Spare a thought for Iran’s literary censors – unloved by writers and publishers alike, they have thousands of works to read through, so much so that the piles of books have spilled out from their rooms at the culture ministry into the corridors.
Figures from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance show that the country has some 7,000 publishing firms. Take just two of these companies – one of them says it has about 70 novels and short story collections currently pending approval from the censors. The other says it has had between 50 and 70 books awaiting review at any one time for the past two years.
Supposing that just 1,000 publishers each deliver five books a year to the ministry’s book department, that comes to 5,000 a year, plus the many inevitably left over from previous years. Writers and translators routinely wait for one, two or even three years for a decision on the suitability of their books.
The censors’ work has always been shrouded in secrecy, but the word in the publishing industry is that there are never more than 20 of them.
To make matters worse, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected president in 2005, the first thing his then culture minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi did was to revoke all the licenses issued under the previous president, Mohammad Khatami.
That created a massive backlog of applications. Censors had to go through already published works as well as the never-ending flow of new ones, checking line by line to see whether they were compatible with the “core Islamic values” the new administration wanted to assert. This is while, under Ahmadinejad, hard-liners in government have frequently questioned whether literature has any use or point at all.
My own translation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark fell victim to this retrospective censorship. Seven thousand copies had been printed in three editions, but Harandi’s censors now deemed it “unpublishable” and it never saw the light of day again. A translation I did of Julio Cortazar’s collection Blow-Up and Other Stories sat for nearly two years before the publishers were told it too was barred from publication.
The same fate befell hundreds of other works of literature, both Iranian and translated foreign fiction.
State censorship of books long predates Ahmadinejad’s rule, of course. It is not mentioned in the Iranian constitution, but a law first produced by the culture ministry in 1985 has been in effect ever since. Under this draconian piece of legislation, publishers must obtain a license from the ministry for every book they plan to sell.
In practice, though, the censors only look at literature, books on art, and works on literary criticism and theory, which account for about 40 per cent of all books published in Iran.
Religious works and textbooks are exempt, and their specialist publishers, mostly based in the religious city of Qom, enjoy privileges such as generous government subsidies that are completely unheard of for others. As a result, culture ministry officials have been able to make repeated announcements over the last couple of years that the number of religious books in the shops has taken yet another leap.
Murmurings of discontent are not confined to those who write and print works of literature. In October, Mostafa Rahmandust, a writer and translator of children’s books, used a column in the Khabar Daily newspaper to lay into current censorship policies as “an affront to the intelligence of readers”.
Rahmandust’s comments carried particular weight because his writings over the past three decades have made him an iconic figure for the “principalists”, the conservative faction that in fact helped Ahmadinejad come to power.
Meanwhile, the culture ministry is sending mixed messages about the scale of the backlog.
Deputy minister Bahman Dorri recently acknowledged that the rate at which book licenses were being issued was slow. But he added that between March and June this year, the number of licenses granted had nevertheless increased by 35 per cent on the same period in 2009. Yet speaking only a couple of months earlier, his predecessor as deputy minister, Mohsen Parviz, had insisted everything was proceeding “as normal” in the books department.
Parviz said anyone who took issue with the general principle of censoring books had “a problem with the establishment itself”.
Publishers, writers, and translators say the mood has certainly changed. In the past, they used at least to receive promises that a decision from the censor’s office would soon be forthcoming, even if this did not always materialise. Now, they say, the doors are firmly closed and they hear no news at all.
Some say this stonewalling is deliberate, part of a government strategy to wind down literary production. There is a rumour going round that the ministry has drawn up a blacklist containing the names of leading publishers like Niloofar and Qoqnoos.
“They want to crush well-known publishers and stop writers and translators from working on novels, which they see as a corrupt, western thing,” a leading author and translator, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
If that is indeed the plan, it does not seem to be having much effect. It is true that some smaller publishers and less experienced writers are thinking twice about carrying on, but the most distinguished and experienced show no signs of throwing in the towel. They know no other way of life, and besides, they have seen too many ups and downs over the last 30 years to give up so easily.
I still receive calls from publishers in Iran interested in new book deals, and they dismiss any suggestion that there is no point trying to get new work past the censors.
As one veteran publisher told me, “No totalitarian regime has lasted forever, has it? I’ve been in the book business for 50 years now and I have no plans to quit.”
Omid Nikfarjam is a Prague-based Iranian journalist and translator who has published over 15 books, among them Persian translations of works by J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, and Truman Capote.