By Charles Recknagel,
An anonymous painting of the lovers
And Shirin, the protagonists of the epic, 12th-century Persian
poem of the same name.
Many authoritarian regimes censor books for political reasons.
But Iran goes so far in also tampering with books for self-claimed religious
reasons that the Islamic republic's censors form a league of their own.
The latest example came this week, when censors refused a publishing house
permission to reprint an edition of one of the country's best-known classical
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance decided that some parts of the epic
poem "Khosrow and
Shirin" by Nezami Ganjavi needed reworking, despite the fact that the
book-length masterpiece has been a classic of Iranian literature for 831 years.
Iranian poet Simin Behbahani
The news not only astounded the publishing house, which had
expected routine approval when it sought to publish its eighth edition of the
book, it also shocked Iran's intellectual class, despite decades of inurement to
the censors' heavy hand.
"This poem existed for nine centuries and...Iranians were
Muslims during those nine centuries," says Iran's best-known contemporary female
poet, Simin Behbahani. "No one [during that time] had any objections to [the]
'Khosrow and Shirin' poem and didn't think of censoring parts of the poem....
Nothing would be left [of the poem] by now, if they had. Those who talk about
censoring the poem should be ashamed."
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has given no official explanation
for its decision to belatedly censor the epic. But one objection reportedly
concerns the poem's reference to the heroine Shirin embracing a male body.
A Million Forms Of Indecency
That the body is that of her husband and the embrace is a key to understanding
her suicide at the end of their tragic love story seems not to have mattered one
bit to the censors.
If the embrace is indeed the reason for the censorship, it would be in line with
decades of similar objections by Iran's censors to anything they construe as
indecent. According to their guidelines, indecency can come in a million
Faraj Sarkouhi, who edited the Iranian cultural weekly "Adineh" before he was
imprisoned for "propaganda" in the 1990s and fled to Germany following his
release, says that Iran's censors are obsessed with the idea that romance can be
a corruptive force in society. They make Iran a hell for literature, without
regard to whether it is contemporary or classical.
"It is very harmful for literature, because in stories you write about the life
of the people; and in the life of the people there is love, there is sleeping
together, kissing, drinking, good things and bad things, because the human being
has very different aspects," Sarkouhi says.
"In a story you have to portray all of these different
aspects. But they don't want some parts of life to be mentioned in literature
and in this way they really kill our contemporary writing and they also censor
some parts of our classical literature."
At times, the censors' zeal reaches levels of absurdity that stretch the
imagination. Authors' works -- including translated versions of world literature
-- are regularly modified to make them conform to the censors' own standards.
Sarkouhi notes that the dialogue in a recent Iranian version of one of the
novels of German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse was altered so that a reference to
wine instead became a reference to coffee.
The censors did not care that the change left a character saying
incomprehensibly that the high alcohol content in the coffee he had just
consumed had given him a headache.
Similarly, if a man and a woman who are not married are in love, the censors
feel no compunctions about adding a paragraph to marry them and legalize their
For The Good Of Society
To defy the censors and still describe the reality of their characters' lives
accurately, some contemporary authors turn to coded language.
Thus, a phrase such as "they kissed and that night slept together for the first
time" becomes "they looked at each other and then told one another it's better
to have some more time." The phrase "have some more time" has become a synonym
in Iran for going to bed.
But classical authors, long dead, are unable to play such games and, in most
readers' minds, should be untouchable anyway.
If the author is someone like Nezami Gangeva, whose "Khosrow and Shirin" and
another epic poem, "Layla and Majnoun," are pillars of both Persian and world
literature, the public's feeling of indignation is still stronger.
Equally galling for many Iranians is the censors' claim they are doing it all
for the good of society.
Poet Behbahani, who is 84 and a cultural pillar in her own right, says she finds
it incomprehensible that officials are concerned with the morality of a woman
embracing a dead body when people who protested against Iran's last presidential
election were widely reported to have been raped in detention.
"In this country, they take a young, poor boy to prison and rape him there,"
Behbahani says. "We have heard about it many times and I hope it is a lie. Is it
possible that those able to rape such an innocent and fragile creature can also
think one would derive pleasure from embracing a dead body?"
Nonetheless, if outrage is high over the censors' latest crackdown, there is
little ordinary Iranians can do but hope the refusal to publish "Khosrow and
Shirin" will change in the future.
Sarkouhi notes that the intensity of the censorship has ebbed and flowed over
the decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
All Books Are Vulnerable, Even The Most Venerable
He says it was even heavier during the last decade, when the Ministry of Culture
and Islamic Guidance regularly banned the republication of up to 70 percent of
previously published books. Today, he estimates, the number of license refusals
for republication has eased to about 50 percent.
Exiled Iranian editor Faraj Sarkouhi
The ultimate responsibility for writing the censors'
guidelines lies with one of Iran's many powerful committees that date back to
the Islamic Revolution.
Half the members of the Council for Cultural Revolution are appointed by Iran's
clerical leadership and the other half are named by the parliament. It's the
same body that closed Iran's universities for five years after the revolution in
order to Islamicize them.
Meanwhile, while the council prepares the guidelines that the Ministry of
Culture and Islamic Guidance follows, there are additional forces that regularly
take authority into their own hands to bedevil publishers' efforts to get
official permission to print books.
Those other forces include clerics, Friday Prayer leaders, the Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Basij militia, and the Information Ministry,
just to mention a few.
"Books are a very sensitive problem in Iran," Sarkouhi observes. As this week's
events illustrate again, that means not just some books but all books -- no
matter how venerable they may be.
Radio Farda correspondent Elahe Ravanshad contributed
to this report
Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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