ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN PDF
“Rooftops of Tehran is a richly rendered first novel about courage, sacrifice, and the bonds of friendship and love. In clear, vivid details, Mahbod Seraji opens the . Rooftops of Tehran. bySeraji, Mahbod. Publication date Topics Tehran ( Iran) -- Fiction. PublisherNew Borrow this book to access EPUB and PDF files. Editorial Reviews. From Publishers Weekly. Set in s Iran during the shah's regime, this Rooftops of Tehran: A Novel - Kindle edition by Mahbod Seraji.
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download or read book online in pdf or epub. Rooftops of Tehran is one of best books released on containing pages, this book written by Mahbod Seraji. I discovered the gift of reading when I was ten years old, sitting on my own rooftop in Tehran and losing myself in a Farsi translation of Jack London's White Fang. Materials · News · Visible World · Archive · Design Studio · Seminar Week · Master Thesis · Elective. Uncategorized: Choosing Good Rooftops of Tehran Pdf.
One encounters children walking down the most crowded streets with tape recorders in their hands. Thus, the intensive use of these new technologies helped to strengthen and amplify a message already prevailing in everyday relationships in mosques and bazaars, facilitating organizational tasks and coordination of many of the protests which were to continue until the overthrow of the Shah: If thirty years before collective action coalesced around a shared world created by an external and single voice, in no such singular voice arises but a multiplicity of singularities generating a white noise in which the acrobat must try to navigate In his book The practice of everyday life Michel de Certeau makes a distinction between the idea of strategy and that of tacticsMark.
The notion of failure or success for collective action changes accordingly. In this strange backside of the city full of seams, cracks, gaps and opportunities, Gordon Matta-Clark is running Food on the corner of Prince St with Wooster. One of his acrobats walks forming a perfect perpendicular to the street and facade of a building as the forces and stresses upon his body and world are reconfigured.
Gravity becomes a different force, no longer pulling the body down but helping its movement forward. Shortly after the experience goes on through the walls, this time, of an interior space in the Whitney Museum.
The number of dancers increases with harnesses and ropes tying them to the perimeter of the room: Harnesses, ropes, hooks are all part of the acrobat tools, capable of transmitting forces, creating strains, reversing planes and perverting gravity, but so are the surfaces, the facade walked down by the Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, so are gaps and obstacles fire escapes, windows, cornices We want to focus at the these bodies disposition, because they are listening, prompting, opened to possibilities, generating tensions and responding to the relationship with others.
So, as Keller Easterling describes, 'disposition locates activity, not in movement, but in relationship or relative position. In Tony Smith presents Die, a inches steel cube, the size of the human figure. The external geometric shape is becoming body. A year earlier, Robert Morris had acknowledged the dimension of memory inherent to every single body with his work Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, a wooden box containing and repeating the sounds of its own construction.
Quoting Wittgenstein these artists start to claim that the meaning relies in action, in use It does so as he analyzes the geometry of simple forms in relation to the action of the acrobat-skater In ancient Greek there were two words to define time, chronos and kairos. The first referred to the linear chronological time and it is this idea that survives most strongly in our present quantitative conceptions.
The second imprints a qualitative component into an idea of an intermediate time, the right moment in which something takes place. We can think then not only about the possibility of the right time but also of its implication with a right space.
Gradually the open public spaces of the city are transformed into controlled interiors while the imprisonment of sociability and communication into the built interior turns the house into neighborhood The private world is going to become refuge for a common voice that keeps talking. Thus, the interior is going to take on many of the features that until now had defined the relation between the public and the political communication, information, celebration, This interior space that had been the world of women for centuries was also going to suffer a serious transformation.
The traditional architecture built around courtyards, rooftops and other common spaces within the urban fabric offered her diverse possibilities of sociability, while in the new westernized neighborhoods of apartment blocks there was a single line frontier, the doorway beyond which the territory of the basij begins.
From that border line outwards veiling becomes again mandatory only two years after the revolution, and nearly fifty years after the law forbidding it was first adopted. But with the gradual incorporation of women into the outside world during the 80s and 90s, the disciplinary boundary of the interior must become mobile. Like power it organizes, coagulates and consolidates.
Like it, it comes from below and is strategically distributed. In this way, the fact that this tensional field is not produced outside of the body, but in direct proximity to it prevents the neutralization of its political potential due to the distance to the object of its action. By closing in up to the extremes, to the depth of the skin, the relationship becomes more subtle and complex dismantling the traditional forms of resistance and political response, but enables the acrobat for a renewed action and with that, the rising of the multitude.
In his doing he is actualizing the potential of the political by producing a constantly renewed shared reality, a common, in which his knowledge becomes a repertoire of tactics that activate and enrich his relationship with the world. Repertoire understood as body memory. The practice of the acrobat cannot be resumed in a manual because his know-how is not of discursive nature, and precisely because of that it is too often ignored for not being worthy of interest His gestures, skills, tools and knowledge must be experienced from a body whose moving center of gravity recomposes its own spatiality with each step.
The only way to approach this through writing comes from its minute description, paying close attention and recognizing its importance to the smallest of details: Gesture is sign turned into flesh.
Sign that is capable of communicating and summoning 29, of opening a crack and thus a possibility for disorder. Improvised, though recognized by a common body memory, gestures are used to communicate by the twelve dancers of Trisha Brown's Roof Piece which took place in the Soho in In their movement the dancer entangles with the bodies around water tanks, floor and wall surfaces, cornices, chimneys, A new landscape is produced, a new and common spatiality.
This leap from the individual body to the creation of a shared spatiality helps us understand the condition of the multitude as multiple body, thus allowing us to move away from concepts of collective action based on the doings of a single body like the mass or the party The multitude is not characterized by its pertaining to a rigid identitarian definition nation, ethnicity, religion,… but by its own constituent activity, its production of a common.
This common is not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practices we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationships, and so forth.
It is the undergoing and shared production of the bodies in which the potential for action is actualized that allows us to understand the spatial role of the body, and by extension, of all those dimensions that define it. First some questions arise, before our stare gets lost in the immensity of possibilities and conditions of the newly discovered landscape.
Recognizing the figures of four of the acrobats, from the foreground to a mere silhouette blurred by distance, we ask for their arrival. How is access to the rooftops gained. Going up by the surface of the facade. We can see too several constructions covering the end of inside staircases.
A connection crossing the block from the inside. Any method will have to pass through this intermediate strip inhabited by the enclosed, the private and hidden. The first path runs through its periphery, the second closest to its core. Step by step, floor by floor, the spaces turn away progressively from the street noise. In the fire escape staircase the relationship with the ground plane is not lost, the body knows it is going up and vertigo becomes a risk.
Through the indoor path it is not hard to lose track of the height, how far one is going up so that once at the top there is the possibility of surprise and disorientation. Once access to the territory is gained, we can try to understand how movement occurs through the obstacles and the voids. No two identical planes or homogeneous heights exist.
There are inclined planes and curved surfaces, built bodies of different sizes and heights, walls between adjacent planes, and all kinds of divisions, some surmountable some insurmountable. Among the latter, the void of the streets below. This roofscape obviates any difference between what is public and what is private mere legal constructs imposed on a reality that escapes through its seams , nonetheless a landscape of accessibilities understood as possibilities of use lies before the acrobat.
Visibility too plays an important role in the weaving of this landscape that is born. This is well evidenced by the four acrobats present in the photograph, but also there suddenly arises in the heart of the city, where it was no longer expected, the possibility of an horizon with the dimensional effect on experience it produces. Planes occur, from foreground to background, conditions are defined through proximity and remoteness.
Realities hidden behind an obstacle are discovered through the simple movement and relocation of the body. And there is a use factor always present, one that makes us remember the street down there: During his first days there he covered the events and movements that took place in the streets, but he was detained and all his photographs confiscated.
Under these circumstances he had no choice but to take refuge in the homes of students and members of the opposition that took him in I just talked to my relatives in Tehran. The atmosphere is just like in Sporadic demonstrations continue throughout the city with tires and other objects burning in the streets to dissipate the tear gas. The solidarity and unity of the people is amazing.
That is how a strange new perception of Tehran unfolded in front of his eyes every night, at ten, at eleven, at midnight…, with the potential to harbor and awaken the voice of a multitude drawing a unique soundscape every single night: Suddenly, from a nearby building, a powerful male voice is seconded by two or three more fluted, childlike ones, maybe a father and his children. They respond by repeating the motto.
As if they had agreed on the script, other neighbours come together. Through the windows of the staircases their figures can be seen, lit up, rushing to the rooftops. At ten, it never fails, someone joins with a trombone to the protest. And even if it is women again who star this picture, the traditional inhabitants of the rooftops, it is not only them climbing up there every night to find the horizon for political action and invention they cannot find elsewhere.
There are young people, elders, children, men and women coming together every night up to these roofs to call out and feel the answers. It is society as a whole who has lost its frame of action having been dispossessed of their lieu par excellence: She pauses a moment on top of the stairs to put on thin lacy black gloves to hide her nail polish. We follow Sanaz down the stairs, out the door and into the street. You might notice that her gait and her gestures have changed.
It is in her best interest not to be seen, not be heard or noticed. She doesn't walk upright, but bends her head towards the ground and doesn't look at passersby. She walks quickly and with a sense of determination. The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia, who ride in white Toyota patrols, four gun-carrying men and women, sometimes followed by a minibus. They are called the Blood of God.
They patrol the streets to make sure that women like Sanaz wear their veils properly, do not wear makeup, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers or husbands. She will pass slogans on the walls, quotations from Khomeini and a group called the Party of God: Beside the slogan is a charcoal drawing of a woman: If she gets on a bus, the seating is segregated.
She must enter through the rear door and sit in the back seats, allocated to women. Yet in taxis, which accept as many as five passengers, men and women are squeezed together like sardines, as the saying goes, and the same goes with minibuses, where so many of my students complain of being harassed by bearded and Godfearing men.
How much does this experience affect her? Most probably, she tries to distance her mind as much as possible from her surroundings. Perhaps she is thinking of her brother, or of her distant boyfriend and the time when she will meet him in Turkey. Does she compare her own situation with her mother's when she was the same age?
Is she angry that women of her mother's generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women? Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from eighteen to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?
In the course of nearly two decades, the streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined, forced to wash the toilets and humiliated, and as soon as they leave, they go back and do the same thing.
Is she aware, Sanaz, of her own power? Does she realize how dangerous she can be when her every stray gesture is a disturbance to public safety? Does she think how vulnerable the Revolutionary Guards are who for over eighteen years have patrolled the streets of Tehran and have had to endure young women like herself, and those of other generations, walking, talking, showing a strand of hair just to remind them that they have not converted?
We have reached Sanaz's house, where we will leave her on her doorstep, perhaps to confront her brother on the other side and to think in her heart of her boyfriend. These girls, my girls, had both a real history and a fabricated one. Although they came from very different backgrounds, the regime that ruled them had tried to make their personal identities and histories irrelevant.
They were never free of the regime's definition of them as Muslim women. Whoever we were-and it was not really important what religion we belonged to, whether we wished to wear the veil or not, whether we observed certain religious norms or not-we had become the figment of someone else's dreams.
A stern ayatollah, a self-proclaimed philosopherking, had come to rule our land. He had come in the name of a past, a past that, he claimed, had been stolen from him.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
And he now wanted to re-create us in the image of that illusory past. Was it any consolation, and did we even wish to remember, that what he did to us was what we allowed him to do? We felt when we were together that we were almost absolutely free. This feeling was in the air that very first Thursday morning. I had a frame for the class, and had selected a number of books to read, but I was prepared to let the class shape me; I was prepared for the violin to fill the void, and alter it by its music.
Often I ask myself: Take the youngest, Yassi. There she is, in the first photograph, with a wistful look on her face. She is bending her head to one side, unsure of what expression to choose. She is wearing a thin white-and-gray scarf, loosely tied at the throat-a perfunctory homage to her family's strict religious background. Yassi was a freshman who audited my graduate courses in my last year of teaching.
She felt intimidated by the older students, who, she thought, by virtue of their seniority, were blessed not only with greater knowledge and a better command of English but also with more wisdom. Although she understood the most difficult texts better than many of the graduate students, and although she read the texts more dutifully and with more pleasure than most, she felt secure only in her terrible sense of insecurity.
About a month after I had decided privately to leave Allameh Tabatabai, Yassi and I were standing in front of the green gate at the entrance of the university.
June Book Selections
What I remember most distinctly about the university now is that green gate. I passed through it at least twice a day on weekdays for a number of years, but I still can't quite conjure it properly. In my memory the iron gate acquires an elastic quality and becomes a magic door, unsupported by walls, guarding the university grounds.
Yet I do remember its boundaries. It opened on one side to a wide street that appeared to lead straight into the mountains. On the other side it faced a small garden that belonged to the Faculty of Persian and Foreign Languages and Literature, a garden with Persian roses and other native flowers around a small, cracked ornamental fountain, a broken statue standing in its waterless midst. I owe my memory of the green gate to Yassi: The gate appears in this poem, and in some of her other writings, as a magical entrance into the forbidden world of all the ordinary things she had been denied in life.
Yet that green gate was closed to her, and to all my girls. Next to the gate there was a small opening with a curtain hanging from it. It was an aberration that attracted attention, because it did not belong there: Through this opening all the female students, including my girls, went into a small, dark room to be inspected. Yassi would describe later, long after that first session, what was done to her in this room: And to them the main door, with its immense portals and emblems and flags, is generously open.
It was meant to make the girls ordinary and invisible. Instead, it brought them into focus and turned them into objects of curiosity. She was talking about the teacher who taught Islamic morality and translation.
A Pillsbury Dough Boy personality, she said. Three months after his wife's death, he had married her younger sister, because a man-and here Yassi lowered her voicea man has his special needs. Then her voice took on a serious tone as she began to describe his recent lecture on the difference between Islam and Christianity. She now became this dough-faced little man standing by the blackboard, pink chalk in one hand, white chalk in the other. He had then asked the class if they knew the differences between the two.
One was a virgin, he said at last, after an uncomfortable silence, white and pure, keeping herself for her husband and her husband only. Her power came from her modesty. The other, well, there was not much one could say about her except that she was not a virgin. To Yassi's surprise, the two girls behind her, both active members of the Muslim Students' Association, had started to giggle, whispering, No wonder more and more Muslims are converting to Christianity.
We were standing there in the middle of the wide street, laughing-one of the rare moments when I saw Yassi's lopsided and shy smile disappear and give way to the pure mischief hidden beneath it.
I cannot see that laughter in most of her photographs, where she stands at some distance from the others, as if indicating that she, as the junior member of our class, knows her place.
Almost every day my students would recount such stories. We laughed over them, and later felt angry and sad, although we repeated them endlessly at parties and over cups of coffee, in breadlines, in taxis. It was as if the sheer act of recounting these stories gave us some control over them; the deprecating tone we used, our gestures, even our hysterical laughter seemed to reduce their hold over our lives.
In the sunny intimacy of our encounter, I asked Yassi to have an ice cream with me. We became, if not somber, quite serious. Yassi came from an enlightened religious family that had been badly hurt by the revolution. They felt the Islamic Republic was a betrayal of Islam rather than its assertion. At the start of the revolution, Yassi's mother and older aunt joined a progressive Muslim women's group that, when the new government started to crack down on its former supporters, was forced to go underground.
Yassi's mother and aunt went into hiding for a long time. This aunt had four daughters, all older than Yassi, all of whom in one way or another supported an opposition group that was popular with young religious Iranians. They were all but one arrested, tortured and jailed. When they were released, every one of them married within a year. They married almost haphazardly, as if to negate their former rebellious selves. Yassi felt that they had survived the jail but could not escape the bonds of traditional marriage.
To me, Yassi was the real rebel. She did not join any political group or organization. As a teenager she had defied family traditions and, in the face of strong opposition, had taken up music. She was the little cinder girl, living in the shadows of an inaccessible palace, in love with the unseen prince, who would one day hear her music. Her rebellion did not stop there: Now she lived partly with her older sister and husband and partly in the home of an uncle with fanatical religious leanings.
The university, with its low academic standards, its shabby morality and ideological limitations, had been a disappointment to her. In one sense it was more limited than her home, where she was blessed with a loving and intellectual environment. The loss of that love and warmth had caused her many sleepless nights in Tehran. She missed her parents and family, and she felt guilty for the pain she had inflicted on them. Later, I discovered that her guilt caused her long hours of disabling migraine headaches.
What could she do? She did not believe in politics and did not want to marry, but she was curious about love. That day, sitting opposite me, playing with her spoon, she explained why all the normal acts of life had become small acts of rebellion and political insubordination to her and to other young people like her. All her life she was shielded.
She was never let out of sight; she never had a private corner in which to think, to feel, to dream, to write. She was not allowed to meet any young men on her own. Her family not only instructed her on how to behave around men-they seemed to think they could tell her how she should feel about them as well.
What seems natural to someone like you, she said, is so strange and unfamiliar to me. Could she ever live the life of someone like me, live on her own, take long walks holding hands with someone she loved, even have a little dog perhaps?
She did not know. It was like this veil that meant nothing to her anymore yet without which she would be lost. She had always worn the veil.
Did she want to wear it or not? I remember the movement of her hand as she said this-flitting in front of her face as if to ward off an invisible fly. She said she could not imagine a Yassi without a veil. What would she look like? Would it affect the way she walked or how she moved her hands? How would others look at her? Would she become a smarter or a dumber person? These were her obsessions, alongside her favorite novels by Austen, Nabokov and Flaubert. Again she repeated that she would never get married, never ever.
She said that for her a man always existed in books, that she would spend the rest of her life with Mr. Darcy-even in the books, there were few men for her. What was wrong with that? She wanted to go to America, like her uncles, like me.
Her mother and her aunts had not been allowed to go, but her uncles were given the chance. Could she ever overcome all the obstacles and go to America? Should she go to America? She wanted me to advise her. They all did. But what could I offer her, she who wanted so much more from life than she had been given? There was nothing in reality that I could give her, so I told her instead about Nabokov's "other world.
It is this world that prevents his heroes and heroines from utter despair, that becomes their refuge in a life that is consistently brutal. This was the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her.
The desperate truth of Lolita's story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual's life by another.
We don't know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not engulfed her. Yet the novel, the finished work, is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not just of beauty but of life, ordinary everyday life, all the normal pleasures that Lolita, like Yassi, was deprived of.
Warming up and suddenly inspired, I added that in fact Nabokov had taken revenge against our own solipsizers; he had taken revenge on the Ayatollah Khomeini, on Yassi's last suitor, on the dough-faced teacher for that matter.
They had tried to shape others according to their own dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people's lives. She, Yassi, had much potential; she could be whatever she wanted to bea good wife or a teacher and poet. What mattered was for her to know what she wanted. I went on to tell her one of my favorite Nabokov stories, called "The Magician's Room.
After the revolution, all that he had loved was forbidden, driven underground. So he decided to stop writing, to stop making a living for as long as the Communists were in power. He seldom left his small apartment.
At times he was near starvation, and if not for his devoted friends and students and a little money left him by his parents, he would have starved. I described his apartment in detail.
Rooftops of Tehran Quiz
It was bare and white-flagrantly white: The only decoration in the living room was a large painting on the otherwise empty wall facing the entrance. The painting was of trees, shades of thick textured green on green. There was no light, yet the trees were illuminated, as if reflecting a luminosity that came not from the sun but from within.
The furniture in the magician's living room consisted of one brown sofa, a small table and two matching chairs. A rocking chair seemed stranded in the space between the living and dining area.
A small rug, the gift of an already forgotten lost love, was thrown in front of the rocking chair. In this room, on that sofa, the underground man received his carefully selected visitors. They were famous filmmakers, scriptwriters, painters, writers, critics, former students and friends.
They all came to ask his advice about their films, books and lovers; they wanted to know how they could bypass the regulations, how they could cheat the censor or carry on their clandestine love affairs. He shaped their works and their lives for them. He spent hours talking through the structure of an idea or, in the cutting room, editing a film. He advised some friends on how to make up with their lovers.
He advised others that if they wanted to write better, they should fall in love. He read almost all the publications in the Soviet Union and was somehow upto-date on the latest or best films and books written abroad. Many wished to be part of his hidden kingdom, but he picked only a few who passed his secret test. He made all the bids, accepting and rejecting them for reasons of his own. In return for his help, he asked that his friends never acknowledge or mention his name publicly.
I remember one of his oft-repeated sentences: She reminded me of what I must have looked like as a very small child when my father, at night and also in the early morning before he went to work, would sit by my bed and weave stories.
When he was angry at something I had done, when he wanted me to do something, when he wished to appease me, all the mundane details of an everyday relationship he transformed into a tale that choked me with sudden thrills and tremors. What I did not tell Yassi that day was that Nabokov's magician, the man who was as dangerous to the state as an armed rebel, did not exist-or, at least, not in fiction. He was real and lived less than fifteen minutes away from where she and I were sitting, aimlessly stirring our long spoons in the tall glasses.
That was how I chose to ask Yassi to participate in my class. Are you bewildered? Why Lolita? Why Lolita in Tehran? I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea.
Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives. Let us go to the part when Humbert arrives at Lolita's summer camp to pick her up after her mother's death, of which she knows nothing.
This scene is the prelude to two years of captivity, during which the unwitting Lolita drifts from one motel to another with her guardian-lover: I was standing with my back to the open door, and then I felt the blood rush to my head as I heard her respiration and voice behind me. Nabokov called himself a painterly writer, and this scene gives a good indication of what he meant.
The description is pregnant with the tension between what has gone on before Charlotte's discovery of Humbert's treachery and their confrontation, leading to Charlotte's fatal accident and the knowledge of more terrible things to come. Ordinary objects in this seemingly descriptive scene are destabilized by emotions, revealing Humbert's guilty secret.
From now on, Humbert's shiver and tremble will color every nuance of his narrative, imposing emotion onto landscape, time and incident, however seemingly marginal or insignificant. Did you, like my girls, feel that the evil implied in Humbert's actions and emotions is all the more terrifying because he parades as a normal husband, normal stepfather, normal human being? Then there is the butterfly-or is it a moth? Humbert's inability to differentiate between the two, his indifference, implies a moral carelessness in other matters.
This blind indifference echoes his callous attitude towards Charlotte's dead son and Lolita's nightly sobs. Those who tell us Lolita is a little vixen who deserved what she got should remember her nightly sobs in the arms of her rapist and jailer, because you see, as Humbert reminds us with a mixture of relish and pathos, "she had absolutely nowhere else to go.
The first thing that struck us in reading Lolita-in fact it was on the very first page-was how Lolita was given to us as Humbert's creature. We only see her in passing glimpses. There, on the very first page, he adumbrates her various names, names for different occasions, Lo, Lola and in his arms always Lolita. We are also informed of her "real" name, Dolores, the Spanish word for pain.
To reinvent her, Humbert must take from Lolita her own real history and replace it with his own, turning Lolita into a reincarnation of his lost, unfulfilled young love, Annabel Leigh. This is what Humbert, a number of critics and in fact one of my students, Nima, called Humbert's solipsization of Lolita. Yet she does have a past. Despite Humbert's attempts to orphan Lolita by robbing her of her history, that past is still given to us in glimpses.
Nabokov's art makes these orphaned glimmers all the more poignant in contrast to Humbert's all-encompassing obsession with his own past. Lolita has a tragic past, with a dead father and a dead two-year-old brother.
And now also a dead mother. Like my students, Lolita's past comes to her not so much as a loss but as a lack, and like my students, she becomes a figment in someone else's dream. At some point, the truth of Iran's past became as immaterial to those who appropriated it as the truth of Lolita's is to Humbert. It became immaterial in the same way that Lolita's truth, her desires and life, must lose color before Humbert's one obsession, his desire to turn a twelve-yearold unruly child into his mistress.
When I think of Lolita, I think of that half-alive butterfly pinned to the wall. Lolita's image is forever associated in the minds of her readers with that of her jailer. Lolita on her own has no meaning; she can only come to life through her prison bars.
This is how I read Lolita. Again and again as we discussed Lolita in that class, our discussions were colored by my students' hidden personal sorrows and joys.
Like tearstains on a letter, these forays into the hidden and the personal shaded all our discussions of Nabokov. And more and more I thought of that butterfly; what linked us so closely was this perverse intimacy of victim and jailer. The pages of these diaries were almost all blank, except for Thursdays and sometimes spilling over to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
When I left Iran, the diaries were too heavy to take with me, so I tore out the relevant pages, and this is what I have in front of me: There are some scrawls and references that I can no longer decipher, but my notes for the first few months are tidy and clean.
They mostly refer to insights I gained during our discussions. In the first few weeks of class, we read and discussed the books I had assigned in an orderly, almost formal manner. I had prepared a set of questions for my students, modeled on those a friend had sent me from her women's-studies program, aimed at drawing them out.
They answered the questions dutifully-What do you think of your mother? Name six personalities you admire most in life and six you dislike most.
What two words would you use to describe yourself? Their answers to these dull questions were dull; they wrote what was expected of them.
I remember that Manna tried to personalize her responses. In answer to "What is your image of yourself? From the beginning, I took notes, as if of an experiment. As early as November, just over a month into the meetings, I wrote: All of them want to be independent. They think they cannot find men equal to them. They think they have grown and matured, but men in their lives have not, they have not bothered to think. I am scared of myself, nothing I do or have is like that of others around me.
Others scare me. I scare me. I have underlined love yourself, selfconfidence. Where they opened up and became excited was in our discussion of the works.
The novels were an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection, and leave aside our stories about the deans and the university and the morality squads in the streets. This innocence paid off: I do not think that without it we could have understood our own inarticulateness. Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our own realities, about which we felt so helplessly speechless.
Unlike the generation of writers and intellectuals I was brought up with and now consorted with, this new generation, the one my girls belonged to, was not interested in ideologies or political positions. They had a genuine curiosity, a real thirst for the works of great writers, those condemned to obscure shadows by both the regime and the revolutionary intellectuals, most of their books banned and forbidden.
Unlike in pre-revolutionary times, now the "nonRevolutionary writers," the bearers of the canon, were the ones celebrated by the young: James, Nabokov, Woolf, Bellow, Austen and Joyce were revered names, emissaries of that forbidden world which we would turn into something more pure and golden than it ever was or will be.
In one sense the desire for beauty, the instinctive urge to struggle with the "wrong shape of things," to borrow from Vadim, the narrator of Nabokov's last novel, Look at the Harlequins! This was one domain where ideology played a relatively small part. I would like to believe that all this eagerness meant something, that there was in the air, in Tehran, something not quite like spring but a breeze, an aura that promised spring was on its way.
This is what I cling to, the faint whiff of a sustained and restrained excitement, reminding me of reading a book like Lolita in Tehran. I still find it in my former students' letters when, despite all their fears and anxieties for a future without jobs or security and a fragile and disloyal present, they write about their search for beauty.
We are sitting around the iron-and-glass table on a cloudy November day; the yellow and red leaves reflected in the dining room mirror are drenched in a haze. I and perhaps two others have copies of Lolita on our laps. The rest have a heavy Xerox.
There is no easy access to these books-you cannot buy them in the bookstores anymore. First the censors banned most of them, then the government stopped them from being sold: Some of these books could be found at secondhand bookstores, and a very few at the annual international book fair in Tehran. A book like Lolita was difficult to find, especially the annotated version that my girls wanted to have.
We photocopied all three hundred pages for those without copies. In an hour when we take a break, we will have tea or coffee with pastry. I don't remember whose turn it is for pastry. We take turns; every week, one of us provides the pastry. Compared to these assaults, Humbert's similar attacks on Lolita and her mother seem almost mild. We in our class disagreed with all of these interpretations.
I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child's helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along culminating in that squalid but essentially pure and healthy marriage, and her letter, and her dog. And that terrible expression on her face when she had been cheated by HH out of some little pleasure that had been promised.
They all miss the fact that the 'horrid little brat' Lolita is essentially very good indeed-or she would not have straightened out after being crushed so terribly, and found a decent life with poor Dick more to her liking than the other kind. Humbert appears to us both as narrator and seducer-not just of Lolita but also of us, his readers, whom throughout the book he addresses as "ladies and gentlemen of the jury" sometimes as "Winged gentlemen of the jury". As the story unfolds, a deeper crime, more serious than Quilty's murder, is revealed: Humbert's prose, veering at times towards the shamelessly overwrought, aims at seducing the reader, especially the high-minded reader, who will be taken in by such erudite gymnastics.
Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime. Lolita and her mother are doomed before we see them: We glance at the staircase and hear Mrs. Haze's "contralto voice" before Charlotte "a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich" descends into view. Sentence by sentence and word by word, Humbert destroys Charlotte even as he describes her: Through his beautiful language "you can always trust a murderer for his fancy prose style" , Humbert focuses the reader's attention on the banalities and READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN small cruelties of American consumerism, creating a sense of empathy and complicity with the reader, who is encouraged to conceive of as understandable his ruthless seduction of a lonely widow and his eventual marriage to her in order to seduce her daughter.
Nabokov's art is revealed in his ability to make us feel sympathy for Humbert's victims-at least for his two wives, Valeria and Charlotte-without our approving of them. We condemn Humbert's acts of cruelty towards them even as we substantiate his judgment of their banality. What we have here is the first lesson in democracy: In Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, Nabokov's villains are the vulgar and brutal totalitarian rulers trying to possess and control imaginative minds; in Lolita, the villain is the one with the imaginative mind.
The reader could never be confused by Monsieur Pierre, but how is he to judge a Monsieur Humbert? Humbert makes fullest use of his art and guile in setting the reader up for his most heinous crime: He prepares us for the ultimate scene of seduction with the same immaculate precision with which he prepares to dope Lolita and take advantage of her listless body.
He tries to win us to his side by placing us in the same category as himself: He describes Lolita as a vulgar vixen-"a disgustingly conventional little girl," he calls her. She saw the stark act merely as part of a youngster's furtive world, unknown to others. Yet in fact he fails on both fronts. In the case of Lolita, he never succeeds in possessing her willingly, so that every act of lovemaking from then on becomes a crueler and more tainted act of rape; she evades him at every turn.
And he fails to completely seduce the reader, or some readers at least. Again ironically, his ability as a poet, his own fancy prose style, exposes him for what he is.
You do see how Nabokov's prose provides trapdoors for the unsuspecting reader: Thus another Lolita emerges that reaches beyond the caricature of the vulgar insensitive minx, although she is that, too.
A hurt, lonely girl, deprived of her childhood, orphaned and with no refuge. Humbert's rare insights give glimpses into Lolita's character, her vulnerability and aloneness. As the story develops, Humbert's list of grievances grows.
He calls her "the vile and beloved slut" and talks of her "obscene young legs," yet we soon discover what Humbert's complaints mean: Nor is he always the gentle lover: And then the remorse, the poignant sweetness of sobbing atonement, groveling love, the hopelessness of sensual reconciliation. In the velvet night, at Mirana Motel Mirana! I kissed the yellowish soles of her long-toed feet, I immolated myself.
Both doomed were we. And soon I was to enter a new cycle of persecution. The very first morning after their painful to Lo, putting on a brave show and ecstatic to Humbert sexual encounter, she demands some money to call her mother. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go. He prevents her from mixing with children her own age, watches over her so she never has boyfriends, frightens her into secrecy, bribes her with money for acts of sex, which he revokes when he has had his due.
Before the reader makes his judgment about either Humbert or our own blind censor, I must remind him that at some point Humbert addresses his audience as "Reader! Why is it that stories like Lolita and Madame Bovary-stories that are so sad, so tragic-make us happy?
Is it not sinful to feel pleasure when reading about something so terrible? Would we feel this way if we were to read about it in the newspapers or if it happened to us? If we were to write about our lives here in the Islamic Republic of Iran, should we make our readers happy?
That night, like many other nights, I took the class to bed with me. I felt I had not adequately answered Mitra's question, and was tempted to call my magician and talk to him about our discussion.
Most nights I lay awake waiting for some unexpected disaster to descend on our house or for a telephone call that would give us the bad news about a friend or a relative. I think I somehow felt that as long as I was conscious, nothing bad could happen, that bad things would come in the middle of my dreams. I can trace my nightly tremors back to the time when, in my sophomore year, while studying at a horrible school in Switzerland, I was summoned in the middle of a history lesson with a stern American teacher to the principal's office.
There I was told that they had just heard on the radio that my father, the youngest mayor in Tehran's history, had been jailed. Only three weeks earlier I had seen a large color photograph of him in Paris Match, standing by General de Gaulle. He was not with the Shah or any other dignitary-it was just Father and the General. Like the rest of my family, my father was a culture snob, who went into politics despising politicians and defying them almost at every turn. He was insolent to his superiors, at once popular and outspoken and on good terms with journalists.
He wrote poetry and thought his real vocation should have been writing. I learned later that the General had taken a special liking to him after my father's welcoming speech, which was delivered in French and filled with allusions to great French writers such as Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo.
De Gaulle chose to reward him with the Legion of Honor. This did not go over well with the Iranian elite, who had resented my father's insubordinate attitude before and were now jealous of the extra attentions paid him. One small compensation for the bad news was that I did not have to continue my Swiss education. That Christmas I went back home with a special escort to take me to the airport. The reality of my father's imprisonment was established for me when I landed at the Tehran airport and did not find him waiting for me there.
For the four years that they kept him in his "temporary" jail-in the jail's library, adjacent to the morgue-we were told alternately that he was going to be killed or that he would be set free almost at once. He was eventually exonerated of all charges except one, insubordination. This I always remember-insubordination: Much later, when I read a sentence by Nabokov-"curiosity is insubordination in its purest form"-the verdict against my father came to my mind.
I never recovered from the shock of that moment when I was pulled out of the security of Mr. Holmes's-I think that was his name-stern classroom and told that my father, the mayor, was now in jail. Later, the Islamic Revolution took away whatever sense of security I had managed to reestablish after my father's release from jail. Several months into the class, my girls and I discovered that almost every one of us had had at least one nightmare in some form or another in which we either had forgotten to wear our veil or had not worn it, and always in these dreams the dreamer was running, running away.
In one, perhaps my own, the dreamer wanted to run but she couldn't: She could not turn around, open the door and hide inside.
The only one among us who claimed she had never experienced such fear was Nassrin. You know what they say: I believed in that sort of thing," she said with a shrug. He kept repeating to his parents that he was having illegal dreams.
In Invitation to a Beheading, on the wall of Cincinnatus C. I felt brave. I answered the Revolutionary Guards, I argued with them, I was not afraid of following them to the Revolutionary Committees.
I did not have time to think about all the dead relatives and friends, about our own narrow and lucky escapes. I paid for it at night, always at night, when I returned. What will happen now? Who will be killed? When will they come? I had internalized the fear, so that I did not think of it always consciously, but I had insomnia; I roamed the house and I read and fell asleep with my glasses on, often holding on to my book.
With fear come the lies and the justifications that, no matter how convincing, lower our self-esteem, as Nassrin had painfully reminded us. Certain things saved me: He worried constantly-if we were stopped, what excuse could we give? We were not married; we were not brother and sister. He worried for me and for my family, and every time he worried, I became bolder, letting my scarf slip, laughing out loud.
I could not do much to "them," but I could get angry at him or at my husband, at all the men who were so cautious, so worried about me, for "my sake. Why did Lolita or Madame Bovary fill us with so much joy? Was there something wrong with these novels, or with us? By the next Thursday, I had formulated my thoughts and could not wait to share them with the class. Nabokov calls every great novel a fairy tale, I said. Well, I would agree. First, let me remind you that fairy tales abound with frightening witches who eat children and wicked stepmothers who poison their beautiful stepdaughters and weak fathers who leave their children behind in forests.
But the magic comes from the power of good, that force which tells us we need not give in to the limitations and restrictions imposed on us by McFate, as Nabokov called it. Every fairy tale offers the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies.
In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world.
The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter. This is why we love Madame Bovary and cry for Emma, why we greedily read Lolita as our heart breaks for its small, vulgar, poetic and defiant orphaned heroine.
Somehow we got to talking about the definitions we had concocted for the members of the class. I told them I called Nassrin my Cheshire cat, because she was in the habit of appearing and disappearing at strange times. When Nassrin came in with Mahshid, we told her what we had been saying.
Manna said, "If I had to come up with a definition for Nassrin, I would call her a contradiction in terms. She turned to Manna, almost accusingly: The sun and clouds that defined Nassrin's infinite moods and temperaments were too intimate, too inseparable.
She lived by startling statements that she blurted out in a most awkward manner. My girls all surprised me at one point or another, but she more than the rest.
Rooftops of Tehran
One day Nassrin had stayed on after class, to help me sort out and file my lecture notes. We had talked randomly, about the university days and the hypocrisy of some officials and activists in various Muslim associations.
She had gone on to tell me, as she calmly put sheets of paper in blue file folders and entered the date and subject for each file, that her youngest uncle, a very pious man, had sexually abused her when she was barely eleven years old. Nassrin recounted how he used to say that he wanted to keep himself chaste and pure for his future wife and refused friendships with women on that count. Chaste and pure, she mockingly repeated.
He used to tutor Nassrin-a restless and unruly child-three times a week for over a year. He helped her with Arabic and sometimes with mathematics.
During those sessions as they sat side by side at her desk, his hands had wandered over her legs, her whole body, as he repeated the Arabic tenses. This was a memorable day in many ways. In class, we were discussing the concept of the villain in the novel. I had mentioned that Humbert was a villain because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most, Lolita. Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people.
He had created the Lolita he desired, and would not budge from that image. I reminded them of Humbert's statement that he wished to stop time and keep Lolita forever on "an island of entranced time," a task undertaken only by Gods and poets.
I tried to explain how Lolita was a more complex novel than any of the previous ones we had read by Nabokov. On the surface of course Lolita is more realistic, but it also has the same trapdoors and unexpected twists and turns. I showed them a small photograph of Joshua Reynolds's painting The Age of Innocence, which I had found accidentally in an old graduate paper. We were discussing the scene in which Humbert, paying a visit to Lolita's school, finds her in a classroom.
Lolita is sitting behind another "nymphet," an exquisite blonde with a "very naked porcelain-white neck" and "wonderful platinum hair. Let us pause for a moment on this casual description of Lolita's schoolgirl hands. The innocence of the description belies the action Lolita is forced to perform.
The words "inky, chalky, redknuckled" are enough to take us to the edge of tears. There is a pause. Do I imagine it now? All she wants is to be a normal girl. Remember the scene when Avis's father comes to pick her up and Lolita notices the way the fat little daughter and father cling to each other?
All she wants is to live a normal life. Manna, who seemed engrossed by a passage in the book, raised her head. What Ayatollah Khomeini tried to do to our lives, turning us, as you said, into figments of his imagination, he also did to our fiction.
Look at Salman Rushdie's case. I mean, they don't object to his writing fiction but to his being offensive. Besides, the contract with the reader is that this is not reality, it's an invented world. There must be some blasted space in life," she added crossly, "where we can be offensive, for God's sake. Through most of this discussion, Nassrin had been drawing furious lines in her notebook, and after she had delivered her pronouncement, she went on with her drawing.
She shrugged as if to say she couldn't help it, the word appealed to her.
See a Problem?
Mahshid, who had been quiet until then, suddenly spoke up. Some things are offensive to some people. Why should I condemn Humbert but not the girl in Loitering with Intent and say it's okay to have an adulterous relationship? These are serious questions, and they become difficult when we apply them to our own lives," she said, lowering her gaze, as if looking for a response in the designs on the carpet.
She had brought her three-year-old daughter the nursery was closed; there was no one to look after her , and we'd had difficulty convincing her to leave her mother's side and watch cartoons in the hall with Tahereh Khanoom, who helped us with the housework.
Mahshid turned to Azin and said with quiet disdain: The point is, do we have any morality at all? Do we consider that anything goes, that we have no responsibility towards others but only for satisfying our needs? There was something in the air that day that did not relate directly to the books we had read. Our discussion had plunged us into more personal and private arenas, and my girls found that they could not resolve their own dilemmas quite as neatly as they could in the case of Emma Bovary or Lolita.
Azin had bent forward, her long gold earrings playing hide-and-seek in the ringlets of her hair. As women, do we have the same right as men to enjoy sex? How many of us would say yes, we do have a right, we have an equal right to enjoy sex, and if our husbands don't satisfy us, then we have a right to seek satisfaction elsewhere. Azin is the tallest one in our group, the one with the blond hair and milky skin.
She would often bite the corner of her lower lip and launch into tirades about love, sex and men-like a child throwing a big stone into the pool; not just to make a splash, but to wet the adults in the bargain. Azin had been married three times, most recently to a good-looking and rich merchant from a traditional provincial bazaari family. I had seen her husband at many of my conferences and meetings, which were usually attended by my girls.
He seemed very proud of her and always treated me with exaggerated deference. At every meeting, he made sure I was comfortable; if there was no water at the podium, he would see to it that the mistake was rectified; if extra chairs were needed, he would boss the staff around. Somehow at these meetings it seemed that he was the gracious host, who had granted us his space, his time, because that was all he had to give.
I was sure that Azin's assault had been partly directed against Mahshid, and perhaps indirectly against Manna, too. Their clashes were not only the result of their different backgrounds. Azin's outbursts, her seeming frankness about her personal life and desires, made Manna and Mahshid, both reserved by temperament, deeply uncomfortable.
They disapproved of her, and Azin sensed that. Her efforts at friendship were rejected as hypocritical. Mahshid's response, as usual, was silence. She drew into herself and refused to fill the void that Azin's question had left behind. Her silence extended to the others, and was broken finally by a short giggle from Yassi.
I thought this was a good time for a break and went to the kitchen to bring in the tea. When I returned, I heard Yassi laughing. Trying to lighten the mood, she was saying, "How could God be so cruel as to create a Muslim woman with so much flesh and so little sex appeal? Mahshid look down and then shyly and royally lifted her head, her slanted eyes widening in an indulgent smile.
But Yassi would not give up. Nafisi, please command her to laugh. There was a pause and a silence as I placed the tray of tea on the table. Nassrin suddenly said: I've been in the middle of it all my life. She was the only daughter, had two brothers, both of whom had chosen a diplomatic career. My grandfather was very liberal and he wanted her to finish her education and go to college.
He sent her to the American school. She fell in love with my father, her tutor. She was terrible in math and science. It is ironic," said Nassrin, again lifting her left hand dangerously close to Mahshid's cup. But she fell for him, perhaps because he was so different, perhaps because for her, wearing the chador and caring for him seemed more romantic than going to some college and becoming a lady doctor or whatever. And she taught me English.
I never had trouble with English, thanks to her. Nor did my sister, who was much older than me, by nine years. Rather strange for a Muslim woman-I mean, she should have taught us Arabic, but she never learned the language. My sister married someone quote, unquote"-Nassrin made a large quotation mark with her hands-"'modern' and went to live in England. We only see them when they come home for vacations.
When Mahshid stretched her hand to pick a cream puff, Azin handed the dish over to her with a friendly smile, forcing a gracious thank-you. She changed her whole life for him, and never really complained," Nassrin continued. Although we were brought up according to my dad's dictates, my mother's family and her past were always in the shadows, hinting at another way of life.
It wasn't just that my mother could never get along with my father's family, who considered her uppity and an outsider. She's very lonely, my mother is. Sometimes I think I wish she would commit adultery or something. We ended up making desultory conversation, mainly gossiping about our experiences at the university, until we broke up.
When the girls left that afternoon, they left behind the aura of their unsolved problems and dilemmas. I felt exhausted. I chose the only way I knew to cope with problems: I went to the refrigerator, scooped up the coffee ice cream, poured some cold coffee over it, looked for walnuts, discovered we had none left, went after almonds, crushed them with my teeth and sprinkled them over my concoction.
I knew that Azin's outrageousness was partly defensive, that it was her way of overcoming Mahshid's and Manna's defenses.
Small and dainty, with her cameo brooches-she did actually wear cameo brooches-her small earrings, pale blue blouses buttoned up to the neck and her pale smiles, Mahshid was a formidable enemy.
Did she and Manna know how their obstinate silences, their cold, immaculate disapproval, affected Azin, made her defenseless? In one of their confrontations, during the break, I had heard Mahshid telling Azin, "Yes, you have your sexual experiences and your admirers.
You are not an old maid like me.
Yes, old maid-I don't have a rich husband and I don't drive a car, but still you have no right, no right to disrespect me. How was I disrespectful?
No amount of talk and discussion on my part, both in class and with each of them in private, had helped matters between them. Their only concession had been to try and leave each other alone inside the class. Not very malleable, as Yassi might say. Was it the day we were sitting at his dining room table, greedily biting into our forbidden ham-and-cheese sandwich and calling it a croque monsieur? At some point we must have caught the same expression of ravenous, unadulterated pleasure in each other's eyes, because we started to laugh simultaneously.
I raised my glass of water to him and said, Who would have thought that such a simple meal would appear to us like a kingly feast? And I said, Oh, the things we have to be thankful for! And that memorable day was the beginning of our detailing our long list of debts to the Islamic Republic: We sometimes met on a corner of the wide, leafy boulevard leading to the mountains for our afternoon walks.
I used to wonder what the Revolutionary Committee would think of these meetings. Would they suspect us of political conspiracy or of a lovers' rendezvous? It was encouraging in a strange way that they would perhaps never guess the real purpose of our encounters. Was not life exciting when every simple act acquired the complexity of a dangerous secret mission? We always had something to exchange-books, articles, tapes, boxes of chocolates he received from Switzerland-for chocolates were expensive, especially ones from Switzerland.
He brought me videos of rare films, which my children and I, and later my students and I, would watch: My magician used to say he could tell a great deal about people from their photographs, especially the angle of their noses.
After some hesitation, I brought him some photographs of my girls, anxiously awaiting his pronouncement. He would hold one in his hand, scrutinize it from different perspectives and issue a short statement. I wanted him to read their writings and to look at their drawings, right there and then: I wanted to know what he thought. They are fine people, he said, looking at me with the ironic smile of an indulgent father.She did not join any political group or organization.
The concept of That is discussed a number of times. In his book The practice of everyday life Michel de Certeau makes a distinction between the idea of strategy and that of tacticsMark.
I lied, she said. This is also the summer when their lives will take a dramatic turn. Holmes's-I think that was his name-stern classroom and told that my father, the mayor, was now in jail. There was no light, yet the trees were illuminated, as if reflecting a luminosity that came not from the sun but from within. How would others look at her?