May 12, 2016
What happens when your state-controlled-and-funded news agency shows up at your international book fair?
by Chad Felix
Book fairs offer strange sights. We all know this. Greater-than-life-sized cutouts of Mitch Albom and John Grisham, for example. Impossible tents featuring brand new carpeting, carpeting that feels very good under your weary, book-faired feet. An entire wing dedicated to revolutionizing the ebook. Three thousand free totes, and then, moments later, none. Bathroom and signing lines that, if straight and taut, would stretch multiple avenues. Etc.
But the strangest in recent memory—certainly the most politically charged—may be the Islamic Republic News Agency’s (IRNA) contribution to the 2016 Tehran International Book Fair.
As reported by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Golnaz Esfandiari, the state-controlled, state-funded news outlet’s booth is offering conference attendees the chance to be photographed in military garb in front of a scene of destruction in Syria. Photos of participants, which the IRNA posted on their website, show attendees seated on motorcycles, flashing peace signs, clutching fake grenades, looking serene, smiling—all in front of a backdrop of the war-torn nation.
The booth goes by the name “Defenders of the Shrine,” a phrase that, according to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Golnaz Esfandiari, “refers to the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus, which is said to contain the grave of Zaynab, the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, whom Shi’ites consider the rightful successor to the Prophet”—and the new agency’s presence at the book fair may be an attempt to bolster Iranian civic investment in the war and support for Syria’s Assad regime. Esfandiara again:
The move appears to be part of the effort by Iranian authorities to glorify Iranians who join the fight in Syria. Iran claims it has only deployed “military advisers” in Syria to bolster its regional ally, President Bashar al-Assad, and to fight “terrorists.”
Iranians and Shi’ite fighters are reportedly trained and deployed in Syria by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij force. They’re known as the “Defenders of The Shrine” who, according to Iranian domestic media, travel to Syria voluntarily. They also include Afghans who, according to Human Rights Watch, are pressured by Iran to fight for Assad in exchange for financial rewards and legal residence.
“Iranian state media refers to those killed in Syria as ‘martyrs,’” she adds.
But, really, photobooths at book fairs are pretty common, and this certainly isn’t the first to depict violence. (I, for one, can remember voluntarily posing proudly beside an armed Han Solo a few years back.) What’s troubling here is not necessarily the implication of violence, but the lack of an entertaining product being marketed, i.e. a reason (other than the furthering of state interests) for the IRNA to have gone through the trouble of setting up this very elaborate booth at a book fair. The IRNA is not shilling a book of war stories, or a novel that takes place in Syria, as a publisher might. And visitors of “Defenders of the Shrine” are not playing stand-in for some hero they’ve read about in a book. In fact, if this weren’t Iran—a nation fairly well known for its censorship and lack of subtlety—it’d be hard to understand what the hell the IRNA was even doing there.
Unsurprisingly, the stunt has provoked criticism from attendees. One Twitter user remarked: “If you want to take a picture with the mess we created in Syria, go to the Defenders of the Shrine photo booth.” Another tweeted: “Souvenir with the misery of a nation, souvenir with interference in another country. #shame”.
The Tehran International Book Fair is on now through May 14th.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.