The Hunted Evolves Faster than the Hunter: The Problem of Censorship in Iran

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By Arash Hejazi


My name is Arash Hejazi. I am an Iranian doctor, novelist and founder and editorial director of the Tehran-based Caravan Books Publishing House. Sadly, I’m now better known for my association with the brutal murder of Neda Agha Soltan — as the doctor who tried to save her life and then went out into the world to tell her story. Neda’s death was a brutal and horrible experience for me.

Before this terrible incident I was known primarily to others for my literary work, publishing writers ranging from Paulo Coelho (which I translated from the Portuguese myself) to Nobel Laureate J.M.G. Le Clezio. I was known as a free speech advocate and fought against censorship. I say ‘I was’ known for these things because I cannot return to Iran and am now being prosecuted in my own country for telling the truth. The Iranian intelligence services are looking for me and I cannot return.

Coming from a nation proud to have produced one of the most ancient books in history (the Avesta), and coming from a religious background where God swears “by the pen and whatever they record” (Surah 68 [The Pen] in the Quran), it is hard to believe the Iranian government to be one of the few states left in the modern world that officially censors books. However, recent events in Iran have shown the world the very scope of censorship of the press and the media. We have faced the same censorship in the book industry for years.

caravanA resolution issued in 1988 presented a list of subjects that “do not deserve to be published” in Iran, as they were believed to “be misused for propagating intellectual carelessness and disturbing the rights of the public” and that the “healthy and constructive” atmosphere of book printing and publishing should be “guarded” and “secured” by observing these limitations.

Promoting profanity, renouncing the fundamentals of religion, propagating moral corruption, inciting the public to rise up against the IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran) and oppose it, promoting the ideas of “destructive” and “illegal” groups, and “mocking” and “weakening” national pride and patriotic spirit are among these banned topics.

It is extremely hard to decipher the meaning of these limitations, especially when it comes to terms such as moral corruption, uprising, profanity, etc, for which no one can give a concrete definition. Thus, publishers and authors are always at the mercy of the censors.

During the first term of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, censorship entered a new phase which crippled hundreds of publishers in Iran. Thousands of books which had been issued permits to be published during Khatami’s presidency had those licenses revoked in order to stop the publishers from reprinting them; the decision imposed a fierce financial burden on the publishers. Among the banned titles were several from Caravan’s list, including most of Coelho’s books, as well as Le Clézio’s The Desert.

After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 a new generation of writers emerged, one whose work enriched and revitalized Persian literature, particularly during Khatami’s presidency. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, however, most of these authors have had to face long ordeals to publish their novels, which, in many cases, has led them to refuse to submit their books to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), the organization which grants permission for publication. This situation led many talented Iranian authors to give up writing, or at least, give up trying to publish their work. The result has been a serious decline in modern Persian fiction. Some authors have tried to circumvent this by publishing their books online, although the majority of their websites are censored by the government, making it impossible for readers to access them.

Censorship by fear is another powerful tool the authorities use to control published material. The significant number of Iranian writers, journalists, translators, publishers, bloggers and artists who have been murdered, imprisoned, exiled, prosecuted or banned during the past 30 years has instilled an enormous amount of fear among the active members of the publishing community. As a result, self-censorship is a common practice among Iranian authors who, out of fear, try to conceal troublesome content of their books themselves, before their work is altered — and ultimately maimed — by censors.

This self-censorship has imposed serious limitations on their artistic creation. Nevertheless, these restrictions have led to the formation of a new style of writing, almost unique to Iranian authors. It’s a style that tries to explore the same subjects as every other author in the world, but in a completely concealed manner.  To accomplish this, they’ve created a cryptic language, one that is highly appealing to an audience interested in a literature rich in metaphors and intertextualities. The same style appears in the works of several Iranian filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who have managed to attract a wide audience and several prestigious awards worldwide.

Nonetheless, the same doesn’t go for translated books, which must remain true to the original text. Due to significant intervention by the MCIG, Iranian readers have been deprived of several widely acclaimed works or international bestsellers. They have never had a chance — or the chance was taken from them after a brief period of availability — to read classics such as Joyce Ulysses, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Auster’s New York Trilogy, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ or bestsellers such as Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Coelho’s Eleven Minutes or Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. The books that are eventually published usually have significant holes and modifications that are severe enough to ultimately ruin the book. Books such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Cunningham’s The Hours are concrete examples books that have been published in Iran but were radically altered by censors. The result is that Iranian readers mistrust translated literature.

Besides the intellectual harm inflicted on the book industry by censorship, it has also caused several economic and financial hurdles. First, the prolonged and exhausting process of obtaining permissions creates significant financial problems for publishers. Publishers have to pay all the up-front costs of a book before it is submitted for the MCIG’s scrutiny. Being denied permission for a book thus causes significant damage to the already meager budgets of publishers.

Furthermore, on the national level, a significant amount of public funds that could be used to support and improve the book industry is spent for maintaining these highly expensive controls over the content of books. Hundreds of censors and administrative staff are employed and expensive software and hardware is utilized to control the publishing industry — a practice that must account for a significant chunk of the annual budget of the MCIG.

These practices have significantly stifled the growth of the publishing sector, both in the type of books published, and in the development of an efficient and strong sector that is able to interact properly with the rest of global publishing community.

Ironically, according the Iranian Constitution, censorship is illegal. People were hoping that a change in the administration via the presidential elections in Iran would help remove these crippling controls. But the highly controversial outcome of the ballots has disappointed hundreds of publishers and authors who now know that the barriers to their freedom of expression are destined to grow higher and stronger in the next few years.

No, things don’t look good at the moment for Iranian publishing. Nor does it look good for the immediate future. However, the post-election media revolution has proven that no government repression can prevent the truth from coming to light anymore. The hunted is evolving faster than the hunter.

Chip Rossetti assisted with the preparation of this article.

READ: Arash Hejazi’s English blog for news and a summary of his bestselling novel

BROWSE: The English-language web site of Caravan Books.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.