The perils of writing

The history of modern Iranian literature has been shaped by censorship. Nonetheless, Iran is hoping to be guest of honour at the world′s leading book fair in Frankfurt in 2018. Amir Hassan Cheheltan, one of Iran′s best-known contemporary authors, describes how he copes with the situation

By Amir Hassan Cheheltan

In a bid to clarify just how much pressure Iranian writers are under, Iet us consider just a few 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 in 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 perilous activity, something everyone engaged in it in Iran knows.

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, accelerates the process of self-destruction. Those who remain behind must endure strict and gruelling censorship.

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

No writing in Iran is approved for publication without first receiving the go-ahead from the authorities responsible. Of all genres, the Persian novel is the most susceptible to censorship.

One big lie

The Iranian writer Amir Cheheltan (photo: private)
Distorted reality: ″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... Iranian life in the Persian novel is one big lie,″ writes Cheheltan

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 to be situated exclusively in the kitchen and the living room, pretending that in the world of the novel there is no need for a toilet, a bath or a bedroom. The novel may not reveal 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 – concentrated on the private lives and relationships of individuals, but the issue is this: in Iran, simple matters such as what we eat, wear, what books we read and which music we listen to – all these things are the preserve of government edicts about what is good and what is evil.

Yet, how can you write about private lives and individual relationships without referring to people′s attitudes to authority? How can a writer ignore history when writing? And what is history, after all, but that which has befallen others? In writing, the writer has no but to slip into the skin of other people and, obviously, write about other times and places.

This poses the question: how far does freedom extend in the novel? The answer gives rise to another: what are the boundaries of the imagination? Why shouldn′t people be free to put what they imagine – the whole gamut of their own emotions and feelings – down on paper? 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 delete that section of the work.

When we speak of censorship in Iran, it means the excision of the most significant and exceptional products of literature and art; the more closely a work of literature resembles the global republic of letters, the more it is subject to the wrath of the censor.

A stall selling books on a street in Tehran (photo:
Reading time just two minutes a day: the majority of Iranians are not interested in reading works that have been subjected to heavy editing by the country’s cultural censors. ″The more closely a work of literature resembles the global republic of letters, the more it is subject to the wrath of the censor,″ explains Cheheltan

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 is no popular demand for such literature, but large sums have been spent on establishing organisations that can produce it, and most – you might 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; we used to spread it out 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, one of the greatest classical poets of Iran and arguably of the entire world, was also accused of sowing corruption and disseminating the forbidden.

Unrealistic ambitions

In Iran the exercise of political influence is the key that opens every door. The politically influential can, for example, take out a substantial bank loan without having to make any 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. At times there is even talk in Iran of literary interaction with the rest of the world.

The Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi (photo: Masihian Zendani)
Bloggers such as Masihian Zendani are unable to exercise the same freedom of speech enjoyed by online writers in other countries. They are at constant risk of falling foul of the authorities

In 2014 a 200-member commission from the country was dispatched to the Frankfurt Book Fair. The director of the Iranian booth at the fair gave an interview to one newspaper on his return. The title of the interview was ″The Widest Possible Presence in World Publishing″.

During this naive 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.

He went on to say that after discussions with Jurgen Boos, the head of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Iran would attain the status of special guest 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 has been incapable of being credible even to its own Iranian readers, because so many of them believe such writing to be doctored, appearing in a form that scarcely resembles the originals. As a result, people in Iran spend on average only two minutes a day reading.

Iran has yet to recognise international copyright law and has not even joined the Berne Convention. Yet, despite this, it is still aiming to be a special guest 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 that 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, was willing to provide a venue for the discussion. Where was the forum eventually held? At the Tehran home of the German cultural attache!

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 any 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 licence to publish, I myself removed four stories, because I didn′t have the slightest hope that the entire collection would receive official approval.

Satirical cartoon about life in Iran (source: Deutsche Welle)
Censoring ″censorship″: not long ago, even the very word was forbidden, replaced by a term emphasising the religious distinction between good and evil. During a recent election campaign, however, the clerics promised to abolish censorship. It is a promise that has yet to be fulfilled

Even the surviving six short stories are to published with deletions and changes made by the censors. 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 truth of our own lives for the propaganda flowing constantly from state media.

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 a film on state television 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 also to the writing of foreigners. Eroticism, which these days features in a lot of novels, is completely eliminated.

How far 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.

"Revolution Street" by Amir Hassan Cheheltan (published by One World Publications)
The novelist Amir Hassan Cheheltan lives in Tehran. His latest novel ″Revolution Street″ was published in 2014 by One World Publications

With writers being 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 such ideas from spreading. Censors treat books like bowls of soup, examining them under the microscope for any germs.

The devastating effect of censorship

A large number of lawyers consider the pre-publication examination of books in Iran to be unconstitutional; generally speaking, however, the constitution is only consulted when the interests of the rulers are at stake. 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) are: it compels people to lead double lives, it expands the scope of hypocrisy and people gradually develop a public and a private face.

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 clerics 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

© Fikrun wa Fann 2015

Translated by Paul Sprachmann

The novelist Amir Hassan Cheheltan lives in Tehran. His novel "Isfahan" will be published by C. H. Beck in the autumn of 2015, and his novel "The Iranian Daybreak" is published in Germany by Kirchheim.