Creativity's battles with censorship

What happens to a country where many writers have shelved writing or have given up trying to get published? The author and publisher, Arash Hejazi, writes about self-censorship, which has taken root among many Iranian writers. Is Iranian literature fading away? 

June 10 2013 Text: Arash Hejazi

A few years back, the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjan Satrapi stormed the world of literature, so did Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Then Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist received the Nobel Peace prize. Two years ago the Iranian Film A Separation won an Oscar among many other awards, and last year Michelle Obama herself announced the Oscar for the controversial film Argo. Whatever TV series you are watching, if it has got anything to do with terrorism or espionage, an Iranian character appears at least in one episode. When a topic makes its way consistently into the popular culture, it’s a hot topic. Iran is a hot topic, as it has been for the past 35 years, and even more so since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become the President of Iran, the prolonged and never-ending nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West, and the controversial presidential elections in Iran in June 2009 which led to the murder of hundreds by the Iranian militia or police, and imprisonment and exile of thousands.

However, despite all the political attention, little the West knows about the cultural scene inside Iran today. Since the dawn of civilisation until renascence, Iran has always been a great contributor to world's literature, art and science and the old name of Iran 'Persia' still emanates an aura of mystery and mythical glory, but the Iranian contemporary art, literature and science has not been able to nourish from its deep roots in time, or at least the world believes so.

The fact is, in spite of all the isolation, suppression and constant internal and external threats, Iran still produces a good deal of valuable content; although these cultural products never get a chance to be published. Even Internet, with all its infinity of possibilities, has not been able to help the suppressed authors, musicians and artists to present their products in a sustainable way, and it seems that the world is conspiring with the Iranian oppressive regime to suffocate any chance of communication between the Iranian creative wealth with the world-wide audience.

The main obstacle against the flourishing of Iranian cultural products in the past 100 years—and not only since the 1979 Islamic Revolution—has been censorship. Ironically, as the world started to move away from censorship and towards freedom of speech, Iran started to move away from its liberal stand on freedom of speech at the turn of the eighteenth century and moved towards establishing official censorship. Since the establishing of the Islamic Republic of Iran, though, censorship has become so widespread that people have even started censoring the way they think. The Islamic Republic established a multi-layered censorship system that could censor anything and anyone at any time: The authors, artists, filmmakers, publishers, even the censors themselves, and the content before or after publication. Two years ago, the internationally acclaimed and award-winning film-maker Jafaar Panahi who had tried to make a documentary on the aftermaths of the 2009 Iranian elections and the green movement, was banned from film-making for 20 years by the Iranian judiciary. The Iranian musician Mohsen Namjoo who was revolutionising the Iranian contemporary music and had succeeded in creating a fan base of millions inside Iran, was sentenced to five years imprisonment, fortunately just after he had managed to leave Iran. A number of Iranian authors such as Mohammad Mohammadali have been marked as 'unpublishable' by the Iranian Ministry of culture, and the works of other authors have been censored to such an extent that the authors refuse to publish them.

When the usage of Internet became widespread in Iran since 2000, the Iranian creative minds sought this as an opportunity to present their work. But this soon turned out to be another dead end. Firstly, an artist can only go so far with publishing their work for free. As a result of all the international sanctions, the Iranian banking system was cut off from international banks. Therefore, no one could use international retail platforms such as Amazon or iTunes to commercialise their work and a chance to make a living out of their intellectual property. The Iranian banking system allows some sort of internal digital e-commerce, but only for authorised pieces of works. So an unpublishable work in print is still unpublishable online, and authors based in Iran need to fear from the consequences of challenging the system. Secondly, the Iranian government implemented a strong web-filtering system that cuts off the access of people based in Iran to almost 80 per cent of the content on the Web. This means that even if you reside outside Iran or are bold enough to publish your work online, there is no guarantee that Iranians in Iran can see your work. Of course the Iranian users have tried to beat the system with proxies and anti-filtering solutions, but even using these solutions is illegal in Iran, and moreover, not all internet users have the technical knowledge implement them. On the top of this, the reach of internet in Iran is still confined mostly to urban areas and the speed is too slow. And thirdly, the dire economic condition imposed on the Iranians by the poor management of the government and international sanctions that has caused a steep drop in the disposable income of the Iranians, leaves little room for allocating time to self-development, entertainment and culture. People neither have the money nor the time to read books and they don’t trust the content that’s published inside Iran because of censorship. People read less, and authors who are already suffering from the risky business of being an author, become even less motivated to write.

This situation has led many Iranian authors to give up writing or at least trying to publish their works, resulting in a decline in Persian literary and artistic output. The large number of Iranian writers, journalists, translators, publishers, bloggers, film-makers and artists who have been murdered, imprisoned, exiled, prosecuted, or banned during the past 30 years seems to have been enough to create an enormous fear among the active members of the creative community. This results in extreme caution in anyone who tries to venture into a creative activity. Thus, self-censorship has become a common practice among Iranian authors, which has imposed serious limitations on writers’ artistic creativity.

Currently nearly six million Iranian expats live outside Iran. These expats mostly left Iran immediately after the 1979 revolution, or during the war years between Iran and Iraq. Six million is a large enough figure to populate a small country and in the first years of this emigration, they had literary outputs that nourished the Iranians living in exile. A number of Persian-language publishers based in the US and Europe emerged who dedicated their work to publishing the works that could not be published in Iran. Initially this seemed to be a viable business model, as the Iranians in exile were regular customers of the portfolio of books these publishers released, and some of the books were even smuggled into Iran and were offered to the Iranian readers on the black market. However, it proved not to be as viable as one would have thought.

35 years has passed since the first wave of Iranian emigration stared. The generation that left Iran in the 80s was literate in Persian and could read and write in it. But now, what forms the Iranian expat community, consists mainly of Iranians who were born outside Iran, grew up in other countries and never received enough training in Persian to be able to connect with the literature written in their parents’ mother tongue. They can speak Farsi and communicate with other expats using a mixture of words in Farsi and their primary language (eg. English, Swedish, German, French), and make sense of what they hear; but most of them struggle when it comes to reading and writing in Farsi, understanding the subtleties of the language and enjoying the beauty of its literature. The majority of the new Iranian expat generation has never become bilingual in its real sense, and therefore are not a market for Iranian literature.

However, none of these obstacles mean that the Iranian modern literature is dying. Iran has had a continuous history of contributing to world literature and Persian classic literature is still widely studied in the academia worldwide. The constitutional revolution in 1903 rejuvenated the Persian literature again, centuries after the golden age of Persian poetry and the heritage of classic poets such as Rumi, Khayyam, Hafez and Sadi. During the 20th century, Iran witnessed the rise of several brilliant novelists and poets, whose works attracted the attention of many international critics, among which the names of Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh, Sadeq Hedayat, Sadeq Choubak, Houshang Golshiri, Ebrahim Golestan, Simin Daneshvar, Ahmad Shamlou, Shahrnoush Parsipour and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi can be mentioned. However, most of these authors, as well as hundreds of others, have faced the obstacle of censorship before they reached a larger audience. Hedayat committed suicide in 1951 in Paris, Jamalzadeh died alone in Geneva in 1997 and Sadeq Choubak in Berkeley in 1998. Golshiri died in Tehran in 2000 while he was waiting in vain to receive the permission for his last novel. Golestan has been in exile in the UK for the past 40 years and Ahmad Shamlou, one of the most prominent and popular contemporary Iranian poets, died in July 2000 in Tehran and since then, every year on this date, the reunions of his fans over his grave have been suppressed violently by the police.

A new generation of young writers arose after the Iran-Iraq war which flourished for a period during the eight years of Khatami’s presidency, such as Zoya Pirzad, Amir-Hossein Cheheltan, Jafar Modarres-Sadeqi, Fariba Vafi, Mohammad-Reza Kateb and Mohammad Mohammad-Ali. At that period the international publishing community started to pay attention to the literary currents in Iran, and several works of Iranian fiction were translated and published in other languages. The imposed censorship and self-censorship led to the formation of a new style of writing, almost unique to the Iranian authors. This style tries to explore the same subject matters that are in the focus of attention of every author in the world, but in a completely concealed manner, which has created a cryptic language that may be highly appealing to an audience interested in a not-straightforward literature rich with metaphors and inter-textuality. The same style appeared in the works of several Iranian filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who managed to attract a wide audience and several prestigious awards worldwide. This style, well-known and completely welcomed by the Persian-reading audience who are familiar with it through ages of brilliant poetry using the same language, has made Iranian fiction still preserve a strong appeal in the Iranian publishing industry despite all these censorships.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the member states of the UN are obliged to enforce in their countries, leaves no doubt that freedom of expression is a basic and essential human right that no one is allowed to restrict on an arbitrary basis. This essential right has been undermined in Iran for the past 34 years. All the efforts made to reason with the censorship system to show that these activities are illegitimate and against have so far been fruitless. This lack of dialogue has created a dead-end situation for the publishers and authors who are left with no opportunity to debate for a possible solution to this problem. Therefore, despite the fact that several solutions can be suggested, none of them have an opportunity to be tested in such an environment. Abolishing pre-publication censorship seems to be a very reasonable first step to stop the arbitrary censorship and illegal prior interventions of the government. However, the question that how eager the current government of Iran is to create a bridge over the deep gap created over the past 34 years between the regime and the intellectuals, authors, publishers, the press, artists, filmmakers and the society remains to be observed in the future. The attitude of the government during the post-election protests of Iran in June 2009 in expelling international journalists and detaining Iranian reformist journalists and authors does not seem very promising.