December 27, 2011

Pink Socks and Black Veils

Over the last few weeks, I've slowly been making my way through Reading Lolita in Tehran. Subtitled A Memoir In Books, it recounts the author's days in the mid 1990s, when she hosted a small salon of female students in her home in Iran, to read and discuss major works of Western literature. It also goes further back in time, to when she was a newly hired professor at the University of Tehran, during the heated early days of the cultural revolution in the early 1980s.
Reading this book and its tales of students and scholars murdered in the name of change, of young women targeted and severely lashed for merely gathering together without men present, or for not wearing the black veil, is a strange and bracing tonic during our Western holiday season of excess.
Most heartbreaking is the way ordinary choices, and ordinary joys, are stripped from the young people, especially the young women. Here's a passage about a student, targeted and shamed for wearing pink socks:
Manna had once written about a pair of pink socks for which she was reprimanded by the Muslim Students' Association. When she complained to a favorite professor, he started teasing her about how she had already ensnared and trapped her man, Nima, and did not need pink socks to entrap him further.
[…] My generation complained of a loss, the void in our lives that was created when our past was stolen from us, making us exiles in our own country. Yet we had a past to compare with the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away. But my girls spoke constantly of stolen kisses, films they had never seen and the wind they had never felt on their skin. This generation had no past. Their memory was a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.
I wonder if right now, at this moment, I were to turn to the people sitting next to me in this cafe in a country that is not Iran and talk to them about life in Tehran, how they would react. Would they condemn the tortures, the executions and the extreme acts of aggression? I think they would. But what about the acts of transgression on our ordinary lives, like the desire to wear pink socks?
But not all is bleak and hopeless in this work. That's mostly because Nafisi comes across as the talented professor of literature that she once was. Reading her discussions about the pleasures and lessons to be gained from Lolita, The Great Gatsby and Henry James puts me back in the classroom, reliving my own days as an eager English major. I miss that feeling, of being a student and feeling the charged joy of my favorite profs as they bounced on their feet and read aloud important passages. “Dig it, dig it, dig it, people!” my great old professor, Dr. Koons, used to exclaim back at Cal State Fullerton, as he read aloud a particular piece by Milton or Nabokov. I feel some of that same excitement and joy when Nafisi defends her favorites of the Western canon to stern, humorless officials and male students in the new Iran. 
She's also wonderful at defending and explaining just why literature is so important to the world, and to every culture. That said, its a slow read, and her situation remains rather bleak throughout – it's not a novel, it's fundamentally a history of Nafisi's own process of dealing with all the terrible changes in her formerly beloved country, and how she had to internalize so many horrors and make sense of them, both emotionally and intellectually. Still, there are many lovely moments that take on the basic love of language:
“We would take turns reading passages aloud, and words literally rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching all five senses. There was such a teasing, playful quality to their words, such joy in the power of language to delight and astonish. I kept wondering: when did we lose that quality, that ability to tease and make light of life through our poetry? At what precise moment was this lost? What we had now, this saccharine rhetoric, putrid and deceptive hyperbole, reeked too much of cheap rosewater.”
If nothing else, its a good reminder to relish all of my simple, most basic joys: the ability to go to a public library and choose what to read, to walk in the sunshine and feel its rays upon my bare skin, or to wear pink socks -- or how about no socks at all, and just my red painted toes?    I am dazzled with choices, every day.  Hopefully, wherever you are reading this, you have plenty of options, too.

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