PART IV: Lie if you want to survive

I spent a few months working at a private hospital after my military service and then decided to give up practicing medicine for good. I was paid a flat fee, plus commissions on each patient. It was a substantial income and I was making good money until I found out that even I, who always criticized the corrupt health care system, was being corrupted. The evil was too powerful for me. I had to get out before I gave in to the dark side. The temptation to create unnecessary expenses for patients and thus receive a higher commission was so strong that one night I went to my room, took off my white coat and left the hospital. Forever. Publishing would allow me more control over my thoughts and actions. At least, that’s what I thought.

I had published Caravan’s first book while still a soldier, a translation of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis. I had been fond of the Chronicles of Narnia in my childhood and was happy to be the publisher introducing the tales to Iranian children. I translated the book myself and didn’t worry about the matter of rights. Iran has never signed the Berne or World Intellectual Property Organization conventions; anyone can translate and publish any book from outside Iran without paying royalties to the authors. Sometimes, several different translations of a work are published at the same time.

Once the 2,000 copies were ready, I found myself faced with a familiar obstacle: distribution. I went to several distributors but they wouldn’t take on the title. Once again, I was left with the entire print run stacked in my room although this time I was determined not to go the same route: I would not be my own sales rep. If Caravan was going to become a respectable publishing house, I would have to act professionally. It was then that I decided to set up a distribution centre with two friends. At the same time, I began to explore the market. I read books on marketing, talked to people in the business, tried to make sure I had a plausible strategy.

There were other things I needed to learn: the censorship procedures devised by the government, at once strict yet secret from the rest of the world. For example, the resolution passed by the Supreme Council in 1988 was in direct contravention of Iran’s international obligations and its constitution in which freedom to publish is advocated and censorship prohibited.

The resolution in question, ‘The Objectives and Policies and Conditions for Publishing Books’, outlined seven subjects that did not ‘deserve to be published’ because they may be ‘misused for propagating intellectual carelessness and disturbing the rights of the public’ and that the ‘healthy and constructive atmosphere of book printing and publishing’ should be ‘guarded’ and ‘secured’ by observing these limitations. The seven banned subjects were: books that ‘promote profanity and renounce the fundamentals of religion’; ‘propagate prostitution and moral corruption’; ‘incite the public to rise up against the Islamic Republic of Iran’; ‘propagate and promote the ideas of destructive and illegal groups and deviant sects’; ‘advocating monarchy, dictatorship and imperialism’; ‘creating tumults and conflicts between tribes or religious groups or inflicting damage on the unity of society and territorial integrity’; ‘mocking and weakening national pride and the patriotic spirit, and creating loss of self-confidence and national values before the imperialistic regimes’. Anything ‘propagating dependence on any of the global powers and contradicting the policy and insight based on guarding the independence of the country’ was also prohibited.

A major problem with the resolution was its all-embracing impact. The ambiguity of its language and the frequent use of religious terms left it wide open to personal interpretation. Almost anything could be interpreted as violating one of the restrictions, especially when it came to ‘profanity’, ‘moral corruption’, ‘uprising’, ‘destructive’, ‘deviant, ‘tumult’, ‘mock’, ‘national pride’, ‘national values’, terms for which no one could come up with a precise definition.

The other problem was that this resolution was (and still is) in opposition to Iran’s international obligations to enforce freedom of speech, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This was why the government had to come up with a way of implementing censorship without leaving evidence of it. The first step lay in replacing ‘censorship’ with ‘scrutiny’. Publishers were told to submit final pre-press proofs of their forthcoming titles to the Book Department for the censors’ ‘scrutiny’. If they found no problems, they would issue a permission to publish. If not, they informed the publisher of the modifications required. This was on a sheet of paper with neither a letterhead nor a signature nor an official stamp. The publisher had to make the changes and resubmit the book. If it was decided that the book didn’t ‘deserve to be published’ at all, the publisher would be notified verbally; no documentation was provided.

Even if you were lucky enough to receive prepublication permission, the government still had several other tools up its sleeve to control what you published.

According to a resolution promulgated by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, publishers are required to deliver between two and 10 copies of each book they publish to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) against an official receipt. This is known as ‘Book Receipt’ or BR, and is an official declaration of the publication of a book. The copies are then distributed to the Iran National Library, the library of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament), the library of University of Tehran and a few others.

This document has also been taken as permission to distribute the books in question. But, even after the book is printed and bound, the BR is required before distribution is permitted. Therefore, the BR, apparently only a bureaucratic formality, forms yet another layer of censorship.

The Ministry didn’t stop there. All publishers made a huge effort to get public libraries to buy their books. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance allocated an annual budget for the purchase of new titles by public and specialist libraries. It was also in charge of deciding exactly which books were worth reading. As a result, publishers close to the government received financial support and thus enjoyed a competitive edge over the independent publishers. Moreover, the Ministry ensured that books that had been authorized but were not looked on favourably did not find their way into the public libraries.

The layers thickened and grew murkier. Tehran International Book Fair is a major event for Iran’s publishing industry, an important source of revenue for publishers and a significant attraction for millions of book buyers. The Ministry is in charge of the Fair, allocating stands to publishers and even determining which books that can be sold.

Even after obtaining all these permissions, a book is not safe. The Attorney General has the right to prosecute any books he finds ‘disturbing’; those who have authorized the publication of such a book may themselves be prosecuted.

None of these layers were as powerful as censorship by fear, the most powerful tool in the hand of a tyrant. Publishers who have established a business and invested in it don’t want to lose their licences by publishing dubious content; authors fear to let their imaginations fly lest they create a monster; the censors fear the loss of their jobs if they approve the publication of a controversial text; Ministry directors fear more open policies on the content of such books lest they are held responsible for errors . . .

The vicious circle has no end.

No one dares to push at its edges.