Thursday, June 08, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran and the problem of Othering

Azar Nafisi, in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, actively uses a process of otheringto create contrasts that will illustrate specific points for her western readers. These contrasts force the reader to step beyond his or her own world and to accept, as a foreign world, the one offered by Nafisi.

As a teaching tool, this method works as expected. When Nafisi begins chapter 8 with the question “how can I create this other world outside the room,” the reader is forced to suspend his or her world. That world, beyond the room of the reader, is a familiar one. But for this other world, the reader is told that Nafisi must appeal to the reader’s imagination. This method gives the reader a clear command to approach Nafisi’s world differently. This other world is the world of an Islamic regime brought into power by a popular revolution in 1979. This other world is a world where laws are based on the Koran and the government is a powerful theocracy. In short, it is a world that is very different from most of Nafisi’s readers’ worlds.

But Nafisi’s approach of otheringcreates two interrelated problems for any discourse about the text or issues within it. The first problem is the polarizing effect on the reader. By othering, by creating this foreign world, a dichotomist model is created with the reader on one end and Tehran on the other. It creates an opposition that fails to take into account the histories of the East and the series of complex East/West interactions - all of which played a part in the out come of the 1979 revolution. Without these vital details, the two worlds seem totally disparate.

The second problem is compounded by this idea of there being two disparate worlds. With this relationship discussions regarding social issues are hampered. For example, feminism becomes difficult to approach in a valid way. If the world being presented to the reader is so different that the author creates it out of the reader’s imagination, then how can the reader apply behavioral and social models from his or her world to it? That is, a reader from the west (for all practical purposes, the majority of Nafisi’s readers and her counter balance to Iran) cannot, in any meaningful way, discuss feminism in Iran, within the context of Reading Lolita in Tehran, if he or she uses a western paradigm to understand feminism. It is impossible to discuss the western concerns of gender inequalities in the work force like wage differences in regards to a country that the author presents as a place where judges blame battered wives and women are harassed for eating apples to seductively.

These problems are surmountable but it requires a new historicism approach to the text, which forces the reader to bring outside sources into the memoir. It also requires the reader to acknowledge when Nafisi is actively otheringto illustrate a point.

For a complete bibliography and/or permission to use the above text beyond the terms of fair use, please contact the author, Joseph R. Thompson, by email

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