Thursday, March 10, 2005

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I have been reading Azar Nafisi's extraordinary memoir.

It describes a period about a decade ago during which the author - after resigning from her job as a professor at a university in Tehran - invited seven of her best female students to attend a weekly study of great Western literature in her home.

Not on the face of it an idea you would pitch to the head of a movie studio, but I have found it to be extraordinarily affecting. Normally I wolf books down in great gulps, but I have found with this that I have to pause and reflect after each, brief, chapter.

What is so dispiriting is that the oppressors of these poor girls are so mean, petulant and dull. It really does make your heart ache. I have finally come to a passage, however, that made me smile when one of her students, Nassrin, says, "I have to tell you that the Ayatollah himself was no novice in sexual matters," ........... "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. 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.

I wonder, will I still be allowed to encourage anyone to laugh at this if the Government manages to push the new offence of incitement to religious hatred through in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill?

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