Merchants of Censorship
What is happening on Iran’s Book Black Market?
Mohammad Amin parks his white Pride on Shariati Avenue and, as on other days, takes out his soiled blanket from the trunk and spreads it out beside the sidewalk. He picks up small stones from behind the cement bench on the sidewalk and weighs down the corners with them to keep the blanket from flapping in the wind. Then he returns to his car and takes more books from the trunk, putting them under his arm and returns to the sidewalk. He goes back and forth four times and empties the trunk. Then he spreads the books out one by one on the blanket. There is no order to how he arranges them. Roman Gary falls beside the last Shah of Iran, and Ayatollah Montazeri is next to Albert Camus. His blanket is three meters by one. After laying out all the books, he gets up to look at them. It’s all done. He returns to the white Pride again, opens the trunk, takes out a silver thermos and pours out a cup of tea for himself. He closes the trunk with one hand, returns and sits on the cement bench, and, amidst the delirium of the traffic, sips his autumn tea.
The employee of the Bosch sales representative at the airport opens the door, and Mohammad Amin who had spread his blanket across from the office waves at him.
Mohammad Amin is 36, single. He rents a place in the Sablan neighborhood and owes around 70 million toumans to the bank. He pays 750 thousand toumans a month. He’s been peddling books for a year. From ten in the morning to ten at night with Fridays off. He gets the books from the distribution center on Jamalzadeh Avenue and clears 30% profit on each book. He says at first they gave him a fixed income of 1.5 million toumans. But after they loosened the reins on rents and prices, the arrangement changed at his suggestion. Now his income at times reaches 2.1 million toumans. But not always. What wrecks his trade is rain, and the sidewalk obstruction police tell him he has to close up shop when it rains, put his goods back in the car, and wait around until it stops. If it doesn’t stop, he “starts the engine and goes home. But instead of going home he decides to make peace with the officers.” He has no choice. “At times he gives them a ‘special book’ and, at other times, hush money.” He laughs.
He is a peddler now, and peddlers in the view of legitimate publishers are a blight on their trade, because along side books without publication permits they sell offset copies of books that have permits. The publishers say the book pirating trade has taking the shine off the bookstore business and publishing industry. The legitimate publishers have been banded together for several months to put a stop to the peddlers. They have called them “smugglers,” and, with the help of the security police and by appealing to the courts, they were able to lock up the warehouses where contraband books are kept. What they have discovered and confiscated to this point is striking. But to the publishers this a drop in the ocean.
One afternoon at the beginning of December 2018, we went with Alireza Dana’i, the seasoned head of Negah Publishers, to the distribution center to which the books that had been discovered were transferred. 35 kilometers east of Tehran, on the outskirts of Sharifabad, a city of 25,000 people. On one of the those nameless city streets, there is a set of prefab metal warehouses belonging to the publishing cooperatives. On one of the walled side roads in a waste ground tens of thousands of piled up books had been discovered. They were destined to be pulped. This was a clear sign of the publisher alliance’s determination to combat what they called book smuggling. Apparently the threat of bankruptcy had gotten them to band together.
Alireza Dana’i is 63. He entered the bookselling business in 1963. Once Ali Afjeh’i, head of Sa’id Books, had asked Dana’i if he could fetch his lunch from home for him. He said he would. After that Dana’i said he wanted to sit outside the bookstore and keep an eye on his books. In those days people bought books at a 100% discount, meaning they stole them. IBNA (First, Iran Book News Agency, where Dana’i’s interest in books began and, later he establishes Negah Publishers, which has been one of the large literary houses in business for 45 years).
Upon entering the 1,000-square meter Sharifabad warehouse, Dana’i is struck dumb. He stands still as he glances around the warehouse. Then he strolls among the books a few times. He picks up a some volumes he had published, as if selecting them. He says, “They’ve offset books from five or six of the large publishers.” He takes a turn around the hallways where the books are stacked in piles. Irritated, he says, “They have bankrupted our trade.” He explains that a person producing books in such volume would have to have a designer, a typesetter, and an advisor, and an office with a printing press. He says they have pirated thirty of the best-selling titles. Among them were original Persian works: Showhar-e Ahu Khanom (”Ahu Khanom’s Husband”), Tangsir, Antari keh Luti-ash-ra Gom Kardeh (”The Monkey that Lost its Organ Grinder”), Chashma-yesh (”Her Eyes”), Shamlu’s Collected Poetry, and Yaghma’s Songs. The rest were translations like “The Little Prince” (Shamlu’s rendering) or Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities (translated by Ebrahim Yunesi). The Sharifabad warehouse housed three categories of books that need to be differentiated, even though legitimate publishers have classified them all as smuggled goods and say they must be pulped.
- In the first category are books the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance calls “deviant,” meaning works that lead readers astray [from true doctrine and faith]. These do not have permission to be published and are banned. They encompass a wide range and are not limited to any particular field. They may have been permitted at one point but, with all the dislocation of publishers, they became contraband. An example is Hossein Abkenar’s novel “Scorpion on the Steps of Andishmek Train Station,” hundreds of copies of which were piled up in the Sharifabad warehouse. In 2005 it had permission to be published, but after that it lost that permission. It may have been published outside of Iran and, afterwards, offset in the country. Another example is the translation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which was published in Afghanistan and brought to Iran. It may have been published before the Islamic Revolution and banned after it. Other examples are parts of the works of Sadeq Hedayat and Sadeq Chubak. What stood out in the Sharifabad warehouse were works by Hedayat. All were pirated from Amir Kabir publications. These were confiscated and turned over to Iran’s Islamic Development Organization. It is possible that they had never been published, and typescripts of them fell into the hands of the offset people, who took on the task of publication. Another example is Reza Baraheni’s “The Infernal Days of Mr. Ayaz,” which was written in 1971. Baraheni has said that Abdolrahim Jafari, head of Amir Kabir publishers, had gotten cold feet about publishing the novel and pulped it the same year. For years it was claimed that a limited number of copies were in the hands of the author’s close friends. But three years ago, it suddenly appeared in an offset edition. In a message on social media, Baraheni implored people not to “buy offset copies of ‘The Infernal days of Mr. Ayaz.’” But no one paid any attention to him: not the readers, not the offset publishers. It was said at least 50 thousand copies of the book were in circulation.
- The second category of books are those permitted to be published. What, most importantly, distinguishes these books is their high print runs. These have been subjected to theft and distributed illegally. Our research shows that around 150 of these titles fall into this category. Generally they are works of literature, history, politics, thought, and sociology. The publishers say that to get books ready for publication they have to incur expenses that the pirates do not: the rights of writers, possible typesetting and editing costs, proof reading, pagination, and cover design expenses. The publishers say the book pirates, “glom onto something already readied for publication and jeopardize their business. There is a price difference—sometimes as much as 50%—between a book publishers publish and those that are distributed illegally.” This price difference is the basic reason why cost-minded buyers are attracted to offset books. But it is said, “pirates” are also not sincere in their dealings, offering their goods with deceptive prices to fool customers. For example if the original book were worth 40 thousand toumans, they will write “50 thousand” on the back cover. They give a 50% discount, which brings the price to 25 thousand. Mahmoud Amouzegar, head of the publishers and booksellers syndicate, told us that he and his colleagues estimate that the pirates do not have 30% of the current costs of production and 40% of the current costs of distribution. Therefore out of the “25 thousand they pocket, 70% is profit.” What’s more they also finagle getting government paper for their publications.
- The third category are translations, which come in the form of copies, rewritings, and, occasionally, summaries. It is a phenomenon of rumor-mongering, especially in the area of fiction. It takes place this way: a license to publish is obtained from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Then popular translations are chosen with care, and an incompetent typesetter is gotten. Once the original work is copied, the publisher, out of the goodness of his heart, adds for subtracts things to cover his tracks and to make the publication of the book at the Book Office go faster. Then comes choosing which translator’s name will appear on the cover; he can be unknown, at times, or eminent, which was the same kind of lie Goebbels would tell. Finally, the copied typescript is sent to the Book Office and immediately gets a permit to publish. Mahmoud Amouzegar said that last year one of these publishers got into trouble. In the clear light of day, “the person, having pirated best-selling titles from 18 publishers, sold them at the Tehran Book Fair.” In another instance when the profiteering was obvious, was the Persian translation of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, a bestseller on the Iranian market. Nilufar brought out Hasan Kamshad’s translation in 1995. It went through 21 reprints each with a run of 3,300 copies. Its recent runs were under 3,000 copies. There are various Persian translations out there, which except for three, are rewritings or out-and-out copies. In the present year alone six translations of the book from six different publishers came to the Book Office, having gotten the okay, were published. But out of the various translation one made it on the offset market: that of Daryush Ashuri! On the back cover the dedication is exactly the one on the back cover of Kamshad’s translation. But an item provided by the publisher can mislead readers: they have written “5th printing,” and, to remove all doubts, they have added the same cover design and publishing details. But it didn’t end there. The “translator” (!) wrote an introduction that speaks of the difficulty of translating the book and mentions that ran his translation by his young child to see to what extent it was understandable for an adolescent. The book also had an appendix listing proper names, books, and places to make everything look natural. “Gardoun” is the publisher. When we asked Daryoush Ashuri about this, he said it was clear it was a fake.
The laws protecting the rights of authors in Iran state that to investigate infractions involving the second and third categories of books, a private complainant is necessary; but not for the first category, which can be investigated by the prosecutor or the police. Most of the books we saw in Sharifabad fell into the first category. Jalal Homa’i, head of Ney Publishers, said 80% of them do not have permits, meaning the first category. But most Iranian authors and translators see as the path to straightening out the third category of books signing the Berne Convention, which guarantees the commercial and artistic rights of authors and publishers and which 150 countries have signed. In Iran it had not received a warm welcome from either government authorities or the publishers. Even though a few publishers prefer not to work without the author’s or publisher’s permission. At least when it comes to a few of their own books.
The Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate says the production and supply of offset books is the work of a specific network; but it is not clear how many people are working in this network and how extensive it is. The most public faces of the network are those of the sidewalk peddlers, but who knows how many of these peddlers there are. Publishers who have been hurt financially by them put the number “900” about perhaps to illustrate the extensiveness of their network. But the reality is that even precise official statistics from publishers and booksellers do not exist, must less when it comes to the peddlers who at times are called unlawful. Let’s take a look at the statistics. Mohammad Mehdi Fakhrizadeh, secretary of the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate stated that in 2015 around 16 thousand permits to publish were issued. A year later Mahmoud Amouzegar, head of the publishers and booksellers syndicate, in an official letter wrote 12,700 permits to publish were issued. This year Reza Yekrangiyan, head investigative commission of the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate, said the Ministry of Islamic Guidance had issued 15 thousand permits. It’s only natural when there is such confusion in the official statistics one cannot expect the number of peddlers to be that accurate. At the present time the publishers and booksellers syndicate says it has 600 members of which only 250 are booksellers. What is certain is that the great number of peddlers, who publishers say have thrown their trade into disarray with their illegal sales of books with permits, are “thorns in their eyes.”
In 2016 the group protecting the rights of publishers and creators started to investigate the chaos that had sprung up in the book market. The main charge was to discover pirated books and their suppliers and identify them for judicial authorities. Given the shifting around of government managers from one position to another, the work was delayed, but this year the group’s activities got started in earnest. Mahmoud Amouzegar, head of the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate, says that they have discovered a cache which held around 230 thousand volumes; according to him, 1,100 titles. Everything from the Qur’an to “deviant” works that, he says, with a value of 10 billion toumans. Nevertheless, between what is seen and what is said there is a glaring difference. Amouzegar says the security police and intelligence agencies have discovered and confiscated the lion share of the books.
Now Publishers says that it sold 100 thousand copies of Michail Bolgokov’s The Master and Margarita and estimates that the same number may have entered the black market. Qoqnous Publishers says it sold about 400 thousand copies of Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love and estimates about the same number of illegal copies were published. Other publishers say they have suffered similar losses. These were only two examples. But it is clear that for now what we know for sure must be based on what is seen and what is discovered. Meaning the titles in the first category. On the other hand, the movement of goods on the book market is so great that when we compare what has been discovered to it, it seems like nothing. In the first months of the present year, about 64 thousand titles, some 88 million published volumes with a value in the area of 1,640 billion toumans. And that only in the field of literature, which, it is said, has experienced the greatest losses caused by offset publishing. 11 thousand titles with about 10 million copies have come out with a value of 187 billion toumans (see the figure charting the forty-year movement of literary works). The question is this: How much of a loss is 10 billion toumans to such publishers? Especially when we consider most of the books discovered fell into the first category and basically don’t have that much impact on the wheels of legitimate publication. Have the legitimate publishers made a mountain out of mole hill? Mahmoud Amouzegar, head of the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate, assures us what has been discovered is a drop in the ocean, and one must not underestimate what he calls “the book black market.” This market, he says, “threatens the security of the nation,” because it influences an industry like publishing and those working in it. Whatever the case the result of the work of the syndicate is basically the discovery of books in the first category. At least those items we saw in the Sharifabad warehouse. When we raised the issue with Alireza Dana’i, head of Negah Publishers, he said such statements were intended to mislead public opinion.
A large number of Iranian readers have memories of book peddlers. During various periods, for tens of people the peddlers were the only center of distribution for proscribed books. The area along Revolution Street was the main banned book haunt. One of the veteran peddlers of Revolution Street was Kobra Qodsi, who set up shop on the Fakhr-e Razi corner and sold out-of-print and religious books. Mostly She sold Ali Shariati and was a rival to those who sold the works of Sadeq Hedayat and Sadeq Chubak. She was a propagandist for Shariati on Revolution Street. An aged woman with her chador tied around her waist. She walked with a cane and recently her back was showing signs of being slightly hunched. After 2013 there was no sign of her.
On Revolution Street where Kobra Qodsi had spent her days the game played by tens of people was like this: whatever remained of the books without permits were “offset.” Despite this, Amir Hossein Zadegan, head of Qoqnous Publishers, said, “Book pirating first became a problem during time of Ahmadnejad’s government. Alireza Dana’i said, “The reason why books were pirated was the unnecessarily obstinate measures taken by the Ahmadnejad government, which did not give out permission to publish.” But the real story goes beyond one particular period. Cultural policies were such that the fires of suppression and censorship were not extinguished. It’s been years that lights at the censorship bureau have been burning, and what it does is not related to any particular government.
When Vaqaye’ Ettefaqiyeh (”Current Events”) was started, Naser al-Din Shah and Abbas Mirza immediately hired the British man Edward Burgess to supervise the content of the newspaper. In 1885 E’temad al-Saltaneh suggested to Naser al-Din Shah that instead of the British, they themselves should oversee the paper. He petitioned the Shah about establishing an office for the “censorship of printed books, etc.” The Shah approved and determined that E’temad al-Saltaneh head the office. It became necessary for newspapers and books to obtain permits from it, which was how censorship took root. At one point E’temad al-Saltaneh ordered a collection of poetry be burned, since he had no control over it. Another time he had the head of the Polytechnic printing office bastinadoed, because he had published a booklet without approval. Another time Naser al-Din Shah ordered a calendar that had been distributed among the people be collected. A censorship bureau was established, and it was tasked with marking the first page of all books with a square-shaped stamp saying “examined.” With the seeds of censorship sewn, it eventually bore fruit in the emergence of pirating. The newspapers Qanoun (”Law”), Akhtar (”Star”), and ‘Orvat al-Vosqa (”The Firmest Handle”) were published outside of the country, and smuggled back and put into readers’ hands. It is clear that there was certain amount of finagling going on. One day Naser al-Din Shah “had been angered by what was written in Akhtar about the Iranian cabinet.” They told the Shah it was the doing of Mirza Yusof Khan Mostashar al-Dowleh. They immediately set a trap for him. They called him to the court where he was arrested, beaten, and chained (Ruznameh-ye E’temad al-Saltaneh, p. 196). The policies went on in this way—presumably within bounds of prudence. Censorship was definitely not confined to Ahmadinejad’s term in office. The pirates were active even during the presidency of Seyyed Mohammad Khatemi.
One day in the spring of 2001, rumors circulated that the translation of Fatema Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society had been confiscated. The Tehran Book Fair had just closed and Ney Publishers brought the book out for a second time. Sa’id Mortezavi, head of district court branch 1410, had issued the order to confiscate. In her book, Fatema Mernissi tries to answer the question of whether it was Islam that opposed the rights of women or whether it was the policies of rulers that fed gender inequality. The print run, as was customary at that time was 3,300 copies. The publisher had sold half of them and, it was said, handed over the other half. But it wasn’t long before offset copies began to appear and that was more than what the publisher and the Moroccan writer had expected. This is an example of that era, which was known as the “blooming of culture.”
Later, with the change of government, “prohibited books” proliferated and, in their wake, offset copies also multiplied. In the summer 2005 when they asked Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi what would his priorities be in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, he said more than anything else he would concentrate on books and films. Then he added, “In the publishing field, no one is satisfied, not the publishers, not the writers, and not the readers.” He had yet to take his post at the Ministry and had not gotten confirmation from Parliament. For ten years he was the managing editor of the newspaper Keyhan. One day before he appeared in Parliament to be confirmed, he candidly and forthrightly stated, “I still believe in all the principles I held at Keyhan.” There was not even one vote against his confirmation.
After taking his post at the Ministry, he announced censorship as a necessity and asked his colleagues to be vigilant, “There shouldn’t be a scintilla of tolerance toward terrorism.” Later he told them, “You must not permit evil documents to be issued with a permit and published.” He ordered many books from the period of reforms “be reviewed.” A long line of books formed, and there were blockages and backlogs. The permits of many were taken away. In the summer of 2010, it was announced Abbas Maroufi’s novel Symphony for the Dead was not permitted to be published. Gardoun Publishers had brought out the first edition in 1989. Gardoun had been founded in 1986 and lasted only a few years before its license was suspended. In 2001 Qoqnous published Maroufi’s novel with a print run of 3,300 copies, noting on the cover it was the “fifth printing.” After it had been republished 13 times, they said its permit was invalid, whereupon it fell into the hands of the offset publishers.
There is a more recent example of book censorship that caused a scandal. In the winter of 2013, people began talking about Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel The Colonel. It had been translated abroad into German and English and received a literary award in Switzerland, but it did not have permission to be published in Iran. Bahman Dorri, Assistant Head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance during Ahmadinejad’s tenure, had said that the novel gives a new reading of the state of Iran prior to the Revolution and Iran after it. He added it is possible that its publication would have an “unwelcome effect.” Despite this during the winter that Hassan Rouhani took power, news came that the novel’s publication was imminent. Later it became clear that the writer had reached an agreement with authorities at the Book Office that the book would be published on the eve of the New Year’s holiday and that the writer should not be kept waiting for a long time to keep the matter from becoming a touchy issue. But it was not published. The Colonel was published in the beginning of August 2014, which astonished the author. He himself called what happened a “dirty game,” and added his lawyer would make the conspiracy public” so that the guilty party would be identified. He told readers not to buy the book saying it was counterfeit. But the thing was out of his hands. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance discovered a cache of 4,700 copies of the book. Later it admitted that thousands of additional copies had flooded the market in Tehran and the provinces. Four years later pirated copies were still being sold—of course with alterations. In the initial printings, Gerdoun was listed as the publisher, the same one responsible for Abbas Maroufi’s books. The current printing has no book identification details. These are merely examples of the policies that have trampled the rights of authors and brought books into such a perilous state.
Publishers and booksellers generally have been obliged to maintain a boundary between offset publications and those without permission to publish. Those without permission are not to be seen on bookstore shelves. But in 2013 things changed little by little and spaces opened up among for books without permits and those with them. At first in secret, but later in the open. The unpermitted were first stashed in hiding places and sold exclusively to special customers. Completely under the counter. That year the economy had gone into a coma. The bookstores, being part of that economy, had no choice but to scramble for their existence; offset books offered a way out as there were customers for them, and they were profitable. We even know of publishers who quietly published the books they had without permits, and, because they were not able to change their book identity information and the backs of the volumes and because prices varied, they resorted to stickers. With the value of the dollar up, the prices could be changed with labels. There were also publishers who close their eyes to violations and tried their hands at offset publishing. Symphony for the Dead was one such book. Amir Hossein Zadegan, head of Qoqnous Publishers, said, “So as not to be deprived of readers, we did not protest. Little by little books without permits were laid out with books with them. In fact the bookstores welcomed offset publications. This was something they brought on themselves. Few bookstores did not turn to offset publishing. But no one imagined it would take root to such an extent. The publishers had to acknowledge how much their practices played a role in the present chaos. We have documents that show the Book Office of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has been involved in the publication of illegitimate books for the past decade. The divisions of the Ministry dealing with the discovery and registration of audio and visual products have reported about the centers to the Book Office several times that they have been illegally publishing books without permits and with them. The documents show that the Book Office was well aware of the offset printing and publishing network, but for obscure reasons it preferred to ignore close their eyes to it. It is said that inspection officials even arrested peddlers, but later, on the advice of divisions at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, they released them. The question is why did the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance turn a blind eye to what was happening? What benefit did the Ministry derive from a market it itself called illegal? Or, perhaps, had it not gotten anything out of that market, it would not have made so much trouble for itself. Likewise it would not have born principal responsibility for something it termed the “pirating of books.”
In 2016 the year the group protecting the rights of publishers and creators was founded, Mohammad Solgi, director at the time of the Book Office, said the policy was to be “deposit law” matters and it for this task the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate was formed. The group was “to use all levers and legal tools to combat the illegal circulation of works whether print, electronic, sound, software, and multimedia” in real or virtual space.
There is no doubt that on the one hand, publishers—perhaps not wanting to—and the Book Office, on the other, added to the confusion in the book market. The publishers during one period allowed the offset publishers to make forays into their books without permits and opened the doors of their bookstores to them. The Book Office by imposing a regime of censorship fueled the fires offset printing and profiteering.
Iranian publishers are to a great extent in accord on the notion that censorship was at the root of the illegal distributions; however, it is not clear why they are not prepared to put an end to it and accept the responsibility of publishing their books. At the same time there is no dearth of publishers who practice censorship themselves. Before submitting a work to the Book Office, they do thorough cleanings of them so the works will not receive a negative number and put their publication in jeopardy. Their attitude may seem to reflect a double standard. After President Rouhani’s election, it was expected that book censorship was to be turned over to the publishers. The government was determined and took the initiative in implementing the policy. But nearly all the publishers pulled back, and they rejected the resolution. They explained that their capital would be threatened and thought it best to take on the Ministry of Guidance until possible court proceedings. It’s been five years since that business, and their capital was threatened in a way other than the one they said it would, and their very survival was in play in different way. Mohammad Solgi, who had been director of the Book Office for three years and was replaced by Mohammad Javad Moradiniya, said, “the policy of turning over censorship to the publishers was not successful.” He meant that the publishers would not submit. There is no doubt that the Book Office finds itself in a quandary. In 1978 only 70 titles in literature were published, and last year around 15,000 were published—only in literature. Around 10,000 were in their first printing. Even if in the present chaotic market, we assume half of these titles are copies, rewrites, and worthless book compilations, the other half are new. It is clear how much inspecting the contents of these would exhaust a censorship regime. And this is only as far as literature goes, which, in the words of the officials are “more sensitive” than others. (For information on the forty years of book publishing, see the chart at the end of this report).
With the censorship regime an established fact, the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate is determined to fight what it calls “book pirating.” Although the book black market like every other market is subject to the law of demand, the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate expects at least to loosen the grip the offset publishers have on the books of its members. When we asked Mahmoud Amouzegar, head of the Tehran publishers and booksellers syndicate, whether the number of offset books would decrease, he said: this is the hope—but it’s not one hundred percent certain. Then how, in spite of all the confiscations of the last months, can the offset publications still have their supporters. Let’s return again to the street.
In the Qeytariyeh neighborhood there is an elderly woman who often strolls in the morning on Shariati Avenue form the Soheyl crossroads to the overpass and then retraces the same route on her way back. She is retired and a homemaker. She says she had been a teacher before the Revolution. Now every week she buys a “rare” [i.e. banned] book from Mohammad Amin, the peddler on Shariati, to fill with it the drawn-out leisure hours of her week. In the beginning of December 2018, she stands before the sidewalk display of Mohammad Amin and browses the books one by one. She is slightly stooped, but patient and forbearing. She asks, “What do you have for us today, Master Mohammad?” Amin says, “A special item,” and he hops down into the relatively dry gutter along Shariati and heads for his white Pride. He opens the trunk and takes the book “In the Trap of History” out from under a thick cloth. He returns and says, “This is unique, Ma’am.” The elderly woman takes the book and examines the cover carefully. “In the Trap of History” is an interview with Parviz Sabeti, head of internal security for SAVAK. During his time a great many writers and intellectuals faced torture with a branding iron. In his recollection of those years, the subject of the book black market came up. The topic still appealed to customers.
The elderly woman opens the book and looks closely at the chapter titles. She says, “They have made a complete mishmash out of these.” Then she gives the book back and asks the young peddler for another “rare” book. Mohammad Amin sees that he’s about to lose his regular customer. “It’s all documented, Ma’am,” and he takes the book from her. He rifles through the book and says, “See?” The elderly woman says, “Mohammad Amin, today you have started to fob off bad merchandise.” Then she chuckled and asked the peddler once more for a “rare” book. The work the young man is trying to sell the elderly woman had been published abroad.
The ordnance that kept this trade alive was the uncensored title which attracted readers, although the claim in this case could be nothing more than a trick to fool customers. An example is the novel The Colonel (discussed earlier), copies of which the author repeatedly said were fake and asked readers not to buy them. But another example among contemporary writers is Amir Hassan Cheheltan, an extraordinary author, a professional who writes full time. Since the year 2005, when his Iranian Sunrise received a permit to publish, none of his novels has been granted such permission. Despite this, during the past 13 years, he has written other novels, which have been published abroad—but not in Persian. The last novel he submitted to the Book Office was Tehran, Apocalypse, which had been languishing for years. One day in spring of 2014, I went to his home for an interview. The change in the politics had made him hopeful Iran was going to see better days. But he wasn’t certain, because he saw many obstacles ahead. In spite of them, he was certain Iranians would inevitably join the free world.
While the subject of censorship came up, he said the original of Tehran, City without Sky was “about 200 pages long. But the version that reached Persian readers was around 120 pages. I was compelled to shorten it.” And that was when I realized why it was difficult for readers to understand the novel. But the same constraint forced him to turn to a man for an interview so he could remain optimistic and not lose hope. A while ago we read in the newspaper Sharq (”East”) he had gone to the Book Office again to speak with the director even though talking did no good. Mohammad Javad Moradiniya had been director for a year by then, and Cheheltan sees him as an honorable administrator. Despite of this, they told him that currently there was no sign of a permit in the book’s future. Tehran, City without Sky was at the Sharifabad warehouse when I prowled around there. The offset publishers no doubt heard that the Negah Publishers edition lacked 80 pages, which is why they pirated it and sold it as the “complete” edition. Even though theirs does not differ from the censored version one iota.
Censorship is a piece of ordnance that has kept the offset operaters alive. I asked one of those named in the suit against them as a “book pirate” how he sees the future of the offset market. He said, “Whether I’m around or not, the market will exist.” There are many publishers who say their reading public don’t look with favor at their books, and they see censorship as the basic reason for this. But items readers buy from the sidewalk vendors are not necessarily untouched by it. In the profitable offset business, which takes shape in the censorship-plagued atmosphere, the ones losers in the first place are the buyers and, in the second, are the writers.
They have Made Me a Scapegoat
M. Kh. is charged with the illegal sale of books with permits. He says he has a licensed bookstore on Revolution Street and his business “is not underground.” He says the things he was publishing did not have permits but they had applicants. We filled a need. He says this is not a new problem, and long before the Revolution readers’ needs had been met by using this very mechanism. The peddlers also had made their livings in this way. He feels that reading in general has diminished, “especially under the sanctions.” And he has tried to provide readers with books at a reasonable price.
He is young, 30 years old, the owner of a 2014 Hyundai Sante Fe and a shop worth 200 million toumans. He also rents storage space. He got in the book business in 2003 and has worked in various parts of the trade. For a time he also worked at Rowshangaran and Women’s Studies Publishers. He began his business with a million toumans and rented an “under the stairway” shop. He says he is no newcomer to the trade. He was a book lover and, over the years, has collected hundreds of titles without permits. He says he doesn’t own a home, as his work has not provided a way to do so.
When we ask him why he has reproduces works with permits, he says, “That’s not the way it is. The have blown the issue out of proportion for no good reason.” He mentions the name of the book distribution center where he has been buying books. He say they have put him in a bind. The profiteers, he says, print publishers’ books with permits, and now he’s the one arrested. He says he does not know why but assumes that hostility and jealousy are involved. He pauses. Then he says the publishers have their complainant and have worked to put him on the threshold of the gallows. He says can’t understand why they are doing this.
He himself does not have a license to publish, and in order to put out books uses friends’ and colleagues’ permits. He says he was never in hiding and went before the court several times. In October 2017, the security police issued a summons for him, but, because there was a mistake in the address, he never got it. Thinking he had become a fugitive, they poisoned the atmosphere, asserting he was collaborating with foreigners and taking government paper. He says, “We published books on paper from the free market.” The media have written all kinds of lies about him and want him to back off. When we ask him why he published an offset copy of Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, he hesitates. He says he had some kind of exchange agreement with others and did this without knowing. The complainant publishers are aware of what happened. He had hoped that the publishers and booksellers syndicate would have gotten in touch with him at the time and told him to stop. If they had, he would not have pursued the work and things would not have gone this far. We asked him about his losses. He says he does not know, but several hundred million toumans are on the books, around 20 thousand volumes. He says he doesn’t have an accounting system; on the offset bazaar everything runs like the old days. They have sealed the warehouse where his goods are kept. He says he’s certain 95% of the books he published do not have permits. Again he insists he is meeting the needs of those who come to him.
We ask about how books are distributed. He compares his business to a bakery where from ten to a hundred people come around to buy bread. Peddlers would come to him and buy books. He rejects the idea that there is a network involved. I ask him about the arrests. He says they got 20 people, but he didn’t work with them. He says they have confiscated his goods and it’s not clear what punishment awaits him. He says 20 book centers have gotten books from him; the complainant publishers have worked with him and have had commercial and social ties with him. His voice raises considerably when he asks: “Since when has this trade become illegal, criminalized? If my books were so terrible, why did they get them from me?” He asks, was it possible for the manager of 200-meter bookstore not to know what books he was selling in his store? He says they would buy a book from him for 20 thousand toumans and sell it for 100 thousand.
We ask him about the complainants’ motivations. He says the publishers and the syndicate want put pressure on Parliament and other institutions to lift censorship restrictions and eliminate under the counter books. This way they can take over the publishing and distribution themselves, since they see books without permits as rivals to their own goods. This, they think, shrinks their share of the market. He says they are mistaken, since people when they have an interest will pursue that interest. He does not see himself as a rival to publishers, but he believes the publishers wanted to make him a scapegoat. But he reminds us: “The offset publishing business has been in existence since 1978 and, whether I’m around or not, the market will go on.”