Tehran Book Fair opens amidst isolation and censorship
by Dariush Mirzai
In the Islamic Republic, restrictions on freedom of expression have been commonplace, but now they are actually getting worse. Publishing houses that wanted to take part in this year's book fair had to publish at least 40 titles in the previous 12 months, but no 'progressive' publisher was ever granted 40 permits. A European exhibitor says fair organisers make foreigners feel unwelcome.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – The 19th Tehran International Book Fair opens today and the public will be able to visit it until May 13. Last year, then President Mohammad Khatami inaugurated the event in a ceremony in which verses from Persian poet Hafez were cited several times. In this year's fair, which the Iranian government is devoting to Islam's prophet Muhammad, the atmosphere is quite different.

It is not as if freedom of expression was suddenly restricted under current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but rather that the progressive opening under his predecessor is now being reversed. Increasingly, the authorities are turning the screws and isolating the country.

In his speech, the Iranian President avoided any political provocation and stuck to generalities about the importance of books in Islamic and human cultures; before him spoke the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, an engineer and former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, now in charge of the Islamic Republic's cultural policies.

Till the summer 2005, Mr Saffar-Harandi was editor-in-chief of Keyhan, an extremist publication known for its almost daily defamatory articles against the Baha'is, Iran's largest and most persecuted minority. Now he is in charge of preventive censorship with the right to choose which Iranian and foreign journalists can work in the country, sharing with the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council (which includes members of the country's executive and judiciary) the power to decide how free freedom of expression can be in Iran.

In a country whose regime oppresses its own writers and journalists, reaches outside its borders to foist its own ideas—the still lingering Salman Rushdie affair is one example—, engages in a violent diatribe against the Western press over the Muhammad cartoons; a country where the Bible is not banned but not easily available; where international copyright and intellectual property are not protected, taking part in a book fair is no mean feat for foreign publishers.

And yet many have come. Officially, 66 different countries are represented, including some ten from Europe (Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands . . .), and other important players like Canada, China, Japan, India. But will they be back next year?

This, year, according to the manager of one European book stand, "the organisation is a disaster. In previous years there were hurdles, but now they really made us feel unwelcome."

For the first half of the day, the international and some other pavilions was closed; ostensibly, for security reasons . . . or poor organisation. In general though, the public, mostly young students, has been patient and not complained.

Under the new dispensation, foreign writers and scholars think twice before accepting speaking engagements in Iran. Only three of the fifteen people invited by the French Embassy have come. Some have personal reasons for turning down the invitation such as fear of travelling to a country where demonstrators burn foreign embassies and political leaders threaten the rest of the world with nuclear and anti-Semitic provocations. Other intellectuals have refused to come to the Islamic Republic for political and ethical reasons, or as one German journalist suggested, fear of their peers' criticism.

And yet, there is a well-educated public in Iran, one that is sophisticated and open to the outside world, not to mention the fact that hospitality is a traditional virtue in this part of the world.

The first victims of Iran's growing isolation and the policies of its new Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance are Iran's publishers and intellectuals. The censors' old bag of tricks was already full—daring publishers faced red tape, delays, unpredictable censors, lack of paper, etc. But this year, exhibitors were admitted only if they had published at least 40 titles in the previous 12 months. Unfortunately, no 'progressive' publisher in Iran was ever granted 40 permits.

This year's fair will be remembered for another reason as well. In addition to the customary long, pre-opening delay, the martial-sounding national anthem and the reading from the Qu'ran, the opening ceremony ended with a military march. And in the long interval that preceded the actual start, President Ahmadinejad, protected by numerous bodyguards, worked the crowd signing autographs. It is fair to say that the Khatami era is indeed over.