From elementary school through to about my sophomore year in college the only books I touched were manga, sheet music, and those scholarly tomes foisted upon me by the demands of my education. Then something changed and I developed a deep love of reading practically overnight. One of the first books I picked up after going through this metamorphosis was one that I had heard about a couple years before and had just never got around to picking up – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. That book immediately became a favorite of mine and remains one to this day. It is the story of how Dr. Nafisi taught forbidden western literature to a handful of young women in Iran in the 90’s, a bit of her biography, an analysis of a handful of popular pieces of classic literature, a discussion of the poisonous effects of religious fervor and anti-intellectualism run amok, a reminder to never take simple things for granted, and a look at the contemporary history of Iran from the 1979 Revolution and the optimism that followed to its current repressive, backward state all at the same time. I had encountered much of the literature she referenced in various classes and the personal perspective she brought to what Iran was about 35 years ago versus what it is (or was as of the mid 1990’s) was enlightening. I loved the book for all of its exotic as well as familiar elements, but that is not why I admire its author.
Teaching the material she was teaching in Iran was an incredibly risky undertaking and that in and of itself is worthy of a hat tip, but the fact that the whole endeavor was borne from a deep dedication to education and to this particular group of students is equally commendable. I have had the good fortune of being taught by some exceptional teachers and the thing they all had in common was that kind of dedication and love of what they were doing with their lives. I had said that the women I admire are leaders and I think that Dr. Nafisi is one. While she didn’t lead a nation or a national movement of any kind, she was a leader to this small group of women in a Tehran living room. Leaders aren’t always in the places you’re used to looking for them. Sometimes these hidden leaders have a greater effect on us than an auditorium full of dignitaries.
Incidentally, Azar Nafisi, now residing in the US, still teaches. How cool is that? She has also written another book, Things I’ve Been Silent About , which I have yet to read though I am very anxious to do so.