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    Writing is a Dangerous Act
    The Situation of Writers in Iran

    The history of modern Iranian literature has been shaped by censorship. Nonetheless, Iran would like to be guest of honour at the biggest book fair in the world in Frankfurt in 2018. Amir Hassan Cheheltan, one of Iran’s best-known contemporary authors, describes how he deals with this situation.

    To give a clear picture of the amount of pressure Iranian writers are under, allow me to go over some of the calamities visited upon them during the last three decades. They spirited a poet away from his wedding celebration and handed him over to a firing squad; a respected translator was found by the road with obvious injection marks on his arm; they conspired (but failed) to plunge a bus carrying twenty-one writers travelling to a cultural event in a neighbouring country into a gorge; they grabbed a poet on his way to a supermarket and an hour later dumped his corpse on the outskirts of the city… The list goes on and on. Writing is indeed a dangerous act, something everyone involved in it in my country knows.

    Absurd climate

    In this absurd climate, Iranian writers punish themselves for the sake of writing and resort to self-destruction. Some fall prey to addiction; others choose the path of exile, which, it goes without saying, intensifies the destruction of the self. Those who remain behind must endure strict and gruelling censorship.

    What has happened is this. They have established a ministry in Iran whose principle duty is to inspect what writers are writing, what film-makers are filming, what painters are painting, and what artists in general are doing.

    No writing in Iran gains a permit for publication without first receiving the approval of the authorities responsible. Of all genres, the Persian novel is the most susceptible to censorship. The Iranian novelist has been bred to write solely in the closeted environs of an apartment. In this apartment no one comes to the window, one doesn’t see the street – as if there is no street, no city, no urban hustle and bustle, not even a neighbour. They want the novel situated exclusively in the kitchen and the living room, pretending that in the home of the novel there is no need for a toilet, a bath or a bedroom, and that the novel must not speak of what takes place in those parts of the home. Iranian life in the Persian novel is one big lie, a distortion of reality.

    It is true that most novelists – especially in the last century – have forever been writing about the private life and relations of individuals, but the issue is this: in Iran simple matters like what we eat, wear, what books we read, and which music we listen to – all of these things are the domain of government edicts about what is good and what is evil. Then how is one to write about private life and individual relations without referring to people’s relationships to governing authority? How is the writer to ignore history in writing? And what is history, after all, other than what has befallen others? The writer has no choice in writing but to enter the skin of other people and, obviously, write of other times and places.

    The question one may well ask is: how far does freedom extend in the novel? In response to this question, one can pose another: what are the boundaries of the imagination? Why shouldn’t people be free to put on paper what they imagine, and the whole gamut of their own emotions and feelings? The only thing that comes from suppressing the limitless range of the imagination is silence, and silence carries with it the seeds of death.

    Problematic moral standards

    Cultural policies in Iran have deprived our novels of the aesthetics of morality. The authorities have perpetuated a major fallacy in equating the moral standards of the novel with what is moral in the eyes of the public – on the street, in the park, and on the bus. Those who subject us to such censorship have not read the Persian classics. The spirit of that literature, a literature replete with wine-drinking and boy lovers (catamites), is absolutely alien to them. In some Persian sources, part of the story of the Prophet Yusof (Joseph) goes like this: After Zuleika beckoned Yusof to her, she laid herself down on the ground, and Yusof, who was seated between her legs, undid her drawstring. In another part of the story, we read: When Yusof’s stepbrothers brought his full brother Benjamin to him, Yusof and Benjamin spent the night in the same bed with Yusof embracing and nuzzling his brother the whole night. In the present climate, however, if an Iranian writer were to include such scenes in a novel, or were a man even to touch a woman, they would charge the writer with sowing corruption and eliminate that part of the work. When we speak of censorship in Iran, it means the excising of the most significant and exceptional products of literature and art; the nearer a work of literature is to the global republic of letters, the more it is subject to the violence of the censor.

    Alongside the literature that the censors have emasculated and rendered useless are works created with the backing and blessing of the government: ideological works in the service of state ideals. There are no customers in the market for such literature, but large sums have been spent on establishing organisations that can produce it, and most – one can even say all – of those drawn to such organisations are among the least talented people with literary pretentions. Between 1982 and 1984, when I was doing my military service, they distributed a weekly propaganda magazine among the troops, the cost of which, of course, was subtracted from our pay. No one read the thing; instead we would lay it on the ground and use it as a tablecloth.

    Censorship has, like a great plague, paralysed and neutered the literature of Iran. At the start of the twenty-first century Iranian writers are again experiencing a period of repression much like the one Rumi had to endure. Rumi, not only one of the greatest classical poets of Iran but of the entire world, was also accused of sowing corruption and that which was forbidden.

    Unrealistic ambitions

    The exercise of political influence in Iran is the key that opens every door. The politically influential can, for example, take out a substantial bank loan without having to make the monthly payments. They can occupy high positions without being capable or having the ability to fill them, and they can even get advanced college degrees without showing up for class. The cultural authorities imagine that the flawed instrument they wield can produce good novels and outstanding novelists, products they can then send out into the world. There is at times talk in Iran of literary interaction with the rest of the world. In 2014 a 200-member commission from the country was dispatched to the Frankfurt Book Fair. On his return the director of the Iranian booth at the fair gave an interview to one newspaper. The title of the interview was ‘The Widest Possible Presence in World Publishing’. In this naïve exchange he declared that Iranian participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair still had a long way to go before becoming what he hoped it would be; but he never cited censorship as the most serious impediment to contemporary Persian writing becoming a presence in world literature.

    Then he said that after discussions with Jürgen Boos, head of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Iran would have the status of special invitee after 2018. He added that they had held talks with the heads of other book fairs and applied to participate in them.

    Widest possible presence in world publishing – with what literature? With these ideological works? Or with writings maimed by censorship? Literature that up to now is incapable of being credible even to its own Iranian readers, because a great deal of them believe such writing to be doctored, appearing in a form that scarcely resembles the originals. The result of this situation is that the amount of time people in the country spend reading each day is all of two minutes.

    Iran has yet to officially recognise international copyright law and has not even joined the Berne Convention. Yet despite this it aims to be a special invitee at the Frankfurt Book Fair? Joining the Berne Convention would of course limit the translation of pirated foreign novels, but how would it further the unfettered publication of novels and other Persian literary works?

    Several months ago the German ambassador invited the German translator of my works to Iran so we could hold a public forum on the translation of Persian novels into that language and the difficulties inherent in such work. But none of the cultural centres in Tehran, all of which are under state supervision, put a venue for the discussion at our disposal. Do you know where the forum was eventually held? At the Tehran home of the German cultural attaché!

    Amputating books

    The National Library of Iran, which is responsible for holding a copy of every book published in the country, contains none of my books nor those of other writers regarded as dissident or having strayed from Islam.

    Of course it must be noted that the cultural authorities have recently approved the publication of a collection of my stories. The collection consists of ten short stories, but only six of them will be included in the published work. Before submitting the collection and applying for a license to publish, I myself took out four stories, because I didn’t have the slightest hope that the entire collection would receive official approval. Even the surviving six short stories were published with deletions and changes the gentlemen had made. For example, the phrase ‘guerrilla life’ was taken out of a story set in the 1970s when the guerrilla movement in Iran was at its height. Censorship requires that we forget who we are and what we have done; it asks us to substitute the propaganda flowing constantly from state media for the truth of our own lives.

    The new collection of stories is the first of my books to appear in Persian since 2005. In the intervening nine years, four new novels of mine have been translated and published in German, English, and Norwegian without first having had a chance to appear in Iran in Persian, their original language. The interesting thing is that during the same period they made and broadcast on state television a film based on one of my short stories. They did so without my permission, without paying or even informing me, the independent Iranian writer bound hand and foot and at their disposal. Copyright is meaningless in Iran. Consequently they can do whatever they wish, not only to my work, which sticks in their craw, but to the writing of foreigners. Eroticism, which occupies considerable parts of the novels of this period, is completely eliminated from them. How deeply the censoring knife cuts into a foreign work is something state officials and translators work out among themselves. The foreign author of the work is left completely in the dark.

    In the absence of free and independent political parties and organisations, intellectuals and artists have, without wanting to, found themselves in – or have actually been thrust into – the vanguard of the opposition. With writers the only ones who can affect what’s going on in the country through the publication of their ideas, censorship suddenly rears its head, preventing those ideas from spreading. Censors treat books like bowls of soup, putting them under their microscopes to find the germs in them.

    The devastating effect of censorship

    A large number of lawyers consider the pre-publication examination of books in Iran to be unconstitutional, but ordinarily the only time the constitution is consulted is to secure the interests of the rulers. Censorship is undoubtedly based on the idea that words can change governments. Sociologists, however, generally believe free speech to be what saves governments from collapsing through insurrection and revolution. If speech is not free, there is no way of judging the way government performs; reform shuts down, and society drifts toward immobility. The least harmful effects of censorship (in such broad confines as these, at that) are: it compels people to lead double lives, it expands the scope of hypocrisy, and people gradually come to possess two faces.

    In Iran, cultural policies have achieved their goals, with the elite of society verging on total extinction. One of the results of the disappearance of the elite from the social sphere was the sight – a marvel to all – of more than a million people taking part in a pop singer’s funeral procession. The cultural authorities issued their condolences; but when independent writers and artists die, there isn’t even the briefest mention on state television. Wrestlers, television personalities and pop singers fill every arena, thanks to the policy of eradicating and censoring writers and artists.

    Until recently even the word ‘censorship’ was censored. No newspaper had the right to refer to it. The authorities found a replacement in a term referring to the religious distinction between good and evil. In this way, censorship officials are people who divide evil from good. ‘Censorship’ entered the official media only when the clergy promised in their political campaign that they would abolish it – a promise that has yet to be fulfilled. The Writers Association of Iran has thus not received official recognition, nor is it allowed to be active.

    In this climate of silence and censorship, we can only hope that it was entirely coincidental that, according to some reports, police dispersed a group of Iranian journalists who had gathered, the day after the tragedy, in support of the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris on the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo.
    Amir Hassan Cheheltan is a novelist living in Tehran. His novel Isfahan will be published by C. H. Beck in the autumn of 2015, and his novel The Iranian Daybreak is being published in Germany by Kirchheim.

    Translated by Paul Sprachmann

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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