Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

This month, we have chosen Reading Lolita in Tehran. 

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely–their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous masterwork gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny, and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.


“Resonant and deeply affecting . . . an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction–on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.”–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A poignant, searing tale about the secret ways Iranian women defy the regime. . . . [Nafisi] makes you want to rush back to all these books to experience the hidden aspects she’s elucidated.” –Salon

“An inspiring account of an insatiable desire for intellectual freedom.”–USA Today

“Transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb as all three . . . Nafisi has produced an original work on the relationship between life and literature.”–Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[A] sparkling memoir . . . a spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


During the month of July, we suggest that participants read a part per week but ultimately it is up to you to decide how you wish to split up the reading.

Discussion questions will be posted according to the dates below.

Lolita: July 5th

Gatsby: July  12th

James: July 19th

Austen and Epilogue: July 26th


Before we begin reading, we would like to ask each of you to reflect on what you know and have been taught regarding Iran. In particular, what your views are regarding women within Iranian society. Additionally, we would like to ask you to think about rebellion and what that means to you, and what acts you can classify as rebellion. You can reflect on these ideas personally, or add them in the forum to begin a discussion with your fellow members.


This forum is available to members only. Click here to learn how to become a WIIS member.

The forum will be updated with discussion questions each week.

Other Reccomendations

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

No One Knows About Persian Cats

Renowned Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time For Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq) returns with "an exhilarating examination of a leading Iranian criminal enterprise music" (The Wall Street Journa). Co-written by imprisoned Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, the film is an indictment of artistic repression in Iran s exciting underground music scene and a funny and moving celebration of an entire generation of Iranians striving towards personal and creative freedom. Shot in secret and featuring extraordinary performances by real underground bands, NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS follows a pair of young musicians, recently released from prison, on a mission to take their rock band to Europe. Forbidden by the authorities to play in Iran, they plan their escape abroad with a fast-talking music promoter. Vowing to play one last show before leaving Tehran, their dangerous mission takes them on a free-wheeling journey through the City's vibrant and diverse underground scene, home to an estimated 2,000 illegal independent bands.

The Salesman

Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Forced out of their apartment due to dangerous works on a neighboring building, Emad and Rana move into a new flat in the center of Tehran. An incident linked to the previous tenant will dramatically change the young couple's life.


Marmulak, or The Lizard, is an Iranian comedy. This film follows a thief posing as a mullah. The film satirizes clergy and religion within Iran. The film was released in Iran and was very successful. However, three weeks after its initial release it was taken down because of the controversial nature of the film.

The White Ballon

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Iran began to be recognized as a refreshing source of low-budget, wryly naturalistic filmmaking, and Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (winner of the Camera d'Or award at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival) was the first Iranian film to get a U.S. art-house release. Simple and spare yet filled with observant detail, it's a mild, beguiling movie about a 7-year-old girl's tenacious quest to buy a cherished goldfish for her family's New Year's Day celebration. That's really all there is to it, but it's wonderfully warm, funny, and generous in spirit. With an almost miraculous ability to capture moments and reality unhindered by the presence of a camera and crew, Panahi handles this seemingly trivial story as a child's emotional odyssey, set amidst the daily rhythms of Teheran as a city where kindness and cruelty can be found in close proximity. Anyone interested in international films and filmmakers should give this one high priority on their list of must-see movies. --Jeff Shannon