Orientalist Fantasies: Reclaiming the Middle East in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran

Anahit Behrooz

Edited by Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo

Art by Christina Thomas https://www.behance.net/gallery/47755703/Portfolio-Strong-women

Over the years, I have read numerous novels, short stories, and poems in which I have seen myself reflected in characters, events, and language, but it wasn’t until a class on Orientalism (1978), Edward Said’s seminal text, during my masters that I saw my experiences echoed in a work of cultural criticism. In Orientalism, Said posits that the West’s complicated relationship with the Middle East is rooted and exacerbated by its reductive framing of the “Orient” as a backward, barbaric, and exotic space. Said argues that these attitudes are irrevocably linked to the West’s history of imperialism in these geographies, meaning that these perceptions are the product of a power play over the governments and peoples of these diverse countries, an attempt to criticise and diminish their cultures and identities in order to justify the conquest of their land.

In light of Said’s arguments, almost all of the West’s cultural depictions of the Middle East become problematic. Even I, an ethnically Iranian woman, found myself forced to confront cultural products which I had consumed innocently until then. From Disney’s Aladdin to our translation of One Thousand and One Nights, which I had read voraciously again and again as a child, I recognised an Orientalist overlay – the sexualisation of the female characters for the benefit of a Western audience, the framing of the native religion as inherently violent, and even the spectacle of the landscape as an extension of the wild and lawless people; each of these elements – harmless though they seemed individually – worked to portray the cultures they purportedly represented as distinctly Other, inaccessible, and troubling.

We may ask, as many other students in my class did, why this even matters. Can these cultural (mis)representations not be seen simply as an attempt to create colour and intrigue, and to enrich our own culture by borrowing from others? One fellow student even lamented the diminishing of our Western cultural scene if we seek to redress these orientalist perspectives with no thought to the diminishing, simplifying, and othering of numerous other cultures that these texts presume to speak for. The problem is, of course, that literature, art, and cinema do not exist in a vacuum, and these cultural products remain one of the largest contributors to our socio-political thought. And, particularly in this post-9/11 world, where the West’s troubled relationship with the Middle East is at its peak, these reductive fantasies of the Middle East become increasingly mistaken for reality. Thus, the more our everyday culture promotes these stereotypes and maintains the fiction of the Middle East as a place of mystery, fear, and the unknown, the more we risk entrenching the divide between the West and the rest of the world.

What we need, therefore, are texts which don’t speak for the Middle East or about it, but rather from it. Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) is just such a work. Set in Iran in the decades following the Islamic Revolution, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a self-described “memoir in books”, detailing Nafisi’s experiences both as an English Literature professor and as an Iranian citizen following the revolution. The book is divided into four sections, “Lolita”, “Gatsby”, “James”, and “Austen”, and explores key events in Iranian society and Nafisi’s own life – such as the Iran-Iraq war and the mandatory wearing of the veil – in relation to these authors and their canonical works. Nafisi deftly weaves literary criticism with contemporary socio-political issues, demonstrating the powerful role of literature in making sense of difficult experiences.

In the chapter on Lolita, for example, Nafisi stresses Humbert’s appropriation of Lolita, both of her body and her freedom, an appropriation engendered by his blindness to her own personhood and his desire to transpose his own intentions and wants onto her: “the desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve year old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another…” (Nafisi 33). Nafisi defines this as a solipsisation and draws parallels between this and her own feelings of being similarly “engulfed…” and “shaped…” by the new Islamic Republic, emphasising the slow loss of autonomy experienced by her and others within the new political landscape (33). Nafisi’s reading is nuanced; she is careful to note that “we were not Lolita, the Ayotallah was not Humbert…and Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic…” (35). Rather than framing Lolita, and literature more broadly, simply as an allegory for sociopolitical issues, Nafisi instead demonstrates how metanarratives of power and tyranny can pervade the culture and politics of wildly different societies.

This cross-cultural approach is perhaps Reading Lolita in Tehran’s strongest feature. Split up as it is into four sections, each focusing on a Western text or Western author, Nafisi demonstrates how these texts do not only belong to white, male readers, but can be read, understood, and interpreted by anyone, including, in this case, Middle Eastern women. In this way, Nafisi advocates for what Roland Barthes termed “readerly” texts, where it is the individual reader’s experiences and responses which shape the meaning of the text. Nafisi demonstrates the centrality of the reader to the text, while simultaneously breaking down the boundaries between the Western and Eastern canons and advocating the dialogical relationship within literature, both across periods and across cultures.  

Reading Lolita in Tehran’s ability to amplify new voices and interpretations is particularly important when you consider that the readers it discusses are mainly women. Although she depicts male students in her university class too, Nafisi’s primary focus is on her own reading of these texts, as well as those of her students in an all-female book club she sets up. This makes her reading of these largely male voices all the more poignant. These traditionally male texts are subverted, reframed as a space of meaning for women of colour. For example, the section on The Great Gatsby takes place post-Revolution, as many of the freedoms of Iranian citizens, particularly women, are stripped away. Arguments over the enforcement of the veil are set against discussions of Fitzgerald’s novel, thereby drawing parallels between the frailty of the American dream and the broken promises of the Islamic Revolution. However, while The Great Gatsby largely concerns itself with how this affects its male characters, Nafisi uses it to highlight the suffering of women. Reading Lolita in Tehran thus does not dismiss the old canon; rather, it offers it as a space of reinterpretation, re-interrogation, and diversification.

In recent years, art has begun to push back against the West’s troubling and simplified perception of the Middle East, with works such as Persepolis (2004), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), and Azazeel (2013), among many others, introducing a new, subversive spirit – acknowledging the problems of their respective societies while still eschewing the judgmental Western gaze. Universities need to ensure that their curricula follow suit if they want to educate younger generations about the truth of these places. Students need to acknowledge these cultures not as mere Western fantasies, but as autonomous, complex spaces, offering a multiplicity of voices. Reading Lolita in Tehran is the perfect place to start.

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. London: Penguin, 2003.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 2003.

About the author:

Anahit Behrooz is a second-year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, by way of Oxford and St Andrews. Her research explores cartographic practices in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. When not in Middle-earth, Anahit is interested in depictions of the monstrous and supernatural in literature and art, from marginalia to Marvel and everything in between. She can be found on Twitter @lifeinfantasia.


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