SHEHERAZADE IN FETTERS: WRITERS IN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC

By Mitra Sistani*

Cologne (Germany) Aug. (IPS) Ayatollah Roohollah Khomeini's fatwa to kill the Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie for his novel "Satanic Verses" in 1989 horrified the international community and draw worldwide attention to the Islamic Republic's hostility towards authors and their works.

They would have known better how the faith treats intellectuals by reading the sura 26 (the Poets) of the Koran, Muslim’s holly book, which says in verses 221-224: "Shall I inform you of him upon whom the Shaitans descend? They descend upon every lying, sinful one….,And as to the poets, those who go astray follow them".

The hardships of writers, translators and intellectuals in Iran have mainly passed by without notice. During the last 23 years many of them were forced to go to exile. Those, who stayed, are struggling for the basic and essential right of publishing every single word they write.

With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, all cultural activities were put under supervision of the Vezarat-e Ershad-e Eslami (Ministry of Islamic Guidance), which defines the freedom of expression within its restricted "Islamic" limits. Each work requires two separate licenses - for publication and printing -, which the subordinate Office for the Study of Books issues only after thorough examination.

As Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, a prominent literary critic at Harvard University observed, "the will to Islamize the revolution manifested itself in the form of an aggressive system of censorship, unique in Iran's modern experience. Indeed, this system of censorship has proved far more efficient--and far more damaging--than previous systems both in stifling oppositional discourse and in propagating the ideological message of the ruling clerical elite, one largely alien to Iran's secular intellectual community". **

This community is well represented by the Iranian Writers' Association (IWA,or Kanoon-e Nevisandegan-e Iran), which operated semi-illegally during the former Pahlavi period. It was legalized after the Islamic revolution of 1979, only to be prohibited a year later. A number of its leaders and activists were arrested and in 1981 one of them, Sa’id Soltanpoor, was executed.

Despite these setbacks, efforts to re-establish an independent association continued. The famous "Declaration of the 134", issued by the IWA in October 1994, is a courageous document for constant struggle, an extract from which is quoted below:

"We are writers… We hereby emphasize that our principal goal is the removal of all obstacles on the road to freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of publication; we emphasize that any other interpretations of our aim would be incorrect and stress that the responsibility for these misinterpretations lies with those who have wrongly identified our goals."

The declaration was issued in reaction to massive attacks from the Islamic Republic's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i and conservatives-controlled mass media, which repeated Khomeini's sinister declaration of "We shall break the pens".

The assassination of the imprisoned author and historian Sa’idi Sirjani in the same year proved this to be no an idle threat. Mr. Sa’idi Sirjani allegedly died from a heart attack while in a "safe house". The same diagnosis was made for Ahmad Mir Ala’i, a distinguished translator, whose body was found in the streets of Esfahan in 1995.

The authors Gholam Hossein Sa’edi and Ghaffar Hosseini died under comparable mysterious circumstances in 1996.

Publishers were neither spared: Ebrahim Zaalzaadeh, journalist and Editor of Ebtekar publishing, was the next victim on that year.

The persecutions of intellectuals culminated in late 1998 with the abduction and assassination of the poet and literary scholar Mohammad Mokhtari, translators and human rights activists Mohammad Ja’afar Pooyandeh and Majid Sharif, whose bodies were found at the outskirts of Tehran. In September 1998 Iranian press had reported that "unknown" persons in the Southeastern city of Kerman stabbed the poet Hamid Hajjizadeh and his ten-year-old son to death.

None of these crimes has ever been cleared up. However, under increasing national and international protests and pressures, the Islamic Information (Intelligence) Ministry was forced to admit that the savage assassinations, known as "serial murders", were the work of its senior officers.

Ex-Deputy Intelligence Minister Sa’id Emami, alias Eslami, was reported by the authorities as the mastermind behind the "serial murders" and was imprisoned alongside a number of colleagues at the Ministry.

In July 1999 he allegedly committed suicide in prison with a locally made depilatory powder. His elimination had become necessary to save the real masterminds, the senior clerics who had issued orders to kill, and believed to include the present leader, Ayatollah Khameneh’I, the former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Intelligence Ministers Hojjatoleslam Ali Fallahian and Hojjatoleslam Qorban'ali Dorri-Najaf Abadi.

Said Emami's codefendants were afterwards condemned to minor sentences or released on bail. According to the Islamic Republic's interpretation of the rule of law, lawyers of the families of the "serial murders" victims, Like Mrs. Shirin Ebadi and Mr. Naser Zarafshan, were imprisoned and banned from professional activities.

Nationwide protest rallies against these murders, that also included the assassination of Mr. Dariush Foroohar, the leader of a secularist political party and his wife, Parvaneh Eskandari, nevertheless marked a significant change in the public opinion, signaling to the ruling radical forces that their brutal policy of elimination had reached deadlock.

Although the threats against secular intellectuals continued, ordered mostly by Mr. Khameneh’i and the ruling conservative ayatollahs, Mr. Fereydoun Verdinejad, the former Managing Director of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) publicly declared in January 2001 that the policy of "breaking pens" has been a "failed historical experience".

Nevertheless, suppression of intellectuals, authors and publishers is in force unabatedly. According to Mr. Ali Asghar Ramezanpoor, a high-ranking official at the Islamic Guidance Ministry, 207.000 books were withdrawn from the market and 35 printing companies were shut down during the last 8 months. Actually 300 titles are "studied" by Ministry’s Book Office.

Apart from these obvious violations of press freedom, the Islamic Republic has developed an intricate system of indirect censorship. High prizes on the free market impose self-censorship on non-conformist publishers, who depend on governmentally subsided paper and printing materials. Published works, which do not correspond to the imposed "Islamic realism", are banned from public, high school and academic libraries. Although taught at literary departments, non-conformist modern literature can easily be removed from the curricula under the pressure of institutionalised Islamic groups at the universities.

Censorship affects translators as well. "One Hundred Years of Solitude, the renowned novel of Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, shrinks to forty years, when translated into Persian", Hooshang Golshiri, the late novelist and former spokesman of the IWA, told the newspaper "Frankfurter Neue Presse" during a visit to Germany in 1999.

However, a dozen non-governmental literary institutions were founded in recent years, reflecting the persistent demand for freedom of expression within a multicultural Iranian society. Young and established secular writers, permanently muzzled by the regime, are promoted by literary awards from the "Peka Foundation", the literary journal "Karnameh" and the Hushang Golshiri Foundation, to mention only a few.

Meanwhile the IWA was able to hold meetings and issue public declarations. The first officially approved gathering of the Association was organized in May 1999 under heavy police protection, but its formal recognition however is pending, because its Charta is incompatible with the oppressive fundamentalist Islamic ideology. ENDS SHEHERAZADE 31802

Sheherazade saved her life by telling 1001 tales to the tyrant. The tales of her descendants are still waiting for to be heard.

*Ms. Sistani, a researcher and scholar, contributed this piece to Iran Press Service

** Ahmad Karimi Hakkak, "Iranian Press and Censorship", Iran Nameh 16, 1&2 (Spring and Summer 1998)