Banned books, forbidden topics: Some writers aim to smuggle what Iran censors

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran in 2019. Iran strictly regulates what may be published in books, forbidding topics such as sex, alcohol and criticism of Islam or the Islamic Republic.
(Associated Press)

The members of this particular online book club spent zero time talking about literature per se, instead focusing on how to smuggle banned writings into Iran.

Prospective readers, the members said, should not have to worry about authorities in the Islamic Republic obtaining their personal information. They should have the freedom to choose what books they want to read.

“I’m worried that if people send us their address so that we mail the books, it’ll get leaked to authorities,” one man based in Canada recently told the 10-member group in Persian.

For months, the group, which includes writers and translators living in self-exile from Iran as well as others still living there, has sought ways to ensure its members’ voices are heard in the motherland. Others eager to distribute writings on topics that are forbidden by Iran’s leaders include the head of a London-based clandestine publishing operation and novelists in the diaspora running online classes covering everything from the basics to painful memoirs.


The challenge is that Iran tightly regulates the publication of books and has a strict system of censorship. Several topics are strictly off-limits, such as sex, alcohol and criticism of Islam or the Islamic Republic.

Those who publish, sell or distribute banned books face arrest and imprisonment if caught. And people who are found promoting ideas from them also face prosecution.

The country has seemed ripe for criticism during the past year or longer for reasons including its status as a coronavirus hot spot in the Middle East, a fragile economy, concerns about nuclear capabilities, a crackdown on social media posts and the accidental shoot-down of a Ukraine International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 aboard.

The publication rules, according to the country’s conservative Shiite clerics, ensure the future of the Islamic Republic by protecting it from “Western cultural invasion.”

Iran’s leaders have long believed that Western countries, especially the United States, hope to gradually change the country’s Islamic and revolutionary values, said Ashraf Rahmani, author of “The Legal System Concerning Book Publishing in Iran.”

It wasn’t until 10 years after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that the Islamic Republic created its first major policy surrounding censorship and limits on free speech.


Not all laws Iran has imposed on writers and publishers are restrictive. The government provides subsidies to writers, exempts them from paying income taxes and might even deliberately turn a blind eye to less sensitive pieces sold without permit by street vendors.

It absolutely, however, reserves the right to crack down. Authorities from Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance unexpectedly swing by printing houses for inspection and block websites and social media channels that share banned books.

Iranian American novelist Omid Fallahazad lost hope of ever having his writings published when he left his hometown of Shiraz more than two decades ago.

As a follower of the Bahai faith, he had been barred from not only practicing his religion but also obtaining a college degree.

“I had to start from zero when I moved to the United States,” Fallahazad, who lives in Boston, said during a telephone interview.

After some time, Fallahazad started working at a high school as a math teacher while continuing to write on the side.


In 2013, he finally saw his first short story, “Sabzeh,” which told the tale of a Bahai family’s experience of persecution and flight from Iran, published as part of an anthology of short stories from Iranian Americans called “Tremors.”

He’s gone on to publish several other fiction books that explore the difficulties of being part of persecuted ethnic minority groups in Iran, such as Armenians and Bahais.

Fallahazad started the book club named “Meeting the Absent Friends” during the early days of the pandemic.

Other novelists said they hoped their work would inspire a new generation of writers to speak their truth and push the limits when it comes to Iran’s censors.

When Shahriar Mandanipour left Iran in 2006 and settled in Cambridge, Mass., he noticed that for the first time he was writing about Iran while gazing at it from the outside.

Mandanipour, 64, said in a phone interview he’s recently learned to lean on his love for Persian literature and storytelling as a way to ground himself.


“I’ve [made up] a place that is sort of a utopia that’s named ‘The Republic of Literature,’ ” he said, adding: “For entering this country you do not need any kind of visa, fingerprints or citizenship. You just need to have good stories in your hand.”

His most recent novel, “Moon Brow,” was published in 2018, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that he decided he wanted it distributed in Iran.

His book explores the dark realities of the Iran-Iraq war through a story of a man who struggles with PTSD and drinking. To get it published in Iran, he sought out another writer-turned publisher in London who he knew could make it happen: Hadi Khojinian.

Khojinian, a lighthearted and witty man, said his team of 20 underground publishers in Iran could make Mandanipour’s book available for publication in four days.

Since that conversation two months ago, Khojinian has sold more than 1,000 copies of Mandanipour’s book to folks in Iran.

Delighted by the success, Mandanipour decided to offer a free virtual creative writing class.


“I made a small announcement on an Iranian website, and so it was wonderful to see that of the 45 young people who signed up, more than two-thirds of them live in Iran,” he said.

“I thought I would be teaching at a basic level, but after the first session I realized I’d have to be teaching at something like a university level.”

In Las Vegas, 68-year-old Iranian American novelist Moniro Ravanipour said she wants her stories to reach those still in Iran, particularly women in rural areas like Bushehr, a province in southwestern Iran where she was born.

Her work taps into dark moments she faced as a young woman living under the newly formed Islamic Republic as a vehicle to explore womanhood, feminism and resiliency.

“I see me not only as a writer but also a warrior; a warrior who must fight for the lost right and dignity of humanity,” she said in a phone interview.

“Dictatorships and fascist governments want people to be depressed and want people to think that they’re not capable of anything,” she said. “And the best way to attack them, in my opinion, is to become somebody.”


That’s the lesson Ravanipour hopes the 10 Iranian women taking her free online memoir writing class will learn. Her students each lost a loved one last year when the Ukraine International Airlines jetliner was shot down.

Driven to arm the next generation of Iranian women with the skills it takes to write, she was determined to help them push past their pain so that they could find their voice.

“I told them that if they didn’t want their loved ones to disappear they had to take care of themselves and write their stories,” she said. “Because they’ll be alive in your story.”