The following is an article in NYTimes by Azadeh Moaveni (I post it here because you need a subscription to access it on nytimes.com)
LETTER FROM TEHRAN; Seeking Signs of Literary Life By AZADEH MOAVENIPublished: May 27, 2007
When I moved to Iran in 2000 to work as a journalist, I aspired to belong to a literary circle not unlike that of the engaged women of Azar Nafisi’s ”Reading Lolita in Tehran,” who found relief from their authoritarian society in the imaginative world of novels. That bookstores did not exist as such — there were only bookstore/stationery stores, or bookstore/toy stores — was the first sign my plan might not work. I initially mistook Tehran’s most popular bookstore, with its windows full of weathered copper pots and other bric-a-brac, for an antique shop. Inside, the floor space dedicated to books was roughly a quarter of that taken up by kilims, cactuses and Lego sets. ”I’m embarrassed to call myself a bookseller,” one store owner told me recently, gazing at the wall of Hello Kitty accessories that dominated his shop. In the hour we spent talking, customers came in to buy watch batteries, a condolence card, wrapping paper and a compass. Not a single person bought a book.
When I failed to persuade any of the women I knew to form a book club (they found the suggestion precious and downright impractical, given Tehran traffic), I began to wonder why books figured so little in the lives of my otherwise intellectually curious friends. But during the long afternoons I spent exploring the cramped storefront shops attached to the publishing houses on Karim Khan-e Zand Street, I grew to understand their reluctance. By and large, the books Iranians seemed to be reading did not lend themselves to discussion, except with a therapist. ***
Self-help books and their eclectic offshoots, on topics like Indian spirituality and feng shui, enjoy the most prominent position on bookstore front tables. The emergence of the genre, which did not exist before the 1979 Islamic revolution, may suggest a culture trying to cope with the erosion of traditional gender roles, or with rising rates of divorce and premarital sex. But Iranian intellectuals are quick to blame ”cultural repression and spiritual crisis,” as one prominent magazine editor said to me, or as a friend who owns a bookstore put it, Iranians who have ”lost their minds.” The success of translated titles like ”Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” has given rise to some homegrown authors’ specializing in more culturally specific advice. The title of one current best seller, Mahmoud Namany’s ”Please Do Not Be a Sheep,” is borrowed from Ali Shariati, the Islamist sociologist who helped inspire the revolution. With chapter titles like ”Grief Therapy” and ”How to Choose Friends,” it tailors its vision of self-fulfillment to a society where you are expected to commemorate even the anniversary of the death of your paternal great-aunt. ”Do you want to be an exalted human, a cud-regurgitating animal, filth or an angel?” Namany asks in one chapter.
When Iranians aren’t reading about depression or the harmonious arrangement of furniture, they’re drawn to soap-opera-ish novels about family life and chaste, unrequited love, bearing titles like ”The Solitude of Lonely Nights.” After the revolution, which created a caste of literate women with no more social clubs or cultural centers to frequent, the market for women’s popular fiction swelled. Demand is highest for Persian translations of Danielle Steel (with intimate scenes either blotted out or obliterated by euphemism) and her Iranian equivalents, Fahimeh Rahimi and M. Moaddabpour, neither of whom has ever been seen on television (used in Iran mainly to promote state ideology, soap and rice). The most popular novel of the last two decades, Fattaneh Haj Seyyed Javadi’s ”Listless Morning,” about an idle aristocratic family under the 19th-century Qajar monarchy, has sold an unheard-of 185,000 copies since 1998 and spawned dozens of imitations. ***
When I arrived seven years ago, writers and publishers were making the same predictions about the impending death of reading heard perennially in the United States. In a nation of 70 million with a nearly 80 percent literacy rate and a centuries-old literary tradition, they argued, book sales — 40,000 copies for a typical commercial best seller and 2,000 to 5,000 for novels and literary nonfiction — were dismal. According to Mohammad-Reza Neymatpour of the Nashr-e Nay publishing house, sales have been declining steadily since 1979. Though books are inexpensive by any standard — generally costing no more than the price of a couple of sandwiches — little in public life encourages reading. There are few public libraries, no reading contests in schools and scarce promotion of any book apart from the book. (Billboards inform Iranians that if they can memorize the Koran in its entirety, they will be awarded a formal university degree.) Even the government is growing concerned. In advance of the Tehran Book Fair, held earlier this month, the state newspaper, Iran, published a scolding article under the headline ”Let Us Learn How to Read.” In April, an announcer on state radio lamented that the average Iranian spends only 16 seconds a day reading. ***
From 1999 to 2002, during the hopeful presidency of the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami (a former head of Iran’s national library), Iran seemed to be undergoing a literary revival. The publishing houses with in-store shops invested in attractive décor, better lighting and cafes. I would meet friends for coffee, browse magazines and take home a few books, which suddenly had elegant ornamental covers — the complete Barnes & Noble experience.***
But much like the Khatami era itself, Tehran’s literary spring was fleeting. Independent journalists published a handful of daring books, most importantly Akbar Ganji’s ”Dark House of Ghosts,” which implicated senior officials in the killings of intellectuals in the late 1990s. But as the hard-line establishment cracked down, several journalist-authors went to prison, and many in-store cafes were closed on various pretexts. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was chastised for relaxing its standards and resumed vetting books with the same humorless strictness. ***
The ministry checks manuscripts mainly for erotic and religious transgression. Today, if a novel has made it past the censors, most Iranians assume that it has been tampered with and that they are better off searching for the Shah-era edition or the bootleg film version. Even in fiction, all relationships must conform to Islamic law. In the most recent vetted edition of ”Madame Bovary,” for example, Emma’s adultery is omitted. Characters in Western novels who drink Champagne or whiskey find themselves uniformly sipping doogh, an Iranian yogurt soda that has never made anyone tipsy. ***
Occasionally, a work of homegrown fiction manages to be both absorbing and benign by the standards of Islamic decency. Saideh Ghods’s best-selling novel ”Kimia Khatoun,” which revisits the life of Shams-e Tabrizi, the Sufi mystic who inspired the poetry of Rumi, from the perspective of Tabrizi’s discontented wife, is a case in point. Published in 2004, it stirred huge controversy for its powerful feminist narrative and bold suggestion that the women behind Persia’s great literary men might have preferred to be elsewhere.***
Still, for every successful novel, there are 10 that never make it past the censor or off the author’s desk. In some cases, the authoritiesembargo published books after they have already approved them. As a result, publishers are reluctant to commission new works and often sit on manuscripts for years. Some have turned away from contemporary literature altogether. The Western fascination with Rumi, for example, has heightened the already enthusiastic interest in Iran, and publishers are putting out new criticism and fresh translations. ”The Persian classics create fewer problems,” Mohammad-Reza Zolfaghari, an editor at the Chaveh publishing house, said. For some, literary journalism offers something of a way out. Though they practice self-censorship, the dozens of small magazines that thrive in Iran find themselves less constricted. With circulations of 2,000 to 5,000, they offer a mélange of criticism, essays and sketches by accomplished, polyglot writers who in a different Iran would be writing books. ”Since people don’t trust books anymore, it is the journals that are keeping literary culture alive,” Reza Seyyed Hosseini, Iran’s pre-eminent translator of French literature, said. They also expose Iranians to international authors. At a former military barracks bequeathed by Khatami to ”art,” the journal Bukhara hosts a popular evening literary series dedicated to writers like Umberto Eco and Orhan Pamuk — the first time in recent history that literary events have figured importantly in Tehran’s cultural calendar. ***
Still, Iranians face the sometimes difficult task of tracking down those authors’ work. Often the search leads to the book stalls around Tehran University, which do a brisk black-market trade. Like booksellers everywhere, the proprietors are brimming with recommendations. When I bought a Virginia Woolf novel not long ago, one confided, ”If you give me a week, I can get you Joyce Carol Oates.” ***
Azadeh Moaveni, who reports from Tehran for Time magazine, is the author of ”Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran.”