A world other than your own
May 16, 2001
As a child, I read everywhere I could. On weekends, I would get under
my wooden four-post bed, lie on my stomach with my head sticking out and
read. I'd sit behind my desk, which was strategically placed across from
the door, put my textbook on the desk, my novel on my lap which I would
then conveniently slip down my legs (my upturned toes making sure it did
not fall with a thud on the ground) every time my mother came in the room
to check on me. I would take my book with me to the bathroom under the auspices
of taking a shower (which I hated) and sit on a towel on the ground and
I am stuck in human traffic on a glorious Tehran afternoon where the
mountains look so beautiful, you want to jump on them and never come down.
The occasion is the 14th Annual Book Exhibition in Tehran, and it feels
as if the country's entire population is bursting with desire to get their
hands on the exhibited books.
My grandmother once said if I didn't stop reading to help my mother
with household chores, I would never find a husband. A friend of mine also
told me once that women who read too much grew beards. I think the two are
The path from the street to the book fair's gate is packed with people,
some of whom stop on their way to purchase various knick-knacks from the
street vendors lined along the road. A large group of girls and boys have
surrounded a man holding dozens of cheap sunglasses, trying them on and
showing their purchase to each other.
My mother had made my school bag for me. It was a bright blue, huge
bag on which I had embroidered 1+1=4, the reason being that those numbers
required only straight lines and I did not have the patience nor the skill
to embroider any number requiring curves. My bag was always very heavy as
it was around this time that I, along with my best friend, acquired the
habit of collage reading: Partly out of a worry that there is not enough
time to read everything in this world, partly out of an anxiety that we
may be left without a book for even several minutes, and partly because
I have always had a very short attention span, we read several books at
once, all of which accompanied us to school everyday.
I pass through the gate and am delightfully surprised by the festive
mood. The place is crawling with people from every walk of life: Bearded
men, dressed up girls, chadori women, gelled hair boys. There are people
under almost every tree, stretched out, or just sitting under the shade,
eating ice cream provided by the many different kiosks of Mihan and Pak
ice cream. I walk by two seminary students with white knitted caps, busy
tying up two columns of books that reached up to their knees. Behind them
stands a cart-pusher, wearing the yellow uniform of the fair's cleaning
staff, holding on to a cart filled with a lot more books. Everyone walking
opposite me is carrying white and yellow plastic bags full of books. Some
have thin children's books, and maps, others technical books in English,
others novels and books of poetry.
In religion class we were told Heaven was a great place to end up
in because answers to all questions will be answered there. I decided then
and there I did not want to go to Heaven: How boring. What and why would
we read then?
Music is blasting through the speakers as is the voice of a woman
inviting people to one hall or another. There are even recycling bins, one
for paper, one for glass, one for plastic, and another for the rest. I stick
my head in a couple of them; I figure we still need some work on the concept
of separating our trash.
My best friend and I would constantly swap books, a large number of
them multi-volume historical novels. As she owned most of the books, she'd
read them first and I would receive each volume after she was done, the
corners of the pages where the action was the most intense, torn off and
eaten by her.
Above the doorways to each hall, a saying is posted about the importance
of books. My favorite is the deliciously anachronistic one by the first
Shi'ite Imam, Ali: "Books are the gardens of men of knowledge."
Since I read multi-volume books, by the time I got to the last volume,
I often felt it was time to start with volume one again. Words on pages
would seep through my pores and for the duration of that novel, and for
a while after it, I would live within the world I had just read about. I
spent many nights worrying about Scarlet O'Hara, until I realized one night
in bed that since the book was written by a human, I could just imagine
an ending that would give me some peace. I did and it did.
I have been invited to a roundtable discussion on the state of writing
and publishing books of History in Iran. Coming in from the crowded fairground,
I am rather surprised to see that the overarching question at the roundtable
is "Why don't Iranians read books?" The question is asked, less
to answer and more to complain. The "cheraa" of the question,
is stretched in that plaintive tone Persian can take and the questioner,
once finished, looks piercingly at the other participants who in turn nod
their heads: Yes, cheraaaaaa?
Oriana Fallaci shaped my teenage years beyond repair. My best friend
and I devoured her books, reading all and everything we could find in our
home libraries and used bookstores across from Tehran University. I owe
my yearning to be a war correspondent to her Zendegi Jang va Digar Hich
(Life, War and Nothing else). Her A Letter to a Child Never Born
introduced me, a tomboy who hated her changing body, to the lyrical possibilities
of a female inner-space. Man, the account of her relationship to Aleko Panagulis
and his death, was my first awareness of the power of consuming passions
that rush through your life, leaving in their aftermath a silhouette of
the self you keep hidden from everyday view.
It becomes clear to me that the question being asked at the roundtable
is not so much why Iranians don't read books but why they don't read the
correct ones: They seem to be buying Korans and Hafez and Fahimeh Rahimi
novels often and in large quantities, letting "serious" books
of history collect dust on the shelves. A bearded man in his 40s says we
need to keep history isolated from social forces. His example was that after
Khatami's election in 1997, there has been an enormous interest in books
on the Constitutional Revolution. Or that after television began running
a drama on the life of the first Shi'ite Imam, there was a flurry of interest
in books about him. "History," he said, "is too quickly influenced
by social forces." The next speaker, one of those old scholarly men
Iran produces so exquisitely, had merely one axe to grind: Why was it that
when a certain book about ancient Iranians had been published, no one had
attacked it? Why was such a book even published? "Why should we let
people insult our ancestors just because they were not Muslims? We must
not deny the achievements of our forefathers." Another more eloquent
man, in between servings of tea, sweets, and fruit, made a passionate plea
for the writing of history schoolbooks to be taken out of the hands of government
agencies. "Why should history books in schools change at the whim of
whomever is the Minister of Education at the time? And why do historians
think it is beneath them to write books for kids?"
Nameh-hayeh Pedari beh Dokhtarash (Letters of a Father to his Daughter).
My dad used to read that to me when I was child. I'd lie on the bed, which
functioned as a couch, in my grandmother's living room that functioned as
a bedroom, and listen to the wise words of Nehru to his daughter. My father's
wisdom departed to me.
The last speaker, the head of a well-known publishing house, avoided
the lamentations of the previous speakers and focused on the difficulties
of cultural work in Iran: "We recently printed the memoirs of Haj...
When we took it to Irshad for approval, they said we needed to add an introduction
condemning the book. We added a 30-page introduction, but they said it's
not negative enough. I told them, 'Baba, how can I condemn a book I'm publishing
myself?' Where is the logic in that? 'Nemisheh,' they said. 'We won't give
you permission.' So we had to add 2-3 more pages. The memoir's been selling
so well at the book fair, we ran out after the first couple of days so we
sent for more from storage. As we were about to unload the books someone
descended on us and said 'Who gave you permission to distribute this book?'
As I speak, ladies and gentlemen, we're waiting to see whether finally,
we are allowed to distribute this book or not. Sad thing is that every component
of a book is more valuable than the finished product. I could sell kilos
and kilos of paper, ink, film, zinc for you in a matter of minutes. But
I print 1,000 copies of a book and it sits in my storage for years."
Watching morning kids programs one Saturday, I saw an interview with
the writer Judy Blume. All the cool teenagers on the show loved her and
her books. Next time I went to the public library with my mom, I checked
out several of her books, including Are You There God? It's Me Margaret,
a book about the trials and tribulations of puberty. I had no clue that
women bled on a monthly basis, so every time I read the word "period"
in the book, I thought it meant period, full stop, end of sentence. "What
a strangely written book," I thought. One night as I was lying in bed
reading, my mother came to my room and said I couldn't read the rest of
the Judy Blume books. "They're not suitable for your age," she
said, and took them. For a very long time I did not understand what my mother
found so offensive about a poorly-written book with incomplete sentences.
That was also my introduction to the fine art of secretly reading "unsuitable
books," one of the truly great pleasures of this world.
I leave the roundtable discussion and re-emerge into the bright sunshine.
I blink. There are even more people than before, families picnicking, couples
flirting over displays of books about politics, religion, and psychology.
Suddenly the question of why Iranians are not reading becomes strangely
irrelevant. I am surprised that I feel this way. I love reading and more
than that, I love books. I love their shape, the way they feel, the smell
of a book never opened. I love touching old books, taking one off a shelf,
blowing off the dust, sneezing as I flip through the pages. I love the fact
that reading is such an intense stationary act. I love the fact that ink
on paper can make me cry, crack me up, amuse me, and impress me. And more
than anything else, I love to find a book that feels as if it was written
for me, speaking to me, somehow reading my mind and my heart and directing
it this way and that. I love all this but when I look at the exuberance
around me at the book fair, the fact that the normally tired, frustrated,
angry faces on the street have a look of happiness on them, however temporary
and faint, I can't help but think who cares Iranians are not reading books?
Who cares if they are not reading the right books? The power of books lies
in that they can draw you into a world other than your own. Today, on this
cloudless spring day in Tehran, books had done just that for the multitudes
on the fairground.