As books are prepared to be showcased at the 10-day Tehran International Book Fair, writers have been pleading with the government to allow a banned publisher to take part in the fair.
Cheshmeh, an Iranian publishing company, had its publishing license dismissed last year, thus stopping the printing of Western philosophy, Iranian short stories, Cambridge history books and Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red
The fair, which calls
itself "the most important publishing event in Asia and the Middle East", generally attracts crowds of 550,000 a day. Most publishers who take part in the fair are from the Islamic world, although Western companies are also allowed to display any books which uphold Islamic values.
Although Cheshmeh was never given an official reason for being shut down, it has been accused of promoting a Western lifestyle. The publishing company has garnered lots of support from angry writers and book-lovers, who claim
that the company’s suspension made Iran’s selection of books "thinner and weaker."
This is not the first time that the Tehran fair has taken a strong stance against certain publishers. Two years ago, the government refused to allow books published before 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president, into the fair.
Nonetheless, the shutting down of Cheshmeh and other publishing companies does not necessarily mean that there will be a shortage of the books published by this company.
"Give me any banned or illegal book. I can copy it exactly like the original one in less than a week and market it in the network across the country," one Tehran man said
"Any book that’s banned will be a hit in the market."
Street stalls, known as nayab foreshi
or "rarely available items" are a thriving source of banned books and films. Whenever a film or book is banned by the government, only a few days will lapse before it appears in pirated form and sold at a high price by street vendors.
Years ago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores
was banned after being dubbed as pornography. But copies of the book are readily available not far from any Tehran university. Similarly, the banned film Santoori
is easily accessible on DVD through street vendors in Tehran.
If one takes a stroll down Tehran’s Revolutionary Avenue, they will easily come across the Farsi translations of The Right to Heresy
, a book about religious reformation which was once suggested by defeated presidential candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
This particular book was once sold for less than $2, but has since tripled in price due to the huge risks that street vendors take by redistributing the banned books. If caught, vendors could spend months in jail for their crimes.
Yet, even some who have faced imprisonment for selling the banned literature have continued to do so after being released, because the money they can get from engaging in the illegal trade is just too good to refuse. Naturally, writers and publishers are suffering at the hands of this popular illegal trade.
"I can show you hundred titles of the books Xeroxed or on CDs sold in massive numbers right here in the sidewalks opposite Tehran University," Tehran publisher Majid Taleghini said
"We publishers are bankrupt and book smugglers are making a fortune. So what is the use of censorship?"
Writers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the strict rules on publishing, stating that it can take years before the books get past the government scrutiny. All manuscripts must be submitted to the Cultural and Islamic Guidance Ministry, who omits offensive words, phrases and sometimes whole paragraphs. They often insist that parts of the text must be changed before it can be printed.
Journalist and daughter of Asadollah Amraei, Emili Amraei, recently complained about the amount of time the government takes when examining texts, saying that her father could not pay his bills due to the four month wait he had to endure whilst the government was looking over his translated novel.
The underground market has also lent a helping hand to the Iranian opposition, allowing them to spread their ideas to their followers. But whichever way you look at it, fears are ripe that the scrutiny of books is getting worse day by day.
"Yes, political issues were censored before the revolution, not Marquez or Faulkner. Now even classical literature may be censored," a Tehran bookseller noted.