Abdolreza Kahani is just the latest Iranian filmmaker to write an open letter of protest to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. 

Why, he asks, did they refuse to approve his film Delighted (Eradatmand Nazanin, Bahare, Tina) for screening in cinemas across Iran?

Eradatmand Nazanin, Bahare, Tina is just one in a long list of censored films. Creators of these films range from exciting newcomers to skilled old hands. 

As I write this, the photographer and activist Reihane Taravati has raised the issue on Twitter and Instagram, stating the following:

"Iranian cinema is running a campaign 4 the first time in iran's history against #MovieBan & #Censorship wanna be free to criticise society.”

Staff censors at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance scrutinize Iranian films as they’re being made, but the films still don’t get final approval.  Sometimes they’re re-examined, and “partially approved.” Sometimes they’re banned altogether.

It’s not only movies. Many books don’t pass muster with the anonymous official ministry censors either. The fallout is tragic.

In a country of roughly 80 million people, publishers will only commit to miniscule print runs of 300 to 1,000 copies!

People don’t want to read censored books because the “editing” is ridiculous. Even Western classics like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment are sanitized. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s characters are not allowed to drink wine or have sex.

It is possible to buy intact editions from informal peddlers, but they’re illegal and the translations can be unreliable.

Just as the Iranian theocracy is expert at dodging international sanctions, some of our braver writers have learned to dodge the censors. They get their work published – intact – in neighboring Afghanistan and have it smuggled back into Iran for clandestine distribution. This way, they have the satisfaction of seeing their work in print – but sacrifice both recognition and income.

The Persian translation of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as the stories of the young Tehrani novelist Mahnaz Mohebali, were published in Kabul and spirited across the border. They appeared for sale on the sidewalk book displays around Tehran University.

Some writers – especially the established ones – take a more cautious approach. They self-censor even though privately they acknowledge that the very point of literature is to cross red lines in exploring the human condition.

If a submission does offend the censors, it earns a reprimand issued in the name of protecting “national interests and Islamic values.” Inevitably, some writers cave in and revise their work.

Of course, there are plenty of uncensored books for sale.

In fact, there is a veritable tsunami of lavishly-bound volumes available — about patriots and Iraq war heroes and the “martyrs” of the Syrian war. No one interested in literature would buy them in a million years, so they’re sold to various state institutions, which in turn present them as freebies – all part of the theocracy’s unrelenting propaganda drive.  Every week at Friday Prayers, an official will recommend a revolutionary or Islamic book that conforms to the Supreme Leader’s taste.

The whole system reminds of me the darkest days of Soviet cultural oppression under Stalin and his enforcer Andrei Zhdanov. For a time after the Second World War, they managed to distort or crush the very best in music, poetry and literature.

Twenty-four million people voted for moderates and reformists in our last election. That’s a powerful mandate, yet none of these politicians is willing to take on the censors. 

Young people have got used to reading and discussing their opinions in secret, just as Azar Nafisi’s students did in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran. Back in the early 1990s, Professor Nafisi (now in exile in the United States) resigned from her academic post at a university under revolutionary control.

Unwilling to submit to the revolutionaries’ diktats, she invited seven of her best and most committed students to gather at her home every Thursday morning. There they discussed works like Lolita and The Great Gatsby. Nafisi hoped the books would help her students understand their own plight, trapped in a repressive and fascist system that cloaked itself in pieties.

This is the power of literature. It is exactly what our government is afraid of. Our politicians will go to ridiculous lengths to stifle it.

As the critic Faraj Sarekohie (currently exiled in Germany) said, Iranian theater directors are even forced to convert Shakespeare to Islam.

If it weren’t so noxious, it would be funny.

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