The odyssey of storytelling in Iran

August 16th, 2009


When a story comes to an Iranian writer’s mind, he or she is doomed to think of two different versions: the story as it is, and a bowdlerised version that might avoid the scissors of official censorship. The latter is the one that will be submitted to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which vets all books before publication; but this is just the beginning of the odyssey for the poor writer.

In his first novel to be translated into English, Shahriar Mandanipour, who moved to the US in 2006 but had previously published dozens of stories in Iran, puts both versions in one book. In this playful tale, both writer and censor appear as fictional characters; while for his lovers Mandanipour has chosen Sara and Dara, jaunty figures familiar from first-grade textbooks that were pulped after the Islamic Revolution.

Dara first sees Sara in a public library, where she is looking for a copy of The Blind Owl, a banned novel by the acclaimed Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat. He falls in love with her, and poses as a street pedlar to sell her the book. When she reads Hedayat’s novel, Sara notices a collection of purple dots – Dara has left her a message in code. The lovers use the technique to exchange letters, as first Dara and then Sara borrow from the library The Little Prince, Dracula, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and more, until they meet up for the first time on a street protest in front of Tehran University.

As their love story progresses, Mandanipour elucidates the history of censorship in Iran, dating back hundreds of years to the intricate metaphors and complicated allegories employed by such poets as Rumi, Hafez and Khayam. However, it was only with the Islamic Revolution that censorship became official. Under this regime it could take the ministry weeks, months or sometimes years to respond to a manuscript; and this response would range from a simple yes or no to a detailed list of contested chapters, dialogues, sentences or even individual words.

In Mandanipour’s novel, the ministry censor, Mr Petrovich – named after the detective in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – argues with the author about words and phrases he wants removed from the story on the grounds that they might sexually arouse readers, harm Islamic values, endanger national security or ignite revolution. “He underlines every word, every sentence, every paragraph, or even every page that is indecent and that endangers public morality and the time-honoured values of the society.” In a further complication, Mr Petrovich has gradually fallen in love with Sara while censoring her story, and is now trying to persuade the author to kill Dara off and leave the field open for himself.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a brilliant novel about the complexities of writing and publishing in Iran. It will help to further understanding of the frustrating and sometimes perilous situation of the book industry in a country where copyright is not respected, where writers struggle desperately to publish and can be jailed simply for exercising their imaginations.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story |  Saeed Kamali Dehghan | The Guardian | August 2009

From Tehran to Baker Street

March 30th, 2009


For me, and for many other Iranians, nothing is more representative of London than the lord of the calabash pipe, the deerstalker cap and the magnifying glass. Not only because Conan Doyle’s 221b Baker Street was the only address I knew before coming here for the first time but also because of my everlasting nostalgia for the magnificent TV series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which is extremely popular in Iran.

Holmes’s series has been shown at least 10 times on the Islamic republic’s state-run TV and DVD versions dubbed into Persian are available everywhere in Iran. Sherlock Holmes’s stories are also translated and rank among Iranians’ favourite books.

Iranians are enthusiastic about Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and many other western detectives such as Georges Simenon’s Maigret partly because for Iranians these stories evoke popular images of the west but also because Iran – despite having a huge amount of poetry in its literature – has virtually no history of detective fiction.

I don’t remember any Iranian writer of detective stories, though Esmail Fasih’s fictional character, Jalal Arian, always had a great sense of deduction. Hasan Hedayat’s Persian TV series called Detective is the only real Iranian detective TV series I have seen in Iran.

The state broadcaster loves western detective stories because they don’t – on the whole – raise politically or morally controversial issues requiring censorship. The picture of life in Holmes’s Victorian London is broadly compatible with the “Islamic values” of modern Iran. Mr Holmes is a gentleman and not into women very much. The women themselves wear long dresses and mostly cover their heads.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are dubbed into Persian perfectly, with Bahram Zand’s memorable voice replacing that of Jeremy Brett. We have a nice film-dubbing tradition in Iran, started with the unforgettable musical film, Tears and Smiless, before the Islamic revolution. I have heard that in the Netherlands they never dub films and use subtitles instead and I remember my brother telling that he saw Titanic with a Russian guy dubbing simultaneously for Jack and Rose.

It’s good to have Sherlock Holmes in Iran as an antidote to historical images of Britain as a schemer meddling in Iranian affairs. Britons themselves are generally considered mysterious, intelligent, politically aware, prestigious and mean (this latter characteristic being one that they reputedly share with Iranians from Isfahan).

A decade has passed since I read most of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories or watched them as TV adaptations, but the clip-clop of horses on London’s cobblestones still resonates in my ears. I think of Holmes giving money to street boys for information, Holmes scrutinising the footprints at a crime scene, Holmes’s compendious knowledge ranging from literature to chemistry, his hasty way of going up the 17 steps to his flat to be greeted by Mrs Hudson, his rather bohemian lifestyle and – of most interest to me as an Iranian – the Persian slipper for Holmes’s tobacco.

So when I arrived in London for the first time I headed to 221b Baker Street, even before visiting the British Museum, the National Gallery or the fabulous Tate Modern. I went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in search of my “real” London but it’s always distracting to confront the real place or the real person after many years of imagination. What I found was a tiny privately-run and artificial setup with a fake police office standing outside the front door.

This reminds me of a wonderful phrase in the last volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “Time changes people but keeps their image constant in our mind. Nothing in the world is as painful as this contradiction between consistency of memory and change in people.”

Maybe I was expecting to see more Londoners tapping on the ground with their umbrellas or walking in the manner of Holmes, but not much of today’s British capital resembles Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s London.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan | The Guardian | March 2009

Iran’s festival of fire – and fury

March 22nd, 2009


Saeed Kamali Dehghan | The Guardian | March 2009

Last night, millions of Iranians lit bonfires at sunset and jumped over them till midnight to celebrate Chaharshanbe Suri, the most prominent ancient Persian outdoor festival to prelude the New Year, Norouz, which is coming next Saturday.

Chaharshanbe Suri (Red Wednesday in English), is an ancient Persian fire festivity from the Zoroastrian era which marks the euphoria of nature on the eve of spring, a Persian version of Guy Fawkes night with a difference.

Despite all the crackdowns over the past 30 years by the Islamic Republic, the ritual is still observed by an increasing number of people who go on to the streets to sing the traditional song: “Give me your fiery red colour and take back my wintry sallowness.”

Fire, which has always been a sacred item for ancient Persians and Zoroastrians, is supposed to give people its warmth and energy and take away their sickness, paleness and problems in return by the coming of the New Year.

The tradition is held on the night before the last Wednesday of the year when families and friends gather by a fire and keep it lit till dawn.

Unlike Norouz, which is mostly a private and indoor festival where people visit their relatives over a period of 13 days, Chaharshanbe Suri needs to be held in public, where people can eat, sing, dance and talk together.

But after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the government began to crack down on ancient Persian festivals and traditions, including Chaharshanbe Suri. The government was worried that people might worship the sun as an idol during the festival instead of Allah.

For most of the first and second decade of the Islamic revolution, people couldn’t celebrate Chaharshanbe Suri in public as dancing, boys and girls meeting, and any such so-called “deviant” behaviour was prohibited in the Islamic Republic.

The situation changed when reformist president Mohammad Khatami took office 12 years ago and relaxed social and cultural restrictions, giving people the chance to revive Persian culture.

Since then, participating in Chaharshanbe Suri has also become a sign of protest and dissent against the Islamic Republic’s restrictions of Persian culture, as it’s the only time of the year when people can go out en masse and show their presence without any excuse and the government can hardly stop it.

The gag released by Khatami has been tightened now under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, and the huge presence of riot police and army all over Iran last night showed their willingness to do that.

Chaharshanbe Suri is now a nightmare for Iranian officials. The festival has been given a new definition and a new function as a gigantic annual anti-government demonstration. Fire is now a symbol of Iranian anger over the Islamic Republic’s restrictions.

Last night, hundreds of thousands of Iranians threw Molotov cocktails and firecrackers in the streets to show the government their wrath, instead of lighting bonfires and jumping over fire and celebrating a traditional festival.

Chaharshanbe Suri has become the country’s most controversial cultural event, where many people suffer terrible injuries in conflicts with the riot police or while making Molotov cocktails or firecrackers in their homes.

Last night a new record was achieved according to Fars news agency, with around 100 Iranians injured and taken to hospital by ambulance.

It’s believed that Ahmadinejad’s huge crackdowns in Iran over the past four years, the terrible current economic situation in the country and the coming presidential election led to this new record of Chaharshanbe Suri casualties. The injuries have also brought officials to hospitals to visit the victims, including the Iranian health minister, Kamran Bagheri Lankarani.

For years, nobody had talked about Chaharshanbe Suri on state-run TV or any other official programme – the government just ignored it. People believe that if the government had accepted the festival as the former Shah did, rather than cracking down on it, many of the injuries would not have occurred.

Yet, there are also lots of Iranians who observe Chaharshanbe Suri the way it used to be, with bush-igniting, spoon-hitting, earthenware jar-shattering, shawl-dropping and eavesdropping on others as part of the traditional fun.