In Iran, those in power are always afraid of language and the weapon it may be or become; that is why the Establishment silences, imprisons, tortures, exiles and eliminates its writers and poets out of proportion to the rest of the population. That is also why what appears in the windows of book shops, what happens in the circles of socially aware and active artists, and which writer gets arrested or assassinated clearly reflect the climate of the society as a whole. If this is true, then the conclusions we may draw at the moment are ambiguous.
The book shops on Enghelab street — across from the University of Tehran — are displaying titles I NEVER expected see. The long-banned books by Samad Behrangi — pre-revolutionary leftist writer of children's stories — are once again collected and several editions of his collected stories are being sold. These are books that when I came to the U.S. in 1985, my parents did not dare send via Iranian postal service.
The poetry of Khosro Golsorkhi — pre-revolutionary leftist poet executed in 1975 — are openly on display. The poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad — long out of print because of its daringly sexual content — and that of Hamid Mosaddegh and Ahmad Shamlu — simply banned because of the political background of the poets themselves — are selling at a brisk pace.
Shamlu is publishing new volumes of his great work, a multivolume encyclopedia of street language which had been banned for some 15 years, and the encyclopedia was banned not because it is political, but because Shamlu has always been out of favor. In his new book of poetry, however, one can see the effects of this censorship and isolation: the newest poems of Iran's greatest living poet, who has published for some 50 years now, are obscure, coded, mysterious and an exercise in intellectual gymnastics, rather than his usual gorgeous lyrical exploration of the heart, loneliness, oppression, and the world outside.
Mahmood Dowlatabadi's opus, Kalidar, is again in print, and a month ago, the writer himself won an award from the Ministry of Culture as one of the twenty most accomplished writers of the last 20 years. This particular choice of award-recipient resulted in calls for Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani's impeachment in the Majlis.
But what is truly astonishing is that some of the titles in the windows of bookstores are by writers persecuted by the Islamic Republic itself. One can believe why books by Mohsen Kadivar, which openly challenge the notion of Velayat-e-Faqih, are on sale; he does, after all, operate within the confines of the Establishment and is related — through marriage — to the Mohajerani, even if his dissent on the has landed him in jail.
What truly astounds is that certain books of Sa'idi-Sirjani have gotten print permits. Several years ago, Sa'idi-Sirjani was thrown in prison by the Islamic Republic itself for challenging the system, and later died in prison under suspicious circumstances.
Aside from the books by Iranian writers, certain titles by Karl Marx and other Marxist intellectuals (such as Antonio Gramsci or the brilliant philosophers of the Frankfurt School) are again on sale which have never been — officially or legally — printed in Iran. The only previous translation and edition of Marx's “Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonapart” for example was smuggled in from some Eastern European country by leftist parties immediately before the revolution and distributed through clandestine and semi-secret networks of intellectuals and dissidents. Now, it has been sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture and one can ask for it in a bookstores openly and without fear.
I remember in the early years of the revolution, certain booksellers would set aside these “subversive” books for me. They had plane white covers with barely legible photocopied print. They would give them to me only when they felt no-one was watching. Now, books with such words as “Censorship” and “Human Rights” in their titles glower and glow in almost every book shop window on Enghelab street.
And the newspapers of Iran! Except for the 14 days of Noruz holidays, every day of the week, one can buy several different newspapers from just about every single stand in Tehran, each of which openly criticizes and challenges some aspect of the regime. The journalists — many of whom have tasted prison and beating and torture — are relishing what many cynically say may be a short political spring and are making up for lost time by questioning much that needs to be questioned, controversy and physical threats be damned. New political and literary magazines — alongside daring old ones — are allowing those who have been long silenced to have a voice and choice again.
This is all the good news. There is also quite a bit of bad news.
Great books may be in print, but their prices are far outside the range most Iranians can afford, and that aside, the booksellers seem to be faced with a generally apathetic public. Translations of trashy novels by Danielle Steele and Michael Crichton and the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” type goes to tenth and twentieth editions of print, but the Iranian taste-buds have been for so long deprived of distinguished Iranian literature that good books by good Iranian writers are read only by other writers and a small public and generally do not exceed single editions of five or ten thousand volumes.
In general, book sales in Iran are the lowest they have been in the last fifty years, and the printing and publishing market is suffering a serious recession. Some may argue that this is in keeping with the difficult economic conditions of the country, but the sales of musical and video CD and cassettes are soaring and the Iranian music industry is enjoying a record demand.
The newspapers may be critical, but they are also cautiously observing boundaries set by the Islamic Republic itself and are operating within a confined and exclusive circle, entry to which requires some sort of allegiance to Islamic governance or at least Islam itself. While the outcry in defense of Mohsen Kadivar by all the “lefty” newspapers was admirable, there was no such similar outcry in defense of Abbas Amir-Entezam — who after 17 years of prison and torture was imprisoned once again immediately after having been freed because in an interview with BBC, he happened to criticize the “martyred” head of Iranian prisons, Asadollah Lajevardi.
Perhaps the newspapers are testing the waters and are still afraid to jump in whole-heartedly in defense of human rights for ALL, not just those inside the Establishment.
And as all know, writers are still a threatened bunch in Iran. Many of the great revered writers of Iran are still “mamnoo'-ol-qalam” or prohibited from publishing. Censorship still thrives; for example, the collected poetry of Farrokhzad is missing a great number of her most openly sexual and anti-conventional poems. And a certain group of writers are still — intensely and utterly — threatened by physical violence. Many belong to a group of 134 writers who some time ago, in an open letter challenged the limitations placed by the system on their work. Since that letter, there have been attempts to harm these writers, individually, and even once en masse.
The story of one attempt is worth retelling. When a large group of these writers were invited to go to a writers' congress in one of the Caucasian republics, the driver of the bus carrying them, which had been suspiciously switched before the commencement of the trip, attempted to send the bus to the bottom of a deep valley by jumping out of the bus before a dangerous turn in the road! That the writers actually managed to stay alive had a lot to do with a very alert member of the ilk who was sitting behind the driver and managed to grab the wheel before the tragedy happened.
While I was in the U.S., I could not quite connect the dots and figure out the common denominator between those Iranian writers who were assassinated and those who “disappeared” in the fall of 1998. Now that I have seen the books they have written or translated in the windows and on the counters of the bookstores, I can say that even during the Khatami Spring and era of opening, the writers who get killed are those who translate feminist books (Mohammad Jafar Pooyandeh), human rights texts (Pooyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari), and true leftist (as opposed to what is called the “Left” in Iran, the more liberal factions of the Establishment) books by and about Rosa Luxembourg, the Frankfurt School philosophers, and Gramsci (Sharif and Pooyandeh), or in a word, writers and translators of books that may challenge theocracy or religious rule from outside.
As it has been said many times before, “Iran has freedom of speech; what it does not have is freedom AFTER the speech.” Iran has a long way to go towards freedom of speech and press and religion; but spring is in the air and one never knows what will happen tomorrow.