Reading Lolita in Tehran, a new memoir by Azar Nafisi, is the story of Iran's revolution from the unusual vantage point of an Iranian-born, American-schooled instructor of English literature, who arrived at Tehran University in the revolutionary year of

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Reading Lolita in Tehran, a new memoir by Azar Nafisi, is the story of Iran's revolution from the unusual vantage point of an Iranian-born, American-schooled instructor of English literature, who arrived at Tehran University in the revolutionary year of 1979.

Nafisi's father, a mayor of Tehran whom the shah imprisoned in the 1970s, had sent her abroad as a child, to study in England and Switzerland. In 1979, she received her doctorate in English and American literature from the University of Oklahoma, where she had joined the Iranian students' movement against the shah. In 1979, she enthusiastically returned to a new Iran, to take up a teaching position at Tehran University.

But the following year, Islamic zealots moved to purge Iran's universities, and she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil when it became mandatory in 1981. In later years, she also taught at the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University; she finally left Iran in 1997. Today she teaches at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. She has been a visiting fellow at Oxford and is the author of Anti-terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov's Novels (1994).

Nafisi's new memoir is a riveting story of hope, disillusionment, and hope rekindled. Despite the strictures imposed by the regime, Iran's women continue to contest its patriarchal premises. They now outnumber men in the universities and have been a powerful force in favor of reform. "Just recently, a female professor was expelled because her wrist had shown from under her sleeve while she was writing on the blackboard," Nafisi wrote in a New Republic cover story in 1999. "Yet, while these measures are meant to render women invisible and powerless, they are paradoxically making women tremendously visible and powerful. … Every private act or gesture in defiance of official rules is now a strong political statement."[1]

This article is excerpted from the memoir.

—The Editors

Robed Readers

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women; to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction.

For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Mountains became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.

The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics—Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean's December, and, yes, Lolita. As I write the title of each book, memories whirl in with the wind to disturb the quiet of this fall day in another room in another country, in America.

Here and now in that other world that cropped up so many times in our discussions, I sit and reimagine myself and my students, my girls as I came to call them, reading Lolita in a deceptively sunny room in Tehran. But to steal the words from Humbert, the poet /criminal of Lolita, I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won't really exist if you don't. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets, or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.

The Blind Censor

Six a.m.: the first day of class. I was already up. Too excited to eat breakfast, I put the coffee on and then took a long, leisurely shower. For the first time in many years, I felt a sense of anticipation that was not marred by tension: I would not need to go through the torturous rituals that had marked my days when I taught at the university—rituals governing what I was forced to wear, how I was expected to act, the gestures I had to remember to control. For this class, I would prepare differently.

Life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms. It was unpredictable: the regime would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown. In the mid-1990s, after a period of relative calm and so-called liberalization, we had again entered a time of hardships. Universities had once more become the targets of attack by the cultural purists who were busy imposing stricter sets of laws, going so far as to segregate men and women in classes and punishing disobedient professors.

The pressure was hardest on the students. I felt helpless as I listened to their endless tales of woe. Female students were being penalized for running up the stairs when they were late for classes, for laughing in the hallways, for talking to members of the opposite sex. One day, one of my students had barged into class near the end of the session, crying. In between bursts of tears, she explained that she was late because the female guards at the door, finding a blush in her bag, had tried to send her home with a reprimand.

Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation, was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules. Always, the joy of teaching was marred by diversions and considerations forced on us by the regime—how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one's work but the color of one's lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair? Could one really concentrate on one's job when what preoccupied the faculty was how to excise the word wine from a Hemingway story, when they decided not to teach Brontë because she appeared to condone adultery?

The best way I can think of explaining this self-negating and paradoxical inferno is through an anecdote, one that, like similar anecdotes, defies fiction to become its own metaphor.

The chief film censor in Iran, up until 1994, was blind. Well, nearly blind. Before that, he was the censor for theater. One of my playwright friends once described how he would sit in the theater wearing thick glasses that seemed to hide more than they revealed. An assistant who sat by him would explain the action onstage, and he would dictate the parts that needed to be cut.

Our world under the mullahs' rule was shaped by the colorless lenses of the blind censor. Not just our reality but also our fiction had taken on this curious coloration in a world where the censor was the poet's rival in rearranging and reshaping reality, where we simultaneously invented ourselves and were figments of someone else's imagination.

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. This was a country where all gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms. The colors of my headscarf or my father's tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies. Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings, were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture.

A few years ago some members of the Iranian parliament set up an investigative committee to examine the content of national television. The committee issued a lengthy report in which it condemned the showing of Billy Budd, because, it claimed, the story promoted homosexuality. Ironically, the Iranian television programmers had mainly chosen that film because of its lack of female characters. The cartoon version of Around the World in Eighty Days was also castigated, because the main character—a lion—was British and the film began and ended in that bastion of imperialism, London.

Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drab uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling in love, and listening to forbidden music.

Into the Street

How can I create this other world outside the room? I have no choice but to appeal once again to your imagination. Let's imagine one of the girls, say Sanaz, leaving my house, and let us follow her from there to her final destination. She says her goodbyes and puts on her black robe and scarf over her orange shirt and jeans, coiling her scarf around her neck to cover her huge gold earrings. She directs wayward strands of hair under the scarf, puts her notes into her large bag, straps it on over her shoulder, and walks out into the hall. She pauses a moment on top of the stairs to put on thin lacy black gloves to hide her nail polish.

We follow Sanaz down the stairs, out the door and into the street. You might notice that her gait and her gestures have changed. It is in her best interest not to be seen, not be heard or noticed. She doesn't walk upright but bends her head towards the ground and doesn't look at passersby. She walks quickly and with a sense of determination. The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia, who ride in white Toyota patrols, four gun-carrying men and women, sometimes followed by a minibus. They are called the Blood of God. They patrol the streets to make sure that women like Sanaz wear their veils properly, do not wear makeup, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers, or husbands.

She will pass slogans on the walls, quotations from Khomeini and a group called the Party of God: MEN WHO WEAR TIES ARE U.S. LACKEYS. VEILING IS A WOMAN'S PROTECTION. Beside the slogan is a charcoal drawing of a woman: her face is featureless and framed by a dark chador. MY SISTER, GUARD YOUR VEIL. MY BROTHER, GUARD YOUR EYES. If she gets on a bus, the seating is segregated. She must enter through the rear door and sit in the back seats, allocated to women. Yet in taxis, which accept as many as five passengers, men and women are squeezed together like sardines, as the saying goes, and the same goes with minibuses, where so many of my students complain of being harassed by bearded and God-fearing men.

You might well ask, What is Sanaz thinking as she walks the streets of Tehran? Does she compare her own situation with her mother's when she was the same age? Is she angry that women of her mother's generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women? Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from eighteen to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?

In the course of nearly two decades, the streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined, forced to wash the toilets and humiliated, and as soon as they leave, they go back and do the same thing. Is she aware, Sanaz, of her own power? Does she realize how dangerous she can be when her every stray gesture is a disturbance to public safety? Does she think how vulnerable the Revolutionary Guards are who for twenty years have patrolled the streets of Tehran and have had to endure young women like herself, and those of other generations, walking, talking, showing a strand of hair just to remind them that they have not converted?

Virginity Tested

Yassi and I were standing in front of the green gate at the entrance to the Allameh Tabatabai University. Next to the gate there was a small opening with a curtain hanging from it. It was an aberration that attracted attention, because it did not belong there: it gaped with the arrogant authority of an intruder. Through this opening all the female students, including my girls, went into a small, dark room to be inspected. Yassi would describe later, long after that first session, what was done to her in this room: "I would first be checked to see if I have the right clothes: the color of my coat, the length of my uniform, the thickness of my scarf, the form of my shoes, the objects in my bag, the visible traces of even the mildest makeup, the size of my rings and their level of attractiveness, all would be checked before I could enter the campus of the university, the same university in which men also study. And to them the main door, with its immense portals and emblems and flags, is generously open."

That small side opening was the source of endless tales of frustration, humiliation, and sorrow. It was meant to make the girls ordinary and invisible. Instead, it brought them into focus and turned them into objects of curiosity.

Imagine Yassi standing with me in front of that green gate, laughing between conspiratorial whispers, our bodies close together. She was talking about the teacher who taught Islamic morality and translation. A Pillsbury Dough Boy personality, she said. Three months after his wife's death, he had married her younger sister, because a man—and here Yassi lowered her voice—a man has his special needs. Then her voice took on a serious tone as she began to describe his recent lecture on the difference between Islam and Christianity. She now became this dough-faced little man standing by the blackboard, pink chalk in one hand, white chalk in the other. On one side he had written, in large white letters, MUSLIM GIRL, and drawn a vertical line in the middle of the board. On the other side, in large pink letters, he wrote CHRISTIAN GIRL. He had then asked the class if they knew the differences between the two. One was a virgin, he said at last, after an uncomfortable silence, white and pure, keeping herself for her husband and her husband only. Her power came from her modesty. The other, well, there was not much one could say about her except that she was not a virgin. To Yassi's surprise, the two girls behind her, both active members of the Muslim Students' Association, had started to giggle, whispering, No wonder more and more Muslims are converting to Christianity.

We were standing there in the middle of the wide street, laughing—one of the rare moments when I saw Yassi's lopsided and shy smile disappear and give way to the pure mischief hidden beneath it. I cannot see that laughter in most of her photographs, where she stands at some distance from the others, as if indicating that she, as the junior member of our class, knows her place.

One Thursday morning so hot that the heat seemed to have permeated the cool of our air-conditioned house, seven of us were talking aimlessly before the class began. We were talking about Sanaz. She had missed class the preceding week without calling to explain, and now we didn't know if she would come again. No one had heard from her. We were speculating that maybe her troublesome brother had hatched a new plot. Sanaz's brother was by now a constant topic of conversation, one of a series of male villains who resurfaced from week to week.

"Nima tells me we don't understand the difficulty men face here," said Manna with a hint of sarcasm. "They too don't know how to act. Sometimes they act like macho bullies because they feel vulnerable."

"Well, that's to an extent true," I said. "After all, it takes two to create a relationship, and when you make half the population invisible, the other half suffers as well."

"Can you imagine the kind of man who'd get sexually provoked just by looking at a strand of my hair?" said Nassrin. "Someone who goes crazy at the sight of a woman's toe … wow!" she continued, "My toe as a lethal weapon!"

"Women who cover themselves are aiding and abetting the regime," said Azin with a defiant flourish.

"And those whose trademark is painting their lips fiery red and flirting with male professors," said Manna with an icy stare. "I suppose they are doing all this to further the cause?" Azin turned red and said nothing.

"How about genitally mutilating men," Nassrin suggested coolly, "so as to curb their sexual appetites?" She had been reading Nawal as-Sadawi's book on brutality against women in some Muslim societies. Sadawi, a doctor, had gone to some lengths to explain the horrendous effects of genitally mutilating young girls in order to curb their sexual appetites.

"I have to tell you that the Ayatollah himself was no novice in sexual matters," Nassrin went on. "I've been translating his magnum opus, The Political, Philosophical, Social, and Religious Principles of Ayatollah Khomeini, and he has some interesting points to make."

"But it's already been translated," said Manna. "What's the point?"

"Yes," said Nassrin, "parts of it have been translated, but after it became the butt of party jokes, ever since the embassies abroad found out that people were reading the book not for their edification but for fun, the translations have been very hard to find. And anyway, my translation is thorough—it has references and cross-references to works by other worthies. Did you know that one way to cure a man's sexual appetites is by having sex with animals? And then there's the problem of sex with chickens. You have to ask yourself if a man who has had sex with a chicken can then eat the chicken afterwards. Our leader has provided us with an answer: No, neither he nor his immediate family or next-door neighbors can eat of that chicken's meat, but it's okay for a neighbor who lives two doors away. My father would rather I spent my time on such texts than on Jane Austen or Nabokov?" she added, rather mischievously.

We were not startled by Nassrin's erudite allusions to the works of Ayatollah Khomeini. She was referring to a famous text by Khomeini, the equivalent of his dissertation—required to be written by all who reach the rank of ayatollah—aimed at responding to the questions and dilemmas that could be posed to them by their disciples.[2] Many others before Khomeini had written in almost identical manner. What was disturbing was that these texts were taken seriously by people who ruled us and in whose hands lay our fate and the fate of our country. Every day on national television and radio these guardians of morality and culture would make similar statements and discuss such matters as if they were the most serious themes for contemplation and consideration.

It was in the middle of this scholarly discussion that we heard the sound of screeching brakes, and I knew that Sanaz was being deposited by her brother. A pause, a car door slamming, the doorbell and a few moments later Sanaz entered, the first words on her lips an apology. She seemed so distraught at being late and having missed the class that she was ready to burst into tears.

She seemed to want to at once say something and reveal nothing. There were tears in her voice before they became visible in her eyes. Her story was familiar. A fortnight earlier, Sanaz and five of her girlfriends had gone for a two-day vacation by the Caspian Sea. On their first day, they had decided to visit her friend's fiancé in an adjoining villa. Sanaz kept emphasizing that they were all properly dressed, with their scarves and long robes. They were all sitting outside, in the garden: six girls and one boy. There were no alcoholic beverages in the house, no undesirable tapes or CDs. She seemed to be suggesting that if there had been, they might have deserved the treatment they received at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards.

And then "they" came with their guns, the morality squads, surprising them by jumping over the low walls. They claimed to have received a report of illegal activities and wanted to search the premises. Unable to find fault with their appearance, one of the guards sarcastically said that looking at them, with their Western attitudes … What is a Western attitude? Nassrin interrupted. Sanaz looked at her and smiled. I'll ask him next time I run into him. The truth of the matter was that their search for alcoholic beverages, tapes, and CDs had led to nothing, but they already had a search warrant and didn't want it to go to waste. The guards took all of them to a special jail for infractions in matters of morality. There, despite their protests, the girls were kept in a small, dark room, which they shared the first night with several prostitutes and a drug addict. Their jail wardens came into their room two or three times in the middle of the night to wake up those who might have dozed off and hurled insults at them.

They were held in that room for forty-eight hours. Despite their repeated requests, they were denied the right to call their parents. Apart from brief excursions to the rest room at appointed times, they left the room twice—the first time to be led to a hospital, where they were given virginity tests by a woman gynecologist, who had her students observe the examinations. Not satisfied with her verdict, the guards took them to a private clinic for a second check. On the third day, their anxious parents in Tehran, unable to locate them, were told by the concierge at their villa that their children might have been killed in a recent car accident. They set off at once to the resort town in search of their daughters and finally found them. The girls were then given a summary trial, forced to sign a document confessing to sins they had not committed and subjected to twenty-five lashes.

Sanaz, who is very thin, was wearing a T-shirt under her robe. Her jailers jokingly suggested that since she was wearing an extra garment, she might not feel the pain, so they gave her more. For her, the physical pain had been more bearable than the indignity of the virginity tests and her self-loathing at having signed a forced confession. In some perverse way, the physical punishment was a source of satisfaction to her, a compensation for having yielded to those other humiliations.

When they were finally released and taken home by their parents, Sanaz had to deal with another indignity: her brother's admonitions. What did they expect? How could they let six unruly girls go on a trip without male supervision? Would nobody ever listen to him, just because he was a few years younger than his scatterbrained sister, who should have been married by now? Sanaz's parents, although sympathetic to her and her ordeal, did have to agree that perhaps it had not been such a good idea to let her go on the trip; not that they did not trust her, but conditions in the country were unsuitable for such indiscretions. On top of everything else, I am now the guilty party, she said. I've been deprived of the use of my car and am being chaperoned by my wise younger brother.

I cannot leave Sanaz and her story alone. Time and again I have gone back to it—I still do—recreating it bit by bit: the garden fence, the six girls and one boy sitting on the veranda, perhaps telling jokes and laughing. And then "they" come. I remember this incident just as I remember so many others from my own life in Iran; I even remember the events people have written or told me about since I left. Strangely, they too have become my own memories.

Perhaps it is only now and from this distance, when I am able to speak of these experiences openly and without fear that I can begin to understand them and overcome my own terrible sense of helplessness. In Iran a strange distance informed our relation to these daily experiences of brutality and humiliation. There, we spoke as if the events did not belong to us; like schizophrenic patients, we tried to keep ourselves away from that other self, at once intimate and alien.

University Days

I return to the first days of the revolution, when I innocently and with feelings utterly inappropriate to the circumstances started my teaching career as the youngest and newest member of the English department at the faculty of Persian and foreign languages and literature at the University of Tehran. Had I been offered a similar position at Oxford or Harvard, I would not have felt more honored or intimidated. The University of Tehran was the navel, the immovable center to which all political and social activities were tied. When in the United States we read or heard about the turmoil in Iran, the University of Tehran seemed to be the scene of the most important battles. All groups used the university to make their statements.

It was thus not surprising that the new Islamic government took over the university as the site of its weekly Friday prayers. This act gained added significance, because at all times, even after the revolution, the Muslim students, especially the more fanatical ones, were a minority overshadowed by the leftist and secular student groups. It seemed as if with this act, the Islamic faction asserted its victory over other political groups: like a victorious army it positioned itself on the most cherished site of the occupied land, at the heart of the vanquished territory. Every week, one of the most prominent clergymen would stand on the podium to address the thousands who occupied the university grounds, men on one side, women on the other. He would stand with a gun in one hand and offer the sermon of the week, preaching on the most important political issues of the day.

Yet it seemed as if the grounds themselves rebelled against this occupation. I felt in those days that there was a turf war going on between different political groups and that this struggle was being fought out mainly at the university. I did not know then that I would also have my own battle to fight. Looking back, I am glad I was unaware of my special vulnerability: with my small collection of books, I was like an emissary from a land that did not exist, with a stock of dreams, coming to reclaim this land as my home. Amid the talk of treason and changes in government, events that now in my mind have become confused and timeless, I sat whenever I had a chance with books and notes scattered around me, trying to shape my classes.

On a mild day in October, I tried to make my way through a crowd that had gathered in front of our building around a well-known leftist professor from the history department. I stopped impulsively to listen to her. I do not remember much of what she said, but part of my mind picked up some of her words and hid them in a safe corner. She was telling the crowd that for the sake of independence, she was willing to wear the veil. She would wear the veil to fight U.S. imperialists, to show them … To show them what?

I hastily made my way up the stairs to the conference room of the English department, where I had an appointment with a student, Mr. Bahri. Ours was a formal relationship—I was so used to calling and thinking of him by his last name that I have completely forgotten his first name. At any rate, it is irrelevant. What is relevant perhaps, in a roundabout way, are his light complexion and dark hair, the stubborn silence that remained even when he spoke, and his seemingly permanent lopsided grin. This grin colored everything he said, giving the impression that what he did not say, what he so blatantly hid and denied his listeners, put him in a superior position. He was not an agitator—he did not give fine, passionate speeches—but he worked his way up doggedly, with patience and dedication. By the time I was expelled from the university, he had become the powerful head of the Muslim Students' Association.

For as long as I stayed at the University of Tehran, Mr. Bahri somehow appeared beside or behind me all through the agitated meetings. He became my shadow, casting the weight of his lopsided silence upon me. He wanted to inform me that he liked my classes and that "they" approved of my teaching methods. When I had assigned too much reading, the students at first reacted by considering a boycott of the class, but on later consideration they voted against it. He had come to ask or instruct me to add more revolutionary material, to teach more revolutionary writers. A stimulating discussion on the implications of the words literature, radical, bourgeois, and revolutionary ensued, which proceeded, as I recall, with great emotion and intensity, though little substantial progress was made on the simple matter of definitions. All through this rather heated conversation, we were both standing at the end of a long table surrounded by empty chairs.

At the end of our talk, I was so excited I reached out to him in a gesture of goodwill and friendship. He silently, deliberately, withdrew both his hands behind his back, as if to remove them from even the possibility of a handshake. I was too bewildered, too much of a stranger to the newness of revolutionary ways, to take this gesture in stride. I recounted it later to a colleague, who, with a mocking smile, reminded me that no Muslim man would or should touch a namahram woman—a woman other than his wife, mother, or sister. He turned to me in disbelief and said, "You really did not know that?"

My experiences, especially my teaching experiences, in Iran were framed by the feel and touch of that aborted handshake, as much as by that first approach and the glow of our naïve, excited conversation. The image of my student's oblique smile has remained, brilliant yet opaque, while the room, the walls, the chairs, and the long conference table have been covered over by layers and layers of what usually in works of fiction is called dust.

Nest of Spies

I do not remember what I was doing or where I was on that Sunday when I first heard the news that the American embassy had been occupied by a ragtag group of students. It is strange, but the only thing I remember was that it was sunny and mild, and the news did not sink in until the next day, when Ahmad, Khomeini's son, announced his father's support of the students and issued a defiant statement: "If they do not give us the criminals," he said, referring to the shah and his former ministers, "then we will do whatever is necessary." Two days later, on November 6, Prime Minister Bazargan, who was being increasingly attacked by the religious hardliners and the left as liberal and pro-Western, resigned.

Soon the walls of the embassy were covered with new slogans: AMERICA CAN'T DO A DAMN THING AGAINST US! THIS IS NOT A STRUGGLE BETWEEN THE U.S. AND IRAN, IT'S A STRUGGLE BETWEEN ISLAM AND BLASPHEMY. THE MORE WE DIE, THE STRONGER WE WILL BECOME. A tent was raised on the sidewalk and filled with propaganda against America, exposing its crimes around the world and proclaiming the necessity to export the revolution. At the university, the mood was both jubilant and apprehensive. Some of my students had disappeared and were presumably active on the front lines of this new struggle. Tense discussions and excited whispers replaced regular classes.

Both the religious and leftist organizations, especially the Mujahideen-e Khalq and the Marxist fedayeen, supported the hostage-taking. I remember one heated debate where one of the students who was mocked as a liberal kept saying, What's the point of taking them hostage? Haven't we already kicked them out? And one of my students unreasonably reasoned that no, not yet, that American influence was still everywhere. We wouldn't be free until the Voice of America was shut down.

By now the American embassy was no longer known as the American embassy—it was "the nest of spies." When taxi drivers asked us where we wanted to go, we would say, Please take us to the nest of spies. People were bused in daily from the provinces and villages who didn't even know where America was, and sometimes thought they were actually being taken to America. They were given food and money, and they could stay and joke and picnic with their families in front of the nest of spies. In exchange, they were asked to demonstrate, to shout, "Death to America," and every now and then to burn the American flag.

Three men sit in a semicircle talking eagerly, while a little farther on two women in black chadors, with three or four small children hovering around them, are making sandwiches and handing them over to the men. A festival? A picnic? An Islamic Woodstock? If you move a little closer to this small group, you can hear their conversation. Their accents indicate that they come from the province of Isfahan. One of them has heard that the Americans are becoming Muslims by the thousands and that Jimmy Carter is really scared. He should be scared, another one says as he bites into his sandwich. I hear the American police are confiscating all portraits of the Imam. Truth is mixed with wild rumors, rumors of the shah's mistreatment by his former Western allies, of the imminent Islamic revolution in America. Will America hand him over?

Farther down, you can hear sharper and more clipped cadences. "But this isn't democratic centralism … religious tyranny … long-term allies …" and, more than any other word, liberals. Four or five students with books and pamphlets under their arms are deep in discussion. I recognize one of my leftist students, who sees me, smiles and comes towards me. Hello, professor. I see you've joined us. Who is us? I ask him. The masses, the real people, he says quite seriously. But this is not your demonstration, I say. You're wrong there. We have to be present every day, to keep the fire going, to prevent the liberals from striking a deal, he says.

The loudspeakers interrupt us. "Neither East, nor West; we want the Islamic Republic!" "America can't do a damn thing!" "We will fight, we will die, we won't compromise!"

I could never accept this air of festivity, the jovial arrogance that dominated the crowds in front of the embassy. Two streets away, a completely different reality was unfolding. Sometimes it seemed to me that the government operated in its own separate universe: it created a big circus, put on a big act, while people went about their business.

The fact was that America, the place I knew and had lived in for so many years, had suddenly been turned into a never-never land by the Islamic Revolution. The America of my past was fast fading in my mind, overtaken by all the clamor of new definitions. That was when the myth of America started to take hold of Iran. Even those who wished its death were obsessed by it. America had become both the land of Satan and paradise lost. A sly curiosity about America had been kindled that in time would turn the hostage-takers into its hostages.

The Veil

The spring semester of 1980 started ominously. From the very beginning, there were few classes. For the past year the government had been preoccupied with suppressing political opposition groups, closing down the progressive newspapers and magazines, punishing former government functionaries, and carrying on a war against the minorities, especially the Kurds. Now it turned its attention towards the universities, hotbeds of dissent, where the Muslim revolutionaries did not hold power. The universities played the role later assumed by newspapers in protesting the suppression of progressive forces.

That year, the government managed to shut down the universities. They purged the faculty, students, and staff. Some students were killed or jailed; others simply disappeared. The University of Tehran had become the seat of too much disappointment, too much sorrow and hurt. Never again would I rush so innocently, so eagerly, to a class as I did in those days at the dawn of the revolution.

After the so-called cultural revolution that led to the closing down of universities, I was essentially out of a job. We went to the university, but we had nothing much to do. I took to writing a diary and reading Agatha Christie. Instead of classes, we were summoned to endless meetings. The administration wanted us to stop working and at the same time to pretend that nothing had changed. Although the universities were closed, the faculty was required to be present and to offer projects to the newly elected Committee on the Cultural Revolution.

The committee visited the faculty of law and political sciences and the faculty of Persian and foreign languages and literature at the auditorium in the school of law. Despite the formal and informal instructions to the female faculty and staff on the issue of the veil, until that day most women at our university had not obeyed the new rules. That meeting was the first I had attended at which all the female participants wore headscarves. All, that is, except three: Farideh, Laleh, and me. We were independent and considered eccentric, so the three of us went to that meeting without headscarves.

The three members of the Committee on the Cultural Revolution sat rather uncomfortably on the very high stage. Their expressions were by turns haughty, nervous, and defiant. That meeting was the last at the University of Tehran in which the faculty openly criticized the government and its policies regarding higher education. Most were rewarded for their impertinence by being expelled. Farideh, Laleh, and I sat together conspicuously, like naughty children. We whispered, we consulted one another, we kept thrusting our hands up to talk. Farideh took the committee to task for using the university grounds to torture and intimidate the students. I told the Revolutionary Committee that my integrity as a teacher and a woman was being compromised by its insistence that I wear the scarf under false pretenses for a few thousand tumans a month. The issue was not so much the veil itself as freedom of choice. My grandmother had refused to leave the house for three months when she was forced to unveil. I would be similarly adamant in my own refusal. Little did I know that I would soon be given the choice either of veiling or being jailed and flogged if I disobeyed.

After that meeting, one of my more pragmatic colleagues, a "modern" woman, who decided to take up the veil and stayed there for another seventeen years after I was gone, told me with a hint of sarcasm in her voice, "You are fighting a losing battle. Why lose your job over an issue like this? In another couple of weeks you will be forced to wear the veil in the grocery stores."

The simplest answer, of course, was that the university was not a grocery store. But she was right. Soon we would be forced to wear it everywhere. And the morality squads, with their guns and Toyota patrols, would guard the streets to ensure our adherence.

A few days later I went to the University of Tehran for a meeting with Mr. Bahri. He had asked for this meeting, hoping to convince me to comply with the new rules. The conference room looked and felt just as it had when I first met Mr. Bahri to discuss the role of literature and revolution: large, cool and bare, with a dusty feel to it, although, except for the long table and twelve chairs, there were no surfaces to collect dust. Mr. Bahri and his friend were already sitting near the middle of the table, facing the door. They both stood up when I entered and waited until I had taken a seat before settling back down. I chose to position myself opposite them.

Mr. Bahri did not take long to get to the point. He could not understand why we were making such a fuss over a piece of cloth. Did we not see that there were more important issues to think about, that the whole life of the revolution was at stake? What was more important, to fight against the satanic influence of Western imperialists or to obstinately hold on to a personal preference that created division among the ranks of the revolutionaries?

These might not have been his exact words, but they were the gist of his language. In those days, people really talked that way. One had a feeling, in revolutionary and intellectual circles, that they spoke from a script, playing characters from an Islamized version of a Soviet novel.

It was ironic that Mr. Bahri, the defender of the faith, described the veil as a piece of cloth. I had to remind him that we had to have more respect for that "piece of cloth" than to force it on reluctant people. What did he imagine our students would think of us if they saw us wearing the veil when we had sworn never to do so? Would they not say that we had sold out our beliefs for a few thousand tumans a month? What would you think, Mr. Bahri?

What could he think? A stern ayatollah, an improbable philosopher-king, had decided to impose his dream on a country and a people and to recreate us in his own myopic vision. So he had formulated an ideal of me as a Muslim woman, as a Muslim woman teacher, and wanted me to look, act, and in short live according to that ideal. Laleh and I, in refusing to accept that ideal, were taking not a political stance but an existential one. No, I could tell Mr. Bahri, it was not that piece of cloth that I rejected, it was the transformation being imposed upon me that made me look in the mirror and hate the stranger I had become.

I think that day I realized how futile it was to "discuss" my views with Mr. Bahri. How could one argue against the representative of God on earth? Mr. Bahri, for the time being at least, derived his energy from the undeniable fact that he was on the side of Right; I was at best a stray sinner. For a few months I had seen it coming, but I think it was that day, after I left Mr. Bahri and his friend, that it first hit me how irrelevant I had become.

When I left the room, I did not make the mistake of trying to shake his hand. Mr. Bahri walked with me like a polite host seeing an honored guest to the door, his hands firmly clasped behind his back. I kept repeating, Please don't bother, and almost toppled down the stairs in my eagerness to get away. When I had nearly reached the first floor, I looked back. He was still standing there, in his frayed brown suit, his Mao shirt buttoned up to the neck, hands behind his back, gazing down at me with a look of perplexity.

I knew that my meeting with Mr. Bahri meant it would only be a matter of time before I was expelled.


In 1981, the government passed new regulations restricting women's clothing in public and forcing us to wear either a chador or a long robe and scarf. Experience had proven that the only way these regulations would be heeded was if they were implemented by force. Because of women's overwhelming objection to the laws, the government enforced the new rule first in the workplaces and later in shops, which were forbidden from transacting with unveiled women. Disobedience was punished by monetary fines, up to seventy-six lashes, and jail terms. Later, the government created the notorious morality squads: four armed men and women in white Toyota patrols, monitoring the streets, ensuring the enforcement of the laws.

As I try now to piece together the disjointed and incoherent events of that period, I notice how my growing sense that I was descending into an abyss or void was accompanied by two momentous events that happened simultaneously: the war with Iraq and the loss of my teaching job. I had not realized how far the routines of one's life create the illusion of stability. Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.

This new feeling of unreality led me to invent new games, survival games I would now call them. My constant obsession with the veil had made me buy a very wide black robe that covered me down to my ankles, with kimono-like sleeves, wide and long. I had gotten into the habit of withdrawing my hands into the sleeves and pretending that I had no hands. Gradually, I pretended that when I wore the robe, my whole body disappeared: my arms, breasts, stomach, and legs melted and disappeared and what was left was a piece of cloth the shape of my body that moved here and there, guided by some invisible force.

The beginning of this game I can trace back quite specifically to the day I went to the ministry of higher education with a friend who wanted to have her diploma validated. They searched us from head to foot and of the many sexual molestations I have had to suffer in my life, this was among the worst. The female guard told me to hold my hands up, up, and up, she said, as she started to search me meticulously, going over every part of my body. She objected to the fact that I seemed to be wearing almost nothing under the robe. I explained to her that what I wore under my robe was none of her business. She took a tissue and told me to rub my cheeks clean of the muck I was wearing. I explained that I wore no muck. Then she took the tissue herself and rubbed it against my cheeks, and since she did not achieve the desired results, because I had not worn any makeup, as I had told her, she rubbed it even harder, until I thought she might be trying to rub my skin off. My face was burning and I felt dirty—I felt like my whole body was a soiled, sweaty T-shirt that had to be cast off.

That was when the idea of this game came to me: I decided to make my body invisible. The woman's coarse hands were reverse X-rays that left only the surface intact and made the inside invisible. By the time she had finished inspecting me, I had become as light as the wind, a fleshless, boneless being. The trick to this magic act was that in order to remain invisible, I had to refrain from coming into contact with other hard surfaces, especially with human beings: my invisibility was in direct ratio to the degree to which I could make other people not notice me. Then, of course, from time to time I would make part of me return, like when I wished to defy an obstructionist figure of authority, and I would leave a few strands of hair out and make my eyes reappear, to stare at them uncomfortably.

Sometimes, almost unconsciously, I would withdraw my hands into my wide sleeves and start touching my legs or my stomach. Do they exist? Do I exist? This stomach, this leg, these hands? Unfortunately, the Revolutionary Guards and the guardians of our morality did not see the world with the same eyes as me. They saw hands, faces, and pink lipstick; they saw strands of hair and unruly socks where I saw some ethereal being drifting soundlessly down the street.


I left Iran in 1997, but Iran did not leave me. Much has changed in appearance since I left. There is more defiance in the gait of women; their scarves are more colorful and their robes much shorter; they wear makeup now and walk freely with men who are not their brothers, fathers, or husbands.

Parallel to this, the raids and arrests and public executions also persist. But there is a stronger demand for freedom; as I write, I open the paper to read about the recent student demonstrations in support of a dissident who was sentenced to death for suggesting that the clergy should not be blindly followed like monkeys and calling for a revision of the constitution. I read the writings of young students and former revolutionaries, the slogans and demands for democracy, and I know now as much as I will ever know anything that it is this dogged desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by young Iranians today, the children of the revolution, and the anguished self-criticism of former revolutionaries that will determine the shape of our future.

Azar Nafisi is a professor and director of the Dialogue Project at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, in Washington. From the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, copyright © 2003 by Azar Nafisi, to be published by Random House Trade Publishing, an imprint of The Random House Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

[1] Azar Nafisi, "The Veiled Threat: The Iranian Revolution's Woman Problem," The New Republic, Feb. 22, 1999.
[2] Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, A Clarification of Questions (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984). Eds.