TitlePoets and writers are suffocating

What do Iranians read these days?

16 Sep 2010

■ Shafagh Ashna
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I don’t know if it’s only an Iranian bad habit to always miss a historical opportunity and then sit and cry about it, or if all people are like this. These days are not good ones in whatever perspective you look at them. Except for those few months after the 2009 presidential elections when the Green Movement was strongly present, the past five years were black ones for Iran and Iranians.

I will never forget the day after Ahmadinejad’s victory when one of my friends came to university dressed in black and said: ‘Shafagh, we have hard years ahead’. I asked him ‘Why do you say this? Is there any darker color than black (an Iranian proverb)?’ But it seems that he was right. Darker than ‘black’ is the ‘black’ that is ruining people’s lives.

These five years are different years for everyone in Iran. I myself only get out of home for buying a newspaper or finding a new book that I’m interested in. But empty newsstands, book showcases full of dust, the rusty faces of booksellers who are complaining about the cost of papers and less readers every single day are the scenes that I see whenever I visit a bookshop.

The 2nd of Khordad (1) wasn’t just a political event but a Big Bang that created a new world in Iranian society. In all fields, we were reborn again. Happiness welled in our hearts and people dared to show their feelings for the first time after the Revolution. Our football team went to the World Cup games. Newspapers were born and the book market thrived. The colors of our clothes got lighter and happier. All people learn to enjoy and relax. In one word: we could breathe. You could feel that people were getting sensitive about their destiny. Political meetings were held and political parties were getting strong. A kind of excitement and sensation were flowing between people.

I was a child in those days but I remember that when my mother wanted to go out for work, she put money on the television set for three newspapers with a notice telling me this: ‘Shafagh, don’t forget the newspapers’. I had to hurry, it was unbelievable, if you arrived late, all newspapers were gone. Then you had to ask your neighbor to lend it to you. In the street you could see that young people were sitting on the stairs of houses and reading morning newspapers and discussing. At the barber, in the shops: there were intense political discussions everywhere. One morning I woke up weltering in my bed and suddenly remembered that maybe the newspapers would all be sold out. I put on my clothes and rode my bicycle as quickly as I could to go and buy my favorite newspaper. After a while, I befriended the owner of the newsstand. He kept the newspaper for me, so that I wasn’t worried anymore about my favorite paper having disappeared.

2nd of Khordad touched stable ground with ‘Jame’e’ newspaper. A weighty newspaper that was professional in all views. One book after the other got its publishing license. Newspapers were published uninterruptedly and all of them had their own new content. Although I was a child and didn’t understand much about politics, I read all of the papers. I couldn’t understand the meaning of ‘reform’ but I felt that society was reviving. I was happy. On my bicycle I was dreaming about wearing short pants in the street and going to the same school with girls and listening to any music I liked.

This happiness didn’t last for more than two years. Newspaper issues were closed in one night and arrests intensified. In the next six years, we never again experienced those two first years of Mohammad Khatami’s presidential period, but at least, we had had some years to be happy with.

Last week when I was looking at the newsstand, I only saw government newspapers and yellow magazines. A passer-by, who was also looking at the newspapers, shook his head in sorrow and said: ‘Do you know what? Nowadays the best newspaper is ‘Keyhan’! (2) Read all of it from the first to the last pages and vice versa. In this way you can reach the truth!’ I looked at his face and saw the same sadness that I feel when I think about many banned newspapers. I said: ‘You’re right, at least we know there is recent news in it and no one censors it, even though everything in it is totally wrong.

You have the same situation in the bookshop. When I go inside, the answer to my daily question ‘what new book do you have?’ is the same: ‘nothing’. It doesn’t mean that really no book is published. But they ban good books and those that are published are censored so much that when they are published nothing is left of the original. I know many writers and poets whose books are at the Ministry for Culture for months, where they fuss about some ‘mistakes’ in them. For example, they recognize an obscene word in it or some perverse content. All these changes damage the freshness of the writer and poet and cause them to lose their motivation. Until one, two years ago, only books that were republished had no problem and could be found easily, but recently those books should go to the Ministry of Culture for ‘re-editing’ too.

In those years I didn’t have any cheer except ‘Tehran International Book Fair’. Since my childhood, I saved the money that I got on Nowrooz (Iranian New Year) to go to the book fair in Ordibehesht with my parents and buy books. That day was the best day of the year. My pockets were full of money and I was surrounded by books. I entered the pavilions and bought many books. Their heavy load didn’t bother me. I went and visited my favorite writers and asked them to sign their books for me. But since Ahmadinejad came, they moved the book fair to ‘Mosalla’ – a place that is built for praying, not for exhibitions! Now we boycott the book fair and we lost our greatest joy of the year.

I would like to be a bookseller and have a bookshop full of books and new colorful magazines. I would talk with the boys and girls who enter my store and sit at the edge of the table and tell them: do you know that what a master piece that poem is and read it for them…

These days I think about Gholamhosein Sa’edi, a powerful writer who was being forced to leave Iran after the Revolution and go to France. In France he got so depressed and isolated and at last homesickness caused his death. Here, in Iran, we may have the name of ‘fatherland’, but we feel too lonely as well.

(1) the date of President Mohammad Khatami’s 1997 landslide election victory in the Iranian Calendar
(2) an influential newspaper in Iran. Directly under the supervision of the Office of the Supreme Leader, it is regarded to be the most conservative Iranian newspaper.

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