After a two-year break due to coronavirus, 33rd Tehran International Book Fair got under way on Wednesday, May 11 and runs until this Saturday. Despite the long off-period and high anticipation, it has not been well received by many of those who attended. Publishers and exhibitors have criticized the lack of what they call a "serious" audience and an overall chilly atmosphere at the 120,000-square meter venue. An IranWire citizen journalist visited the book fair to try to understand why.
This is Grand Prayer Grounds of Tehran, home of successive book fairs over the years. But this year's event, which comes after a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19, bears no resemblance to previous instalments. For one, there are no outdoor tents and all the booths are stuffed into enclosed areas. I spent Thursday, May 12 and Friday, May 13 with a bookseller friend in one of them, run by one of Tehran's more famous publishing houses. "Nothing looks like the way did before corona," he says. "Before, we were never idle, not for a second. Now we don't have many visitors or buyers."
Something that stands out about this year's event is the presence of many more visitors of "orthodox" appearance: more women in chadors, or else dressed in a manner more conservative than most. Religious book stands also seem to be a lot busier. Booths belonging to the Foundation for the Preservation and Publication of Sacred Defense Works and Values, whose parent organizaation is the Armed Forces, and the "Hajj Ghasem School", are comparatively thriving. The hall is also emblazoned with posters and billboards of Ghasem Soleimani, both inside and outside.
A visitor by the name of Amir Mohammad stands in front of the latter booth, holding a book in his hand whose title roughly translates as "I Fear Nothing". This, he says, is the biography of "Hajj Ghasem": "I think everyone should read this." Two of his fellow students approach, both women whose black sleeves protrude from under full chador. "We came to pay our respects to Hajj Ghasem," they explain. I understand from their conversations that they are all from the same neighborhood and all members of the Basij.
Also noticeable is the fact that a day or two into the event - and on two the days of the week where footfall tends to be greatest - some of the booths still haven't been set up. "We don't have a serious readership this year," says one bookseller by way of explanation. "Those who come are either looking for the 'yellow books' on psychology and positive thinking, or they are looking for the government stands."
'Yellow books' is Persian slang for books that offer unscientific and unqualified psychological theories or lifestyle advice. The bookseller laments: "The internet has led even more under-educated people to look for these books. They tend to offer simple solutions, and claim man can achieve all his desires through 'the power of thought' and 'positive thinking'."
A sign of the times, perhaps. But there are some positives to be found at the book fair, too; academic publishers say they are in a relatively good position post-pandemic. "Our audience hasn't really changed much," says one exhibitor. "As long as there are classes and universities are open, our books will have buyers.
"But really, the atmosphere this year is incomparable. There's no passion at all. People don't have enough money to buy bread; how are they supposed to buy books?"
Some female regulars of the Tehran Book Fair are discomfited by the new, conservative feel. Afra, who attended on Friday, told us: "Seeing all the faces of the Basij brigades, I felt as if they'd flooded the city. They're taking over everything, from Twitter to the book fairs. They came in a coordinated and calculated manner." She believes it was for this reason that publishers "could not be bothered" to go through the hassle of setting up a booth, but also the wider atmosphere in the capital this year made low attendance inevitable: "People aren't in a good place."
We also spoke to a once avid attendee of the book fair who asked to be known as Samin. She isn't going this year for one simple reason: "When the content of the fair is online as well, why would I go somewhere I'll get told off about hijab and see things I don't like? I can browse the internet for my favorite publications and choose the books I like from there."
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Tehran under a pseudonym.