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Being there
Part 13: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
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Sima Nahan
June 15, 2006

As Sheikh Ishraq would have it, the community of arts and letters, for one, has transformed itself into a zoo of sorts in Iran. Were I to describe any one creature to any degree of accuracy, however, I would blow his or her cover. I cannot relate the opinion of a particular scholar, or the style of a poet, or the generic nuances of the latest work of a short-story writer, or the timbre of a singer's voice, or the background of any of them, without taking a risk at their expense. In a tightly knit community each one of them is well known. Let us just say that some of them are men, some women; some have work, others no longer do; some ancién régime, some "left," others neither; some with prison experience, some not; some hopeful, some in despair.

The forces of an unexpectedly calculating strategy of censorship -- a meta-censorship, one could say -- are at work to deny the very existence of this stratum of the Iranian population. The idea is to wipe out any sign of dissent by dismissing both the significance and the existence of it, self-contradictory as the attempt may be. The confiscation and monopolization of the basic tools of the trade are the most pragmatic application of this attempt at denial -- a far better strategy than the usual time-consuming and face-losing bureaucratic mechanisms of censorship.

Nabsh-e Qabr, "exhumation," is the term the Islamic Republic uses to refer to the publication of works by the intelligentsia of pre-revolutionary Iran. (The few and far between literary magazines and journals that are published continue to "exhume" the well-known and respected writers of "the past" who happen, still, to have the most number of readers and students. The revolution is, after all, not yet a decade old.) But this is no viable demand for allowing room for a new generation of intellectuals to flourish -- the "new generation" has all too successfully either been nipped in the bud or shipped off abroad. The battle is not generational but ideological. It is any sense of continuity that the Islamic Republic finds threatening.

In a tongue-in-cheek editorial (titled "Which Ethics?") in one of the discontinued literary journals sometime in the last eight years, excerpts from a letter by a "Dr. Khodaju" ("Seeker of God") are published.

“Persuaded by a friend,” Dr. Khodaju writes, “I picked up a copy of your magazine. I was shocked with what I found. It was as if no revolution had ever happened: the same old worn out sterile faces… People who once may have had something to say but today are capable of nothing more than whining and complaining.”

Dr. Khodaju goes on to denounce by name, and pronounce dead for all practical purposes, many of the writers who to this day lead the intellectual and artistic community of Iran. He then contrasts the "complacency" of these intellectuals with the dedication and fervor of revolutionary youth who continue to sacrifice their lives for Islamic struggle. He apparently uses vulgar and offensive words against certain individuals, which the magazine omits from the published excerpts.

The editorial board responds to the letter as it is best able. It reassures Dr. Khodaju that for the fruition of the Great Tree of the Revolution more is needed than sheer youthful enthusiasm. It points out that a nation must not ignore its past since the past does illuminate the future, etc. It quotes Dr. Khodaju at length in an incoherent monologue on the "passivity" of the notion of fana and on the activism of "Shi'ite madness" (here Khodaju quotes from the writings of a "British imperialist"). The magazine invites comments from readers in closing the article. Then comes a footnoted postscript in small, ink-stained print:

“We intended to publish Dr. Khodaju's letter in its entirety, so we wrote to invite him to assist us in editing his letter and clearing the text from some discourteous words. The letter we sent to his address was returned to us by the post office. We assigned a colleague to deliver the message in person. No residence was found at Dr. Khodaju's address.”

There is a question subtly and discreetly raised here: Who exists? A community resisting being buried alive or "God-seekers" with fancied titles and addresses?

The confusion over what there is and what there is not fits in nicely with a society run on a black market economy. "Is" there sufficient food in Iran? Yes, there is. All kinds of commodities not indigenous to Iranian soil, from fresh pineapples to asparagus, are still available. You can still have your filet-kabob, even your Johnny Walker Black Label. Milk and cheese and eggs and meat and rice and fruits and vegetables (preferably with a little assistance from your friendly neighborhood grocers) can also be found. But outside of the meager rations (hundred grams of butter, two hundred grams of cheese, one liter of milk, etc., per person per month) allowed by each household's basij-notebook, everything must be paid for in rial equivalent of the black-market-exchange-rate dollars.

With the basij-notebook you expect to pay 24 tomans for a kilo of cheese, 30 tomans for a kilo of meat, while in the free market they go for 240 and 300 tomans per kilo. The rationality behind this is that imported items are paid for by the wholesaler in the black-market (sometimes called "free-market" by the officials -- depending on the exigencies of the moment) exchange rate that fluctuates between fifteen and twenty times the official exchange rate. No matter that milk and eggs are not imported; prices are adjusted according to the black market dollar anyway. The only exception is bread -- that most symbolic of all foodstuff. Bread is the only subsidized item and kept at a low price while bakeries are ordered to display their store of flour in clear sight of the public, in tribute to plentitude and a humane economy. "Shortage," then, does not accurately describe the situation.

The paper "shortage" is one of the most enduring shortages. Not only the dollar-based price but government-imposed "priority" projects act as qualifiers for the word in this instance.

As the summer of 1986 drew to a close and the publishing industry continued its near total halt in publications that were not Islamic propaganda in substance, people speculated that there might not be adequate supplies of paper for the annual publication of textbooks. Hand-me-down textbooks became hot commodities. Children were told that they would have to observe strict quotas in their notebook consumption as well. Already as a result of the growing population of Tehran and the lack of enough schools and teachers, most children were being sent to school half-time. This is especially true of the lowest-income areas of Tehran where each school day is divided between the morning and the afternoon shifts. There is continual talk of the possibility of reducing the number of subjects that are taught in school, as a means of saving on classroom space, teacher time, and, by eliminating the textbooks and homework for those subjects, paper.

In contrast, the abundant priority publications of the Islamic Republic are displayed in newsstands all around the country. At one fourth the price of a bastard (by choice) literary magazine printed on yellowish "straw-paper," for instance, magazines such as Pasdar-e Islam (a publication of the Qom Islamic Propaganda Center) take their prominent spots at the newsstands regularly every week.

The front cover is usually the only page of these magazines that is looked over by the passers-by: a montage of the Allah emblem of the Islamic Republic rising from the ka'ba like a full moon, or some action photograph of smiling boys with their "Ya Sar-ullah" headbands on their way to the front. The back cover, affirming a more reflective moment, often displays a quotation from the Koran in nasta'liq calligraphy, embellished by loose-ended curves and open loops of imitation eslimi ornamentation and punctuated with come-from-nowhere tiny three-petalled flowers.

What surely goes unnoticed by the majority of the reading public, however, is the de luxe and glacé paper, and the generous layout of the articles, which is contained between the covers. The attendant of one newspaper kiosk told me that these magazines, almost wholly unsold, are collected by their distributors when new issues come out. Paper recycling being a thriving industry in Iran, he said that they probably end up as cardboard for confectionery boxes >>> Part 14
[Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17)]

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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