If there is one battleground that encompasses the complexities and competing claims of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and Hamid Dabashi's attack upon it, it is the cover of the book, which depicts two young Iranian women, cloaked in Islamic dress, reading intently.
The book's cover deftly captures the image of the students in the private class for Iranian women that Ms. Nafisi paints in words. But in his article about Reading Lolita in Tehran, published in June in the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram, Mr. Dabashi places that same image through a theoretical shredder that draws upon Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism and an essay ("The Photographic Message") by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, which argues that photography comprises two messages: one "denoted" and one "connoted."
Mr. Dabashi writes that "the denoted message here seems quite obvious: These two young women are reading Lolita in Tehran — they are reading (Lolita) and they are in Tehran (they look Iranian, and they have scarves on their head)." The connoted message, he writes, "is equally self-evident: Imagine that — illicit sex with teenagers in an Islamic Republic! How about that, the cover suggestively proposes and asks, can you imagine reading Lolita in Tehran? Look at these two Oriental Lolitas!"
In an interview, Ms. Nafisi brings up such comments about the cover as an example of what she views as outlandish criticisms of her work. "There is nothing sexual or erotic about those girls," she says. "They seem to be reading." She believes that "something is lost when you talk about a work of art in this manner."
Ms. Nafisi also mentions something that is common knowledge to any author who publishes with a large trade press such as Random House: The author does not choose the final cover of a book. Rather, Ms. Nafisi observes with considerable irony, she resisted earlier cover ideas she deemed too exotic.
"I was driving them nuts by telling them, 'I don't want an exotic cover,'" she says. "One reason I was scared about what they would do was because one person who we first had advising us, who was a Persian photographer, was suggesting to have a woman with Lolita glasses with a chador. I told Random House, 'I don't want that. If you do that, I am going to object.'"
Though the publishers insisted on the final word, she says, "they were very proud of [the cover] because they called me and they said: We chose a photograph which we think reminds us of your students. And when I saw the cover, it was already turned into a cover, I said, Wow, these two girls do look like my students."
Mr. Dabashi's attack on the cover also employed some startling old-fashioned detective work. He had noticed the photograph that was used when the image was first published, in 2000, and had liked it enough to include it on a rotating collage of pictures that he kept outside his office for a time.
When he saw the cover of Ms. Nafisi's book, Mr. Dabashi recalls thinking, "I've seen this picture." After a long search, he finally found the image again on the Internet.
He was startled to see that, for the cover, the image of the two women had been cropped. In the original news photo they are reading not a book, but a reformist newspaper, during parliamentary elections in which the reformer had won. "Cropping the newspaper, their classmates behind them, and a perfectly visible photograph of President Khatami — the iconic representation of the reformist movement — out of the picture and suggesting that the two young women are reading Lolita strips them of their moral intelligence and their participation in the democratic aspirations of their homeland, ushering them into a colonial harem," he wrote in Al-Ahram.
Mr. Dabashi knows that Ms. Nafisi did not choose or crop the cover photo. But, he adds, "to me, the cropping of Iranian culture that is done inside is even more insidious, and that is her writing."
The emphasis on reading politics into both her work and the photo, however, exasperates Ms. Nafisi. "It was only much later that I discovered what they were reading," she says. "If they were reading a conservative paper, would that have made a difference?"