As a literary journalist in Iran, I have often wondered why the country's greed for literature abruptly ended when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
Now books scarcely figure in a country once recognised by its literature. Today, you are unlikely to see signs of literary life in Iran. Writers face immense challenges in getting their works read. Crackdowns imposed by Ahmadinejad's government have
plunged publishing into crisis.
They [the governmental authorities] have not only made the publishers stop working, but also have put writers in a situation in which they have no inclination to write, says Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, author of the Persian 10-volume bestseller Kelydar
, who refuses to give his next book to a publisher as a protest against the government's clampdown.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government imposed strict rules on book publishing. Since then, the Ministry of Culture has been charged to vet all books before publication, mainly for erotic and religious transgressions. All books, including
fiction, are required to conform to Islamic law.
A new regime of censorship began when Ahmadinejad took office. The cultural ministry imposed rules requiring renewed permits for previously published books. As a result, many books have been deemed unsuitable for publication or reprinting.
Many world classics, contemporary novels and dozens of international bestsellers have been banned, including a Farsi translation of Dostoevsky's masterpiece The Gambler , Tracy Chevalier's bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring , William
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and books by Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Dan Brown and Woody Allen.
Recently, when the conservative website Tabnak drew attention to the plot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores , the Farsi translation of the book was banned, despite having gained permission from Ahmadinejad's
cultural ministry some months earlier.
'The novelist Yaghoub Yadali was recently illegally imprisoned for 40 days by the government for several passages from his novel Mores of Unrest, a book which had ministry permission. He was eventually charged with dissemination of falsehood and
sentenced to three months' imprisonment.
s culture minister has reacted to publishers'
criticisms of the country'
s evaluation process by urging writers to censor their own books if they hoped for publication in the Islamic republic.
At a news conference the minister, Mohammad Hossein Safar, said: This is what we ask publishers and writers, ‘You are aware of the vetting code, so censor pages which are likely to create a dispute.'
Declaring that publications should conform to the system'
s religious, moral and national sensitivities, he warned against graphic descriptions of relationships or sex, saying, It is a clear violation of the law to give an excessive portrayal of a man and woman'
s private relationships and to subject our youth and adults to descriptions of intercourse, adding that if anyone makes fun of religion, be it Islam or Christianity, the country should not allow opposition to God to be reflected in
All publications in Iran must be approved by the Culture Ministry. Publishers have complained of tighter censorship of new books since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. The culture minister made his remarks in reply to a recent letter from
the Tehran Publishers Association complaining that the ministry employed a prolonged and arbitrary vetting process.
Reports have emerged about the banning of some books and pressure on independent publishers
at the Tehran Book Fair.
Iran's Writers Association has said in a statement that a number of prominent publishing houses have been banned from attending the fair and the licenses of several have been cancelled. According to the statement, several of the publishers have
also been summoned by security officials.
Censorship in the Islamic Republic is nothing new, but as the Writers Association points out, the summoning of publishers and revoking licenses is unprecedented.
The group has condemned the state pressure on independent book publishers and warned about the increased censorship and cultural crackdown in Iran.
Iranian news websites report that only books that have been published since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad took power in 2005 have been allowed to be presented at the book fair.
The Bamdadkhabar website cites a report by the ILNA news agency according to which books by renowned Iranian writer and critic Houshang Golshiri and prominent female poet Forough Farokhzad have been banned at the fair.
Books by Iranian reformist cleric and currently visiting research professor at America's Duke University, Mohsen Kadivar, have also reportedly been banned at the fair.
Bamdadkhabar quoted an unnamed publisher, who did not want to be named because of security fears, as saying that authorities have warned against political discussions and propaganda against the system at the booths and said they
will be dealt with in a tougher manner than one can imagine.
Khabaronline also reported that on the first day of the book fair all books related to the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri and Ayatollah Sanei were collected from various stalls and were being kept at the cultural office of Tehran's Mosala,
where the book fair is being held.
The Iranian censor's office is alive and well, if somewhat slow to get through the mounds of books awaiting approval.
Spare a thought for Iran's literary censors - unloved by writers and publishers alike, they have thousands of works to read through, so much so that the piles of books have spilled out from their rooms at the culture ministry into the corridors.
Figures from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance show that the country has some 7,000 publishing firms. Take just two of these companies - one of them says it has about 70 novels and short story collections currently pending approval from the
censors. The other says it has had between 50 and 70 books awaiting review at any one time for the past two years.
Supposing that just 1,000 publishers each deliver five books a year to the ministry's book department, that comes to 5,000 a year, plus the many inevitably left over from previous years. Writers and translators routinely wait for one, two or even three
years for a decision on the suitability of their books.
The censors' work has always been shrouded in secrecy, but the word in the publishing industry is that there are never more than 20 of them.
To make matters worse, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected president in 2005, the first thing his then culture minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi did was to revoke all the licenses issued under the previous president, Mohammad Khatami.
That created a massive backlog of applications. Censors had to go through already published works as well as the never-ending flow of new ones, checking line by line to see whether they were compatible with the core Islamic values the new
administration wanted to assert. This is while, under Ahmadinejad, hard-liners in government have frequently questioned whether literature has any use or point at all.
Iranian book censors have refused a publishing house permission to reprint an edition of one of the country's best-known classical epic poems.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance decided that some parts of the epic poem Khosrow and Shirin by Nezami Ganjavi needed reworking, despite the fact that the book-length masterpiece has been a classic of Iranian literature for 831 years.
The news not only astounded the publishing house, it also shocked Iran's intellectual class, despite decades of inurement to the censors' heavy hand.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has given no official explanation for its decision to belatedly censor the epic. But one objection reportedly concerns the poem's reference to the heroine Shirin embracing a male body.
If the embrace is indeed the reason for the censorship, it would be in line with decades of similar objections by Iran's censors to anything they construe as indecent. According to their guidelines, indecency can come in a million unexpected forms.
Faraj Sarkouhi, who edited the Iranian cultural weekly Adineh before he was imprisoned for propaganda in the 1990s and fled to Germany following his release, says that Iran's censors are obsessed with the idea that romance can be a
corruptive force in society. They make Iran a hell for literature, without regard to whether it is contemporary or classical.
Sarkouhi notes that the dialogue in a recent Iranian version of one of the novels of German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse was altered so that a reference to wine instead became a reference to coffee. Similarly, if a man and a woman who are not married are
in love, the censors feel no compunctions about adding a paragraph to marry them and legalize their situation.
100 Iranian writers, poets, and translators have called for an end to book censorship.
The call was made in an open letter published on December 2 on the Pendar website that calls for an end to the requirement that writers obtain authorization from the Culture Ministry before publishing.
The needed authorization is increasingly difficult to obtain, according to writers and publishers, who say censorship has intensified in the Islamic republic in recent years.
The group of intellectuals includes prominent poet Simin Behbahani and writer Mohammad Ghaed. In the letter, they write:
Iran is one of the rare countries in the beginning of the 21st century where authors have to ask for a license from the state in order to publish their books, even though the requirement is not stated in the constitution.
In reality, this method amounts to hostage taking of freedom of expression, creativity, and the livelihood of writers by the government in order to impose its ideas on the authors.
The call for an end to book censorship is likely to fall on deaf ears among Iranian authorities who are openly supportive of censorship. Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini has been quoted as saying that censoring books is not an obstacle but a necessity.
Iran has banned the use of the word wine as well as the names of foreign animals and certain foreign presidents .
Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is imposing the ban to counter a Western cultural onslaught . Mohammad Selgi, head of book censorship at the ministry, said:
When new books are registered with us, our staff first has to read them page by page to make sure whether they require any editorial changes in line with promoting the principles of the Islamic revolution, effectively confronting the Western cultural
onslaught and censoring any insult against the prophets.
Words like wine and the names of foreign animals and pets, as well as names of certain foreign presidents are also banned under the new restricting regulations.
According to BBC Persia , Selgi also spoke out against books on psychology that cite masturbation as a treatment method.