Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran on a holiday

March 16, 2010

It is a local holiday here in Davao City in celebration of the 73rd Araw ng Dabaw. But the sun is prickling hot; summer is here. What to do best in a holiday?
Recoil in bed with a good book.

Lately, I picked my habit again for pleasure reading and scrounging for books in second-hand bookshops. My favorite is the Booksale shop at Lachmi, ground floor.Just last Saturday, I got hold of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It costs a hundred and thirty and it's beyond my budget but the two girls in hijab huddling over what seems to be a book on its cover captivates me. Kahit wala pang sweldo, sige pikit mata kong binili.

And this holiday, while the streets are filled with people, eager to watch the celebrities like Joem Bascon and the PBB ex-housemates, I decided to stay home and devour my latest find. The winds blowing hard is a good backdrop as the pages of the books seduces you to continue reading as if you are just in a beach for a vacation.

The story narrates the woman professor's struggle in teaching literature classics to her class especially to her women students. How can you teach Lolita of Vladimir Nabokov in the newly built Islamic Republic of Tehran? How can you teach F. Scot Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby without insinuating teaching of immorality since the protagonists have an illicit love affair? How can you differentiate reality from fiction when reality is even more fictional?

The novel is autobiographical, based on her experience in her homeland that ceased to give her comfort. Prof. Nafisi's discussion of books on her English Literature class is mired by controversy with the changing political landscape in Tehran. Ayatollah Khomeini wanted a cultural revolution and the University of Tehran where she teaches was a battleground. New orders were set. Women must wear the veil or else they would suffer the consequences, brutally. There is now the “moral police” who inspects women with their scarves (hijab), faces (no make-up), no earrings, no nail polish, even socks. These are “Western attitudes, decadent and immoral.” The chador (dress) must be only in dark colors (brown, black or dark blue). Women's body and even accessories can be a source of temptation. The hair and slight show of skin can sexually arouse men.

Prof. Nafisi, which was educated early on Switzerland and by her liberal father was confronted with these changes. As her family copes up, she could not help but worry. She was able to enjoy a past wherein women were allowed freedom, while her students never experienced that. While still a student, she joined the rallies before in toppling the regime, a “half-hearted activist,” she described herself. But was dumbfounded as how the so called revolutionaries, have become like their monsters, even more monstrous. As Nietzsche once warned: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

This is a personal narrative for Prof. Azar Nafisi, for her struggle to teach and eventually resign in the university in order to teach selected five young women in the comforts of her home. Five young women, two are married, three are waiting to be betrothed.Through the great novels of literature, Prof. Nafisi and the young women- Nassrin, Yassi, Sanaz, Mitra, and Azin, they were able to create their “own little pockets of freedom” every Thursday morning. They discuss Nabokov, F. Fitzgerald, James Henry and Jane Austen.

The narrator, who also made a critical study of Vladimir Nabokov novels shared her critical analysis of his books. The novel's characters development, the nuances of using perspectives in creating and reshaping the characters' identity. I never heard of Lolita before. I have searched the net yesterday and the novel was even adapted to movies in 1963 and 1997. It is about Humbert, an old man who has a desire for a twelve-year old Dolores, which he renamed as Lolita (his special nickname for the child). Humbert is the main narrator of the novel. He narrates the child's provocation and his “undying love for the child”. Humbert's poetic words lure the readers to believe him more. She shared that so many critics of Lolita agrees with Humbert's; that Lolita is a provocateur. But when Lolita and her students has similarities, fiction took its way in reality. The novel have unsettled them since it hits a similar chord in real life, the novel took a different meaning. Her students, like Lolita were created through the eyes of men, the militia (which is like Humbert).

One reason perhaps why I decided to buy this novel because it reminds me of Sittie, a friend and classmate way back in college whom I always admire. She's a Muslim. I asked her before when she would wear hijab. I read somewhere before that in Saudi, when a girl starts to menstruate, she has to wear the hijab since it is an indication of one's coming to womanhood. Sittie or Sem to many told us that it is not that case. Wearing a veil is not mandatory but rather a personal choice. “I will wear it when I am ready.” And just recently, I saw her pics on Facebook wearing the hijab, and indeed, she is now ready. She made her choice.

But with no allusion to her decision and the liberal movement that allowed women more freedom on deciding in wearing the hijab, history in Tehran showed us the struggle on that “piece of clothing”. When the republic came under Ayatollah Khomeini's reign, hijab become mandatory even to young girls. The reactionaries that overthrew the previous administration has became even more oppressive to women especially in wearing the veil. Women has been created, redefined by the pious men in the hierarchy; of veil becoming a political covering of women's body. The danger in trying to resurrect the past, the conservatives went to extremes. A battle waged on woman's body- of veiling and unveiling and eventually making it “invisible”; of a woman's reproductive and productive role in the society and men's entrapment to the institution that encourages the status quo. Sexuality is discouraged, unknown, shunned as it is immoral. There is also a contradiction of men who are considered liberal and progressive, yet remain looking at women as sexual objects (Nassrin beau's Ramin in this case).

This is what Prof. Nafisi and the five young women has to deal with. Then war between Iraq and Iran ensued. Mercenaries of death are everywhere. Writers, even those without political affiliations are murdered. They were confronted by two choices- to leave or stay behind. Is leaving tantamount to surrendering?

I was taken into the world of these young women; of their misery, their search for love and dignity. I have become privy of their thoughts, of their personalities. They always ask, have the regime totally lack compassion and empathy? Without these , we are not human. The anguish, desperateness of every character unsettles its readers. But as women, what can they do? Can they hold on to Jane Austen's heroines? Or become Nabokov's Lolita who would cling to its captor because “they have no where else to go?”

They eventually decided to take refuge to other countries and started their lives. They were able to achieve their freedom. The superfluous narration, spontaneity of this novel makes you realize that empathy and compassion are central in unsettling the readers to identify with the characters.

As Nafisi wrote, “A great novel is not an allegory. It is a sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world; hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize and empathy is at the heart of the novel.” This is how to read a novel; we should inhale the experience. This novel is disturbing because it is real. You experience with these women.

At the end of the book, Prof. Nafisi also added the list of classics she discussed or mentioned in the book. Questions that would guide its readers are also added to better understand the intricacies of fiction for critical analysis.

Oh, words like Upsilamba, poshlust had me restarted reading The Great Gatsby (thanks Chi for this gift!) and Sense and Sensibility. For my next book hunting, Lolita is on the top of my list.



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