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Iranian Publishers Hit by Government Curbs

By Pedram Fathi, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)


Iranian artists, writers, and journalists celebrated Iran's new year, Nowruz, on March 21 by wishing each other a year without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Once the celebrations had faded away, the countdown toward the presidential elections in June overshadowed the country's cultural and literary activities.


At this time, a group of artists and writers, who had faced restrictions during Ahmadinejad's first term as president, became politically active. Along with a segment of the internal opposition who generally refrained from voting but who had also faced intolerable difficulties, they began to openly support Ahmadinejad's rivals.


Even the Tehran International Book Fair, one of the country's most important cultural events, was not impervious to the election buzz. The fair, which took place about a month before the elections, became a venue for criticism of Ahmadinejad's cultural policies. Renowned writers and publishers complained in interviews about the difficulty of obtaining publishing permits. They said that permission had been revoked for many books that had previously been allowed.


After the 10-day festival, book sales faced the usual fall because of upcoming university examinations. However, this year the reduction was accentuated because of the highly contested election. Although it is common for official permits to be handed out more leniently at the outset of an election, this time around things were different.


Popular involvement in election activities discouraged publishers from introducing new books. Even publishers worked to prevent another Ahmadinejad presidency. Arash Hejazi, editor of Caravan Books Publishing House and a specialist in translating the works of Paul Coelho, wrote on his website a piece titled, "Four Days Left to the Elections: Don't be Fooled, Don't Turn Your Backs".


Hejazi discussed the government's attitude toward the literary world, saying, "The past four years have been a difficult period for those involved in cultural issues. In the televised debate with candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad claimed that his government had loosened its controls on literature. Unfortunately, what I have seen as a publisher, writer, and translator, is a completely different story."


He said suppression of the arts and literature has "broken the back" of the publishing industry. In the case of Caravan, a number of its books were declared illegal and the permit for its magazine, Jashn-e Ketab, was revoked. In the end, Hejazi asked his supporters to vote for someone other than Ahmadinejad in order to end the debilitating pressures faced by those involved in cultural activities.


For the first time in four years, Ahmadinejad implicitly admitted during his heated debate with Mousavi the stringency of his government's attitude towards culture.


Although, the director general of the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, Mohammad Ali Ramezani, who took over the position a year ago, insisted that official permits were issued promptly. In an interview, he said that 95 per cent of books receive them within a month of the request and only five per cent have to wait longer.


What Ramezani failed to note is that the majority of that 95 per cent are religious texts that are funded through official budgets while the five per cent are the ones valued by the book market.


Even books by Sadegh Hedayat, arguably Iran's greatest novelist, who died in 1951, have been banned. The revocation of the publishing permit for a book written about the Iran-Iraq War by Hossein Mortezayian Abkenar as well as the novel The Absent Half by Hossein Sanapour - which was denied publication after 15 reprints - are further examples of the culturally restrictive nature of Ahmadinejad policies.


Once opinion polls began to show the possibility of a Mousavi win, readers, writers, and publishers became optimistic about a more open literary atmosphere and the opportunity to rid bookshelves of the "politically correct" books that had narrowly escaped censorship.


They hoped that a reformist triumph would lead to the government adopting more tolerant policies. However, the outcome of the June elections turned out to be a slap in the face for these individuals.


The outcome was widely regarded as fraudulent, leading to nationwide civil unrest that was also damaging for book sales. With the wave of arrests and further security crackdowns, bookstores became even emptier and publishers had once again to postpone print runs and looked pessimistically towards the future.


Trials of those accused of taking part in the civil unrest were another blow to the publishing industry. They were compared inside and outside the country to Stalinist show trials as the authorities blamed thinkers such as Max Weber, Karl Popper and even the whole educational approach of the humanities.


Such announcements threatened even the market in philosophical books. To many people, it appeared that by putting confessional shows on government-run television that emphasised the sources of ideological corruption, the government was trying to undermine the further publishing of all works of western thinkers.


According to the daily Donyaye Eqtesad, Tehran's booksellers have reported a "horrific drop" in book sales. Daryoush Barani, director of sales at Mehregan Publishers, says that recent events have led to a 30 per cent decrease in sales. Another salesperson at retailer at Nashr-e Ney agrees with this point, confirming that the book market has not returned to normal conditions.


So, more than three months after the election, the consequence for the book industry has been fewer books and fewer readers.


About the author: Pedram Fathi is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and writer.


This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

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