Banned Works at Tehran Book Fair Highlight Iran’s Corrosive Censorship Policies
“People Lack Buying Power, Writers Lack Inspiration,” Says Novelist
Several books by dissident authors in Iran were banned from the 32nd Tehran International Book Fair (April 24-May 4) by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
They include the late Kourosh Asadi’s novel, Kucheye Abrhaye Gom Shodeh (The Alley of Lost Clouds); Kayhan Khanjani’s novel, Bande Mahkoumin (The Condemned Ward); E’dam va Qesas (Execution and Retribution) by civil rights columnist Emad Baghi; Dine Dowlati va Dowlate Dini (State Religion and Religious State) by Mohammad Ghouchani; Roshanfekri Dini va Chaleshhaye Jadid (Religious Intellectualism and New Challenges) by Iran’s late Foreign Minister Mohammad Yazdi; and Faqihan va Enghelabe Iran (Theologians and the Iranian Revolution) by Hadi Tabatabaie.
The banned books had already been published in Iran with the permission of the ministry.
In an open letter sent to Minister Abbas Salehi on April 20, 2019, the Tehran Novelists Guild condemned the censorship and called for the bans to be lifted.
French Fries or Censored Books?
Several Iranians took to Twitter to criticize the banning of books from the fair and Iran’s censorship policies.
Iranian user Navid Abedinpoor tweeted: “A book gets published after passing a thousand filters and censors and becomes available in bookstores where anyone can buy it but you can’t get it at the book fair. Seriously, we don’t have anything as stupid and ridiculous as the Guidance Ministry.”
Another Iranian user on Twitter, “Sylvanas,” worried about the quality of translations: “I want to go to the book fair tomorrow just to get Ulysses but I don’t know what the translation is like. With the current state of censorship, I can’t figure out how they allowed it to get published. Do you think it’s worth buying?”
Journalist and former political prisoner Faraj Sarkohi wrote: “At the Tehran book fair, the guidance minister said that ‘the world knows Iran through books.’ Which world is it that knows Iran through censored and self-censored books published in 500 copies for a population of 80 million people and not through dictatorship, capital punishment, torture, poverty, discrimination, nuclear enrichment, missile production and the Quds Force?”
Author Behnam Allami explained why he boycotted the fair: “I will not participate in the book fair because of the state’s continuing anti-cultural policies, unprecedented censorship of independent and well-intentioned authors, elimination of critical literary voices and, most importantly, society’s deplorable condition.”
Iranian user “Tiger” wrote: “The Guidance Minister said at the book fair that the world knows Iran through books! I think His Excellency meant to say censoring and burning books, declaring books un-Islamic, and killing authors! He’s not that dumb.”
Peyman Azad added, “The only reason to go to the book fair is the french fries, otherwise, who wants mangled, censored books?”
Author Interview: Self-Censorship and Book-Publishing in Iran
Five years ago, during the second year of his first term, President Hassan Rouhani suggested that his government opposed censorship.
“The government is not seeking to impose state censorship,” he said during a speech at the book fair’s inauguration in 2014.
But many books have since been denied publishing permits or banned from appearing in the Tehran book fair.
Following the 1979 revolution, authors wishing to officially publish their books in Iran were required to comply with arbitrary censorship rules issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Today, a book will go through several rounds of censorship before it can be published in Iran.
First, the author may remove lines and words that could inspire ire by the Guidance Ministry. Then their publisher will do the same before it’s handed off to the ministry for the final say.
The process has deeply impacted free speech in Iran, as well as the quality of book and other literature translations.
Arbitrary Rules, Anonymous Censors
An Iranian female novelist who spoke to CHRI on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said book censorship in Iran is an unofficial policy that runs so deep that authors often censor themselves.
“Every year, various agencies tell the Guidance Ministry not to allow certain books into the book fair and the ministry informs the publishers,” she said. “They have no choice but to carry out the order.”
“Keep in mind that these books are not prevented from being published,” she added. “They just aren’t allowed in the book fair, where many people go to find and buy new books that could benefit publishers as well as authors.”
“Censorship before a book is published is unlawful,” she said. “Our laws mention nothing about censoring books and yet this illegal process has been going on since the early years of the revolution.”
The novelist continued: “Censorship first starts with the author who tries to suppress her own thoughts. If the author succeeds in finishing the book, it gets submitted to publishers who act as a team of censors and approve the books that have the least chance of attracting problems from the Guidance Ministry.”
She added that some books are still banned after completing all the necessary approval steps: “In recent years, following complaints lodged by certain state agencies, many books have been prevented from distribution and destroyed after they were printed, leaving publishers and authors without any financial gain.”
The novelist explained: “Once a book reaches the censors at the Guidance Ministry, they don’t care about its literary merit. Instead they say it cannot be published because of ethical or political issues on this and that page. They order changes to be made in the text or reject the book altogether. The ministry’s censors are anonymous. They don’t even have an office because the entire process is illegal… so they work quietly in secret.”
“People Lack Buying Power, Writers Lack Inspiration”
The novelist added that censorship rules and other obstacles are dampening Iranian writers’ motivation to write:
“Most writers are lacking the desire to write and it’s not just because of censorship. It’s also the high cost of paper, people’s decreased buying power, and print runs [amount of books published] of 300 to 500 books for novels. When you think about it, what hope is left to write? Printing only 300 books is a big joke.”
US-led sanctions have also impeded Iran’s ability to import paper, making it expensive for publishing houses to acquire.
The novelist explained: “Unfortunately, subsidized paper is only allocated to state-run printing houses. Private publishers are buying almost all their paper from the free market at a very high cost and therefore prefer to print fewer volumes. More importantly, they prefer to print translations because they are less problematic as far as censorship is concerned. These things make writers discouraged and depressed.”
“Speaking for myself, why should I finish my next novel with this kind of print circulation?” she added. “In the past, authors and publishers included the print run in their contracts but now publishers won’t specify it because they don’t know how it will impact their bottom line.”
“Also, when paper becomes expensive, publishers raise the price of books and in the current poor economic condition, people can’t afford it,” she said. “This is a faulty cycle that has worsened a lot in the past year. It’s all interconnected. Many publishers are going bankrupt. People lack buying power, writers lack inspiration.”
The novelist explained why the Guidance Ministry is more lenient when it comes to approving translations:
“Most of the restrictions are imposed on writers inside the country because officials are afraid that they might become too popular. [The translation of James] Joyce’s Ulysses was published with only a few word changes and it’s available at the book fair but if an Iranian author wanted to write something like Ulysses, it would never get published or it would be heavily censored.”
The novelist added that the Rouhani administration has done little to alleviate the many obstacles authors in Iran face.
“The Rouhani administration is grappling with so many problems that, good or bad, it has not done anything for culture,” she added. “But to be fair, the Tehran Novelists Guild for the first time received an operating license by the Labor Ministry under the Rouhani administration. This was a good development that happened during this administration.”