May 10, 2018
As US-Iranian relations worsen, Tehran’s book festival might be getting better
by Michael Barron
Yesterday, Donald Trump pulled out of what was considered to be Obama’s signature foreign policy deal — an agreement with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for nuclear accountability. In return, as highlighted by CBS news, Iran’s reformist president Hassan Rouhani not only vowed to stay in the agreement with the European co-signers—Britain, Germany, and France—but slammed Trump and the United States for reneging on the deal. “Iran is a country that adheres to its commitments and the U.S. is a country that has never adhered to its commitments,” he said.
Iran has long had an abysmal reputation in the West, much of it not without due cause, at least historically. But there are signs that the Persian night is seeing the dawn of a new day, including its increasingly popular international book fair. In fact, Tehran’s International Book Festival, held each year in early May, has grown to become one of the biggest in the world, with a reported 500,000 daily visitors making rounds between publishers from over fifty countries and over 2,500 Iranian publishers showcasing their work. Rouhani has officiated over its opening, including this year’s festival, which is themed “Against Not Reading.” The guest country of honor this year is Serbia, and the guest author Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
But one doesn’t need to dig too deep to discover that the fair, which is overseen by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, has a long history with censorship. In an article for Radio Free Europe, Golnaz Esfandiari points out that books ranging from socio-economic studies to books quoting rap lyrics were confiscated at the fair by police. Yet, Esfandiari notes, the Ministry can be capricious about its judgements, as when that same year a publisher long banned from the festival had been suddenly reinstated.
Interviewed about his inclusion in this year’s festival Pamuk, who is hugely popular in Iran, told the Tehran Times that he was happy to have his work translated into Persian, and felt at home in Iran, but lamented the country’s failing to abide by international copyright accords that ensure multiple editions of a work do not proliferate the same markets. When asked pointedly about censorship, Pamuk noted that “writers did not like their works to be abridged even if only one word is cut” and that Iran writers face “a dilemma of choosing between the censorship of their works and putting them on ice.”
At the time of this writing, the only criticism raised against this year’s festival comes from a report made by the Tehran Times that one Iranian parliamentarian lamented the theme as being too negative.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.