Throughout our history, we Iranians have seen our culture attacked by one invading or despotic regime after another. From Alexander to Lame Timur to Hezbollah, they burn our books, destroy our libraries, censor our language, and rewrite our history.
But we see another pattern as well.
After each defeat, our culture regathers its strength and revives its creativity, like a phoenix arising from the ashes.
Phoenix From the Ashes: A Tale of the Book in Iran
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Censorship is more than just the ravaging flame—it is the cold wind that follows in its wake, the deep frost that settles over the ashes. The censorship that is felt but not seen.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose regime had viciously targeted dissident authors. But the reactionary clerics who forced their way into power in the revolution’s aftermath have been no better. They wrote a new rule book, and their hazy, ever-shifting ‘red lines’ have paralysed Iranian writers and created an atmosphere of fear, apathy and hopelessness.
This is the story of the writers and publishers working in the Islamic Republic of Iran today, told through the contents of Iran’s National Library. Over a million books sit on its shelves, but the journey to get there isn't an easy one...
Progress through this story using the button on the right.
Click on the golden flower icons in this section to read testimonials from writers and publishers.
Afshin Shahne Tabar
Director, Candle and Fog Publishing
2010 Objectives, Policies, and Regulations of Book Publishing
Click to see the interview
with Payam Feili about this.
Iran’s National Library database is big.
Kings and clerics have feared the written word for centuries, and have always sought to control it to preserve their power and advance their interests.
After the Arab conquest in the mid-600s, Iran’s rich array of Zoroastrian holy texts was reduced to ashes...
...then Sunni texts were purged in the 1500s, when Shah Isma’il converted Iran to Shi'a Islam...
...and Baha’i writings were burned en masse when the religious movement exploded onto the scene in the 19th century.
But these instances of literary control were all pretty crude, and were manifested primarily in the form of huge, raging bonfires.
Modern censorship is a far more sophisticated and nuanced affair, and for all it lacks in book burnings, it more than makes up for with suffocating layers of insidious bureaucracy.
So, where did it all begin?
The modern story of literary censorship begins with the rise of Reza Shah and the Pahlavi dynasty. In 1923 Reza Khan overthrew the decrepit Qajar dynasty, and began the work of building a modern state.
One of Reza Shah’s first acts as monarch was to transfer the powers of the Ministry of Education’s censorship office to the National Police.
Then, a series of parliamentary acts in 1932 expanded the censorship office’s powers, and mandated that all printed pages should bear the insignia of the censor’s office.
His son and successor Mohammad Reza Shah ramped up state control even further. In 1941 the ‘Office of Book Writing’ was established under the Ministry of Culture. This office was responsible for screening all books prior to publication. It judged around 20,000 titles over its lifetime, rejecting over 2,000 of them outright, and suggesting amendments to around 5,000 more.
Although the Office of Book Writing was responsible for pre-publication censorship right up until the 1979 Revolution, it wasn’t the only kid on the block.
The Shah’s intelligence agency SAVAK also kept an eye on writers (especially communists), and locked up a number of high-profile authors.
Then came the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Right after the Revolution, the old SAVAK offices were gutted and the ‘Office of Book Writing’ was dissolved. For a little while.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The changing political situation has also had an effect on the variance in the types of books published during each administration. This visualisation shows which genres were printed the most, and in what quantities.
One thing hasn’t changed so much—the continued dominance of religious books. But what sort of religious books are in there? Click ‘Religion’ to drill down into just the religious books.
Not a lot of Christian books, that’s for sure. The biggest concentration of books is in the ‘Other Religions’ section—you can blame the Dewey Decimal System for lumping non-Christians together. Click ‘Other Religions’ to dig deeper.
Ah, yes. ‘Islam and related faiths’. We can be fairly sure that the source of this ‘heat spot’ is Islamic literature. Perhaps no great surprise, considering Iran is 97% Shi’a.
Okay, let’s look at literature instead. Click ‘Literature’ in the left-hand column to look closer at fiction in Iran.
Persian-language literature is dominant—not shocking, perhaps, but take a look at the position of English-language books since the Revolution.
Fewer than 500 were printed per year until the Khatami era; by 2005 this figure more than tripled to over 1500, suggesting that the Khatami era was a booming time for foreign and domestic publishers. Click on ‘Iranian and Farsi Literature’ to see more.
Looking at just the Persian-language literature, some subtle, but nonetheless quite surprising trends become apparent.
Poetry and prose are the big hitters in this category—Persian poetry has sat at the core of Iranian national identity for many centuries, while modern Persian prose flourished much later, in the early 1900s.
Interestingly, the scales appear to be tipping back in favour of poetry—it is growing as a proportion of all Persian-language literature produced, while novels appear to be slowly backsliding.
We’ve just seen that English-language literature is becoming more common in Iran, but how does that match up with the languages that people are learning? Click ‘Language’ to explore the index of language and linguistics books to find out.
After the Revolution, European languages were viewed with suspicion by the state. As the tongue of not one, but two imperialist oppressors, English teaching suffered in the period following the Revolution. But we can see that in the mid-1990s there was an explosion in the publication of books about the English language.
There’s a reversed trend in the ‘Other Languages’ chunk of our catalogue, which includes Arabic. Although the Islamic government initially provided support for the Arabic language, it has been gradually sidelined since the Iran-Iraq War.
Ultimately, it seems the practical economic and cultural benefits of the global lingua franca trump the ideological allure of Arabic.
There are lots of other stories to see in this data set. Click on the categories and play around with the data a bit. See if you can answer the following questions before moving on.
How have Persian-language works of satire fared since the Revolution?
What about left-wing literature? How did the books of Karl Marx & co. fare during the war against the secular ‘socialist’ Iraqi state?
Under which president were the most books about music published? Is it who you expected?
What about the position of women in publishing? How have female authors fared since 1979? And how has their output differed from that of male writers?
Women are most prolific in the sphere of literature—it is in this field that they comprise the greatest proportion of active authors.
Men, on the other hand, produce religious texts in the greatest numbers, owing to the historically male-dominated nature of religious education and instruction.
Interestingly though, women appear to be gaining ground—books on the subject of ‘Islam and related faiths’ have actually increased in prominence amongst female writers since 1979 as the opportunities available to them in the religious sector have grown.
The proportion of women that have published works in the fields of technology and natural sciences is pretty similar to that of men. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: around 70% of Iran’s engineering students are women, and female representation in the sciences in Iran is excellent.
- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997)
- Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)
- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997)
- Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)
- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997)
- Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)
Whereas women have made tangible gains in publishing since the Revolution, the same cannot really be said for Iran’s linguistic minority communities.
Iran is a land rich in cultural and linguistic diversity. Although Persian is Iran’s official language, and is spoken by a majority of the population, a vast number of minority languages and dialects are scattered across the Iranian Plateau.
In theory, the Constitution officially recognises the existence of minority languages, and grants them a number of specific rights.
The official language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian. Official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as textbooks, must be in this language and script.
However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.
All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and colour, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.
But in reality, these guarantees ring hollow.
Up to 10 million Azeri Turkish-speakers live in Iran’s East and West Azerbaijan provinces, but there has been no official Azeri-language instruction in Iranian Azerbaijani schools for more than 90 years.
Kurdish—spoken by around 8 million people in Iranian Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and West Azerbaijan provinces—is excluded from school curriculums, and is only officially available for study at university level.
It could be worse. Baluchi, the language of around 2 million (largely Sunni) Iranians in Sistan and Baluchestan province is entirely unrecognised—even at university level.
These entrenched inequalities in Iranian society manifest themselves in the publishing industry, too. Plenty of authors have trouble getting their works into the National Library if they’re written in the ‘wrong’ language.
On the map below we’ve highlighted the major linguistic groups of Iran. Mouse over each of them to show the size of each community, and to find out just how many titles have been printed in each language since the Revolution.
You might have noticed that one minority language fared better than all the others: Arabic.
As the language of the Qur’an, Arabic has a privileged position in Iran. The special position of the Arabic language is even enshrined in the Iranian constitution.
Since the language of the Qur'an and Islamic texts and teachings is Arabic, and since Persian literature is thoroughly permeated by this language, it must be taught after elementary level, in all classes of secondary school and in all areas of study.
The books printed in Arabic are largely religious in nature—they include Qur’ans, hadiths, and philosophical texts. Once these are accounted for, the number of educational texts and works of literature written in Arabic remain disproportionately low when compared with the size of the community. Click the toggle to see the difference.
So why do Iran’s minority communities have so much trouble getting published?
Officially, the Islamic Republic says it respects all languages and ethnic groups, but Persian chauvinism is deeply ingrained in the Iranian publishing system, nonetheless.
Speaking at the United Nations in 2014, the Iranian Azerbaijani publisher Sharife Jafari describes the particular hardships she faced as her publishing house Pinar attempted to publish Azeri Turkish-language works during a period of ethnic unrest under Ahmadinejad.
“We were a dim ray of hope for Turkish writers in Zanjan province. We prepared books [for publication] with hardly any resources, and released a couple of Turkish poetry collections. At the same time, the newspaper ‘Iran’ published an offensive cartoon about Turks, leading to massive protests in Tehran and Turkish-speaking, with Zanjan amongst them.
From that day on, our life became a living hell. My office was invaded constantly for inspections, although all the while I was publishing books in line with the MCIG’s guidelines.”
Ms. Jafari went on to outline nine significant issues faced by Turkish-language publishers, all of which worked together to cripple the minority publishing sector under Ahmadinejad.
Ali Asghar Ramezanpour—Deputy Cultural Minister during the Khatami period—argues that things were not always this way.
In January 2015 Ali Younesi, the Minister for Ethnic and Religious Minorities, declared that the government is working to support the teaching of minority languages in schools using minority language textbooks.
On 15 April 2015 it was confirmed that Kurdish teachers in the city of Saghez had started to teach Kurdish literature in schools using Ministry of Education-approved Kurdish-language textbooks, suggesting that Kurdish-language publishing is on the rise once again.
These are hopeful indicators, but whether or not they help to reverse the chronic under-representation of Kurdish-language books in Iran is a question that will have to wait until more Rouhani-era data is in the public domain.
Although the publishing sector has been hamstrung by corruption and manipulation, there are other major obstacles to growth. The over-centralisation of the publishing sector in Tehran is an considerable structural issue that will be very difficult to overcome in the short-term, as described by Afshin Shahne Tabar, Director of Candle and Fog Publishing:
If you are not a Tehrani publisher, there are certain things you can’t do. It’s an essential issue. Even if you are based in Karaj—which is technically part of Tehran—you don’t enjoy the same benefits as Tehran’s publishers. The majority of the industry is rooted in Tehran, and other cities can’t survive without depending on them.
Around 64% of registered publishing companies are based in Tehran, and 76% of titles printed since the Revolution have been produced there.
This massive centralisation of production wouldn’t be such a big deal if Iran had an effective distribution network to carry regionally-published books to the rest of the country, but the necessary infrastructure is concentrated almost exclusively in the capital.
This means that regional publishers face immense difficulty marketing their products to the rest of the country, hampering their growth. Afshin Shahne Tabar states that even publishers in major cities like Shiraz and Isfahan are completely dependent on the capital’s infrastructure:
They’re all supported from Tehran. Shiraz has good publishers, but there are fewer of them than there are fingers on my right hand, so they send their books to Tehran to get them distributed nationally. This transportation is expensive—sometimes they spend ¼ of a book’s cost on shipping!
Getting books out of the capital is complicated by the lack of regional distribution centres. Only 11 of Iran’s 31 provinces are host to distribution centres at all, meaning that publishers and consumers are forced to rely on out-of-province distributors in order to disseminate and access newly-printed books.
Ahmad Tahavori, the media director of Qoqnoos Publishing, described the importance of effective distribution networks to a book’s success:
Many authors have said that properly distributing books is more important than getting them printed. After all, if a writer or a translator can’t share thier book with everyone they needs to, and the publisher can’t have access to an efficient network of distribution, then you may as well just give up and not bother publishing it in the first place.
- Number of Publishers
- Titles Published
- Distribution Centers
About the Database
Our data is taken from ketab.ir — Iran’s Book House. The non-profit, non-governmental organisation was founded in 1993 with the objective of building and maintaining a comprehensive database of books published in Iran. Iran Book House’s online database was established in 1998, and claims to be updated with new publication data within two days of a book’s release.
Limitations of the Data
This data is not without its limitations.
Ali Asghar Ramezanpour, the former Deputy Cultural Minister at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, helped to establish the database. Speaking with Small Media, he highlighted a number of issues with the data:
Before 1999, our statistics were collected using several different resources, including a variety of independent studies, so we need to be cautious with statistics before this period. We only have general information from before 1999.
Ramezanpour went on to describe how publishers and the government fiddled with official statistics for their own benefit - another issue to keep in mind when drawing conclusions from even the post-1999 data:
The Book House was used by MCIG as a resource on the base of which it stated how to distribute paper and other facilities to support Iranian publishers. For this reason, some data might have been blown up out of of proportion, invalidating the database.
For example, a publisher that published 1000 copies might say he published 3000 books in order to promote his work and get more financial support from the MCIG.
Afshin Shahne Tabar, Director of the publisher Candle and Fog echoed these concerns:
The condition for renewing your publishing license is to publish at least 4 titles a year. We have many publishers in Iran but only 5% of them are active. When others want to renew their license, they fake a book by copying and pasting content together, then go to the National Library and print 10-20 copies digitally. But when they’re registered with the Ministry, the print run is submitted as 1000.
All of the data used for this project is publicly available on ketab.ir. We just had to hoover it up.
Which is what we essentially did, through a process of ‘data scraping.’ This is where we ran an automated program to vacuum up all the information about the books and publishers that’s listed on the Book House website.
This data all got sucked into our own database, and from there we cleaned it up, and organised it.
We undertook a lot of scrapes, but we couldn’t catch everything. Scraping isn’t an exact science, and sometimes data gets missed out. Nonetheless, we kept running the scraping program until we’d gathered at least 80% of the data for each year, as recorded on the Book House website.
Once we hit this number, we felt that we could be confident that our data would accurately reflect the trends in publishing that have taken place since 1979.
Then we had to do some manual work. The database didn’t give us everything we wanted: it doesn’t list authors’ genders, for instance. But it did list their first names.
Thus began the lengthy process of manually coding the unique first names in our database. We couldn’t code all of them (we’d still be sat doing it now if we tried), but we did assign genders to all the names that appeared more than more than 150 times times, which gave us plenty of data that’d allow us to look at the gender politics of the Iranian publishing sector.
The Dewey Decimal System
Some of the information we wanted was in the database, but obscured. Information about genre is a good example—our scrape gathered the Dewey Decimal codes for all the books in the database, so we had to match these up with full topic descriptions in order to make use of them.
The Iranian classification system also makes use of a number of special classifications, which we found on the website of the Online Computer Library Center. Once we’d integrated this information into our database, we could undertake some proper analysis of the genres published in post-Revolutionary Iran.
Our Analysis Tool
We had a lot of data. Over 800,000 entries. That’s far too much than is sensible to plug into a spreadsheet program—so we didn’t. Instead, all the data was thrown into a database, and our developers built a nifty tool that would help us run queries about the data.
As a result, we were able to pull plenty of visualisations out of the data instantly, freeing us from the ordeal of having to chart massive data sets on clunky, built-in spreadsheet charting tools. This made it much easier to gain insights into the data at a glance, and sped up our research process immensely.
Applying Knowledge, and Writing Hypotheses
We have a good deal of expertise in the field of censorship in Iran, and of literary censorship in particular. Our 2012 report Cultural Censorship in Iran: Iranian Culture in a State of Emergency tracked the health of a number of cultural sectors in the dark days of Ahmadinejad’s second term, and found a number of systemic problems in the publishing sector that we wanted to revisit.
Building on this knowledge base by conducting a comprehensive review of secondary literature, and engaging in conversations with experts in the field, we write around 30 research statements that we thought would be worth investigating through the Book House data.
Testing Hypotheses and Building a Narrative
Once we had our hypotheses, we were able to test them by pulling in data from our custom-built analysis tool. Once our various hypotheses were either proven or disproven, we could begin to arrange our findings into thematic groups, and then into a cohesive and logical narrative which would serve as the core of this online report.
Designing the Site
With a narrative in place, our in-house team of information designers and developers sat down and plotted out some ways to bring this story to life.
The design of this site was inspired by the textures and patterns prevalent in illustrated Persian Manuscripts which. These were then combined with modern typefaces and colours to create an amalgamation of vintage and contemporary Persian aesthetics.
Because of the physicality of the subject matter, we wanted to draw on aspects of a printed book and the materials used in the process of creating a book. We’ve used fine concentric circles inspired by the growth of a tree through its natural timeline and a cream background that was colour-picked from aged paper. We wanted to use soft yet vibrant colours that give the illusion of faded ink as well as gold foil for highlighted interactions throughout.
The data-driven research also heavily inspired the visual content of the website. When it came to information design, we were careful to maintain the integrity of the data while still implementing the visual style consistently.
The design for this project is unlike anything Small Media has done before, and provided a unique opportunity for us to experiment and stray from our usual design aesthetic.
Since the initial iterations were inspired heavily by print design, we had to be conscious of how to translate these elements into a smooth and intuitive website. This gave us an opportunity to work closely with the development team in order to ensure that our print-inspired design could make the transition easily and successfully into a user-friendly website.
Want to see more of our work? Small Media has produced a wide range of research on Iran's digital landscape. Check it out below.
Writer's Block was only possible thanks to the hard work of our incredible team of developers, designers, and researchers. Here they are, in all their glory.