So you want a revolution? If your foe is an ayatollah, try reading Jane Austen.
So exiled writer and scholar Nafisi (English/Johns Hopkins Univ.) instructs in this sparkling memoir of life in post-revolutionary Iran. A modest dissident during the shah’s regime, a member of a Marxist study group like so many other Iranian students abroad (“I never fully integrated into the movement. . . . I never gave up the habit of reading and loving ‘counterrevolutionary’ writers”), Nafisi taught literature at the University of Tehran after the revolution. After running afoul of the mullahs for having dared teach such “immoral” novels as The Great Gatsby and such “anti-Islamic” writers as Austen, she organized a literary study group that met in her home. Fittingly, the first work her group, made up of seven young women, turned to was The Thousand and One Nights, narrated by that great revolutionary Scheherazade. “When my students came into that room,” Nafisi writes, “they took off more than their scarves and robes. . . . Our world in that living room became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of the black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.” Tracing her students’ discussions and journeys of self-discovery while revisiting scenes from her “decadent” youth, Nafisi puts a fine spin on works that Western students so often complain about having to read—The Golden Bowl, Mansfield Park, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway. And, without once sinking into sentimentality or making overly large claims for the relative might of the pen over the sword, Nafisi celebrates the power of literature to nourish free thought in climes inhospitable to it; as she remarks, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita may not have been a direct “critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives,” while enjoying the pages of Pride and Prejudice with friends served as a powerful reminder that “our society was far more advanced than its new rulers.”
A spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression.