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Essay
Last Updated: 11/06/2009
X-Rated Reading: Literary Censorship in Iran
Jaclyn Nardone

Literary censorship directly affects many aspects of media, in many countries of the world. This essay explores the ways in which the Islamic Republic of Iran has silenced national and international artists, thus banning their literary creativity. Chapters of contempt and scripts of scandal are classified as those that deviate from Iran’s much respected social, political and religious traditions. Hindering the free flow of imagination, of readers and writers alike, literature is kept hidden from the masses, in the name of maintaining Iran’s conformist state.


“Censorship is the most anarchical thing in the world.”[1] It mutes voices, distances emotions, thwarts freedoms and hinders creativity. “Censorship makes counterarguments silent. Under censorship difference is portrayed as enmity; opponents are demonized.”[2] In the Islamic Republic of Iran, difference is recognized through the scripts that fight against the regime, and the country’s demonized opponents are brilliant literary writers. In Iran, censorship regulations impost prominent issues within the realm of literature and the written word, keeping hundreds of texts hidden from Iran’s curious readers. What then is the meaning and purpose of art when it is restricted by the law? When one’s words are not free to flow, the meaning behind great literature is reduced to rubble. Or could it in fact be the opposite; since strict media regulations make literature nearly untouchable, does this make the written word more cherished and admired? The underpinnings of Iran’s censoring tactics, and the country’s chapters of contempt, lie within nationalistic texts and those born from Western influence. This realm of Iran’s forbidden written words will be explored through censorship regulations, the literary ‘Blacklist,’ Persian poetry, a theater script and various book titles.

Gábor Demszky, a Hungarian politician and sociologist, explains that censor’s justify the restrictions they implement on literature as the “defense of elevated values, the avoidance of unfortunate dangers and the ultimate protection of a brave new world.”[3] In Iran, this is prominently done through the implementation of its ‘Blacklist,’ which recognizes its dangerous proponents by title and author. Books deemed unethical, unacceptable, too mischievous and out of line with Iran’s religious traditions and political expectations, are banned from the country and thus earn a spot on the literary ‘Backlist.’ In his article “Iran’s Digital Underground,”[4] David Feith, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, explains how “for three decades, the Iranian regime has sought to control the political, artistic and personal lives of its people through arbitrary but intimidating controls on literature, information and expression.”[5] It is up to Seyyed Mohammed Hosseini, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, to decide which books will be banned and which ones will not. It is he who censors the “behavior of artists, intellectuals, and reporters; the content of theater productions, films, books, newspapers and other publications.”[6] In an effort to keep the written word alive, Iran’s leading modern Persian poet, Nima Yushij (1896-1959),[7] bridged Persian poetry with other world literatures. He attempted to “change the outlook of modern Persian poets and to prevent them from mere imitation of past literary experiences.”[8] It is through his inspiration that many creative minds came to flourish. Persian poets Shamlu, Akhavan, Farrokhzad, Kasraei, Shafiei Kadkani and Atashi used social thoughts to “replace individual emotions and deal mainly with themes such as man’s freedom, justice, the struggle against dictatorship and poverty, supporting liberation movements, martyrdom, and urban issues.”[9] It is these poets, and along with other Yushij followers who “did not ignore the pains and sufferings of their society while keeping the artistic and literary values in mind.”[10]

Following in the footsteps of Yushij, many Iranian poets found interest in different topics within the realm of poetics. Ahmad Shamlu, Akhavan Salis and Siavoosh Kasraei wrote of socio-political themes,[11] while the works of Khosrow Golsorkhi and Sa’id Sultanpour were related to political manifestos.[12] Poets Hooshang Irani, Ahmad Reza Ahmadi and Yadullah Royaei were especially interested in artistic innovations, via language and literary techniques.[13] Nader Naderpour, Feridoun Moshiri and Feridoun Tavalloli can all be found within the realm of poetic romance and sensationalism. The writings of these modern Persian poets, and many more who write under the 4 distinct realms of modern poetry (Moderate, Fundamentalist, Blank Verse and New Wave)[14] are all influenced by Western media in unique ways.

Rhythm and rhyme aside, many poets have dealt with censorship restrictions, hence the notion that in post-Islamic Revolution Iran, poets’ works “are neither well known in Iran nor outside Iran.”[15] In his article “Iran: Book Censorship The Rule, Not The Exception,”[16] Faraj Sarkouhi, former editor of Iran’s socioliterary journal Aiden, brings light to a slew of famous Iranian poets whose works have been banned from the country and whose literary imagination has been locked behind the gates of Iran; “Souzani Samarghandi, Omar Khayam, Molana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami Ganjavi, Abid Zakani, Iradj Mirza, Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and Farhang Moeen.”[17] Among many varying factors, this sad reality of literary censorship is largely due to globalization and “regional and global events have thrown both the poets and their readers into unchartered territories.” [18]

In regards to literature and its connection to the realm of globalization, Western influence has inspired more than just Iranian poetry; it has also branched off into the dramatic world of theater. “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship in Iran”[19] explores Mahmood Karimi-Hakak’s countless struggles with theater censorship, and his long fought battle to present A Midsummer Nights Dream to an Iranian audience. This frivolous Shakespearian romantic comedy was written in the late 1500’s and is still popular across the planet. Shakespeare’s play entails imagination, fairies, and the woods. It is based on the dreamy story of young lovers in love with their wrong mates. Prohibited from the stages of Iran, Karimi-Hakak explains how “my 1999 production is a perfect example of Iranian censorship. Because of my translation, direction, and design, I was charged, prosecuted, and told to leave Iran.”[20] He explains that in Iran, “just about anything we say or do in the public arena must be preapproved by the censors.”[21] Thus, censorship laws directly restrict artists’ creativity; intentions, engagements, and presentations.[22]

While giving a lecture to a group of students, Karimi-Hakak found himself astounded by the comment offered by a woman; “for all these years not many worthwhile books have been published. We are being taught by those who, in most cases, are chosen not because of their knowledge in the field but because of their loyalty to a certain ideology, or so they pretend.”[23] This woman explains how censorship in Iran not only keeps inappropriate stories far from people’s imaginations, but also limits knowledge and educational experiences. Her comment directly relates to Demszky’s notion that “law-abiding citizens in that country will not have a chance to learn any opinions other than the ones the state feels are right for them.”[24]

In his article “Iranian Writers in a Literary Depression,” Saeed Kamali Dehgan, Iranian journalist, literary critic and blogger, notes that the author of the banned book The Cock “is among the most important intellectuals Iran ever has seen.”[25] Iranian author Ebrahim Golestan “founded documentary films in the country before the Islamic Revolution and has influenced many Persian writers, especially the prominent Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad.”[26] Golsestan is an example of a literary idol, who as the woman in Karimi-Hakak’s audience mentioned, is cut off from sharing his intellectual experiences with a greater Iranian audience.

In addition to the literary world of poetry and theater, Iranian prose fiction was greatly influenced by Western societies as well. Western media influence introduced “the development of mass production and distribution of printed material.”[27] However, not all Western literary influence has been received so positively in Iran. In his article “Bestsellers banned in new Iranian censorship purge,”[28] Robert Tait, the Guardian UK’s Tehran correspondent, recollects some famous Farsi translated Western books that have been expelled from the country; Girl With a Pear Earring (Tracy Chevalier), The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) and As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner).[29] Sarkouhi brings light to other international (non-Iranian) books which lay in the shadows of the Islamic Republic; Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garc'a Márquez), Evelina (Isabel Allende), The Last Temptation of Christ (Nikos Kazantzakis), Poverty and Prostitution (Masoud Dehnamaki) and Olamaolsoltan Memoirs (Khosrow Motazed).[30] Dehgan highlights the noteworthy banning of Fyodor Dostoevsky's literary masterpiece The Gambler, The Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf) and La Musica (Marguerite Duras).

Among countless other Iranian book titles, Shahriar Mandanipour’s ever so famous Censoring An Iranian Love Story has been banned from the country. In his article “Love, Iranian Style,”[31] literary critic James Wood philosophizes that “coming up with anything to write about can be difficult when you are allowed to write about anything.”[32] However, taking a step backwards, Wood notes that some “novelists fret over how to get their characters into and out of rooms, but what if their characters weren’t allowed to be in those rooms in the first place?”[33] Thus, Wood recognizes the difficulty artists and authors face, in trying to simply brainstorm appropriate literary ideas, in a country where one cannot in fact ‘write about anything.’ In Iran, literary characters are only granted entrance into a very limited number of rooms, all of which are guarded and decorated by the Islamic state. Mandanipour cleverly depicts Iranian literary censorship in his novel; “whenever the story of Dara and Sara becomes unacceptably political or erotic, offending sentences are crossed out—not blotted out but struck through with a horizontal line, so that the reader can examine what might constitute a literary offense in Iran.”[34]

Mandanipour creatively teaches his audience the do’s and don’ts of Iranian literature. Thus, his art recognizes its own literary limitations, while telling the story of a strictly censored and forbidden love affair between two romantic Iranians. Mandanipour’s direct approach to publicizing Iranian censorship gives hope to ‘Blacklisted’ poets, authors and artists, residing inside and outside of Iran. He expresses that although the Islamic state can restrict publications and the business of books, they cannot in fact restrict the hope that one day Iran will seek literary change. It is because of the power of the people that that day seems to have found luminosity.

The Iranian blogosphere and online community have proven that this hope is in fact attainable. The cyber world has found a solution to Iran’s situation of literary conflict. Frustrated and annoyed by their voices being silenced, Iranian authors now take their literature to the internet and publish their works via blogs and e-book formats. This is the solution that Iranian novelist Reza Ghassemi turned to, in order to get his book The Abracadabra MurmuredAfter being unjustly arrested for some anti-Iranian regime comments made in his pre-authorized and open-to-the-public book Mores of Unrest, Yaghoub Yadali turned to the internet for justice. His story of unlawful detention was posted on friend Seyed Reza Shokrollahi’s weblog and thus quickly spread throughout the cyber world. “In the face of the Iran blog community and domestic press coverage of the issue, the government was finally forced to release him from prison.”[35] This story proves that new social media advancements, via the ever growing cyber world, have introduced new found Iranian literary freedoms.


[1] Gabor Demszky. “Breaking Censorship-Making Peace.” Found in: Everette E. Dennis and Robert W. Snyder. Media and Democracy. United States of America; Transaction Publishers, 1998. pp. 75-80. P.75.

[2] Gabor Demszky. “Breaking Censorship-Making Peace.” Found in: Everette E. Dennis and Robert W. Snyder. Media and Democracy. United States of America; Transaction Publishers, 1998. pp. 75-80. P.76.

[3] Gabor Demszky. “Breaking Censorship-Making Peace.” Found in: Everette E. Dennis and Robert W. Snyder. Media and Democracy. United States of America; Transaction Publishers, 1998. pp. 75-80. P.75.

[4] David Feith. “Iran’s Digital Underground.” The Wall Street Journal: Online. 10 Aug. 2009. Retrieved on: 25 Oct. 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204619004574318591833780278.html>.

[5] David Feith. “Iran’s Digital Underground.” The Wall Street Journal: Online. 10 Aug. 2009. Retrieved on: 25 Oct. 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204619004574318591833780278.html>.

[6] Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship in Iran.” TDR (1988-). The MIT Press. Vol. 47. No.4. (Winter, 2003). pp. 17-50. P.23-24.

[7] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.152.

[8] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.152.

[9] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.153.

[10] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.153.

[11] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.152.

[12] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.153.

[13] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.152.

[14] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.153.

[15] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.164.

[16] Faraj Sarkouhi. “Iran: Book Censorship The Rule, Not The Exception.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty: Online. 26 Nov. 2007. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1079193.html>.

[17] Faraj Sarkouhi. “Iran: Book Censorship The Rule, Not The Exception.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty: Online. 26 Nov. 2007. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1079193.html>.

[18] Alireza Anushiravani and Kavoos Hassanli. “Trends in contemporary Persian poetry.” Found in: Mehdi Semati. Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state. New York; Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. pp.152-166, P.164.

[19] Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship in Iran.” TDR (1988-). The MIT Press. Vol. 47. No.4. (Winter, 2003). pp. 17-50.

[20] Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship in Iran.” TDR (1988-). The MIT Press. Vol. 47. No.4. (Winter, 2003). pp. 17-50. P.19.

[21] Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship in Iran.” TDR (1988-). The MIT Press. Vol. 47. No.4. (Winter, 2003). pp. 17-50. P.17.

[22] Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship in Iran.” TDR (1988). The MIT Press. Vol. 47. No.4. (Winter, 2003). pp. 17-50. P.18.

[23] Mahmood Karimi-Hakak. “Exiled to Freedom: A Memoir of Censorship in Iran.” TDR (1988). The MIT Press. Vol. 47. No.4. (Winter, 2003). pp. 17-50. P.20.

[24] Gabor Demszky. “Breaking Censorship-Making Peace.” Found in: Everette E. Dennis and Robert W. Snyder. Media and Democracy. United States of America; Transaction Publishers, 1998. pp. 75-80. P.75.

[25] Saeed Kamali Dehgan. “Iranian Writers in a Literary Depression.” PowelBooks.Blog: Online. 3 Oct. 2007. Retrieved on 5 Nov. 2009.

[26]Saeed Kamali Dehgan. “Iranian Writers in a Literary Depression.” PowelBooks.Blog: Online. 3 Oct. 2007. Retrieved on 5 Nov. 2009.

[27] Elton L. Daniel and ‘Ali Akbar Mahdi. Culture and Customs of Iran: “The Media.” Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data. United States of America; Greenwood Press, 2006. pp.90-92. P.90.

[28]Robert Tait. “Bestsellers banned in new Iranian censorship purge.” Guardian UK : Online. Guardian News and Media Limited 2009. 17 Nov. 2006. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/nov/17/books.iran>.

[29]Robert Tait. “Bestsellers banned in new Iranian censorship purge.” Guardian UK : Online. Guardian News and Media Limited 2009. 17 Nov. 2006. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/nov/17/books.iran>.

[30] Faraj Sarkouhi. “Iran: Book Censorship The Rule, Not The Exception.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty: Online. 26 Nov. 2007. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1079193.html>.

[31] James Wood. “Love, Iranian Style; A new novel pits passion and repression.” The New Yorkers: Online. 29 June 2009. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009.
http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/06/29/090629crbo_books_wood>.

[32]James Wood. “Love, Iranian Style; A new novel pits passion and repression.” The New Yorkers: Online.
29 June 2009. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/06/29/090629crbo_books_wood>.

[33] James Wood. “Love, Iranian Style; A new novel pits passion and repression.” The New Yorkers: Online. 29 June 2009. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/06/29/090629crbo_books_wood>.

[34] James Wood. “Love, Iranian Style; A new novel pits passion and repression.” The New Yorkers: Online. 29 June 2009. Retrieved on: 24 Oct. 2009. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/06/29/090629crbo_books_wood>.

[35] Saeed Kamali Dehgan. “Iranian Writers in a Literary Depression.” PowelBooks.Blog: Online. 3 Oct. 2007. Retrieved on 5 Nov. 2009.


Jaclyn Nardone is an MA candidate at the University for Peace and a regular contributor to the Peace and Conflict Monitor.
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