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Phoenix from the ashes

A tale of the book in Iran.

By Azar Mahloujian

T he history of the book in Iran is a

story of a rich culture’s resilience,
of its ability to endure and even
flourish through periods of devastation,
political chaos, hardship and oppression.
Iran’s history. At the site of the ruins of
the library of Rostaghji, now the city of
Isfahan, archaeologists have discovered
that Iranian kings anticipated the need
to save books during times of military
the language of law and culture. For two
centuries no books – at least no surviving
books – were written in Persian. Despite
Arab censorship, Iranians never stopped
speaking their own language. The spoken
It is a story that stretches far back in invasion. Their solution was to bury word became a means of creating and
time, yet even as you read this, that story important volumes, like works on preserving literature. This oral tradition
is still being written. astronomy, beneath the library building is still alive today.
The earliest Iranian written work to itself. When one Arab commander was
be found thus far consists of a cuneiform asked by his men what they should do
inscription dating back to the time of
Darius I (522 BCE-486 BCE), the third
Achaemenid king. Carved on a rock face
at the foot of the Zagros Mountains,
in the Kermanshah region of Iran.
D uring the Sassanid dynasty,
from the third century of the
Common Era to the seventh, Iran
experienced a flourishing of its literary
culture. New libraries were built and
with the Iranian books. He answered
that since the Quran was the only book
worth reading and preserving, all
books in Persian should be destroyed.
Other Arab commanders apparently
The inscription is in three languages: literature – both religious and secular had similar feelings. Persian works of
Babylonian, Old Persian and Elamite. The – was collected. Along with religious science, poetry and prose were judged
deciphering of this inscription provided commentary, the Avesta was reassembled to be immoral and were banned. Arab
an important key for the study of the from remnants and standardised soldiers set fire to libraries, burning
cuneiform script. during this period. Nonreligious books or throwing them into rivers. All
Iran’s oldest book is the Avesta, writings included works on astronomy, to destroy the written literature, which
a collection of sacred Zoroastrian mathematics, history, medicine, bore witness to the defeated people’s
writings. It comprises the teachings of politics, warfare and music. During the past. Some Zoroastrian priests were
prophet Zoroaster, as well as writings reign of Khosrow I, foreign works of able to save parts of the Avesta. Another
on cosmogony, law and liturgy. The text entertainment – including Hellenistic group immigrated to India, taking with
– in Avestic, an ancient language of the romance literature and Indian tales, such them the Avesta and other books. Today
region – is divided into five main parts, as the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat – only a small part of the Avesta remains.
each composed in a different time and were brought into Iran and translated. The Samanid period (819-999)
place. But all this was to change. brought a renaissance of Iranian
Iran’s first significant library was The single most significant event in literature. In their struggle against the
established in Estakhr, the capital of the Iranian history was the Arab invasion Arabs for power and independence, the
Achaemenid kings. In 331 BCE, when the and the arrival of Islam in the seventh Samanids used the Persian language as a
city fell to the armies of Alexander the century. Islam’s victory in Iran marked a political weapon. They renewed Persian
Great, the library was destroyed by fire. dramatic break with the country’s past. as a language of literature. This period
There is still a question as to whether In 637, following his defeat in the battle saw the emergence of Modern Persian –
the fire was set accidentally by drunken of al-Qadisiyya, Yazdegerd III – the last Farsi – which uses the Arabic alphabet
soldiers or deliberately as revenge for Sassanid king – was forced to flee from and incorporates many Arabic words.
the destruction of Athens by the Persian his winter capital, Taysafun. The city Poet Rudaki revived Persian lyrical
king Xerxes. and its treasures were left to the mercy poetry. Persian books on administration,
At the order of Alexander, most of the Arab conquerors. Like much of the history, science and religion were
of the scientific and literary works city, its library was destroyed. written and published. Commentaries on
that survived were removed from The Arabs forbade Iranians to use the Quran were translated from Arabic to
the ruins and taken to Greece, where the Persian language. Arabic became Persian.
they were translated and the originals Before long, Persian became the
then destroyed. Following Alexander’s second major language of Islamic high
Arab soldiers set fire to
conquest, Iranians lived under the rule of culture. The intellectual vitality of the
his successors, the Macedonian Selucids. libraries, burning books Samanid capital, Bukhara, attracted
The Hellenistic culture they brought leading scholars and poets, both Persian
or throwing them into
dominated life in Iran’s cities. But Greek and Arabic, and the city rivalled Baghdad
influence led to the stagnation of Iran’s rivers. All to destroy the as the cultural capital of Islam. Many of
own culture. Bukhara’s writers were bilingual and
written literature.
The destruction of libraries is an wrote their books in both languages.
unfortunate but frequent occurrence in The greatest literary achievement of

40 September/october 2009 Independent World report

Shahnameh: The Persian national epic.

Independent World report September/october 2009 41

this period was the composition of the – invaded Iran. Even today, the name Over the following centuries, Persian
Persian national epic, the Shahnameh Lame Timur is synonymous, in Iran as literature and the book culture of Iran
(Book of Kings), a book that even today is well as in Europe, with barbarity. continued to flower and decline as the
of signal importance in Iranian cultural These invasions entailed not only country’s political fortunes changed.
life. The Shahnameh was written for the conquest of people and territory but One of the great achievements during
Mahmud of Ghazna by poet Ferdowsi, also of culture. The Mongols destroyed this time was in the art of bookbinding,
who completed the work in 1010. He much of Iran’s cultural life, especially which began to flourish in the fifteenth
gathered and set to verse different prose the cultural life of ordinary people. The century and continued for several
versions – written in Pahlavi or Middle same can be said of the Turks. Under centuries. The ornamental designs and
Persian – of the histories of the kings of Turkish rule, Iranian scholars served miniature illustrations that adorn many
Persia. The epic, which was thirty-five at the pleasure of Turkish-speaking Persian books from this period are still
years in the writing, consists of nearly emirs and sultans. Once again, Persian renowned for their beauty.
60,000 couplets, and its story spans literature fell into decline.
several thousand years. It begins in
mythical times and concludes with the
Arab conquest.
The impact of the Shahnameh was
immense. It reminded Iranians of the
But, in the remote province of Fars, the
Persian literary tradition was kept alive.
In 1257, poet Sadi, of the city of Shiraz,
composed the Bustan (Orchard), and the
following year he wrote the Golestan (Rose
T he early twentieth century
was another turning point for
Iranian culture. A constitutional
revolution in 1906 led to the institution
of a parliament – the Majlis – in 1908,
country’s glorious past. Even today, Garden). These two works combine prose that curtailed the power of the monarch
nearly a thousand years after its and verse in a flowing style that is still to an extent. Iran was making other steps
completion, this legendary masterwork admired for its achievement of harmony toward modernisation as well.
is read and recited by Iranians from all of sound, imagery and content. And this A new school system was instituted,
walks of life, from urban intellectuals admiration extends beyond Iran, for Sadi thus increasing the ranks of the educated
to simple village farmers. Islamic has been translated into many Western while printing presses made available
fundamentalists do not, of course, languages. newspapers and journals to serve them.
honour the Shahnameh, because to them Following Sadi, Shiraz produced Many young people were sent to Europe
Iran’s pre-Islamic history does not merit another fine lyric poet, the Sufi mystic for their university education. Having
such regard. But even as they hate it, Hafiz (1325-1389). Hafiz’s most famous been steeped in knowledge of the
they are nonetheless affected by it, often work, the Divan, can be found today Western tradition, they returned to form
in ways they are not even aware of. Its in nearly every Iranian home. The a new Persian intelligentsia and bring
influence is pervasive in the idioms of extraordinary popularity of Hafiz’s about a reawakening in the cultural life
Iranian life – in the names, words, tales poetry stems from his simple and musical of the country.
and ideas. language, his love of humanity, and his Poetry had always been held as the
Over time, Arab hostility to Persian contempt for hypocrisy and mediocrity. foremost form of literary expression.
culture abated and was transformed Another significant book from But in the twentieth century, modern
into its opposite. In The History of Islamic this period was the Masnavi-ye Manavi prose found its way into the hearts of the
Culture, Lebanese historian Jurji Zaydan (Spiritual Couplets), a didactic epic of Iranian people. In 1921, Mohammad Ali
discusses the great interest the Arabs 26,000 verses by Jalaluddin Rumi (1207- Jamalzadeh’s collection of short stories
developed in learning from other 1273). Rumi is one of Sufism’s most – Yaki bud yaki nabud (Once upon a time) –
nations. They translated Greek works revered figures, and his influence on was published, ushering in a new era of
in science and philosophy and Persian Islamic mystical thought and literature Persian prose. Considered the founder of
texts in astronomy, history and music is profound. He is also generally regarded modern Persian fiction, he was the first
into Arabic. Historians know of more as the greatest poet to write in the author to write in colloquial Persian.
than seventy Persian texts that were Persian language. In Muslim countries, Poetry was changing as well. Nima
translated into Arabic in the eleventh the Masnavi is considered by some to be Yushij, the father of modern Persian
century alone. a religious work second in importance poetry, broke with tradition by using
only to the Quran. His writings have been free verse. His follower Ahmad Shamlou,

I n the thirteenth century, the Mongol

army swept through Iran. The
invading forces of Genghis Khan
visited terror, death and destruction on
the country. The ensuing lack of order
translated into many languages. He has,
in recent years, become one of the most
popular poets in the United States.
modern Iran’s leading poet, was as
comfortable writing poems expressing
his political engagement as he was
composing lyrical love poems.
Modernisation also brought the
left Iran divided, with Mongol agents The impact of the opening of Iran’s first university,
controlling some districts and Iranian Shahnameh was immense. the construction of motorways and
profiteers ruling others. the Trans-Iranian railway, and the
The Mongol invasion was soon It reminded Iranians of the emancipation of women. Following
followed by another catastrophe. In country’s glorious past. World War II, Iranians – especially the
the fourteenth century, Turkish armies young and educated – turned their
under the command of Lame Timur – awareness to their country’s social and
better known in the West as Tamerlane political conditions.

42 September/october 2009 Independent World report

Iranian censor at work, redacting objectionable breasts from fashion magazines: Photos by Jonathan Lundqvist.

In 1952, a nationalist movement revolution, the authorities were sensitive and women, claiming themselves as
under the leadership of Prime Minister to such words as red and red rose which members of Hezbollah (Party of God),
Mohammad Mosaddeq brought about symbolised revolution and bloodshed, took control of the streets, smashed the
the nationalisation of the British oil or black night and high walls which windows of bookshops and set fire to
holdings in Iran. Mosaddeq’s popularity symbolised prison and repression. books they deemed immoral. Soon the
was enormous. When the Shah attempted Since the Islamic revolution, new government banned books written
to dismiss him, people took to the streets words with sexual connotations are by or about the Shah, as well as books
and the wave of protests forced the Shah of special concern to the censors. It is dedicated to him or the royal family.
to leave Iran. But after only a few days, not even permissible to make mention Eventually, this censorship extended to
the Shah, with US support, returned to of a woman’s breasts. In the censors’ books on Marxism, Darwinian evolution
Iran and imprisoned Mosaddeq for three vocabulary, this is called negative and anything else seen as contradictory
years. He was then placed under house censorship. Positive censorship, on the to religious doctrine.
arrest until his death in 1967. other hand, entails suggesting words or The famous fatwa that decreed
Upon his return to power, the Shah sentences that should be added in the punishment for anyone having anything
outlawed Mosaddeq’s National Front, as text to make it appear milder or more to do with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses
well as the Tudeh, the Communist Party. supportive of the regime. might be regarded not as something new
To silence all who opposed him, the Shah, The publication or possession of but as a continuation of an old heritage,
again with US help, built up his secret forbidden books is dangerous for all passed down from the Shah, which he
police force, Savak, which was infamous concerned - writers, readers, booksellers in turn inherited from other despots
for the savage torture of political and publishers - so those who are not who came before him. It is worth noting
prisoners. An extensive censorship political activists will seldom risk reading that in 1988, one year before the fatwa,
apparatus was created, which, despite them. Under the Shah, Mother by Maxim another book by Rushdie, Midnight’s
the overthrow of the Shah by the Islamic Gorki, was such a book. Having it in one’s Children, was published in Iran and was
Revolution, still functions today. home could lead to a three-year prison awarded as the best Persian translation
Operating under the Ministry of sentence. of the year. After the fatwa, all copies of
Information, the censorship authority Some bookshops, mostly those located that book were confiscated.
controlled, and still controls, the near Tehran University sold forbidden Iran’s war with Iraq (1980-1988) had
publication of all manuscripts. Nothing books, but, they were not on the shelves. a catastrophic impact on Iran’s literary
can be published without a permit. Even Those books were called white cover books life. Censorship hardened as almost any
after publication, a book can be deemed because of the white dust covers they all word or deed could easily be interpreted
immoral or hostile to the regime and be had. To buy such a book, one would go as treacherous. Publishers and writers
confiscated from bookshops. Sometimes to a trustworthy bookseller, who would were punished for any book judged
the mere popularity of a book or a wrap the book in gift paper before critical of government policies.
writer, is cause for suspicion, and the handing it to the buyer. This was Iran’s Because of the lack of foreign
authorities may reexamine a text to version of the Russian samizdat. currency and the trade blockade imposed
determine whether to stop publication In 1979, the repressive regime of the by many countries, paper was rationed.
of new editions. Shah was overthrown and replaced by Paper was in abundant supply for the
Iranian writers have described an Islamic republic. In the immediate publication of religious books and for
how this censorship functions. After aftermath of the revolution, millions war propaganda, but, the authorities
reviewing the manuscript the authorities of white cover books were sold on the simply stopped distributing paper for
send the writer a list of words, sentences pavements outside Tehran University. publishing anything else. In addition
and pages to be deleted. Before the But some months later, groups of men to political obstacles, publishers and

Independent World report September/october 2009 43

writers faced economic obstacles as well.
Publishers were reluctant to invest in
books that might be seen as subversive.
Deprived of income, many writers were
forced to earn a living working odd jobs.

A fter a long period of cultural

decline, Iranian literary life is
experiencing a resurgence. One
only need to look at the numbers to see
this. According to official statistics, the
number of books published in 1986 was
3812. In 2001, the figure was 23,305.
While high prices prevent many
Iranians from buying books, it does not
stop them reading. Books are passed
around among relatives and friends, so
much so that it is said that a book that
sells a thousand copies will have five
thousand readers. At the annual Tehran
book fair, one can see the eagerness
with which Iranian readers pursue their
literary interests. One year, the entire
printing – 12,000 copies – of a volume of
Ahmad Shamlou’s poems sold out on the
first day.
A new wave of struggle for a tolerant
society has paved the way for cultural
renewal. But, the price has often been
high. For some years, one horrific The Shah of Iran created an extensive censorship apparatus: Photo by US Department of Defense.
development has been the phenomenon
of chain murders that entail the became more severe and arbitrary. peaceful public protests with blatant
kidnapping and murder of a series of Writer Yaghoub Yadali was sentenced violence leading to deaths, injuries and
victims, whose bodies are then left out to prison, because a woman in his novel mass arrests. While suffering under the
to be found. Mohammad Mokhtari and had a relationship with a man though brutal culture politics of Ahmadinejad,
Jafar Pouyandeh are just two of the they were not married. the Iranian cultural activists have
writers who have died in this way. A new kind of censorship of books played a major role in the campaign for
Despite the risks and a very restrained is now being enforced in Iran. In 2008, democracy.
public sphere, artists and intellectuals the authorities in Isfahan introduced Throughout Iranian history, Iranians
have continued to fight for freedom of a literary canon: a list of 107 books have seen their culture attacked by
expression in Iran where the brutality classified as useful, that would replace one invading or despotic regime after
of the regime goes in waves. Right the unuseful books at public libraries. another. From Alexander to Lame Timur
now, the repression is more naked and Publication of books require permission, to the Iranian Hezbollah to Ahmadinejad,
aggressive than before, as confirmed by and, only those books that do not deal they burn books, destroy libraries,
the disturbing headlines that routinely with the current situation in Iran are censor the language, and rewrite the
come out of Iran. granted permission. Today, it takes history. But, after each defeat, like the
Before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad two years to receive an answer from mythical bird arising from the ashes,
became president four years ago, he had the Iranian censors regarding such Iranian culture regathers its strength
already constructed a picture of himself publishing permissions. Meanwhile, and revives its creativity. �
that scared many. As the mayor of Tehran, many publishers are on the verge of
he came up with the idea to replace bankruptcy. Under the Ahmadinejad
public libraries with mosques. As he took regime, the number of copies per
over as president, the level of censorship edition has decreased from 5000 to 3000.
increased dramatically. On the day of his Censorship has become so extensive that
inauguration, the performance of a play the Iranian Writers Union describes it as
by the famous theatre producer Bahram cultural extermination.
Azar Mahloujian is an Iranian writer and
Beyzaei was stopped in Tehran, where it Since June 2009, demonstrations have
had been already staged for twenty-one been staged across Iran in protest against librarian, exiled in Sweden since 1982. Her
times. Soon, art galleries were forced the results of the tenth presidential website, in Swedish and English, is available
to shut down and censorship of books election. The regime has responded to at:

44 September/october 2009 Independent World report