Journalism is a hazardous profession in Iran, and it can be even more dangerous when trying to report the truth about the government and Iran’s establishment figures. Censorship, Iranian Style is a collection of stories by 18 Iranian journalists, writers and cartoonists who have experienced censorship — under the Islamic government, as well as under the Shah’s regime prior to the 1979 Revolution. Their tales of being silenced, harassed and imprisoned provide a solid understanding of the everyday bravery and courage of Iranian journalists, and give a new perspective on the menacing and warped mentality of Iranian censor officials.
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The Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, composed by the poet Ferdowsi more than a thousand years ago, is Iran’s national epic. Its central hero, the warrior Rostam, occupies a special place in the Iranian cultural imagination. The epic chronicles Rostam as he faces seven ordeals, all of which test his endurance and wit to the utmost. The objective of the ordeals is to rescue the Persian king, Kay Kavous, who has been captured by demons and held in Mazandaran. In order to rescue the king, Rostam must first fight a ferocious lion. Then he must cross a parched desert and, at its end, slay a dragon. In the fourth ordeal, Rostam kills a demon disguised as a beautiful woman and then overcomes and slays Arzhang, the chief demon. In the fifth challenge, he releases Kay Kavous, but the king has been blinded by the sorcery of demons. In the seventh and final ordeal, Rostam kills the mighty White Demon whose blood restores the king’s eyesight.
To save his king, Rostam had to fight enemies. But to publish a book in Iran, a hero must fight seven “friends.”
Obstacle 1: The Regime
In Iran, reporting the news or writing openly about your views is always an obstacle course, regardless of whether your subject is a football match, a book, women’s issues or even your own life.
I was summoned to court numerous times for criticizing decisions made by the parliament. Once I was summoned by the Revolutionary Court for writing a satirical message in the style of the Supreme Leader, congratulating Iran’s football team on a victory. I was charged with ridiculing the Supreme Leader, and it was only when I proved that the Leader’s message had been published six months after my piece that I was acquitted.
Another time, I republished a message by the head of the judiciary in a satirical piece. On the occasion of a wildlife preservation conference, he had written: “Islam defends the life of living things.” I reproduced his words exactly as he had uttered them, and only explained that he had meant “wildlife” rather than “human life.” I was charged with insulting the head of the judiciary.
Once, an MP addressed parliament and accused reformist journalists of receiving six million dollars from then US President Bill Clinton’s government. I wrote a satirical article confirming this accusation, “reprinted” Clinton’s check and explained how the money had been transferred. Instead of thanking me for confirming his statement, the MP filed a complaint charging me with ridicule.
When our leaders took to calling writers “the enemy’s fifth column,” I titled my satirical column The Fifth Column, but instead of giving me a prize for repeating their characterization, I was accused of mocking MPs.
In Iran, the regime is the first obstacle to journalism and publishing. When I say “regime” I do not mean the government but the governing system, because although the administration is officially responsible for censorship, the whole regime interferes with books. It interferes not only in what you have written but also in what an individual in Europe or the United States might have written 100 years ago about his own government. The regime might interpret those historical remarks as challenging the present regime of the Islamic Republic and ban your book.
Sometimes you receive permission to print a given book; indeed, you receive the Best Book of the Year award for that book from a sitting minister of the government in power, but the regime bans it. Sometimes the government supports a writer who has been imprisoned by the regime. So if you are writing a book you must remember that even if you are a cabinet minister the regime might block you.
The journalist Akbar Ganji wrote a book in prison and the government supported him, but the regime sent him to prison. In 2001, I was selected the Best Satirical Journalist of the Year but on the morning of the day I was to receive my award from the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, I was arrested and imprisoned by the judiciary. Later, Ataollah Mohajerani, the same minister who was going to present me with the award, left for Britain and for many years now has been living in exile in London. And Saeed Mortazavi, the same judge who imprisoned me, is now on trial for murdering three political dissidents.
Obstacle 2: The Government and the Governments After That
Officially, the Iranian government oversees the domestic media and the publication of books. It is the government that gives you a permit to print your book. Every edition of a book must have a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But the most important thing is that the government supports the book. Of course, you have to remember that in Iran, “government” does not have a precise definition. A government that grants a freedom this year might retract it the next. Your book might have permission to print this month but it might be banned the next.
Your book might be banned because you do not live in Iran but, on the other hand, it might be printed just because you do not live in Iran. The Iranian government has a ministry with a Censorship Board that decides whether you can be published or not. They change “girlfriend” to “fiancé”, a “kiss” to a “look,” “sexual relations” to “marriage,” “automobile” to “bus” and “blossom” to “carrot.”
Do not misunderstand me. There are no fixed rules. This year you might be sentenced to three years in prison for supporting Fidel Castro, but 10 years later opposing Fidel Castro might get your book banned. Your book might be banned because of your name.
In the Islamic Republic, there are eight people who are the luckiest individuals alive in Iran. They read about kisses, love, sex, truth and liberty and strike all those things out of books, to save the rest of us from going to hell. But they themselves get to read them. Almost all Iranian censors eventually become opponents of the Islamic Republic because they have been exposed to all the things that are true in life but banned in books. During the eight years of President Mohammad Khatami’s tenure, books enjoyed great freedom but most of the censoring authorities who worked at that time no longer live in Iran, and the writings by that minister and his deputies have been banned by the later ministers and their deputies.
Obstacle 3: Editors-in-Chief and Publishers
I do not claim that everything in Iran is controlled by the state, but perhaps I can say that the state is involved in everything. The government is involved in all aspects of publishing. It supplies the publisher with government-subsidized paper at low cost, gives him loans and allows him to participate in annual exhibitions. In return, instead of seeing the completely unpleasant faces of the government censor, we can consider the relatively unpleasant faces of the publisher’s agents. The publisher is the third obstacle in the way of publishing books, as he must be in sync with the government.
I write a book about my mother and take my book to a publisher. The publisher takes the book, reads it and puts it aside. “Isn’t it better to write about a young woman instead of your old mother?” When I say no, I only want to write about my mother, he answers that “these days nobody buys books about mothers. Young women are more important. How about writing a book about young women?” And when I point out that what I have written is about my mother, he says, “I read it, but young women are more important.”
Then he tells me: “Write that young women are striving.” I write it. “Write that young women want to change everything.” I write it. “Write that young women want to fight antiquated traditions.” I write it. “Write that young women want to get an education and free themselves from the yoke of men.” I write it.
The book is finished in three months. I take home the manuscript of the book that I had written about my mother and put it next to the pillow of my ailing mother. Three months later the publisher summons me. “Do you want to have me killed?” he says. “Do you want them to take away my car, to take away my home? Do you want to ruin me? Do you want my wife to divorce me? Do you want my publishing house to lose its credibility?”
When I say, no, not at all, he says, “Didn’t you think that if I publish a book about women’s liberation I would be ruined?” When I ask why and what is going on, he tells me, “Today the minister has been replaced and I have been told that your book cannot be printed.” He returns the manuscript to me and adds: “Look! I think that with the new minister, it is the best time to publish the book that you wrote about your mother. The new minister likes only old women. We can get a permit in three days if you write a book about your great grandmother, two weeks if you write about your grandmother and one month if the book is about your mother.”
A month later my mother is smiling at me. She loves the new minister of culture.
Obstacle 4: The Editor
In dictatorships, we are very lucky in one regard. There are always individuals who think instead of you. They are aware of the dangers and guard us against them. One of them is my editor. He spent five years in prison as a young man and nobody, but nobody, can tell him what “truth” is because he has seen the Truth while in prison. My editor loves me. He praises my talent, and every day he thinks on behalf of me and other writers. He does not know how to write but knows what we should write. He knows what words will save us from both hell and prison.
I take him a book that I have written about burning witches in fifteenth-century Belgium. I am angry that the church burned 30,000 women in one city for witchcraft. The editor looks me in the eyes and says, “How do you have the heart to burn 30,000 women? It is too many. Reduce the number.” When I say that number is a historical fact, he asks me if I want to ruin our friendship. I deny it. “Then do it for me,” he says. “At most, burn 3,000.” But what about the facts, I ask? “Which one do you love more,” he says, “Me or the facts?”
I do not want to upset him so I write that only 3,000 were burnt. “Don’t let it bother you,” he consoles me. “The Belgians will never know about it.” I say okay. Then the editor looks into my eyes and declares, “Actually I think we better forget about the burnings. Why don’t you write that they were killed in a war? What is the difference?” I write down that 3,000 were killed in the war against the church. The editor looks at me and asks, “Which ones are more important to you, the people of your country or the Belgians?” I say, without hesitating, the people of my country. He glances at me again, a bit balefully, and says, “Then come on and write about 3,000 Iranian soldiers who were killed in the war.” I tell him this is a research about Belgium and has nothing to do with Iran. And he tells me, “For my sake you waived aside 27,000 unfortunate Belgian women who were burned. Now forget about Belgium and write about Iranians who were killed in the war.”
I tell him that I do not want to write a book at all.
Three months later I receive a check, a large one, along with 50 copies of a book titled The Day Our Soldiers Were Killed with Belgian Weapons. I browse the book. Who wrote this nonsense? But the name of the writer rings a bell. It seems that I am the writer. I have become an accidental expert on Belgian military history.
Sometimes in Iran the editor makes changes to words that make it possible for the book to be published. For example, “is” is changed to “is not,” “love” to “hate,” “was” to “was not,” “cold winter” to “beautiful spring,” “I wanted to kill myself” to “I wanted to save others,” “I escaped” to “I stood my ground,” and a thousand others.
Obstacle 5: The People of Iran
No matter, Iranians are Iranians, even if we weren’t born in Iran or we can’t speak Persian or we were kicked out of Iran years ago. We all love Iran regardless. A few years ago Turkey called Rumi a Turkish poet although his poetry was all composed in Persian. And the Arabs call Omar Khayyam an Arab, even though he was born in Iran and lived in Iran. Such things upset Iranians greatly; they feel as if their jewels have been stolen. But the Turks and the Arabs had not done something truly bad. They commemorated these great figures, figures whom the Islamic Republic refuses to celebrate. We Iranians are proud of our writers, but we do not allow them to even live in Iran or publish their work there.
We Iranians constantly make jokes about ourselves and tell the jokes to others as well. We also laugh at them. But if a foreigner tells a joke about us we go mad. Even if a writer writes down our own jokes and publishes them as critical comments on Iranian mentality, we feel insulted.
Once I wrote that Ahmadinejad was mentally ill. A mental hospital in Tehran criticized me for insulting mental patients and the developmentally challenged. In Iran, if you criticize doctors, doctors across the country get upset and boycott your newspaper. If you criticize drivers, the drivers are upset. The only group that we can criticize with no qualm is the intellectuals, because nobody permits them to defend themselves.
But the same intellectuals become our darlings after they are dead. Almost all great Iranian writers either lived and died in a strange land, or their works were banned in Iran during their lifetimes. The work of almost all satirists is banned in Iran. Now if 30 years from now France claims that Iraj Pezeshkzad is a French satirist, or if the United States claims that the poet Nader Naderpour and the writer Sadeq Chubak are American, we will complain. But the French would be in the right to ask us why Pezeshkzad, who is the greatest Iranian satirist alive, has not been allowed back to the country for 40 years.
I have spent 11 years of my life in Belgium and the United States and am certain that years from now, Iranians will be proud of me. But the Iranian government has stated that if I were to return to Iran I would be arrested at the airport.
Obstacle 6: The Writer’s Family
Family and friends constitute the sixth ordeal and obstacle. We Iranians sometimes love our reputation more than the truth. I once wrote in a story that I was beaten as a child. My father came to me with tears in his eyes. “You have written that you were beaten when you were a child. When did I beat you?” I was embarrassed and told him, “No, but my mother did sometimes when she was angry.” My mother overheard us and said, “You want to destroy my reputation?” Shouldn’t I write these things, I asked? “No, don’t,” she said, as though I had asked a stupid question.
The sixth obstacle is our private lives. I cannot write about love and hate at our parental home. I cannot write that I loved my wife.
When I was arrested I was charged with activities against national security. One of the important accusations against me was my relations with Americans. I proved that during my 35 years in Iran I had never even talked to a foreigner, except two professors in Shiraz when I was a 25-year-old student. Until 20 years ago there were so few foreigners in Iran that even if you wanted to engage in espionage you couldn’t find a foreigner to sell information to. Never mind that I had no information to sell. In a country like Iran where the Revolutionary Guards broadcast on TV every detail about a missile that is yet to be completed, there are no secrets to sell.
After this, the interrogator at Evin Prison told me that I was seeking to overthrow the Iranian government by writing satire. Somehow I convinced him I had no such intention. They had run out of charges against me, so the interrogator asked me why I had divorced my wife. I tried to prove that my divorce was no threat to national security but the interrogator would not accept it. He wanted me to sit in the front of the camera and talk about my divorce and my relations with other women. In other words, he wanted me to harm my family. But I preferred to confess that I was a spy instead of talking about my wife before the camera.
The interesting point about the adventures of Iranian journalists is that if they confess to spying when they are charged with espionage, they will be released a week later; but if one believes that he is innocent and the interrogator has no evidence to prove otherwise, he might spend months in prison. In short, they always release those who confess to spying but jail those against whom they cannot prove anything.
Obstacle 7: The Writer Himself
One of the biggest obstacles to writing in Iran is the writer himself. Many Iranian journalists cannot just be themselves. In a country like Iran, I am a politician because the readers expect me to speak instead of politicians. In a country like Iran, I am a party leader because there are no political parties, but there are journalists. In a country like Iran, I have to guide people to paradise as a teacher of morality, because all teachers of morality are already in hell and nobody believes them. But I am not a politician, nor a party leader, nor a political activist nor a teacher of morality. This is why I always have to live behind the face of another.
We Iranian journalists and writers cannot be ourselves. Many times I have succumbed to becoming a hero because others asked it of me. Sometimes journalism in Iran is like riding an elevator you can take to quick prominence. In 1990 I published a collection of short stories. I was not well known then and it took 10 years for my book to sell 5,000 copies. Ten years later when I became a prominent journalist the same book was reprinted three times, 15,000 copies each time, and it sold out. Sometimes I am not a journalist but I want to be a political hero. But climbing the stairs is so exhausting that you choose the political elevator.
As an Iranian writer, I am afraid of the regime, I am afraid of the government, I am afraid of the editor, I am afraid of my parents, I am afraid of my friends, I am afraid of my countrymen and I am even afraid of you, because the interrogator might read this. Fear is an integral part of writing in my country, a country where everything is both tragedy and comedy at once.
Read other articles in our censorship series: