July 31, 2017

Tehran is now home to a massive book garden

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Generally, theocracies that rank among the world’s worst offenders against freedom of expression aren’t expected to build indoor metropolises brimming with books. Usually they have the reputation of enforcing archaic capital punishment laws, suppressing the rights of women, marauding through the streets to shame cultural non-conformers, or throwing acid in women’s faces (eh hem, Isfahan?).

But as Julia Glum at Newsweek reports, Iran is now home to The Book Garden, a 700,000-square-foot Mecca of theater, academia, and—of course—the censored written word.

It was a long time coming. The idea for the Book Garden was first pitched in 2004 as a way to cater to fans of the [Tehran’s] annual International Book Fair year-round… More than 400,000 titles are available for kids alone. One part of the center even has shorter shelves so youth can reach books better.

Iran has censored its literature for years, making publishers submit their books to the government so it can check for inappropriate content before publication. As such, a number of works have been banned, among them Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. In addition, authors have been asked to avoid using terms like kisswinedrunkdog and dance, according to The Guardian.

The structure itself is a marvel. It has enough floor space indoors for fourteen football fields, and rooftop park with over 10,000 square meters of grass and garden. Inside are also ten movie theaters, science halls, a restaurant, a prayer room, and a library.

Golnar Motavelli of Bloomberg News recently visited the facility and sat down with Steve Inskeep at NPR to discuss what this giant facility means for Iran and its reading culture:

I mean, the thing is here, literacy levels are very high. So I’m not sure if it’s the kind of means of making sure that the masses don’t have access to literature. I just think [censorship is] a way of making sure that things like graphic sexual content, stuff that kind of rubs up against the morality laws, you know, doesn’t get into books.

But I know in other bookstores, I’ve seen a wide variety of books on political science here — from stuff that’s been around in Iran for literally centuries, like Plato to Hannah Arendt. So, you know, there’s a huge, huge book-reading culture here. And there’s this misperception, I think, in the West, that somehow the advent of the Islamic Revolution has somehow damaged the richness of what’s available here and what people can read.

Peter Clark is the sales manager at Melville House.

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