Monday, March 4, 2013

Reading ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ in Orlando

The first time I read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran was in 2008, near the end of my stint in Kyrgyzstan. This being the pre-Kindle period, my friends and I read whatever English language books came our way, from dry histories of Central Asia, to entertaining mysteries, to bizarre works of soft-core porn allegedly categorized as ‘romance.’ We read whatever we could get our hands on, simply because our supply was so limited. Some of what we read was pretty awful (the sci-fi story about the aliens and the grandmothers, the aforementioned ‘romance’ that utilized the term ‘pearly essence’ in a way that has scarred me forever, that horrid ex-pat bio I nicknamed Boobs in Bishkek, etc.), but others stood out as really well-written, entertaining and/or educational (numerous Nevada Barr mysteries, Colin Thubron’s Central Asia travel memoirs, tales of reindeer herders in Siberia, etc.). Reading Lolita in Tehran fell into the latter category. I absolutely adored it. Not only was it incredibly well-written, but it provided incredibly in-depth insight into the lives of women in Iran – insights that went far beyond the stereotypical limitations of OMG THEY WEAR VEILS! that permeates our media today. As I was, at the time, living in a predominantly Muslim country, I had so often been asked by friends, family, and acquaintances back home: ‘Do all the women wear veils?’ ‘Do they all hate Americans?’ ‘Is it safe for non-Muslims to go there?’ etc, etc, etc. I can only imagine that these types of questions increase exponentially if one were to go, not to an obscure country like Kyrgyzstan, but instead to a well-known and well-vilified country such as Iran. Additionally, Nafisi’s teaching style (encouraging her Iranian students to connect the events discussed in Western novels to the events in their lives) was something that I wanted to try. While it wasn’t something that I could use in the classes that I was teaching at the time, I had visions of creating a reading list based on the one included at the end of Nafisi’s book and incorporating it into a class of advanced EFLers who were interested in English language literature. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, 2009 happened.

Fast-forward to 2013. One of the courses I’m taking is on dealing with different cultures in the ESOL classroom. The course really seems to be designed for people who have never been out of the country before and who have never had to deal with people from different cultures before. To be honest, I personally am getting very little from the course. We were given a ‘suggested reading list’ from which we were supposed to select a book about which we were supposed to write a report. (Don’t even get me started on how lame of an assignment this is. A book report? Is this grad school or elementary school? Yeah.) Anyway, one of the books on the list was Reading Lolita in Tehran. Remembering how much I’d enjoyed it the first time around, I decided to go with that. (Hey, I’m working two jobs and taking four classes – cut me some slack for working with a book I’d read before!) I enjoyed the book as much as I did the first time around, and I got to actually formulate my thoughts into a paper on how I would use what I learned from the book inside an actual classroom.

Then, four days before the paper was due, I saw a poster advertising a speaking event in Winter Park – Azar Nafisi would be speaking that very night! Free to the public! I had a splitting headache that wouldn’t go away no matter how much Excedrin I fed it. I was so shaky from taking too many Excedrin that I actually felt dizzy. Normally I would have celebrated the arrival of such a headache by curling up under the covers with a pillow atop my head. Instead I forced myself to drive over to Winter Park. I am very glad I did. Nafisi was incredible – and surprisingly hilarious. Reading Lolita in Tehran is such a serious work that I really didn’t expect her to have such a sense of humor. I video-recorded part of her presentation, and audio-recorded the rest. I missed the very beginning, as I was having trouble getting my audio-recorder to work (which was why I ended up videoing the first segment), but I did get most of it. Sadly, despite the fact that I could have met Nafisi at the end of the program, I had to leave – my headache had reached the point where it was going to try to do me in if I didn’t take it home immediately. But at least I was able to record her for your listening pleasure:

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