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A Book Fair with Vast Crowds and Some Official Moral Panic

Six million reported visitors, several banned publishers, and one scandalized minister.

by Ali Chenar, Tehran Bureau
Tehranis just said goodbye, till next year, to one of the city's most popular cultural events -- the Tehran International Book Fair. Domestic and international publishers gathered together at the fair's 25th annual edition to offer their latest. Professionals, students, and academicians went from booth to booth looking for textbooks, while educated book lovers searched for the latest novels and essay collections. The majority, however, came primarily to socialize, to meet new people, and to have a good time.
The pious always complain of the immortalities that take place during these book fairs: the mingling of boys and girls, the titles that are not as Islamic as they should be, and the publishers who are suspected of liberalism. In recent years, the fair has been held on the grounds of Tehran's municipal mosalla (prayer compound) -- ironic, perhaps, but then the University of Tehran often plays host to the capital's official Friday Prayers. Wherever it takes place, the event brings a breath of fresh air to a city where the atmosphere is as polluted as politics. Many have not missed it for a decade or even more, among them Mahmoud, a 42-year-old government employee. He has been coming to the fair since he was 22.

Many publishers offered discounts of up to 50 percent, making the fair a great book shopping opportunity. Visitors could find rare books as well as new editions of ones long out of print. In a country where Internet access is still limited and online reading is not widespread, old-fashioned hardcopies are one of the few learning mediums accessible to almost all. For many students, the fair represents their best chance all year to buy titles crucial to their studies but hard to come by. These items are not inexpensive, as most of them come from international publishers and are priced using hard currencies. Mahmoud recalled when the government used to provide students with U.S. dollars at a discounted exchange rate to buy their study materials. "It was not much, still it was something. Sometime medical students would put together these [funds] to buy the latest edition of some impossible-to-find medical textbook." These days he comes to see what is new in literature and poetry.

For many people around his age, the fair is an annual ritual. I talked to Sasan, an engineer in his late 30s. "I always come for the latest, but this is not well organized, too many publishers." Mahmoud agreed. "There are only a dozen real publishing houses. The rest print anything from children's books to test collections for students," His wife, Mahin, a part-time teacher, concurred as well. "This is like a farmers' market. I do not know where to look for titles in poetry." In their wandering around, looking for that one special book that would make their visit worth it, Mahmoud and Mahin had grown weary of dealing with the crowds -- according to the Iran Book News Agency, an unfathomable six million people attended, which the fair's website hailed as "a record worldwide in terms of the number of visitors to any book fair ever recorded."

Yet not everybody hated the throng. Yazdan, a 24-year-old graduate student in sociology, loved it. "Yes it is crowded. It is not easy to get here. Still, I love to watch people filling the grounds and chatting." He enjoyed being part of the social dynamic; at the same time he is aware of the morality patrols. "They are everywhere. I did not have any problems, but some were stopped." With temperatures rising and people trying to dress to keep (and look) cool, the patrols were out in force passing judgment -- on the attire of young ladies, in particular.

Many visitors say that they came to the fair to experience something different. Yazdan said, "If you know what you want, it is best to go to Enghelab Square and buy it from the booksellers in front of the University of Tehran. Here it is too crowded to find anything in particular." He turned away to join a group of students discussing books by a couple of their professors. I saw Mahmoud and Mahin again; they were happy, though tired. Mahmoud told me, "We found some Afghan publishers. They are selling books from Kabul and Herat." Outside Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan are the other countries where Persian is the official language -- Afghans refer to it as Dari; Tajiks, Tajiki. In Iran, Afghan publishing houses are becoming increasingly popular because they also use the Perso-Arabic alphabet, rather than Cyrillic. Mahmoud said, "We should take the literature from Afghanistan more seriously." He had purchased half a dozen titles including some contemporary poetry collections, a short story anthology, and a novel. 
Not every publisher was permitted to participate in the fair this year. The notable absentees included Nashr-e Cheshmeh, Omid-e Farda, and Kavir. Citing its recent publications and plans for future titles, officials initially announced that Nashr-e Cheshmeh was the only house banned from the fair. Omid-e Farda and Kavir, which had appeared at the fair in past years, were subsequently added to the blacklist. As the fair opened its doors, still more publishers were notified that they could not participate. Boutimar, a Mashhad-based press that specializes in poetry and literature, was not permitted to open its booth. The officials told its manager that there was not enough space.

The banned publishers were denied a much-needed opportunity to generate revenue. One hundred and sixty individuals signed an open letter objecting to the ban on Nashr-e Cheshme, whose store in Haft-e Tir Square is frequented by students and intellectuals. Defying the officials, Nashr-e Cheshme held its own book expo on the sidewalks around its store. Invitation emails were circulated that read "Wherever Nashr-e Chemeh is, the Book Fair is there." The turnout was apparently substantial. Sasan told me, "That is a great publishing house, with many leading titles in the social sciences, philosophy, history, and literature." He had already been there.

The authorities' zeal for purity at the Tehran International Book Fair did not end at banning certain publishers. Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini expressed his astonishment at some of the titles he saw at the fair and told reporters that he thought several books he encountered should not have been permitted to appear in print. Hosseini's statement served as a warning, as if one were needed, that Iranian publishing's future is far from certain.

Via Tehran Bureau
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