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Iran's Kafkaesque Book Censorship


By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL

214 Iranian autors wrote a letter to the Iranian Culture Minister demanding that censorship be lifted, saying they will take the responsibility for what they publish.
(Read the letter published by Bahar daily on October 6, 2013)

This week Iran's new Culture Minister Ali Jannati denounced book censorship under the administration of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and said if they could, censors would have banned the Koran, which is considered to be the word of God by Muslims.

That doesn't mean censorship will necessarily ease anytime soon, seeing as Jannati also suggested that the government should not allow problematic books "to poison" society.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also, in the past, spoken against "harmful books."

What it is like for authors in Iran to try to get their work past censors?

Writers, translators, and publishers in Iran have to navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth in order to see their writings published.

All books are submitted to the Culture Ministry for review by censors who make sure they conform to written and unwritten rules and principles -- and the censors' own interpretations of those rules.

Books that are deemed anti-Islamic, immoral, or against Iran's security are banned outright. Other books have problematic words or whole chapters cut out. Books can also be banned years after being published.

Books are read by one or more censors. Those in charge of censorship reportedly use software to search for banned words such as references to female body parts. The review process and back-and-forth between censors and the authors and publishers can take weeks, months, or even years.

Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati speaking against book censorship
(source: Etemaad daily)

Best Not To Mention God

Under Ahmadinejad's government, censorship reached new levels, writers and publishers have said.

Iranian poet Sepideh Jodeyri, who left Iran about three years ago, says Culture Minister Jannati's comments about banning the Koran were not far from reality.

"There is a process we used to call the process of 'de-Godification' in poetry," Jodeyri tells RFE/RL. "We don't have the right to discuss God in our poems, even if we would praise God. [Those in charge of censorship] think that only poets they consider faithful to revolutionary values have the right to talk about God."

Jodeyi's most recent book of poetry, published in Iran about a year ago, originally had about 150 pages. After it was reviewed by censors, she had to cut 19 pages. Then, two weeks after the book was published, the Intelligence Ministry told the publisher to halt distribution.

Jodeyri says the reason for the decision was not clear. She adds that in some cases censors would not give a specific reason when ordering her to remove poems. Often, she believes, the reason was that the censors feared her poetry had some hidden meaning.

"Poetry that uses a simple language -- that is understandable to the censors -- would usually get publishing license more easily in recent years," she says. "But poems that are complicated -- when censors feel they don't get the real meaning of it -- are more difficult to publish."

A Tehran-based editor and publisher, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the country's censorship of literature is full of paradoxes.

While writers have to eliminate the word "alcohol" and replace it with the word "beverage" or "soft drink," certain alcohol brands sometimes go uncensored, he said.

"Various types of wine or whiskey brands have a higher chance of passing through censorship," the editor explains. "At the same time I have also seen cases where several sentences that dealt with the harms of drinking alcohol were censored."

The word "smoking" has been also banned in some cases, he said. "'Dance' is also forbidden, even when there is no music involved, like someone dancing out of joy.

"Israel" is another word that faces censorship.

Sadedgh Zibakalam, a well-known political commentator and university professor in Tehran, was quoted last year by Iranian media as saying the Culture Ministry had refused to issue a publishing license for his book, "The Birth Of Israel."

The reason, he said, was that the book provided a different view of what is officially promoted in the Islamic republic, where some officials refer to Israel as "the Zionist regime."

"They tell us the word 'Israel' should not come out of the mouth of the president of the United States in a published book," writer Mehdi Shojayi said in an October 2011 interview.

A Monotheisic Pharaoh?

In an interview from April 2011, Shojayi provided insight into the absurd censorship he and other intellectuals have to deal with in the Iran.

He said a student was quoted in a book as saying that it's good for the United States to come to the Third World and help people escape repression.

"They saw that sentence and said it had to be eliminated, even when the whole book was a response to those two sentences," Shojayi said.

Shojayi also said that in one of his own pieces he had been told to remove a sentence about a pharaoh.

"I asked why," Shojayi says. "They say its antimonostheistic. I said: 'Is the pharaoh supposed to speak in favor of monotheism?'"

A fragment of an official list of books banned in Iran

The books of prominent scholar and author Abbas Milani have also faced censorship in Iran.

"The Persian Sphinx," his book about the life and tragic death of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, who served as prime minister from 1965-77, received a publishing license under former President Mohammad Khatami. The book had been reprinted 20 times before Ahmadinejad's censors decided to ban it.

Milani was considered to be among the "subversive" authors banned from publishing their works in Iran. For that reason, he says, his latest book, "The Shah," was also banned.

In order to fight the censors, Milani made a translated copy available on his website for readers in Iran. The book has been downloaded more than 40,000 times. Several pirated versions have made the rounds on the Internet.

Milani says last week that the authorities told his publisher the book could possibly be published now.

"They contacted the publisher and said that if I'm willing to change it -- now that the book is widely available for free in Iran, now that they have deprived me of my legal rights to the book, [and] financial benefits from the book -- now they say, 'come and censor some passages and we might permit it,'" Milani says.

"In the age of information, governments should not presume to be able to decide what people can and cannot read," says Milani, who believes culture always prevails over "stupid censors."

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