Not long from its inception in 1987, Tehran International Book Fair captured the attention of the publishing world in the Middle East, and thereafter its fame spread throughout Asia. Before long, the Fair became an intercontinental event, gradually drawing more European enthusiasts and businessmen to the gates of Iran’s capital city. From then on, the cultural and commercial significance of the Fair couldn’t be ignored even by the western publishing companies whose local representatives vehemently denied any connection with the “Great Satan.”
Today, the Fair is coined to be the Festival of Books and is held in early spring shortly after the conclusion of the Persian New Year celebrations. The official records released by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance Network (Ershad) reveal the presence of 1,900 Iranian and 1,700 foreign exhibitors from 79 countries across the globe. Even more impressive than the attendance of these publishers is the enthusiasm with which the crowd storms the gates of the Fair. In 2009, an estimated 4 million Iranians from all walks of life and all age groups rushed to quench their thirst for books. This year, the 23rd Tehran International Book Fair began on May 5th and ran until May 15th at the City’s Grand Prayer Grounds (Mosalla).
Amidst such reception and fervor boldly displayed by the young and the old alike, the Ministry of Ershad has strived not only to impose an Islamic literary atmosphere on the Fair but also to control, coerce and smother innovation and creativity. In today’s political climate, the fate of old and new books rests with fundamentalist cronies who are fast at work to sustain the regime’s grip on power. Although censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran is the norm not the exception, the military style crackdown of Iran’s prominent publishing houses has been unprecedented.
The foot soldiers of Ershad are special examiners handpicked from the available pool of zealous ideologues whose jobs are to exert total control over books in order to oppress minds. In the absence of clearly defined rules and regulations, Ershad’s examiners have the authority to grant, deny or revoke publication permits for no apparent reasons. Cleverly devised blacklists reduce the examiners’ workload so that their precious time isn’t wasted on reading the first edition of a book whose author is a banned writer.
The grueling process to obtain printing rights for the first edition of a book is physically and emotionally daunting to the extent that many authors and poets prefer to live in a self-imposed state of idleness. If and when a literary master-piece dares to shape, its author is summoned to the Ministry of Ershad for questioning and endless interrogations.
Once a book is accepted for further consideration, Ershad’s special examiners assume the role of writers and poets themselves and demand modifications and annexations to the text. The book is then sent back to the publisher for repeated revisions. This terror of censorship is continued for several rounds until the written words lose their power and impose no threat to the establishment. Interestingly, the animosity of Ershad’s special examiners isn’t limited towards new books or written words. Sadegh Hedayat’s novel, the Vagrant Dog, was denied publication due to the image adorning its cover.
Under the leadership of Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi and Sayed Mohammad Hosseini, the most recent Ministers of Ershad, the wide range of banned literature has become an ever grown spectrum of personal and political identity. Although all publications and artistic productions have been strictly scrutinized by the hardliners since the Presidency of Ahmadinejad began in 2005, cultural authorities intensified vetting the publishers and artists in the recent months and banned scores of books for promoting non Islamic values and beliefs. Forough Farrokhzad’s poetry collection was barred from the 23rd Fair, and the display of her pictures was deemed too sensual and provocative for the Islamic Republic.
Spreading fear in the hearts of the exhibitors and visitors before the beginning of the 23rd Book Fair, the Ministry of Ershad announced in advance that agents either disguised or otherwise would roam Tehran’s Mosalla center this year. Closed circuit cameras also augmented this surveillance and monitored the tents and visitors from above. Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance for Cultural Affairs, Mohsen Parviz, warned the opposition groups from taking advantage of the Fair to stage their “political charade.”
Once this year’s Fair was underway, the absence of Iran’s influential literary figures amongst the piles of displayed books was sadly felt. The works of Omar Khayyam, Nezami Ganjavi, Abid Zakani, and Iraj Mirza were nonchalantly excluded by the sharp swords of Ershad’s special examiners. Additionally, Iran’s contemporary writers, poets and researchers suffered a similar fate. To name just a few, the collective literary contributions of Houshang Golshiri, Sadegh Choobak, Ebrahim Golestan, Gholam Hossein Saaedi, Ahmad Kasravi, Ali Dashti, and Ebrahim Poordavoud were also banned from the Book Fair.
Nonetheless, on May 5, 2010, Tehran’s 23rd Book Fair opened its doors and once more welcomed domestic and foreign publishers and the public to its pavilions. Meantime, some of Iran’s authors and poets celebrated their debut with faint smiles and were content to present their censored books through clinched teeth. The news of their literary triumph spread fast through repeated posts on their Face Book accounts, and the invitations to attend the Book Fair were extended to all.
The atmosphere of jubilee didn’t last long though as the sound of military boots shook the Mosalla grounds on the second day. Still not content with his handiwork, the Minister of Ershad had summoned his special forces to conduct surgical raids on the suspected publishers. Tipped off by the agents disguised as visitors, Ershad’s military force closed off one pavilion after another, using red curtains drawn around each booth. Books were confiscated and sent to be burned. Dreamed were crushed, and spirits broken. Authors and poets went home to their sanctuaries, awaiting the arrival of another summon.
The knock on the door will be from the Military of Ershad…