Despatches: Iran's puritanical censors tear classic novels to pieces

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While President Khatami's government promises intellectual freedom in Iran, James Joyce's Ulysses remains banned and other classics appear only in mangled form. Robert Fisk in Tehran meets a woman publisher struggling with the censors to bring literature to the people.

The greater the frustration in Shahla Lahigi's voice, the higher the decibels in her words. "When we ask why they have not kept their promise to the people, it seems they are scared. But they do not tell us who they are scared of. So we call it the `fear of shadows'."

Behind Mrs Lahigi is a bookshelf containing hundreds of volumes which she has published, or vainly tried to print, in the Persian language. Several of the books lie within the "shadows" so feared by the government. Twenty-eight of them are banned, including Joyce's Ulysses.

"All of Milan Kundera's books are banned," Mrs Lahigi says. "And I have just been asked, by the new Guidance Ministry people, to delete 54 pages from a book of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short stories. This happened just last week; there was a story about a grandmother who uses her grand-daughter for prostitution.

"Now the government has censored 14 different passages from Laura Esquival's Like Water for Chocolate. I'm still trying to publish it in some form. Even with deletions, it's better than nothing."

Is it? Under Iranian law, publishers are not permitted to show where sections of books have been erased. Esquival might be published but, Mrs Lahigi admits, in a bastardised version which gives no hint of the literary surgery which has taken place. The same applies to Marquez. Iranian students would be given no indication that his work has been mangled.

Mrs Lahigi's frustration is replaced by cynicism. "In a publishers' conference recently, we were joking that if we put One Hundred Years of Solitude in to the censor, he'd leave us with only ten years of solitude to publish!"

Mrs Lahigi is fighting the forces of reaction as well as fear. "We have a woman who wrote a novel in Persian. It was about two women during the [Iran-Iraq] war, one in Paris, one in Tehran - the book is in the form of letters written to each other. The woman in Tehran wants to leave and get away from the aerial bombing. The woman in Paris is safe but wants to be in Tehran with her family and friends. The government banned the book in Persian but when I asked for permission to publish it in English, they gave permission.

"I also wanted to publish a book about women in 17th century novels by an American writer called Linda Miles. And what did they say? They said it was `too feminist'."

Nor is that the only problem Mrs Lahigi has encountered. She wanted to publish a book about women's rights in the time of the Prophet Mohamed. "It was written by an Iranian mullah and the mullah was a mujtahid - a very intellectual man. He wrote that there is no problem about men and women being together and said the hijab (Islamic covering for women) does not come from Islam. I could not get permission to publish this book. They said `absolutely impossible'."

"They", for which read the Islamic Guidance Ministry, or Ershad in Persian, clearly read the books sent to them for censorship. The Persian novel about the two women, for example, almost certainly fell foul of the ministry because it included a reference to a family bribing Revolutionary Guards (who are always on the watch for `loose living') not to break up a party in Tehran. Allowing a book to be published in a foreign language might prevent the `contamination' of the uneducated.

Mrs Lahigi herself was the first of Iran's 130 women publishers - there are in all 1,800 publishers - and in the past 10 years, Iran's most famous authors have been women. "All our commercial books which are bestsellers are written by women," Mrs Lahigi says. "Our women have become very successful film directors - how many women are directors in Hollywood? Over the past 10 years, 60 per cent of our translators were women. We even have a woman bus-driver.

"I knew President Khatami when he ran the Ershad ministry and he was good and he came to our publisher's exhibition and told me `I came early today - just to talk to you.' After his election, we thought we could hold our heads up again - because we had a very hard time after the revolution. We had become ashamed of being women. We expect Khatami to change the civil law (which discriminates against women) - but so far he has done nothing."