Navigating Literary Censorship—and Worse—in Iran

Amir Ahmadi Arian on Creative Freedom and Sitting at the "Gate of Law"

“Look at them straight in the eyes. Let them know that you’re determined, and that you know you’re on the right side of this thing.”

“Don’t be aggressive. Nothing intimidates them like good manners. They will give you what you want only if they feel comfortable around you.”

“Don’t tell them that one sentence or passage in a book only a few hundred people will read is unimportant. That undermines their image of their job. They’re already very insecure.”

This was the kind of advice I received from other writers before my first excursion to the “Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance” (MCIG) in Baharistan Square in Tehran. This is a cumbersome euphemism, etched in the stone in wavy calligraphy above the door of a large building, for Iran’s central office of censorship. I was heading there because my publisher had informed me that a censor had found my first book worthy of his blade. I was supposed to meet the man and talk him out of slaying it.

This said “book” was a diminutive collection of ten connected short stories about a couple in a difficult relationship, packed with unnecessary violence, styled in a poor mimicry of magical realism and sprinkled liberally with superficial reflections. It was the type of first book that the older version of its author prays day and night for every trace of it to disappear from the face of the earth. But it had resulted from two years of hard work, and my very young self was very proud of it.

*

In Iran, should you decide to publish a book, the process is fairly simple: you finish the manuscript, take it to the publisher’s offices, and hand it to the editor responsible for acquisitions. If they aren’t assholes, you’ll have a friendly chat with them, shake their hands and walk away. A month or two later you’ll be told whether the publisher wants your book or not. If they do, you sign a two-page contract and they pay you peanuts in advance. The publisher does some, often shockingly, light editing and sends the manuscript to the MCIG for evaluation. A few months after that, the person in charge of this evaluation, amazingly called a “momayyez” (literally, a “discerner,” the one who tells the good from the bad), sends your publisher a piece of paper he might as well have found in the trash bin under his desk. There are no stamps or signatures on it because they don’t want you to have any official record of this process.

That piece of paper sets you on one of three paths. In the best case, you get permission: Mr. or Ms. Discerner didn’t have a problem with your book. You can publish it without having any compunctions about corrupting the youth. So the book comes out. If you’re lucky it makes it to the windows of Enqelab or Karim Khaan Street, so that if the pedestrians in Tehran deigned to lift their heads from their phones, the title or the cover might catch their attention. But these days, that almost never happens.

Or, possibly, the MCIG rejects your book. The censor has decided that there are too many problematic scenes and passages in your manuscript, which might include sex or blasphemy or political criticism. If you get this response, you’d better forget about the whole thing: Forget that you ever committed those words to paper and pretend that those long months of unrewarded labor, all the agonizing over finessing your prose and developing your characters, was an elaborate dream. Move on and start a new book, or go get a life.

All your efforts are subject to the subjectivity of the censor, their mood on the day they pick up your manuscript, whether they had a fight with their partner or got a speeding ticket in the week your book lands on their desk.

The last scenario is that your manuscript has problems, but the “bad” parts discerned by that dedicated reader in MCIG are not so numerous or so egregious as to entirely disqualify the book for publication. If you censor the parts they want you to, you can send it back to them and hope for their approval. In this case, the censor takes pains to put together a list on that unsigned, unstamped piece of paper, which reads something like this:

Remove paragraph such-and-such from page so-and-so.

On page such-and-such take out the phrase, “He pulled down his pants and showed his dick.”

In the phrase “They kissed, rubbing their tongues against each other,” remove from “rubbing-” to the end of the sentence.

From the phrase “If you follow that path, God will help you,” replace the word “God.”

Remove the sentence “She put on her bathing suit.”

In the sentence, “He died like a pig,” replace the word “pig”.

The sex scene that runs from page 12 to page 19 must be taken out.

This kind of response puts one on treacherous footing. The sloppily put together list you receive is an invitation for negotiation. There are no agreed-upon terms for that negotiation. There are no criteria. No rules. They might want you to remove a passage from a book, but if you put the exact same passage in another book you may well get away with it, because a different censor might read it. In fact, if you send the very same book with a different title back to MCIG, you will get a response entirely different from what they said before. All your efforts are subject to the subjectivity of the censor, their mood on the day they pick up your manuscript, whether they had a fight with their partner or got a speeding ticket in the week your book lands on their desk.

*

In the early years of this millennium, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran, the literary world grew bold and optimistic about the expansion of freedom of speech in the country. Publishers began to organize face-to-face meetings between writers and censors. They thought that in this new political climate, the gathering of two human beings over a text with which they have both spent time, one building it and the other taking it apart, would yield some result.

I was headed to one of those meetings.

In my tiny apartment in Shahran, in the northwest of Tehran, I dressed up to embark on a two-hour journey to visit the man in charge of maiming my book in Baharistan Square on the opposite side of the city, in the premises of the MCIG, ironically sitting across the street from the location of the nation’s first parliament building.

For the occasion, I put on a simple button-up shirt and cotton pants to look older than I actually was. I had just turned twenty-four.

I arrived at the MCIG at high noon, for some reason thinking that my dramatic timing would work to my benefit. They took my ID at the gate and sent me up to the second floor of a large gray building with unreasonably wide stairs. There I entered an open area lined with booths and benches, which looked more like DMV offices in the US than, this being a censorship office, anything out of 1984.

He seemed acutely aware of his unpopularity, therefore aware that he needed to take extra pains to win people over.

An unsurprisingly unfriendly secretary took my name and the book title. She gave me back a case number and a room number, as if I had come to visit a prisoner. I embarked on a long walk to the end of the main hallway, which was flanked by offices of all sizes and shapes furnished with identical metal desks and identical sofas and identical men. I paused on the threshold of the room I was supposed to visit, across from a face very much like the one I expected to see.

In Iran, if you are a man wearing unpolished black leather shoes, pants of a similar color, a monochromatic shirt of an equally dead hue buttoned to the last hole on your Adam’s apple, sporting a short, trimmed beard, you appear to the world as a Hezbollahi, devout in your religion, loyal to the powers that be.

That was the look of the man at the desk. But there were details to lend nuance to the stereotype: the roundness of his bespectacled face, the permanent smile, soft voice, politeness, the way with words. He seemed acutely aware of his unpopularity, therefore aware that he needed to take extra pains to win people over. He and others like him have a way of, as we say in Persian, “cutting off your head with cotton.”

From the platform of his fixed smile, the man launched a firm “Salam Alaykom” into the air. “How can I help you?”

“My publisher submitted my book a few months ago,” I began my prepared speech, “and received instruction for censoring some passages. I considered them carefully, and in my view, most of them are unfair.”

“What are those scenes about?”

“There are quite a few but I am focused on two moments. In one of them a man grabs a knife to attack his wife. In another, he confesses that he is in love with an alligator and wants to run off with the animal. I don’t understand what the problem is.”

He rose from his desk. “Listen, I’ll definitely help you, but I have to leave for lunch and the noon prayers right now. Why don’t you come back in an hour?”

The day after, I showed up with a new speech about the pain of traveling the diagonal of Tehran, why he should respect his clients, and how I wasn’t someone to be so easily deterred.

I walked out of the building. I visited the pyramid-shaped building of the old Parliament House and sat by the fountain in the middle of Baharistan Square. I took a walk to the legendary Amirkabir Bookstore, which was confiscated in 1979 and reduced to an ugly, half-empty shop that sold censored editions of pre-revolutionary publications. Across the street from it, the vendors were selling uncensored copies of those same books.

I returned to the MCIG an hour later. The door to my censor’s office was locked. The man in the room on the other side of the hall informed me that my censor was in a meeting and wouldn’t be free for the rest of the day.

*

I had been told that sometimes they fob you off on the first day, so if you have a job and can’t take many days off, or if you feel deeply insulted, you get cold feet and give up. Luckily, I wasn’t working full-time and, if anything, his evasion made me more determined. The day after, I showed up with a new speech about the pain of traveling the diagonal of Tehran, why he should respect his clients, and how I wasn’t someone to be so easily deterred.

But the next day, as soon as I stood on that threshold, his etched smile, earnestly delivered apology, and warm welcome disarmed me. He took the case number and pulled my manuscript out of a file. We went through it to find the problematic passages. It was only then I realized that the man was not himself the censor and in fact hadn’t even read my book. His job was only to mediate.

We discussed all the marked passages. He gave me some concessions over violent scenes but sided with the momayyaz over anything sexual. Eventually I redeemed about forty percent of the censored passages and left the room, tremendously proud.

That slim collection of stories came out a few months later to zero success.

*

That first encounter happened during the last months of Khatami’s presidency. Presidents in Iran take office like tenants moving into new apartments: they sweep out all remnants of their precursors and furnish the whole house with their own things. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won the elections in 2005, was a particularly aggressive cleanser of his precursor’s legacy.

Two years after my first sojourn, I visited MCIG for my second book. Under Ahmadinejad, all the so-called “moderate” censors were replaced by people who embraced Taliban-level standards for publishing. The censors at MCIG made you nostalgic for their predecessors.

In 2005, in a hysterical response to Ahmadinejad’s victory, I experienced a period of writing diarrhea. The election had axed open a dam in my head, and an uncontainable deluge of words poured forth through my pen, jostling and elbowing each other on the way to the paper. During the first year of his presidency I wrote seven hours a day, pouring ink onto every writeable surface within reach. I composed plays and poems, screenplays and short stories, as well as philosophical essays, most of which I threw away later. One of those projects was a short novel, which I kept. It was inspired by my years as a student at the University of Tehran. My uncontrollable rage about the rise of the new administration coincided with a newfound obsession over the Beat Generation writers, especially William Burroughs.

The man, and probably many other censors, were not ideologues whose lofty dedication motivated them to root out vice from books and keep the society pure.

The outcome was a quasi-Joycean narrative about one day in the life of a university student, crammed with linguistic somersaults, hidden references to Burroughs and Ginsberg, wild metaphors and impressionistic descriptions, a long scene about consuming opium in the university dorm and the following hallucination, and an extensive account of a masturbation.

Of all I wrote in that period I only showed this one to my publisher. To my astonishment, they said they would submit it to the MCIG, although there was no hope for permission to publish.

The book was banned, of course. But an unusual thing happened. Someone at the MCIG, a “chief censor” if you will, wanted to see me.

So, after two years, I went back to Baharistan Square.

*

This office was twice the size of the one I entered before and had an antechamber where his secretary sat. That day two other visitors were there waiting for their turn with him. One was a relatively famous poet and the other one a prolific translator.

Half an hour later I was summoned inside. In the main office I sat at the big oval wooden table, across from a small, unprepossessing man with curly hair and a sparse beard.

“I read your book,” he said, “and there’s no way we can give permission for it.”

“I understand.”

“In the opening scene you talk about Afghan construction workers threatened with death by their Iranian boss—”

“But that’s the character’s hallucination.”

“I’m aware of that. But when you say something in fiction, the point is made. You can try dress it up as character’s illusion or something like that, but it doesn’t change the impact.”

I nodded.

“Then we have an opium smoking ceremony that goes on for half a dozen pages, then there’s this guy who masturbates on newspaper headlines and archives the dried pages, then that last conversation about suicide as a moral act…”

The man went on and on, pointing out everything problematic in the book, all from memory in correct sequence. I kept nodding, sometimes interjecting “I understand” and “You’re right.”

“Now, you must be wondering why I wanted to see you,” he finally said.

I nodded again.

“Well, there’s a lot of talent on these pages.”

“I appreciate that.”

“But considerable flaws too. Your descriptions frequently fall flat. There are many lazy word choices and poorly composed sentences. I have marked some of them.”

He picked up the manuscript and read passages from different chapters of the book. I listened carefully. As the absurdity of our interaction dawned on me I stopped listening. Your job definition is to destroy my book! I began to fume. How dare you condescend to tell me how to make it better!

I stared at him in angry silence when he was done. He interpreted my speechlessness as awe at his literary acumen, and a humble smile emerged on the thin lines of his lips. “I’m a writer myself, you know. I have published stuff.”

I only fully understand after I left the MCIG. The man, and probably many other censors, were not ideologues whose lofty dedication motivated them to root out vice from books and keep the society pure. He was not a religious zealot. He was just a failed writer, filled with resentment. He was there to take his revenge on the literary world, which hadn’t accorded him the acclaim he thought he deserved.

*

The following year I finished another short novel. This one revolved around two men who lived parallel lives, and their decisions affected each other without either knowing it; a butterfly effect kind of story, composed in fragments and short scenes, cerebral, and overall, MCIG-friendly. That one came out after I removed only three passages, received some attention, and was shortlisted for a prestigious literary award.

Emboldened by this small success, I took on an ambitious project: four interconnected novellas about four mad men who believe they are prophets, each arguing that God is one of the classical elements. One man believes he is sent to earth by air, the other preaches the cult of water, the third one spreads the message of fire, and the fourth one worships the earth.

I had gone out of my way to give them a censor-friendly book, and I was sure it would come through with only a little cutting. The quick ban didn’t seem right. It must have been a bureaucratic mistake, I thought.

I did far more research for this one than I ever had before, and spent long days editing it again and again, agonizing over individual words. Every morning I pounded words into my newly acquired laptop for hours on end, then rewrote and revised every passage multiple times. I tried hard to keep sex and drugs out of it. In this particular case, the publication of the book mattered much more than locking horns with censors.

After a year and a half, I proudly sent the 350 page manuscript to my publisher. They liked it and submitted it without delay to the MCIG. Two months later, it was banned.

That hurt. I had gone out of my way to give them a censor-friendly book, and I was sure it would come through with only a little cutting. The quick ban didn’t seem right. It must have been a bureaucratic mistake, I thought.

Through friends of friends I contacted someone who worked at the MCIG. He set up a meeting for me.

*

In this third visit, I went to the office the failed writer had occupied the last time. He was no longer there. A burly, less friendly looking man watched with hostility as I sat down across from him.

“You’re very lucky that it was me who read your book,” he said without introduction. “What were you thinking?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ve written stories about people claiming to be prophets? And they’re your protagonists?”

“But they’re crazy!”

“Yet you have written this in such a way as to make your reader sympathize with them, as if their claim to prophethood or their stupid gods could possibly be legitimate. You know what’d happen if an ayatollah in Qom opened this book? Everybody on this floor would lose their jobs.”

I opened my mouth to respond but he raised his palm.

“If you ask me, forget about this book. Forget that you ever wrote it. Go shift-delete this shit from your computer, collect all the printed copies, set them on fire and flush the ashes down the toilet. Then go thank God for the rest of your life that this book ended up in my hands.”

This was probably the hardest day in my overall demoralizing career as a writer in Iran. The book was supposed to be the book of my life, my declaration of maturity, the evidence of my arrival as a writer. For months on end, I hadn’t passed a moment without thinking about it. I wanted it to be out in the world so badly, and I went out of my way to remove anything that might have diminished the chances of its publication. It hadn’t even occurred to me that its core concept could be deemed sacrilegious.

*

A few months of depression ensued. I traveled around the country, caught up with friends, took on a few translation projects to make money. When I was mentally recovered, I started another book.

This one was about a prominent journalist who disappears suddenly, and his absence generates a flood of rumors and speculation. It was devoid of gods and prophets, political dissidents, drug use, fornication, and untoward language. The only problem was a scene that involved sex between an underage boy and a young woman early on. It wasn’t long but I couldn’t take it out because the whole plot, the key to the disappearance of the protagonist, hinged on that. I removed anything explicit from that part, and the manuscript went off to the MCIG.

While I was working on that novel, Iran experienced its greatest political convulsion since 1979. After the 2009 presidential elections, which dubiously returned Ahmadinejad to the presidential palace for his second term, three million people went out on the streets of Tehran to protest the results. That event marked the beginning of the Green Movement.

I was one of those three million people. I walked the three miles between Enqelab Square and Azadi Square in silence, my fingers forming a V in the air, and sat along with thousands of others on the open lawn until sunset, hoping that this peaceful protest would compel the incumbents to reconsider the elections. I attended the rally the day after, then the day after that, showing up at protests all over Tehran for the following six months. I got beaten up, escaped electric batons, narrowly avoided getting detained, and dealt with arrested friends and their families while constantly fearing my own arrest every time I heard the doorbell.

Vladimir Lenin once said when a revolutionary movement is defeated, politics is replaced with reactionary thinking, mysticism, and pornography.

The six months struggle came to nothing. The Iranian government crushed it totally, and we were back to square one. It was more like square zero, or probably a negative integer, for that is the nature of political failure: when an uprising of such a large magnitude is so thoroughly crushed, the aftermath is so daunting and depressing you find yourself wishing it had never happened in the first place.

Vladimir Lenin once said when a revolutionary movement is defeated, politics is replaced with reactionary thinking, mysticism, and pornography. I probably would’ve embraced all those things, but none was available. Like thousands of other Iranians, my share from that collective defeat was immigration. I applied to Australian universities and received an offer from the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Two years after that definitive election night, I arrived in Australia to start my PhD in comparative literature.

While all these massive changes were taking place, the manuscript of my last novel was gathering dust at the MCIG. During that period of instability, many people in the city stopped going to work, and censors were no exception. About a year later, while I was in Australia, I received an email from my publisher. They informed me that the MCIG had finally responded, and they asked for the removal of that crucial sex scene. “Fuck it,” was my immediate thought, and “Forget about that book” was my response.

*

I returned to Tehran in 2013. In the meantime, true to form, Iran had dramatically changed again. Hassan Rouhani had won the presidential elections in 2012. Many took that as the commencement of a new era, the arrival of reformism 2.0. Those eight years of Ahmadinejad were an aberration, the optimists held. We were back on the right track. We could pick up where we left off, and treat Ahmadinejad like a terrible nightmare from which we finally awoke.

The publishing world was no exception. In my visit to my publisher’s office, everybody insisted that I should go to the MCIG again. “The new head of the book department is a very reasonable guy,” my editor told me. “He’s even better than Khatami’s people.” I said that I was in Iran for only two weeks, that I wanted to spend time in peace with family and friends and avoid the trouble of stepping into that building. But they insisted, and eventually convinced me to give it a shot.

Two days later I was back in Baharistan Square, before the MCIG building once more. I had to go in again, leave my ID with a guard, pass through the gate, and climb the stairs to see the new censor. But I couldn’t cross the threshold.

My desire to rescue my book from that dungeon had dissipated into thin air, and all I felt was the solid sense of repulsion in my guts.

At the entrance of the MCIG, under those large words carved indelibly in the stone of the doorframe, I stood paralyzed. Even as I told myself to go in, talk to the guy, get the book out of the hole, another force, at work in the pit of my stomach, refused, even derided, these exhortations.

I paused there an awkwardly long time, blocking the way of people trying in and out of the building, sensing their annoyance with me. I turned back around and walked up the street, sat by the fountain in the square, drank a smoothie, and returned to the threshold. But I already knew it was pointless. My sense of disgust at the mere thought of stepping into one of those offices upstairs was too profound to ignore. My desire to rescue my book from that dungeon had dissipated into thin air, and all I felt was the solid sense of repulsion in my guts. Everything in my sight seemed despicable, from the gate that opened by the touch of a card you got at the door, to the wide stairs that led to the censors’ rooms, to the faces of the bearded men inside, to even the easily distinguishable appearance of writers like me, who had come there to wrest back their words.

I detested that whole world. I despised it so completely, from such a deep place in my soul, that I would throw up if I took another step into that building.

I turned back again and walked to the newly opened subway stop. I knew that this was the last time I would ever even entertain coming to this building, let alone sitting down with a censor. I was relieved, like I had put down a boulder I was carrying for my whole life. I didn’t care about my book for a second. Now it seemed like a pawn martyred in a battle, the collateral damage of maintaining the integrity of my internal territory. I was ready to leave its carcass up there in that sepulcher of books and move on.

That turn on the threshold marked a new phase in my life as a writer. If I were not going to see the inside of that building again, I would probably never be published in Iran again. Thus began a slow, agonizing abandoning of my mother tongue and a slower, even more agonizing adoption of English as my writing language.

*

People in the West tend to have strange ideas about Iran. Most of what I have read and heard fits this storyline: once upon a time, before 1979, people wiped their asses with oil dollars and basked in an petrol-covered sun. Then, suddenly possessed by demons, they overthrew that nice Shah who gave them all that wealth and comfort, and replaced him with unfathomable monsters.

The fight against censorship is an exercise in absurdity, a long, frustrating process of negotiation for the sake of negotiation, a futile wading into quicksand.

This tale is unrecognizable to people who live in Iran. But this fairy tale is so prevalent and omnipresent, because the stories of those who have actually lived there are yet to be told. The men and women who grow up in that corrupt cruel oil oligarchy dressed up as an Islamic Republic, consume an inordinate amount of ghormeh sabzi and ghaymeh, watch Team Melli soccer games like their lives depend on them, do engineering because that makes their parents proud, switch to poetry because they think it’s their calling, and switch back to engineering before getting married, doing all that while struggling to survive pollution and inflation and hijab petrol, the voices of those people are muzzled inside and marginalized outside Iran.

To me, being the product of the aforementioned circumstances, life in Iran was but a long, painful fight against boredom and absurdity. It resembles Dante’s first circle of inferno: the world filled with “sounds of sighing” from a hopeless crowd who live on in the desire to escape, knowing full well that the way out doesn’t exist. No wonder Avicenna, the only Persian named in The Divine Comedy, resides in this circle.

The same goes for censorship. There is no heroism for the censored Iranian writer. The fight against censorship is an exercise in absurdity, a long, frustrating process of negotiation for the sake of negotiation, a futile wading into quicksand.

In Frantz Kafka’s parable, Before the Law, a simple country man comes to the gate of the law, hoping for entry. The gatekeeper stops him. “It is possible, but not now,” the man is told. Taking that as a sign of hope, the man sits at the gate, waiting to be allowed into the law. He ages on the chair. His back hunches up, his eyesight weakens, his teeth fall. Eventually, the gate is closed for good.

Aging on the threshold of the law is the quintessential life of an author in Iran. It is one thing to give up and walk away. It is a whole other thing to remain hopeful against the odds, to insist that you can spot a shining speck of light at the end of a pitch-dark tunnel. Many of us have stayed years, some decades, sitting by this gate, hoping that the nightmare will be eventually end, that things will be different tomorrow, and we’ll finally cross this threshold and leave the first circle of hell. But it never happens.

Amir Ahmadi Arian
Amir Ahmadi Arian
Amir Ahmadi Arian is the author of Then The Fish Swallowed Him (HarperCollins, 2020). He teaches literature and creative writing at City College and Baruch College, New York.





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