By Dennis Abrams
“There are conscript soldiers, morality police, daring young women with headscarves pulled back almost behind their ears, periodic calls to prayer broadcast from the Mosallah grand mosque (mostly unanswered), and above all, tens of thousands of books of every description, from novels to policy papers, presented on 7,000 stalls and booths by about 3,000 publishers and exhibitors.
“With an estimated daily attendance of 500,000 people drawn from all over the country, the 10-day Tehran international book fair is a mixture of carnival, festival and earnest debate – a place for the celebration of Persia’s literature, history and science, and for the serious expression of modern Iran’s aspirations.”
And for Tisdall, one of the things he sees is evidence that change is in the air.
Last year, for example, the then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad banned some publishers from the fair for their supposed sympathy to reformist views. But this year, there have been no such prohibitions (although censorship persists). And the fair was opened this year by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, described by Tisdall as “an amiable centrist.”
“A book, its publisher and the reader are respected as much as wisdom itself,” Rouhani said. “We should try to pave the way for book writing and reading…If we want books to obtain their rightful place, we should provide security and freedom for their writers and publishers.” In this way, he said, the fair could be seen as a sort of public diplomacy.
Tisdall spoke with Hasam, a marketing student from Tehran who had come to the fair in search of books on management information, who believes that Iran is in the process of opening up to the world. “This is the largest exhibition in Iran,” he said. “Politically it’s quite free. There were some problems before but it’s better now under Rouhani. The youth in Iran like Rouhani. They call him ‘Too Honey’ because he is so sweet…
“Some European governments and the US, they don’t like this. They don’t want it to change. They are against Iran opening up to the world. They are afraid of something. I don’t know what.”
Looking at the fair from a publisher’s perspective, a representative of Peyman Publishing of Tehran told Tisdall that the fair was good business for his company, with books on poetry, history, and cooking doing particularly well. In fact, sales at the fair accounted for one-tenth of the company’s annual income. “The great advantage is that we can introduce books to people who would otherwise never see them.”
And while some books are banned or subject to censorship (some publishers supposedly take advantage of the fair to smuggle out illegal books), Tisdall says that the range of available work seems to have grown. He cited Elmi Ali, director of Tehran’s imprint Paykan Press, who cited his published translation into Farsi of Ivo Andric’s The Woman from Sarajevo.
But, as Tisdall points out, even though the fair is billed as “international,” “the presence of foreign, especially western, publishers and books remains limited.” McGraw Hill, which had exhibited in the past, was not there this year. Nor were most European countries.
Iran’s allies and neighbors, including Russia, China, and Afghanistan, were there, as were Japan and Turkey. But the sole British publishing company at Tehran seemed to be Pearson Longman, whose educational books “were displayed on a stall run by an Iranian literary agency, Ghazal Javan Publications.”
One notable exception though, was Germany. Claudia Dobry, the international project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair, told Tisdall that the two annual events “maintained good links.” Two German publishers showed books at the fair this year, and the German stall was funded by the federal foreign ministry in Berlin. In addition, a public reading “involving personal appearances by authors such as David Wagner was planned, with simultaneous translation.”
Even so, Dobry said, sales at Tehran were limited, in part because only two or three German-language titles were translated into Farsi each year (the same as across Europe). And there are also problems with copyright because of lax regulations in Iran, and with government censorship.
As Dobry told Tisdall, “It does not seem to matter so much what the book says inside. But the cover can be a problem, especially if it shows naked female skin. They have a problem with naked female skin. They also have difficulty with Greek statues.”