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Iran's burgeoning ‘resistance literature’: A new front?

Despite an ongoing “paper crisis” that has engulfed both print media and publishers, “resistance literature” promoted by the Iranian political establishment is reaching new heights.
TEHRAN, IRAN - MAY 4, 2008: People visit book stands with pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini (R) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) displayed outside, 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)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesperson for Arab Media, Ofir Gendelman, recently accused the organizers of the Tehran International Book Fair of showcasing "dozens of anti-Semitic books on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day." Gendelman made the comment in a tweet along with pictures of the visit of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the book fair as well as covers of some books adorned with the Star of David. The hard-line Iranian Fars news agency reciprocated the allegation by saying that Tel Aviv never misses a chance to spread anti-Iran propaganda. Fars further accused Israel of having used the Holocaust for years "as an excuse to counter any criticism of the Zionist regime's policies." The statement was made while Iran marked Resistance Day on the third day of the book fair, which ended May 4.

These allegations help show how literature has become a coveted domain for opposing powers whose overt and covert conflicts threaten the prospect of peace in the world.

Last month, an American independent press, Dzanc Books, returned the rights of "The Siege of Tel Aviv" to Israeli American writer Hesh Kestin after social media users criticized his novel over what they described as its Islamophobic themes. The book, which depicts Iran as leading five Arab armies into Israel with a plan to kill Jews, was marketed by Dzanc as satire. 

In recent decades, Iran has increasingly succeeded in producing and promoting a literature that serves the values and goals of its political establishment. This literature is often broadly known as “resistance literature,” a term that can be traced back to Iran's Constitutional Revolution in the early 20th century when progressive intellectuals used literature as a tool against tyranny, injustice and the interference of the big powers at the time. In recent decades, however, and particularly since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, this catchall phrase is specifically applied to works of literature that are strongly committed to the ideals of the Islamic Republic, including the teachings of the Twelver branch of Shiite Islam and the commemoration of martyrs.

Growing popularity

At the recent Tehran International Book Fair, for instance, visitors stood in long lines to get autographs of poets such as Hamid Reza Borghei and Fazel Nazari, who are well-known for their commitment to the "discourse-making poetry of the Islamic Revolution" and the promotion of religious poetry. Many of the bestselling titles were also memoirs of war such as the 19th edition of "A City Under Siege" by Habib Ahmadzadeh,and "Those 23 People," Ahmad Yousefzadeh's memoir about the fate of a group of Iranian teenage soldiers captured during the Iran-Iraq War. Biographical novels such as "Edoardo" by Behzad Daneshgar, about the mysterious life and death of the heir of an Italian dynasty, Edoardo Agnelli, have also aroused deep interest from readers. Agnelli reportedly converted to Shiite Islam after meeting the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "Edoardo," which had a printing of 10,000, has been a hit in Iran's book market.

Appealing appearance

While a book should not be judged by its cover, the producers of these books are well aware of the importance of the outward aspects that make their final products attractive — and invest in them profusely. Many of these books benefit from quality paper, artistic cover designs, professional layout and any essential outward element. A case in point is the memoir of Kazem Darabi, a man who was convicted of complicity in the assassination of a number of Kurdish opposition leaders in Berlin in 1992. Darabi, who spent 15 years behind bars in Germany, always maintained his innocence. Opposition and rights groups abroad have over the years written several books on the notorious Mykonos restaurant assassinations, but while almost all such works have straightforward titles that immediately reveal their harrowing content, Darabi's memoir is called "Tea House Painting" ("Naghashi-e Qahvekhaneh" in Persian), which is the name of a well-respected traditional style of Iranian painting with ties to the country's classical literature and mythology. Its appearance above the subtitle "Memoirs of Kazem Darabi, the Mykonos Trial Suspect" immediately invokes potential readers' interest in the narrator's side of the story.

Quantity matters

“Resistance” literature appears to be produced by state-funded publishers in huge numbers and frequent editions despite the drastic and ongoing paper crisis in the country. For instance, the Persian translation of the memoirs of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's "Imprisonment and Exile during the Battles for the Islamic Revolution" — initially written in Arabic as "انّ مَع الصبر نصرا " ("Indeed with Patience Comes Victory") — sold about 25,000 copies in a month, the Tasnim news agency reported. Similarly, "Forty Hadiths" (a collection of the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and members of his household) by Ayatollah Khomeini, has had more than 67 printings, according to Tasnim. Another example is a novel by hard-line TV host Vahid Yaminpour titled "Palm and Orange," which is based on the biography of an Iranian 19th-century Shiite jurist, Morteza Ansari. While hard-line sources say an unveiling ceremony was recently held for the 25th edition of Yaminpour's novel, copies of the 19th edition of the book were being sold at the book fair. These numbers show the extent of the investment the Iranian political establishment is making to promote its favored literature. To understand the situation better, one can only compare these figures with the number of copies of other books such as the new and most scholarly edition of "Tazkirat-al Awliya" (a classical 12th-century prose collection of the biographies of prominent Sufis) meticulously edited and annotated by renowned Iranian poet and literary critic Mohammad Reza Shafiei Kadkani. The new edition, which Shafei worked on for over 40 years, had a printing of only 1,100 copies.

The supreme leader's role

Ayatollah Khamenei's interest in literature and books is common knowledge for those familiar with Iran's cultural arena. His supporters are always fulsome in their praise of his knowledge about books and arts. Each Ramadan, he holds a meeting with groups of young and veteran Persian-speaking poets who have a chance to recite their latest creations and be possibly hailed by their distinguished host. His visits to the annual Tehran International Book Fair are also often headline-making. Domestic media outlets compete over the coverage of his witty exchanges during such visits with occasionally unsuspecting publishers and stallholders. His critics, however, dismiss his erudite engagements as a mere show by a dictator who desires to be taken as a highbrow leader.

Regardless of one's views about his literary knowledge and interests, Ayatollah Khamenei has been a purposeful campaigner against certain books. While he constantly emphasizes the importance of making a habit of reading books, he is a famously selective reader. Over the past 30 years, every time he has failed to pay a visit to the book fair, his absence has been interpreted as a strong indication of his unhappiness with the book policies of the culture minister of the time.

At his recent visit to the book fair, while he championed memoirs of war martyrs, he warned Culture Minister Abbas Salehi against "harmful" books. "The world of books is a complicated one. What Mr. Salehi must be aware of at the Ministry of Culture is that some books are blatantly harmful; while others bear no mark of being harmful," the supreme leader said, adding that the minister should resist pressures for more tolerance: "You are the agent of Islam and of the Islamic Republic. If a book is harmful for readers, ban it without any reservation. This is what they do in the Western countries that brazenly brag about supporting freedom of expression. The restrictions they observe in publication are certainly not fewer if not far more from ours.” He concluded, “The point is that they know how to do it. You must follow suit."

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