For almost 40 years, the Iranian government has been nipping and tucking our history – snipping out inconvenient truths.
We know they’re doing it. In fact, we – and I mean readers and thinkers and artists – have developed a vocabulary for it.
Recently, a friend in the UK wrote to ask after a book he’d read years ago about the mystic 14th Century poet Hafez who lived in Shiraz.
It was called Hafez e-Kharabati, or Hafez the Epicurean. I remembered the book very clearly but couldn’t find it in my collection so I headed over to the local public library.
(In the Islamic Republic, by the way, libraries alternate between “Women’s Days” and “Men’s Days.” The regime, determined to safeguard the morals of the reading public, makes sure there is no hanky-panky among the shelves.)
It was Saturday — a Women’s Day, but the kindly librarian bent the rules and let me in.
“Could you have a look on the ‘entranet’?” I asked her. That’s the online catalogue of all books available in Iran’s 3,000 public libraries.
“Hafez the Epicuran?,” she asked. “When was it published?”
“In the 1960s,” I said.
“A pre-Revolutionary analysis of Hafez’s poetry?” she said. “Well then, sir - it has been “vijin-ed”.
“Vijin” is a gardening word. Literally, it means to uproot or eradicate weeds. But in Iran you hear it in libraries. It refers to the way our government eliminates books it considers heretical or subversive.
Of course, excising bits of history like this always leaves a little scar, a trace of the truth – even if it’s only a shared memory.
“So,” I said to this librarian and fellow book lover. “It’s another Clementis hat.”
She got the reference.
It’s from a novel by Milan Kundera that pokes fun at the notion that forgetting the past can alter it — a notion dear to the hearts of dictators and despots everywhere.
In 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,' a man named Clementis lends his hat to a party leader to wear as they pose together in a photograph. Years later, when Clementis has fallen out of favor, he is airbrushed out of the photograph. All that remains of him is his hat, clearly visible, perched on someone’s else’s head.
The following day the documentary film maker Mojtaba Raaei complained in Shargh, the reformist newspaper, about the clumsy censoring of his 1993 film Black Friday (in Persian : جمعه سیاه / Jome-ye Siaah). It reconstructs the fatal shootings of September 8, 1978 in Zhaleh (or Jaleh) Square in Tehran and is broadcast every year on state TV.
The deaths that day are regarded as pivotal events in the Iranian Revolution, when any hope for compromise between the protest movement and the Shah's regime vanished.
Raaei complained not only that his film was censored, but that the censorship wasn’t consistent.
“Year in and year out, my reconstruction is shown and every year a different piece is missing,” he wrote. “One year the Savak (the Sha’s secret police) are cut out. The next, it’s the soldiers who were involved in the killing.
“Why,” Raaei asked, “do they want to re-write history?”
And why can’t they get their story straight? If you think about it, each uniquely censored version of Black Friday is a Clementis Hat.
And so is the archive news footage that's broadcast every year on Revolution Day, the anniversary of the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran after 15 years in exile. The massive welcoming ceremony was aired live and uncensored back in 1979. I remember watching it with my grandmother – crowds of politicians and dissidents welcoming their hero home.
I still watch every year, but these days it’s to spot the Clementis Hats – that is, to see which out-of-favor politicians in the crowd have been electronically eliminated.
More blogs from Firouz Farzani:
To read more stories like this, sign up to our weekly email.