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Reading Persian Classics In Iran

"Do you have the original edition of this book?" It's a question many Iranian booksellers are confronted with as customers seek out some prominent Persian classics. From the 14th-century satirical poet Obeyd Zakani to Forugh Farrokhzad, one of Iran's most famous 20th-century female poets, hundreds of writers, poets, historians, and thinkers are banned or censored.

"The Sheikh: the devil himself. The Donkey: his son. The devils: his followers. Hypocrisy: What he says about the world. Nonsense: What he says about the world to come." Those are Zakani's words from 700 years ago in his "Book of Definitions," frequently published in his "Collected Works," which was banned in the Islamic republic.

"Zakani is banned, like dozens of others or individual books by different writers," says A.T., a retired professor of Persian literature at the University of Tehran. "But the classics that are now banned were so often printed in the past that you can still find copies if the bookseller trusts you."

There are three methods of censorship in Iran, according to A.T.: "A book or an author is either completely banned, or parts of the book are omitted in new editions, or they replace the omitted pages with new texts that are in line with the regime's ideology."

"I Sinned, A Delicious Sin," a poem by Farrokhzad about her sexual experiences, has disappeared from editions of her selected poetry printed in the Islamic republic.

Complete paragraphs on Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, a prominent figure during the Constitutional Revolution (1906-12), were deleted in new editions of the classical "History of the Constitutional Revolution" by renowned historian Ahmad Kasrawi. Nouri, who later became a favorite personality of the Islamic regime, first supported but later opposed the anti-absolutist revolution, saying that the revolutionary movement should seek a "theocratic regime."

In his classic history, Kasrawi, a supporter of the constitutional revolution and a harsh critic of the Shi'a clergy, detailed Nouri's role in what he saw as the "betrayal of the revolution's freedom agenda." Kasrawi was assassinated in 1946 by a religious fanatic in an act that has been described as the "first terrorist assassination by Islamist extremists" in contemporary Iran.

Ali Akbar Dehkhoda's monumental "Encyclopedic Dictionary," printed since the 1930s in 15 volumes, was altered wherever it appeared to criticize the concepts and practice of the Islamic republic. A whole entry about "hijab," the Islamic dress code for women, in which Dehkhoda praised changes "freeing women from the hijab," was replaced by a text praising the hijab and describing different forms of female dress code according to Islamic tradition.

Other entries, including one about the former Shah of Iran, who was deposed in the Islamic revolution, were removed.

Dehkhoda, in a handwritten note, had urged later publishers not to change a single word of his "Encyclopedic Dictionary," "even if it were not accurate."

S.A., a publisher in Tehran, has submitted dozens of works to Iran's Ministry of Culture for approval before publication. (The contents of books must be pre-approved by the ministry.) "There are hundreds of books and authors that I know would not be approved," says S.A. "But they keep delaying any decision on 10 books I have presented to them. They include classical Persian poetry as well as translations from Western authors."

"Sometimes they reject the books and sometimes they refuse to publish specific passages, sentences, or even words," he continues. In a single history of Persian literature, they demanded 61 separate changes. One concerned a poem from the 11th century that was critical of men's beards. "They said the beard is something sacred and they can't approve anything making fun of it," the publisher says.

"Forget about Iraj Mirza," Shahin, a student at the University of Isfahan, says of the early 20th-century poet who was critical of religious dogmatism. "You can't even find such far more 'innocent' works like 'The Cockerel' by Ebrahim Golestan [a prominent contemporary novelist] or 'Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores' by [Colombian writer] Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But we still find our ways [to get around censorship]. In recent years, people have been posting an increasing number of uncensored works on the Internet."

Abbas Djavavi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL