Reading Lolita in Tehran

I recently read Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her life in Iran during and after the revolution, where she taught literature at the universities as well as to a private group of women. It is an excellent, well-written and heart-wrenching book, and I highly recommend it (you can read my full review here, on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany).

It was a difficult book to read, however, because of Nafisi’s honest and intense depictions of life under an oppressive regime and during a war (the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s). The horror of the atrocious human rights violations, as well as of living in a country at war, is made incredibly real. Through simply relating her life and those of her students, Nafisi shows the damage that oppression does, the way in which it prevents people from being able to know who they truly are or what they truly want. This an important book, because it humanizes war and oppression.

Reading Lolita in Tehran left me with many questions on my mind. How does this happen, that people come to power and then succeed at restricting people’s freedoms and rights? How is it possible for a government to get away with executing thousands of people? Is it true that violence wins in the end, because if you try to resist it, you will just be killed? Is it possible to counteract such regimes, for human rights to win in the end, without violence? What makes people act with such cruelty towards others?

It is easy to dehumanize the leaders in a regime such as the one in Iran. It makes things simpler if we call them monsters, subhuman, doing things that humans – you and I – would never do. However, this is a very dangerous thing to do, because it masks the fact that anyone is capable of committing “evil” acts – yes, even you and I. I was recently reminded of psychologist Phil Zimbardo’s work on evil, in particular his famous prison experiment. He demonstrated the conditions under which ordinary people will treat others cruelly. In fact, he recently wrote an entire book on the topic of how good people turn evil, titled The Lucifer Effect. Only when we remember that in fact anyone can be cruel under the right conditions can work towards ensuring that such conditions do not exist, and towards resisting cruelty in ourselves. Instead of dehumanizing oppressive leaders, we should remember that they are just as human as you and me, and examine the conditions that led them to become cruel and that allowed them to come to power.

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