Books may be kept out of Tehran fair -- but not off its streets


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TEHRAN -- As hundreds of thousands of bookworms converge on this capital, Iranian writers are pleading with the government to loosen its grip and allow a banned publisher into the Tehran International Book Fair.

The 10-day book fair, which kicks off Tuesday at the Grand Mosque Mosalla, bills itself as ‘the most important publishing event in Asia and the Middle East,’ drawing an average of 550,000 visitors a day. Though most publishers come from the Islamic world, the festival also welcomes Western companies hawking scientific or technical titles such as ‘Bioeconomics of Fisheries Management’ and ‘Succeeding with Technology’ -- and any other books that abide by ‘Islamic values.’


That may have tripped up a disputed Iranian company, Cheshmeh, which had its license suspended late last year, halting the presses that printed Western philosophy, Iranian short stories, history books from Cambridge and the Orhan Pamuk novel “My Name Is Red,” among other titles.

Iranian officials haven’t explained why the company was shut down, despite the outcry from writers and publishers. It had been one of several publishers accused of promoting a Western lifestyle.

An online petition that includes writers and translators expressed concern about Cheshmeh’s suspension and absence from the book fair, saying it made the selection of books available in Iran ‘thinner and weaker.’

The Tehran book fair has clamped down on publishers before: Two years ago the government refused to allow any books into the fair that had been approved for publication before 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. Iranian officials have confiscated books and shut down stalls in the past.

But even if Cheshmeh and other publishing houses are ultimately shut out of the annual festival, their books won’t necessarily be shut out of Iran. Despite the firm dictates of religious and cultural ministers, a vibrant underground market for banned books and movies exists in Tehran.

“Give me any banned or illegal book. I can copy it exactly like the original one in less than a week and market it in the network across the country,” one Tehran man boasted. “Any book that’s banned will be a hit in the market.”

The street stalls are called nayab foreshi, Farsi for “rarely available items.” Yet the forbidden books are actually very much available, albeit at a price. Books and films banned by Iranian authorities are pirated within days and sold at inflated prices by street vendors who risk months in jail for shilling the forbidden tales.

Pirated copies of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” banned years ago as pornography, can still be found just outside Tehran universities. The prohibited film “Santoori,” about a dulcimer player addicted to drugs, is readily available on DVD on Tehran sidewalks not far from where Friday prayers are held. And on Revolution Avenue, street vendors sell Farsi translations of “The Right to Heresy,” a dense text about religious reformation that became popular with reformists after defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi suggested it. The book, once sold for less than $2, has nearly tripled in price after being banned.

Those prices have made sellers willing to take the risk of hawking banned books instead of approved titles. Several booksellers told The Times they had been locked up for anywhere from six months to two years, yet went on selling once they were freed.

“I can show you hundred titles of the books Xeroxed or on CDs sold in massive numbers right here in the sidewalks opposite Tehran University,” lamented Majid Taleghini, a publisher in Tehran. “We publishers are bankrupt and book smugglers are making a fortune. So what is the use of censorship?”

Frustrated writers say getting books past the government gantlet can take years, making it hard to eke out a living, even as the black market flourishes. Books must be submitted to the Cultural and Islamic Guidance Ministry, which picks out any offensive words, phrases or even whole paragraphs and insists on changes before texts can be printed.

The lags have upset writers as much as the censorship has. Journalist Emili Amraei, daughter of Asadollah Amraei, a prolific translator, complained her father couldn’t pay his bills because the ministry had taken four months to pore over his translated novel.

“This is our bread,” she wrote last week in the reformist daily Etemad.

Although the underground market has aggravated underpaid writers, it has been a boon to the tottering Iranian opposition, allowing it to spread its ideas to its followers even as its leaders languish under house arrest. The same ideas are also spread covertly, as writers disguise dissident ideas in literary code in hopes of getting them past the scrutiny of censors.

And the scrutiny has only increased with time. “Yes, political issues were censored before the revolution,” the Tehran bookseller mused over his illegal wares, “but not Marquez or Faulkner. Now even classical literature may be censored.”


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-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles