Iran General NewsIran: Book censorship the rule, not the exception

Iran: Book censorship the rule, not the exception


RFE/RL: The swift move by Iran’s Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister to ban a newly published novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez has once again put the spotlight on the phenomenon of censorship in Iran. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

By Faraj Sarkouhi

November 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) — The swift move by Iran’s Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister to ban a newly published novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez has once again put the spotlight on the phenomenon of censorship in Iran.

The ban on “Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores,” published in Iran as “My Sad Sweethearts,” has raised new concerns about the fate of many banned writers and hundreds of other banned books in Iran.

Censorship has intensified over the last two years, with many books appearing only in expunged versions, while others previously available — like the Marquez novel — have had subsequent print runs banned.

The List Keeps Growing

From the moment that Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi took office in 2005, the list of prohibited books in Iran started growing.

A quick look at the books on the list confirms that there has been an increase in the intensity and recklessness of censorship in all areas.

The wide range of the banned literature includes Persian classical literature and gnosticism, a wide array of academic university books, some of the best-known world literature, and books illustrating a number of famous people from the Islamic world.

In the two years since Harrandi took office, more than 70 percent of previously published books have been banned from being republished, even though each and every one of those books had initially been given permission from the pre-Harrandi Culture Ministry to be published the first time.

The Culture Ministry’s “special examiners” have made decisions on the legitimacy of books based on the country’s current political atmosphere and their own political, ideological, or personal interests. But their decisions have no basis in the law.

Because of this, prohibiting the publication of officially authorized books has also become a common phenomenon.

Arbitrary Censorship

In Iran, there are no clear, well-publicized rules or regulations regarding the censorship of books and publications. Yet Iranian publishers are obligated to send the first edition of a book to the Culture Ministry “examiners.” If the name of the writer or his work is not on the “blacklist” of banned writers, then the book will be read and inspected.

Afterwards the “examiners” make notes and comments, suggest modifications, or sometimes even annexations and send it back to the publisher. When the required changes are made, the publisher gets permission to publish.

However, even then the publisher must send several copies of the published book to the Culture Ministry for another assessment. At this point, sometimes the ministry requires new changes or even decides on an outright ban of the work. There have been several incidents in which a book that has was initially authorized is later banned from being republished.

In the last two years, the removal of parts and whole pieces of works by well-known poets such as Souzani Samarghandi, Omar Khayam, Molana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami Ganjavi, Abid Zakani, Iradj Mirza, and even some lexicons from Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and Farhang Moeen has occurred.

Additionally, the works of popular literature by such people as Samak Ayar and Hossein Kord Shabastri have been published only after the elimination of some of their main elements.

The main target of censorship has been some of Iran’s best contemporary writers and researchers, such as Sadegh Hedayat, Sadegh Choobak, Ebrahim Golestan, Gholamhossein Saaedi, Ahmad Kasravi, Ali Dashti, Ebrahim Poordavoud, Zabih Behrouz, and others.

Some of Hedayat’s works were banned from being published even before this newly raised fever of censorship, but the efforts made last year by numerous publishers and family members of Hedayat regarding the republication of an uncensored version of the novel “The Blind Owl” once again failed to clear the barricade of censorship.

Approval for the republication of Hedayat’s novel “The Vagrant Dog” was also denied by the Culture Ministry due to its objection of the image used on the book’s cover.

Publishers’ efforts to reprint some of Saaedi’s prominent works have been futile and the richest part of the drama literature from the 1960s and 1970s has been banned from being republished. The approval to publish one of Golestan’s longest stories and two collections of his short stories have also been barred from getting published.

One of Golestan’s short-story collections has, however, been allowed to be republished under the condition that some of its stories, including “To be or the role of being and Esmat’s journey,” have been completely removed from the collection.

That story portrays the tragic life of a prostitute who turns to Imam Reza’s shrine for repentance but ends up getting involved with some criminals involved in sex trafficking.

Not Just Racy Titles

The sharp blade of censorship has even reached the republication of Bozorg Alavi’s famous novel “His Eyes.” Inspired by the life of the Iranian artist Kamalolmolk during the Qadjar Dynasty, which ruled Persia from 1781-1925, the novel illustrates a 1940s romantic narrative with a slight political backdrop.

The Culture Ministry’s censorship has not only targeted nonreligious writers but it has even banned the republication of Jalal Aleahmad’s book “A Stone on a Grave,” in which the author describes the depressing story of his own infertility.

Prominent writer Amirhossein Cheheltan refused to accept an official award in protest of the extreme censorship that has existed under Harandi. Even some of Cheheltan’s novels have been banned.

The Culture Ministry has also banned two long stories by Asghar Elahi and denied approval for the republication of one of Norsrat Rahmani’s books. In one book, Rahmani portrays the sad and depressed mood of a lost generation in the 1930s.

Not even an official authorization made by the Culture Ministry can rescue a writer from prison. Two works by Yaghoub Yaadali — which were legally published — were condemned in the city of Yaasoudj, and the writer was accused of insulting the people of Lorestan Province and imprisoned.

The expansion of censorship in Iran has gone to such an extent that even the manuscript of Tahmineh Milani’s movie “Zane Ziyadi” has been banned from being published despite the fact that the movie has played in movie theaters.

Also, publication of Morteza Ravandi’s first and second volume of Iran’s Social History has been banned regardless of the fact that it has been published on six different occasions previously.

Foreign Authors

Within the sphere of non-Iranian writers, there have not been as many bans because Iranian publishers and translators make many books acceptable for publication by modifying them to suit the Culture Ministry. But, even though self-censorship works to a certain degree, there is still a great amount of official censorship going on.

Last year the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry banned the republication of the books “Evelina,” by Isabel Allende, and Nikos Kazantzakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” — which had been published in Iran four times previously. The novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier, already published six times, was also banned from being republished.

Censorship has not been restricted to narrative writing. Several months ago Culture Ministry “examiners” asked Khosrow Motazed, the writer of “Olamaolsoltan Memoirs,” to remove the pictures in his book. When the writer refused, explaining that they are historical records, the book was banned from being republished.

The worldwide bestseller “The Da Vinci Code,” which was sharply criticized even in countries that are predominantly Christian — particularly by the Vatican — was not banned anywhere in the world except in Iran, where the Culture Ministry disallowed a Persian translation of the book to be published because of protests by some Iranian Christian priests.

In the last couple of months, the Persian translation of a collection of Henrik Ibsen’s work has also been banned. Works by that famous Norwegian playwright have been published many times before and performed on stage in Iran since the 1940s.

The Culture Ministry has constantly ignored writers’ complaints regarding their situation. A complaint made by Yazdi, a former foreign minister, was bluntly overlooked by a court.

Yazdi’s book, “Religious Broad-Mind and Serious Challenges” has also been banned. A few months ago “Poverty and Prostitution,” a book by Masoud Dehnamaki that was published earlier with the Culture Ministry’s approval, was recalled and banned.

Hossein Brojerdi, the son of former army commander Mohammad Brojerdi — whose life story and books have been regarded as a great Islamic and revolutionary model — announced in an open letter that a book he wrote about his father has been banned from being published. According to Brojerdi, the Culture Ministry “examiners” pointed out to him 70 errors in the book as the reason for it not gaining approval.

The only survivor on last year’s long list of censored books is Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s book “Towards Destiny.” In it, Rafsanjani says that during the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed to stop using the “Death to America” slogan.

The Culture Ministry tried to ban publication of the book’s second edition after objections to it were made by some conservative media in Iran, but Rafsanjani’s great power and influence helped him publish the second edition of his book.

A rare success story in the black hole of Iranian censorship.

(Faraj Sarkouhi was the editor of the Iranian cultural weekly “Adineh.” He was arrested in Iran in the late 1990s and sentenced to prison for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He moved to Germany following his release in 1998 and is now a regular contributor to Radio Farda with a weekly book report.)

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