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from the July 2013 issue

The Poet, His Cut-Off Head in His Hand, Went Singing Songs and Ghazals: Literature in Iran

Iran’s literature is wounded, but it still has blood, and in its blood lies a secret.

This literature has not borne the injuries of censorship only in the past thirty-odd years. In fact, it was censored during the reign of the two monarchs of the Pahlavi dynasty, during the rule of the Qajar dynasty when the country’s first newspapers were founded, and earlier, in the wake of every change in government or dynasty, every coup d’état, every collapse of state and ruler, and in the course of the numerous invasions by Turks and Moghuls and Arabs when thousands of its handwritten books were washed away or set on fire in its libraries.

Iran’s sky is filled with recollections of drifting paper ashes, and its rains bear ink in their memories. But during all these centuries, as some countries and governments and even languages around the world have vanished and entrusted their place to others, Iran’s literature has survived, and its survival has a secret.

The secret lies in the Persian language. After every occupation and plunder and pillage, the only thing left to the Iranian people has been its language. The Persian literary language known as Dari, which followed Pahlavi Persian and from about thirteen hundred years ago became the modern-day language of Iranians, has, despite the best efforts of conquerors and usurpers, been protected and preserved by every means possible. And literature has been the best and most beautiful medium of safeguarding it.

Following the 1979 revolution, which brought about the government of the Islamic Republic, this same resistance was again ignited in the Iranian people and their artists. The regime has tried and continues to make every effort to even further propagate Arabic (the language of the Quran) into the Persian language. It has even erected government-paid writers as scarecrows in the fields of our language. But alongside the independent writers who had picked up pen before the revolution (known as the second-generation writers), a third generation of independent writers soon emerged, and now there is talk of the nascent fourth generation. These independent writers, together with those remaining of the second generation, have over the years persistently struggled against censorship. They have tried different methods of passing its walls and experimented with different styles of narration.

Independent writers’ disillusionment with all forms of ideological art, which the Islamic regime promotes and supports in its religious genre, has led them to practice a form of abstinence from it.

Moreover, the presence of realist-socialist literature and committed literature (as described by Jean-Paul Sartre), which were held in high regard prior to the revolution, has in the postrevolution years faded greatly. On the other hand, the ability of writers to create realist literature has significantly increased. Undoubtedly, every good realist story through its underlying layers can convey or remind the reader of the most stirring images of an authoritarian society’s severities without falling captive to the dictates of ideology.

I have always maintained that we should not seek out censorship only in government ministries and offices of bureaucracies, that we should not summarize it in the faces and beliefs of people such as Andrei Zhdanov or his Iranian counterpart Moharram Ali Khan. Censorship has an ancient social-historical existence. Just like Ridley Scott’s aliens, it lays eggs, in the bodies of governments, and it tears through their chest to emerge with a new form and figure so as to mutilate books and shed their blood.

To publish a book in Iran, every independent publisher must deliver three typed copies of the manuscript to the censorship bureau at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. After being reviewed by the censor, the manuscript will either be denied a publishing permit or it will be returned to the publisher with a series of recommended changes so that the writer can “correct” his text according to the preferences of the censorship bureau. If the blows of censorship’s pickax prove ruinous to the work, most independent writers will give up on trying to publish it. But if the revisions are limited to a few words (such as changing breast to chest, or a woman’s thigh to simply her leg), the writers will often comply. Yet, the dilemma does not always end with forgoing publication or submitting to a few changes. It has often happened that an Imam leading Friday prayers or a so-called journalist at a state-run newspaper has for one reason or another set out to speak against a book that has finally been published and released, claiming that it is such works that lay waste to Islam. The book will simply be confiscated and collected from bookstores, and the writer, accused of being a cunning conspirator, will be dragged into interrogation and even prison.

In general, Islamic culture is a censorship machine. It imposes social hypocrisy. It is for this reason that certain Iranians, while concealing their true personality and lacking tolerance and patience, in case of the slightest discord will wish their counterpart to be deleted, censored. Such personalities appear in Iranian short stories and novels, and of course, writing them artfully helps expose them.

The effects of censorship on contemporary Iranian literature are widespread:

Because of censorship, which at times functions shrewdly and at times foolishly, Iranian writers are persistently at a loss about what is permitted and what is not.

The regime has to some extent succeeded in forcing writers to self-censor, especially those who have bravely stayed in Iran and are successful.

The desire to evade censorship has to a certain extent fostered artificially complex and contorted writing.

As a result of the closed society, which limits social experience, some young writers, consciously or unconsciously, are drawn to writing the narrative of their own soul and spirit instead of writing the stories of others. They write of their own perplexities and confusions.

Because of social aberrations, war, poverty, and politico-religious limitations that have even banned Iranians’ expressions of joy and joviality in many areas, in modern stories the number of characters who are emotionally troubled, hopeless and despairing, and preoccupied with death have substantially increased.

For its window dressing, and chiefly for the benefit of European countries that have been its constant critics, the regime needs a few samples of nongovernmental literature. Consequently, it has tried to encourage and support a genre of literature that is nonreligious and neutral. A few young writers have fallen into this trap and have published heavily censored works. These few books are displayed at international fairs and exhibitions alongside hundreds of Islamic-ideologic volumes.

And so, the story of storywriting in Iran, as Ferdowsi, the revered poet who lived at the turn of the first millennium wrote, is a story drenched in tears. The beauty of it is that Iranian writers, despite the adversities that lie ahead and regardless of the tyranny and idiocy of censorship, have written and continue to write their stories and have always found a way to publish them.

This selection of short stories by the postrevolution generation of Iranian writers strives to present an image of the flogged freshness and vigor of Iranian literature during the past three decades. Perhaps better stories have been written and hidden across Iran to which we have no access.

This is what war is.

Literature’s war in this world continues. 

© Shahriar Mandanipour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.

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