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Tehran’s biggest annual cultural event held amid ‘paper crisis’

The biggest annual cultural event in the Iranian capital kicks off amid a paper crisis and a controversy over rentierism tarnishing the publishing industry.
TEHRAN, IRAN - MAY 4, 2008: A young girl and her mother in colourful veils look at books in a hall, at the 21st Tehran International Book Fair on the city's congregational prayer site on May 4, 2008 in Tehran, Iran. The annual event showcases 200,000 titles from 1700 domestic and 840 international publishers from 75 countries. The books will be presented under categories for General, Academic, Educational and Children's books. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

Organizers of the 32nd Tehran International Book Fair (TIBF) have set the stage for the Iranian capital's greatest annual cultural event, despite the ongoing paper crisis that has afflicted domestic publishers, and the devastating recent floods that led to the closure of dozens of libraries across the country.

The 10-day TIBF will, nonetheless, kick off April 24 in Tehran's Mosalla prayer ground, and members of the TIBF's policy-setting council have picked the motto "Reading is ability" for the high-profile cultural event. But how costly is reading in sanction-stricken Iran?

In an Iranian New Year (Nowruz) meeting with the Publishers' Board of Directors, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Abbas Salehi called for "creative ideas to boost the publication economy." The minister who stressed that the fair should be used as "an opportunity to make people hopeful about the future" is certainly aware of the challenges currently facing the creators of books at every level.

Expensive paper

Some publishers seem to be fed up with what they describe as the "paper mafia" and the insufficient support they receive. Kamran Sharafshahi, the director of Tajalimehr publication, recently announced that his publishing company would not take part in the book fair. "Sadly, due to the sharp rise of the price of paper, film, zink and other publishing expenses, we decided not to participate," he said in an interview. He said the situation of the market has badly affected the quantity of new books, sometimes reducing the number to a mere "20 copies" in each edition. "We cannot survive under the circumstances," he noted.

Meanwhile, some informed observers believe that the TIBF provides a last chance for consumers to buy books at reasonable prices. In a post published days ahead of the TIBF inauguration, writer Ehsan Rezaee called on book lovers to rush to the fair since, despite "the unusual price of paper and subsequently of books, the books will be still offered at former [subsidized] prices."

Providing books at "subsidized prices" is one of the several measures the government has adopted in the aftermath of the return of US sanctions to cushion the rising price of paper for consumers and producers alike. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is the host of the book fair, succeeded last year in including paper on the Central Bank of Iran’s list of subsidized goods. The government also formed "a paper workgroup" to supervise the fair distribution of subsidized paper among publishers. The workgroup, however, has reportedly faced "some resistance" and has been criticized for failing to curb irregularities. More recently, ahead of the fair, the Ministry of Culture increased book vouchers it provides for university students and seminarians by 50% (compared to last year's quota). But the step is merely a drop in the bucket as the total value of the vouchers for students is 1.5 million rials ($35.7) and for lecturers 2 million rials ($47.6).

How did the crisis start?

Iran entered what is now commonly described as a "paper crisis" in the first half of 2018, when it turned out that several importers who had received subsidized foreign currency to purchase paper were "either unknown" in the business, or nonexistent, suggesting major rent-seeking. This was revealed after the Central Bank of Iran published the list of such importers in the early summer of 2018. One thing led to another and soon the price of paper skyrocketed. Some newspapers reduced the number of their pages or were simply shut down, and numerous publishing companies and those involved in the industry found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance tried to control the problem by supervising the allocation of subsidized paper, but critics of the government believed that the ministry did not have the right mechanism to take effective measures. In January 2019, Tehran's police chief reported the arrest of "a group of 16 people who had imported over 30 tons of paper at a subsidized price and stockpiled it."

Iran's current paper crisis seems to be yet another consequence of the country's economic problems after the reimposition of US sanctions. As in similar situations, the government introduced subsidized foreign currency to assist the struggling publishers, but, in the absence of strong supervision, the policy opened the way for increasing rentierism and corruption.

Recently, a group of publishers in a letter to government officials called for domesticizing the production of paper. They asked the government to make efforts to achieve self-sufficiency, adding that fundamental investment in the production of paper is the only way to resolve the crisis. The request, however, was made while, according to some reports, "due to the shortage of raw materials, the only paper factory active in the country has been operating at just one-fifth of its capacity over the past few months."

Other criticisms

Regardless of paper problems, some publishers are for various reasons against the TIBF. They either refrain from participating or only participate partially. Some, like the head of Ghatreh Publication, Bahram Fayyazi, believe that the selling of books at the TIBF is ruinous for booksellers. These publishers maintain that the TIBF provides a chance for consumers to buy most of what they need for a year and it leaves them no motivation to spend money on books at other times. 

There are also those who doubt the cultural impact of the TIBF, like prominent literary critic and translator Mir Jalaleddin Kazzazi. In a recent interview with ISNA, Kazzazi said, "A book fair should be influential and leave a lasting impact. Once it ends, you should be able to clearly see its continuing and dynamic influence on the domain of books, readers, book promotion and anything dealing with books. But this is not the case with the TIBF."

Censorship is another bone of contention. On April 20, members of the Association of Writers of Tehran Province lodged a protest with the minister of culture. The writers criticized the "ban on the distribution of a number of fiction and nonfiction books in the TIBF" and stressed that they were against "any form of illegal censorship (either prior or after the publication)" of books.

Despite its shortcomings, the TIBF is still attractive enough to inspire a love-hate relationship, even with some of its strongest critics. It is an undying source of hope for a great number of publishers and writers who look forward to it, and sometimes they save their literary hits to be unveiled or reach fans during the event. Even Kazzazi, who is an expert on the world-renowned classic Persian poet, Ferdowsi, will have several books this year at the TIBF. There are also others who expect to promote products and win recognition from elite readers for their commitment to an often thankless profession. 

Last but not least

The TIBF organizers have said that 140,000 foreign titles will be showcased, and publishers from about 30 countries will participate. The guest of honor of the fair, however, will be China, with 4,000 titles and 78 publishers taking part in the fair. In recent years, works by a few Iranian writers, including the award-winning Houshang Moradi Kermani, have been translated into Chinese. Now one has to see if China's status as guest of honor will lead to any strong appearance of Chinese writers in Iran's book market, which has been traditionally dominated by translations of English-speaking writers.

TIBF officials also announced that during the event, "a network of book-reading promoters" will be collecting donations of books for people in flood-stricken areas. Visitors can hand their offerings to the team, which consists of over 1,000 volunteer groups and campaigners operating in the venue. 

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