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Censoring an Iranian Love Story Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 5, 2009
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From one of Iran’s most acclaimed and controversial contemporary writers, his first novel to appear in English—a dazzlingly inventive work of fiction that opens a revelatory window onto what it’s like to live, to love, and to be an artist in today’s Iran.
The novel entwines two equally powerful narratives. A writer named Shahriar—the author’s fictional alter ego—has struggled for years against the all-powerful censor at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Now, on the threshold of fifty, tired of writing dark and bitter stories, he has come to realize that the “world around us has enough death and destruction and sorrow.” He sets out instead to write a bewitching love story, one set in present-day Iran. It may be his greatest challenge yet.
Beautiful black-haired Sara and fiercely proud Dara fall in love in the dusty stacks of the library, where they pass secret messages to each other encoded in the pages of their favorite books. But Iran’s Campaign Against Social Corruption forbids their being alone together. Defying the state and their disapproving parents, they meet in secret amid the bustling streets, Internet cafés, and lush private gardens of Tehran.
Yet writing freely of Sara and Dara’s encounters, their desires, would put Shahriar in as much peril as his lovers. Thus we read not just the scenes Shahriar has written but also the sentences and words he’s crossed out or merely imagined, knowing they can never be published.
Laced with surprising humor and irony, at once provocative and deeply moving, Censoring an Iranian Love Story takes us unforgettably to the heart of one of the world’s most alluring yet least understood cultures. It is an ingenious, wholly original novel—a literary tour de force that is a triumph of art and spirit.
"Wheatfields or Apple Orchards": An Essay by Shahriar Mandanipour
At book readings, authors are often asked, Why do you write? One says, I write to inform and enlighten people. Another explains, I write because it is my socio-political responsibility. One more declares, I write for myself. Yet another suggests, I write for the sake of literature and the beauty of language. And one writer dares, I write to achieve immortality. Their many different answers each contain a story, because they are storytellers. And I, too, have a story of my own.
I need to begin back in fourth grade. Until then, my mother would always write my school compositions for me. But one day when I came home for lunch, she had gone out, and I was forced, for the very first time, to write my composition myself. In Iran, it is customary for teachers to select the subject of composition assignments based on the season of the year. At the time, it was Autumn—describe the Fall, instructed the teacher. I had little time before the afternoon school session began, and so I sat down to write. After struggling through the first few sentences, suddenly I saw myself writing words that I had never thought of before. Furiously, I wrote of a field whose wheat stalks have turned golden and are ready to be harvested. I wrote of a shepherd sitting in the shade of a tree and playing his flute while his sheep bleat and graze nearby. In this vein, I wrote and wrote until suddenly I realized I needed to hurry back to school.
Before that afternoon, whenever the teacher made me read my compositions in front of the class, I had mostly received a B or B-minus. But on this day, I was sure I would earn an A-plus. For the very first time, I shot up my hand to read my composition. I read of the melody of the shepherd’s flute, of how happy the sheep are, and of the golden wheatfield that is ready for the harvest. But as soon as I read this sentence, the teacher started to growl. "Wheatfields are not harvested in the Autumn!" she shouted. I continued to read anyway. I was proud of the words I had written, about how the wind blows in the golden wheatfield, and about how the golden wheat stalks, ready, eager, to be plowed, to dance. "You stupid boy, wheatfields are not plowed in the autumn," she snapped again. She gave me a C-minus.
Years have passed since that day. I have published ten volumes of short stories and novels. I have managed to cross over the walls of a sterner censorship than my teacher’s that afternoon in Iran. And now that I have also crossed over the threshold of fifty, I know how I’d answer that question about why I write. I write to bring a wheatfield to harvest in my own words, in my own autumn. If I have succeeded, or will succeed, it will be because perhaps there are some who may benefit from the crop. Each grain of wheat is a word and each word a grain toward a story. In the Islamic account of Adam and Eve, the two are driven from heaven to earth after eating not an apple but grains of wheat. What the first pair of lovers ate in Eden eat isn’t important. What is important is for each of us—all the storytellers of the world—to bring our own apple orchards, or wheatfields, to harvest, in our own time and our own seasons.
Perhaps there will be those who will eat from them, and are driven to heaven. —Shahriar Mandanipour(Translated from the Farsi by Sara Khalili)
From Publishers Weekly
The first of Mandanipour's novels to appear in English follows an ambitious but censored Iranian writer as he attempts to write a Nobel-caliber love story that will pass the censors' inspection. As a professional writer, narrator Shahriar has known his censor, nicknamed Pofiry Petrovich, for long enough that he can anticipate his objections. Shahriar's work in progress, which unfolds as a subnarrative within the novel, concerns Dara and Sara, teenagers named after prerevolutionary Iranian children's book characters, as they explore sexual and emotional love in a nation that forbids physical or social interaction between young people of the opposite sex. As the couple's love grows, the self-censoring writer strikes out whole passages in anticipation of his censor's objections. All the while, the writer converses with his censor, his characters, the reader and himself to create an intriguing postmodern, multifaceted romance steeped in Iranian culture. Kudos to Khalili for a wonderfully fluid translation of an intricately layered text. (May)
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As Raha Namy puts it in the Quarterly Conversation, Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a multi-layered story. This - more than slightly - surreal tale tries to give numerous details about the Iranian culture and censorship in a mix of real and fictional story layers that continuously intersect, sometimes confusing between what is real and what is fictional, making it hard for the non-Iranian reader to build a real idea about Iran.
The innermost layer is the love story between Sara and Dara, whom we don't know if they're completely fictional or based on real characters. Sara is senior student in the University of Tahran studying Iranian Literature, coming from a middle class family that falls behind by the year as a result of the increased inflation that is not met by an increase in her father's pension. She seems normal, but has a revolutionary soul. However, being in a country with very tight limits to freedom of speech, this revolutionary soul is mostly seen in the dark, away from the government's and the "Campaign Against Social Corruption's" eyes. Sara is an avid reader and so has a membership in the local library, this is where Dara first finds her.
Dara too used to be a student in Tahran University studying cinema, he was about to graduate before he got detained for being a communist. When he was finally freed after two years, he found out that he was expelled. Dara's family too used to be middle class, but has already fallen far behind as result of the father and son's detentions for being communists. This has led to the father losing his job, as well as his will to live, and the son being unable to find a decent job as a result of losing his almost acquired university degree. Oppression has turned Dara into a passive, defeated person, but one who still loves his country with all his heart.
There are also two secondary characters of the story. The first is Mr. Sindbad, Sara's suitor who has a story of his own. Mr. Sindbad came from a very poor family, but was able to fight his way into a government job. He was never into politics and wanted nothing more than the stability that would help him lead the simple life he's living. After the Islamic Revolution, however, he found out that this won't be possible, and that if he wants to continue to live at all, then he'd have to learn to be somewhat a hypocrite. Thus, by hypocrisy and brilliant ideas, he became one of the most powerful and richest businessmen in the country. The other is Dr. Farahad, one of the country's most famous surgeons, who is loved and respected and sees poor clients for free. Dr. Farahad appears a few times in the story in very different and confusing settings.
Sara is first introduced to the reader holding an interesting sign in a student protest; it has "DEATH TO DICTATORSHIP, DEATH TO FREEDOM" written on it, she's only a few minutes away from her death. But at last minute, Dara finds her and begs her to abandon the sign and leave with him. This is after one year of exchanging letters through a code they used in library books. When they finally get to the dating stage of their relationship, they have to think of places to meet so that they won't get caught (according to the author women and men who are not direct kin can get arrested if found together). So they meet in a hospital's emergency room, a mosque, an internet cafe and keep their relationship mostly online.
Comes after this, the layer where the author and the censor work together in writing the story. We're introduced to Mr. Petrovich, who works in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and has the responsibility of revising all books prior to giving a publishing permit. In this layer the author sometimes acts like a god to his characters, telling them what to do and what not to do. Mr. Petrovich, on the other hand acts like a divil, trying to ruin the beauty of the love story thorough wanting to change the storyline or sending other characters in the story. At other times we find the characters working their own destiny and deciding what to do for themselves, despite the author's and censor's intentions.
The writer always thinks of what Mr. Petrovich would say and so we'd find him sometimes striking out his own words, because Mr. Petrovich wouldn't give the book a publishing permit otherwise. He also sometimes has to give more details about his love story characters in this layer, because they're details that the censor won't approve. Thus, he gives his readers an idea of how Iranian love stories may lose their depth as a result of censorship.
The layer between Mandanipour and Mr. Petrovich is a story in itself, but to make matters more complicated, there is sometimes an intermingling between Layer 1 and Layer 2's characters that sometimes turn so surreal that you wouldn't know what to get out of it.
In this layer we find popular fictional and non-fictional characters from other literary works and real life coming to the story to give symbolic descriptions. There's the hunchback midget's corpse that keeps appearing in different places to different people. Then ghosts of other writers. Then an Assassin's phantom. Then poets who died some hundred years ago. These characters are mostly symbolic, and this is where surrealism reaches its peek, making it sometimes weak and thus very hard to grasp what the author is trying to tell with his symbols.
One interesting, yet one may argue clichéd, use of characters is how the author used Nizami's poem, Khorsow and Shirin. This poem is about a love triangle between a king (Khorsow), a Romanian woman (Shirin) and a poor man (Farahad). Shirin ends up marrying Khorsow and they make sweet love. When Sara and Dara met in the emergency room, they meet a bride named Shirin who was raped by her groom, who is also called Khorsow, and she is saved by Dr. Farahad.
The outermost layer is where the author finally writes in non-fictional, first-person. He explains different aspects in the Iranian culture and different types of censorship. He tells stories of his own experiences and gives summaries of Iranian classics that are mostly used for symbols. This layer was almost always my favorite. It is here that the author talks of self censorship that was used by poets hundreds of years ago. During that time, they used to use similes from nature in describing a woman's body or a love making scene. He thus explains that censorship sometimes helps get the imagination going.
Then he goes on to explain government censorship today, and how they have power (and dirty mind) to sexualize everything. But that's not all, there is all the social censorship, where girls are not allowed to have boyfriends, or to talk to boys they're unrelated to for that matter. With all these levels of censorship, it become impossible to write, or even live, a real love story in Iran.
The book as a whole was more than anything confusing, with the never-ending intermingling between fact and fiction, as well as the different story layers. There is depth in the protagonists of the main story, but the elaboration on them is mostly cut through to discuss other things. The love story is extremely weak, but one may argue that this is exactly the writer's point; you cannot write a love story in that sociocultural setting. I, however, have sometimes felt exaggerations in the extent to which Iranian couples can't be together. The fact that this book, being published in 2009, and does not have one mention of cell phones makes me wonder. Same with Iranians being unable to watch movies and listen to music. What happened to VPN? I know from living in a country where censorship does exist (although far from that extreme, in some cases at least) that people always find ways out. What with Iran and Saudi Arabia (and Egypt, too) being among the countries with highest online pornography consumption (according to unofficial lists). Yes, literary works sometimes need to reach extremes to be more interesting, but again, not separating fact from fiction makes this problematic.
While I generally don't mind surrealism, in some parts of the book I felt that it's too much, making the reader actually miss the story itself. The symbols all through the story were sometimes clichéd and other times too much to take. As for the writing itself, it was far from creative. In fact, it mostly felt like you had the writer sitting in your living room telling you the story.
Without really getting into politics, the author actually got into politics. We see how revolutionaries like Dara were defeated and are now busy just trying to live. We see how even those who were "good" Islamists were abolished from the political scene and had turned into brothel visitors. We see how hypocrisy in modern-day Iran can lead to reaching the top of the ladder. We see how Iran wanted to enrich uranium while its citizens are suffering from increased poverty by the year. Most importantly, we see how women, throughout different eras in Iran were oppressed and sexualized, be it under dictatorships or so-called freedom. We see that revolutionaries did nothing when women were forced to cover up their bodies and spirits, when they have been treated as a shame. We also get into the sociocultural aspects of marriage and relationships in Iran. We see how marriage is the families' decisions more than the bride and groom's. We see how every relationship has to happen in the dark, we see how one of the main deal makers or breakers vis-à-vis marriage in Iran is money and social class. Mind you, these are all the author's opinions, I know nothing about modern-day Iran.
Egypt and Iran: enemies that are so much alike
I know nothing of modern-day Iran, but I know a lot about Egypt and the similarities are striking. Although Egypt and Iran's diplomatic ties have become at least not so strong following the Islamic Revolutions, and although some religious fanatics in both countries see us the other as enemies or infidels, for following different Islamic sects (Egypt is mostly Sunni and Iran is mostly S***e), both being middle eastern countries, one can't help see the similarities. Both Egypt and Iran are countries of great civilizations that have been great, and are not anymore. Both countries were once so modern, but have become something else as religious fanatics took over people's minds. When Islamists managed to take power in Egypt for a short period, there was talk of closing shops at 11:00 pm in a country that never sleeps, just like what happens in Iran. People started to talk about a "Campaign Against Social Corruption", just like that of Iran. Women were very much sexualized, just like Iran. Thankfully, the Islamist rule in Egypt lasted only a year, but there are still a lot of sociocultural similarities between Iran and Egypt. Some Egyptian families still wouldn't want their daughters to have boyfriends, marriage is still the decision of families, sociocultural and governmental censorships exist, sexualization and sexual discrimination exist. But most importantly, both Egyptians and Iranians can't help sticking their nose in other people's businesses.
There are also similarities between what happened right after the Egyptian and Iranian Revolutions, but I won't get into that too; if you go back and read layer 1 you'll get what I mean. My point is this, being someone who hasn't visited Iran, and would probably not be able to visit any time soon, I can't say that this author's idea of Iran is correct. But the similarities between us and this author's idea of them, makes me feel that he might be correct, and that one may build an opinion based on some of his. It also made me think of how sad it is, how similar we are, yet we're enemies.
The majority of the book is in standard print. These passages have various functions. Quite often it is the author looking up from his Sara and Dara story and talking directly to the reader. He might make a witty comment on what he has just written: “Contrary to this idiotic sentence that can only come from the pen of a writer who has been chewed to the bone by censorship ….” Once he asks the reader to delete the whole chapter he has just written. Often he proposes alternative versions of the story that are more detailed and realistic than anything a censor would approve. And sometimes he adds background information that would never get past the censor.
In the most fascinating of these comments to the reader, the author refers to Sara and Dara as real people who have minds of their own and are not completely under his control: “I sometimes think Sara sneaks peeks at the sentences I write about Dara and his thoughts.” Another time he says, “Sara raises her hand to slap his face. I grab her wrist.” Of Dara he says, “I have tried to dissuade Dara from what he is planning, but I have been no match for him.” And Dara complains to the author of his story, “You shouldn’t have written me like this. You shouldn’t have written me as browbeaten and pathetic.”
Sometimes the author asks the reader for advice: “What do you think we can do to help Dr. Farhad?” And at times he asks the reader for help: “Just push your hand down on the horn of Dr. Farhad’s car.” These devices are supported by passing reference to literary theories, including those of Roland Barthes, who believed that in the best fiction the author’s intention is irrelevant to the story. The appearance of ghosts or shadowy characters in the story is supported by reference to authors such as Hawthorne, Gogol, Kafka, and others.
Of course, references to Iranian literature pervade the novel, too. Nezami’s Khosrow and Shirin stands as a comment, explanation, and contrast to the story of Sara and Dara. The author often inserts background information on Iranian literature, history, or culture—always in an amusing way.
The witty tone of the novel persists even in its condemnation of censorship, which is presented with a balanced understanding that might be surprising. He shows that Iranian writers have always been subject to censorship, whether that endured by the ghost-poet who appears from time to time in the novel (presumably Hafez) or by modern writers like Sadeq Hedayat. He presents the censor of his novel as perhaps misguided and foolish yet sincere and interested in literature as well as protecting the morals of the public. Mr. Petrovich—he’s named after the detective in Crime and Punishment—actually becomes a somewhat sympathetic character in the story.
Mandanipour’s novel shows how life for all Iranians changed with the revolution. But just as his presentation of censorship avoids bitterness, he describes life in the Islamic Republic as oppressive yet perhaps not worse than oppressions suffered throughout Iran’s history under invasions by Mongols, Arabs, and others. The novel’s wry humor shows what it takes to survive.
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