Book-burning era is long gone but in Iran it’s hard to tell

Sunday 15/05/2016
An Iranian woman looks at books while visiting Tehran’s International Book Fair just outside Tehran, on May 10th.

“For reading, tomorrow is too late,” proclaimed the official poster for the 29th Tehran International Book Fair. That is a remarkable state­ment in a country whose rulers have long considered the written word to be a threat to national security.

But there may be a peculiar truth in the slogan for the 2016 edition of the event: The day after the open­ing ceremony of the 2015 book fair was indeed “too late” for the lovers of the works of Shiva Arastouei.

Her book Me, Simin and Mostafa, the tale of a bourgeois girl oscillat­ing between her love of ballet and passions of political activism in a Trotskyist cell in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, was removed from the exhibition and banned without explanation

The poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s A Collection of Merry Poems Along With A Few Memorial Photos did not fare any better. According to Homayoun Amirzadeh, head of the committee for “investigating trans­gressions of publishers”, some of the poems in the collection had been performed with music by “certain singers abroad” and con­stituted a clear “transgression”.

To be sure, she should not be held responsible for someone else’s use of her poems but the singer Amirzadeh had in mind the Germany-based Shahin Najafi. In July 2009 he released a single titled Neda, in honour of Neda Agha- Soltan, a student of philosophy and a supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi.

She was killed by Basij militia­men on June 20th, 2009. Video footage of her final moments elevated her to iconic status at the frenzy of anti-regime rallies and mass protests that shook the regime to its core and to which it responded with great brutality.

Many other books showcased at the 2015 book fair, which had already been passed by the hawk-eyed censors of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Propagation, were banned after the exhibition closed.

Among English language books, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s A Criti­cal Introduction to Khomeini was banned. Remarkably, that book is a propaganda piece for the mullahs’ regime, written by a regime apolo­gist. However, the mere use of the word “critical” in the title next to the name of the revered founder of the Islamic Republic doomed the book.

More problematic was the Persian translation of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosper­ity and Poverty, by Turkish-Amer­ican economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson. It was axed as well.

In this book, reviewed by no less than Bill Gates, the authors argued: “The economic prosperity of nations depends above all on the inclusiveness of economic and po­litical institutions.” Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance disagreed with the authors and Gates alike and banned it.

Some publishing houses were even less privileged than the books that did manage to find their way onto display stands at the 2015 book fair prior to being banned.

Just before the fair opened, authorities closed the display of the Hayan Publishing House, whose director Mehdi Khazali, son of the late hard-line Ayatollah Abol­ghasem Khazali, is currently out favour with the regime.

His criticism of former presi­dent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and more indirectly of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom Khazali considers com­plicit in the political, economic and diplomatic disasters that befell Iran during the turbulent Ahmadinejad era, has made him persona non grata with the cultural guardians of the regime.

At the opening ceremony of this year’s Tehran International Book Fair, Iranian President Hassan Rohani, a recent defender of artistic freedoms, called on May 3rd for “experts”, rather than “some junior ministry clerk”, to be responsible for deciding “which book can be published and which not”.

With the foremost self-proclaimed defender of artistic freedoms making such a defeatist statement, it was hardly a surprise when the authorities on May 6th “cleansed” the Arabic books sec­tion of the fair of what they called “Wahhabi” propaganda.

Yaqma Golrouyi, another poet whose work was removed from the 2015 book fair, wrote in a May 2014, open letter to Rohani: “The era of burning books is long over… and one day, our unpublished books will reach their audience.”

That day has yet to come for Iranian writers.