--we all do it; we all must do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one." Do you think Azar Nafisi, the author of this book, would agree or disagree with Twain's statement? Why?
In her selection of A Thousand and One Nights as the first story for the class, the reader can infer
Metatextuality is defined as one text making a commentary on another text. This idea is central to this text and will reappear throughout the book. Start thinking deeply about the connections between the texts and the women and their stories.
Based on the context of this highlighted portion of the sentence, the word 'omnipotent' most nearly means
Iran's censorship of film, theater, and literature was not uncommon. Book banning has been occurring for many years. Watch this quick video to learn about famous books that have been banned for their content. There's a good chance that you have read one or more of these books. Do you agree that they should be banned? (This annotation contains a video)
In the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. Martin Luther King wrote: "A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law." Which of the following best articulates the connection between this quote and Nafisi's description of the religious laws of Iran?
When Nafisi describes the gate of the university as being closed to the female students, she is speaking both literally and figuratively. Watch this video to learn more about this difference between literal and figurative language. (This annotation contains a video)
The highlighted sentence here compares Yassi to the 'little cinder girl,' another name for a Cinderella-like figure. Which of the following literary devices best describes this reference?
Solipsism is an important idea in this text. It can be defined in multiple ways, but most commonly it describes "extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption." People who are solipsistic are extremely egotistical.
Which of the following articulates Nafisi's argument about why she chose Nabokov's novel, Lolita, for the class?
Throughout this text, Nafisi makes many allusions to famous works of literature. In order to understand her references, it helps to quickly look up these texts in order to see the connections that she is drawing.
Nafisi's attitude towards Lolita, Nabokov's controversial novel, can best be described as
Humbert defends himself by blaming Lolita for the seduction. This is commonly called victim-blaming and occurs often in contemporary culture. The author of the editorial below believes that women who drink are sometimes responsible for the sexual assaults that happen to them. Be ready to answer a question that asks you to compare the thesis of that article with the ideas in this text. (This annotation contains a link)
Complete the following sentence: The author's father was most likely jailed for his __________.
Nabokov referred to fate as 'McFate,' the idea that a person's life and experiences are pre-determined. What do you think? Do humans have free will to choose their own direction or are our lives determined by our destiny or fate?
Earlier, you read an article suggesting that women who are raped are sometimes to blame for the assault. Here, Nassrin describes an experience where she was abused by her uncle. Based on what you have read so far, explain the stance that Iranians would take on her assault. Would they support Nassrin or take a position similar to the editorial you read earlier?
Azin's ideas about women's equality here are very progressive. Read lines 70 - 79 from the following excerpt from Shakespeare's play, Othello, given by one of the female characters, and compare and contrast its primary ideas to the ideas in Azin's statement. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following statements best describes the connection between the Shakespearean excerpt from Othello and the ideas expressed by Azin and Nassrin?
Here, Mitra uses a metaphor of being trapped in a cell in order to describe her life outside of the classes. This idea of imprisonment is an important central idea in this text. Watch this video in order to learn about how an idea emerges over the course of a text. (This annotation contains a video)
How does this chapter relate in its structure to the other chapters?
As you notice, Nafisi moves around in time as she tells the story. Much of the story is told through flashbacks, an important literary device in this text. Watch this video to learn more about how and why authors use these. (This annotation contains a video)
The Revolutionary Guards were extremely powerful during the Iranian Revolution and are still powerful today in contemporary Iranian society. Read this short blurb about them to see how they still exert power in Iran. (This annotation contains a link)
Complete this sentence:After the experience with the Committee, Nafisi's family was often scared by the sound of _______________.
Though this book is a memoir, Nafisi often changes names or details to protect the identities of the women involved. Additionally, the reader can see how these changes are not made randomly - they reflect important decisions made by the author to inject her own meaning and experiences into the text.
Based on previous chapters and the highlighted sentence, which of the following conclusions about Mahshid's character is best supported by the text?
Women in Iran are often punished for morality violations such as adultery or even showing their hair or other parts of their body with lashes or stonings. The picture below shows a woman being buried in the ground in preparation for a stoning. She was sentenced to the stoning for being seen speaking in public to a man who was not her husband. (This annotation contains an image)
When Nafisi describes the similarity between the women and Lolita as 'the victim's proximity and intimacy with its jailer' what does she mean? Explain this phrase in your own words. How does it apply to the text?
Mini Quiz: Part I
Nafisi structures her book in four parts, with each part centering around a specific text. As you continue to read, you will notice that this story, "Gatsby," occurs earlier than the story you just finished, "Lolita." When a book starts in the middle of a story, this is a technique called 'in medias res,' which means 'in the midst of things.' Watch this video to learn why readers use this technique. (This annotation contains a video)
Based on the text thus far, which of the following correctly describes how being educated in America influences Nafisi's writing?
While Nafisi was attending the University of Oklahoma, protests were occurring on many college campuses around the U.S. A few years earlier, at the height of the anti-war protests during Vietnam, multiple students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. How might these protests have influenced Nafisi to speak her voice? (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following predictions is best supported by this highlighted sentence portion?
Hizbollah, also know as Hezbollah, is an extremist organization that still exists in the Middle East today. They are often responsible for attacks on governments that they deem impure. Watch the following video to see how Hizbollah's involvement in Iran during the 1970s is similar to their involvement in many Middle East countries today. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following best defines the word 'subversive' as it is used in these sentences?
Look up a short summary of The Great Gatsby and consider this question: Why would this book be frowned upon by the Iranian government? Do you agree with their decision to not allow people to read Fitzgerald's famous novel?
What is the most likely reason that the author included this inserted section?
Based on the information presented in this section of the memoir, where do the current events fall on the timeline of Iranian history?
The Ayahtolla and his government often assassinated revolutionaries who were bold enough to speak out against the government. The image below shows the assassination of a few of those men by a firing squad. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following claims is best supported by Nafisi's description of her attitude toward the government?
Here, Nafisi describes how it was extremely ironic that she chose to read The Great Gatsby in her class, when the revolution happening around them was centered around completely opposite values from the novel. Watch this video to learn more about what irony is and why authors use it! (This annotation contains a video)
Do you agree that The Great Gatsby is the perfect American novel? Does it capture the idea of the American Dream? If you have not read the book itself, watch this great SparkNotes video to learn the summary of the plot. (This annotation contains a video)
When Nafisi selects Gatsby, a love story, for her students to read, she most likely does it in order to draw connections between
Why does Nafisi say that she sees herself in these outspoken, Marxist female students? Explain in at least two sentences, using evidence from the text.
Though women had gained education and power during the years before the Revolution, they still did not have the same voice as men. Here, women are attempting to protest the Ayatollah's statements regarding requiring all women to wear veils in public. (This annotation contains an image)
In this sentence, the word 'Western' has a __________________ connotation.
Why does Mr. Nyazi register a complaint about The Great Gatsby?
It is not uncommon for books to be put on trial. In 1957, an extended poem called "Howl" by Alan Ginsberg, was put on trial for being extremely obscene in its language. Though the judge eventually ruled that the poem should not be made illegal, it drew the country's attention to the idea that literature can also break laws. Do you believe that books should be put on trial if they are considered problematic? (This annotation contains a link)
Nyazi's thesis states that writers in the West are "materialistic." Which of the following statements best articulates how Nafisi would most likely respond to his thesis?
The Pahlavi regime was the ruling party in Iran prior to the Iranian Revolution and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. During the Shah's reign, many Iranians felt that Iran had lost touch with Islam and wanted a country that was more conservative and religious.
Do you agree that the American dream is, as Nyazi says, "decadent and in decline"? Use a specific example to support your claim.
This is an important scene for Nafisi and one of her main ideas in this text: the independence and intellectual power of women. As you read, pay close attention to the way in which Zarrin asserts herself during this trial.
Based on her argument, what would Zarrin say is the "whole point of the novel" that Nyazi has missed?
When Nassrin states that morality can change based on a specific culture, she is describing a system of belief called 'moral relativism.' This idea states that good/bad or right/wrong change based on the beliefs of the culture in which things are happening. Check out this hilarious Calvin and Hobbes comic that describes moral relativism. (This annotation contains an image)
Earlier in this memoir, you learned about metatextuality and the way in which Nafisi's discussions of the books she and her students read actually comment on this book and its themes. How does this story about the Gatsby trial relate to your own reading of Reading Lolita in Tehran?
When Nafisi describes how other professors have been expelled from the university, this creates a tension for the reader, as we predict that she will soon face the same fate. Watch this video in order to learn about the impact that tension has on the development of a text. (This annotation contains a video)
The Great Gatsby is considered to be one of the most important texts about the idea of the American Dream and its promises and challenges. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said of the American Dream: "...Too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise – unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American." Do you think that Nafisi and her students would agree with Obama's statement that the American Dream is still possible if people work hard?What evidence in the text leads you to think that?
While the students spend so much time discussing Gatsby's dream, they rarely talk about their own dreams. What do you think these young men and women are dreaming for or longing for in their lives?
When Nafisi describes the government as seeing the universities as "hotbeds of dissent," she means they think that they
Here, Nafisi jumps around in time again, flashing forward in time. Again, the author is using foreshadowing for a purpose. Watch this video to learn what purpose foreshadowing serves. (This annotation contains a video)
For Nafisi, the veil is extremely symbolic. What does it represent to her?
Mini Quiz: Part II
This war that Nafisi is referring to is the war between Iran and Iraq. The third section of the book, entitled "James," is one of the sadder portions of this memoir. In many ways, the tone of this section reflects its namesake, Henry James, an author who believed that a novel must always, under all circumstances, be realistic.
Which of the following effects best explains the impact of Nafisi's use of hyphens in this highlighted sentence?
Here, Nafisi is juxtaposing two parts of Laleh's personality. Authors often use juxtaposition in order to draw attention to contrasts in the text. The photograph below is another example of juxtaposition. How does this image show two opposite or contrasting ideas? (This annotation contains an image)
Mr. Bahri does not understand why Nafisi cares so much about "a piece of cloth." Nafisi refuses to demean herself by wearing the veil. Whose argument do you agree with and why?
Women in Iran objected to these head coverings, but there are also women who believe that they are extremely important. Recently, in France, full-face veils were banned in public. Read this article from the BBC and determine the thesis or argument that women use in defense of their right to wear these veils. (This annotation contains a link)
In Part III of this text, Nafisi clearly develops the primary conflict in this text. Watch this video in order to learn about the two types of conflict; make sure to pay attention, as there will be a question about it soon! (This annotation contains a video)
Over the course of these first six chapters, the primary conflict can best be described as
Nafisi's friendship with the magician is extremely unconventional because, during this time, unmarried men and women were not allowed to speak or even walk next to each other on the street.
What does Nafisi mean when she states that the "university [is] not a grocery store"?
"Have your cake and eat it too" is a common idiom or expression often used in conversation. Read this explanation of the idiom in order to understand the magician's advice. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following describes the common custom between men and women in Iran?
The Iran-Iraq War was an extensive and aggressive war that brought about the instability in the Middle East that still exists today. Many Iranians believe that the Americans supplied the Iraqis with weapons and money. (This annotation contains a video)
In the sentence "within the pages of...my Daisy Miller is hidden like an autumn leaf the sound of the red siren" which of the following most closely matches the connotation of the phrase "autumn leaf" as it is used?
Being accused of adultery was extremely dangerous - women were regularly killed simply based on accusations of adultery.
Which of the following most likely explains why Nafisi encounters the same characters over the course of the memoir, rather than introducing new characters?
In order to understand Henry James, his novella, Daisy Miller, and the focuses of his writing, watch this video. This will help you understand the connections that Nafisi makes between James' writing and her own life. (This annotation contains a link)
Nafisi's response to the girls question about Daisy would mostly like be
Ambiguity is an important idea in literature and concerns the idea that things can often be seen in many different ways. For example, the image below can be seen in two ways: the old woman and the young lady. Can you see both? If so, you can see the ambiguity of the image. (This annotation contains an image)
Based on what you have read so far, why do you think Nafisi chose to center her class around the work of Henry James, and specifically, Daisy Miller?
Here, we learn that Mina's brother has been imprisoned during the Revolution. What other important character was also imprisoned?
Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice is a haunting and controversial movie that haunted audiences world-wide. Learn why here: (This annotation contains a video)
In the context of this sentence, Nafisi uses the word pathos to describe how the city
The Muslim Students Association is an organization for conservative and extremely religious students at the university.
How long was Nassrin in jail for?
Henry James' opinion of war, based on the New York Times article, can best be described as
Just as James chose his loyalty and nationality, many people often question Nafisi's allegiance to her home country of Iran. Her memoir was criticized by a professor at Columbia, who said: "Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India, when for example, in 1835 a colonial officer like Thomas Macaulay decreed: 'We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.' Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project." What does this criticism mean?
Based on the highlighted sentence, what can you conclude about Mahtab's past few years?
Education is extremely important in Iran, but because of its importance, students are often encouraged to follow the rules in order to be successful. The chart below shows just how complex and high-stakes the educational system can be. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the impact of including Razieh's death in this section of the memoir?
Make a prediction here: whose apartment is Nafisi visiting?
Why might the government have taken the magician from his home? What might he be guilty of?
Even though Nafisi's magician was not arrested, her fear about his disappearance shows how paranoid Nafisi has become. She is unsure about her future under the Ayatollah's government and worries each time she steps outside.
Which of the following 'wars 'are also occurring during the Iran-Iraq War?
The following graphic picture depicts victims of these Iraqi chemical attacks on Iran. (This annotation contains an image)
Who is shooting these missiles at targets in Tehran?
Here, Nafisi uses specific diction (word choice) in order to create a mood in her writing. Watch this video in order to learn about the different ways in which authors can create a feeling for their reader based on the words that they choose. (This annotation contains a video)
What does Nafisi mean when she says that "at times our lives were more fictional than fiction itself"?
Here, again, we see an example of internal conflict - Nafisi is conflicted about how to feel about the Ayatollah's death and does not know how to react around people who are mourning. She feels sadness for them but happiness because she disliked the government's religious extremism. As a result, she describes her sympathy as "awkward."
Which of the following best articulates Nafisi's questions about death in this section?
Authors use symbols in order to inject meaning into their writing. Here, Nafisi discusses the symbolism of these scissors. In this video, you will learn more about the impact of symbols. Though symbolism is often used in fiction, it plays a role in non-fiction as well, representing the importance of symbolic objects in our lives. Most people have objects in their own lives the possess important meaning for them. (This annotation contains a video)
Nafisi and her students are discussing the many forms in which courage can appear. Read this famous poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, and as you read, analyze the poem for its stance on courage. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following describes the connection between Henley's poem, Invictus, the courage which Nafisi's students discuss in literature, and the courage that they witness in their world?
Mini Quiz: Part III
Jane Austen's books contain strong female protagonists and differ greatly from the other texts that Nafisi has read thus far with her students. Watch this video to learn about the plot of Pride and Prejudice in order to understand the connections and references that the author makes. (This annotation contains a video)
Based on the characters in this section and the context of the text itself, where does this section, "Austen," fall in the overall chronology of the memoir?
Nafisi lists many of the social changes turned into law by the Revolution. Why do you think the Ayatollah's government wanted to lower the marriage age or decrease the equality of women?
The author describes Mahshid as raising her eyes in order to
Jane Austen's dancing was much different than your dancing. This is what it looked like this! (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following reasons best describes Nafisi's motivation for creating the secret class?
In many ways, Nafisi's characters are similar to the characters in the novels that she and her students read. Often, writers will take inspiration from important works of literature when they craft their own writing. This video explains how authors incorporate styles and references to other texts. (This annotation contains a video)
Why does Nafisi follow her descriptions of the girls' longings to leave Iran with the story about the nails?
Yet again, Nafisi is drawing the reader's attention to the way in which a novel allows its reader to relate her own experiences to those in the text. This, she seems to suggest, is the most important role of literature.
In 1990, author Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by the Iranian government for things that he wrote about Islam in one of his books. It was one of the greatest attacks on a writer in modern history. (This annotation contains a video)
In the highlighted sentence, the connotation of the word 'adversary' can best be described as
The magician pushes back on Nafisi's theory, suggesting that personal problems and political problems are not intertwined. Who do you agree with? Why?
This highlighted sentence arguably states the entire claim of Nafisi's memoir. Based on the context of the sentence, the word 'panacea' most nearly means
Though these marriage customs may seem extremely foreign to us, they were and continue to be the norm in many Middle Eastern countries. When reading a text, it is always important to consider the cultural perspective of the author. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following descriptions of Mahshid illustrate the contradictory nature of her personality?
Earlier in the text, you learned the definition of irony and how authors use it. Refresh your memory: what is irony? How is this situation with Mr. Nahvi ironic?
Based on your knowledge of Pride and Prejudice from the earlier summary, which of the following traits is shared by Mr. Nahvi and Jane Austen's lovesick character, Mr. Collins?
Why would the most painful part of Mrs. Rezvan's cancer be her inability to write? Would the same be true for Azar Nafisi?
This paragraph reveals an important aspect of Nafisi's life that she has not shared much of with the reader. How does her sharing of these personal details influence the reader's impression of her story and her likability as a narrator? Does it make her more or less reliable?
Which of the following inferences best explains why the Iranian government refused to allow singing or other types of entertainment?
Again, the differences in cultural lenses are extremely clear here, when Nafisi discusses the girls' knowledge of their bodies and their sexuality. Start considering an important question: How might Nafisi's book club help these girls experience and assert themselves in regards to their sexuality?
Just as she describes the way in which Austen creates a certain relationship between her characters and her reader through dialogue and tone, Nafisi creates a sense of ________________ between her characters and her reader.
Though Nafisi's writing would be more aptly described as clear and sparse rather than flowery or excessive, she still uses imagery to create a picture in the mind of the reader. Imagery, one of the most important literary devices, is used for a specific purpose. What is it? (This annotation contains a video)
Based on Nafisi's return to A Thousand and One Nights, a text she also referenced at the start of the memoir, the reader can conclude
Just as Nafisi wants to leave Iran, educated young men and women have been emigrating from the country by the thousands since the Revolution. Skim the following article in order to find the definition for the term 'brain drain' and how it applies specifically to Iran. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following motifs does Nafisi suggest are present in both Austen and Nabokov, two extremely different writers?
Political posters in Iran often are plastered everywhere - on the sides of buildings, on posts, even on the street itself. (This annotation contains a link)
Why might the father blame the literature class for encouraging his daughter to run away?
How does the mood of these highlighted sentences convey the author's attitude about that event? What is her attitude and why?
Thomas Cole's paintings "The Voyage of Life" depict the differences between youth and adulthood. Analyze the two paintings, "Youth" and "Adulthood," and consider the following question: how would you characterize the transition from youth to adulthood and how do we see that same transition illustrated in the changes in the female characters in this text? (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following correctly identifies the figurative language present in the highlighted portion of this sentence?
The Pearl, by John Steinbeck, is considered an extremely morally upright text and has been read for many years by young students who encounter its clear distinction between right and wrong. Clearly, Nafisi does not deem it worthy of study.
Nafisi's response to the idea that "like balloons...memories are light and bright and irretrievable" would most likely be one of
Quiz yourself: what is a symbol? Why do authors use them? How are these two roads that Manna is describing symbol or metaphorical for Nafisi?
Though much of this memoir describes the horrific and depressing trials of living in a country in which literature, feminism, and freedom are under siege, Nafisi ends her novel with a tone of
Mini Quiz: Part IV