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.

Azar Mahloujian,

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.

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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.

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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...

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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.

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TESTIMONIAL


Sepideh Jodeyri

Poet

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TESTIMONIAL


Mohammad Tolouei

Author

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TESTIMONIAL


Afshin Shahne Tabar

Director, Candle and Fog Publishing

DOWNLOAD


2010 Objectives, Policies, and Regulations of Book Publishing

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INTERVIEW


Click to see the interview
with Payam Feili about this.

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Iran’s National Library database is big.

As far as we can tell, no-one’s ever really taken a proper look at all this data before.

So rather than letting it gather dust on the shelves, Small Media has hoovered it all up and combed through it in forensic detail. We’ve pieced together the story of publishing in Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and uncovered loads of really interesting trends that can tell us about the past and future of publishing in Iran.

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.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was elected as President in 1981. In his inaugural address, he vowed to eradicate “deviation, liberalism, and American-influenced leftists”.

The same year, the newly-formed Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was granted sweeping powers to censor books that it deemed to be in violation of Islamic principles.

Censorship was back, and in a big way.

But how have things changed since then? Iran’s Book House provides some clues. We’ve pulled the number of titles published each year from their database. Here’s what we’ve found...

Ali Khamenei
1981-1989
A key figure in the Revolution, Khamenei became President shortly after the Islamic Republic was founded. Currently serving as Supreme Leader, his tenure as President spanned the years of the Iran-Iraq war. He shared executive power with Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Books published
41,315
0
500,000
Publishers Founded
609
0
3,500
Women's Books
7.08%
0
50%
Most Published Genres
Literature, Religion, Technology
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
1989-1997
Known as a pragmatic conservative, Rafsanjani took office in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war. He presided over a series of economic reforms aimed primarily at liberalising and privatising the Iranian economy.
Books published
79,013
0
500,000
Publishers Founded
994
0
3,500
Women's Books
10.39%
0
50%
Most Published Genres
Literature, Religion, Technology
Mohammad Khatami
1997-2005
A former culture minister under both Khamenei and Rafsanjani, Khatami’s presidential administration ushered in a period of relative cultural freedom in the Islamic Republic. An avowed reformist, Khatami promoted freedom of expression, civil society, and rapprochement with the West.
Books published
251,508
0
500,000
Publishers Founded
3345
0
3,500
Women's Books
15.26%
0
50%
Most Published Genres
Religion, Literature, Technology
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
2005-2013
Ahmadinejad won the presidential election in 2005 with a mix of religious nationalism and outreach to the working classes. A bombastic and confrontational figure, Ahmadinejad was criticised for his handling of the economy, and for overseeing a crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly.
Books published
451,607
0
500,000
Publishers Founded
2511
0
3,500
Women's Books
19.00%
0
50%
Most Published Genres
Literature, Religion, Technology
GRAPH OF BOOKS PUBLISHED SINCE 1979

We’ve seen how many books have been published in Iran since 1979, and which presidential terms saw the greatest booms and busts, but what sorts of books did they actually put out?

We’ve broken the data down by genre in order to see how the nature of the publishing industry has changed since the Revolution. Are more religious books being produced now than ever before? What kind of literature is being printed? Are books about Iranian history being pumped out in huge numbers?

Explore our visualisation for yourself—there are countless stories to be told.

Genres Published Since 1979
Ali Khamenei
1981-1989
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
1989-1997
Mohammad Khatami
1997-2005
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
2005-2013
Colour On Colour Off

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, not all authors are created equal.

Being the ‘wrong’ sort of writer can make all the difference between getting your book published, and having your 450-page manuscript sitting at the bottom of an MCIG waste paper bin.

This next chapter looks at the sorts of writers who tend to have trouble getting published in the Islamic Republic today, whether they’re ethnic minorities writing in the wrong language, or women lingering on ‘immodest’ topics in their work.

Titles Published, By Gender
  • Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997)
  • Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)
  • All
Women
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
Men
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
  • Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997)
  • Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)
  • All
Women
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
Men
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
  • Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997)
  • Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013)
  • All
Women
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
Men
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
Minority Language Publishing
The chart below lists languages by: % of native speakers in Iran's population (grey) // % of books published in language since 1979 (purple)
Name
Population: Data%
Number of books published: Data
Religious Books On Off

Iran’s publishing sector isn’t just subject to the whims of the MCIG’s censors. It’s also deeply affected by another arbitrary and destructive force—the economy.

The Iranian state uses the economy to help and hinder Iranian publishers, whether through providing direct subsidies, or indirectly subsidising organisations by purchasing hundreds (or even thousands) of books from publishers in order to keep them afloat.

This chapter shows just how overcentralised Iranian publishing has become, and discusses the difficulties facing writers and publishing houses outside the capital.

Download our full report to learn about the impact of economic crises on the publishing sector, and to see how the Iranian government has intervened in the industry to advance its own interests.

Mapping Iran's Publishing Sector
Explore these datasets to see where the publishing industry is active.
Name
Title Data
  • Number of Publishers
  • Titles Published
  • Distribution Centers

Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 on the promise that he would allow Iran’s cultural scene the space to flourish, free from the worst excesses of censorship that defined his predecessor’s administration.

Despite some progress, Rouhani’s government appears unwilling to dismantle the censorship system, which continues to enforce the state’s ‘red lines’ despite some limited relaxation around social issues.

The problems facing Iran’s publishing sector are immense. Truly radical solutions are required—solutions that Rouhani’s government has so far proven unwilling to implement.

We hope that publishers, writers, and innovators in Iran and around the world can work together to produce the radical and transformative solutions that are needed to kickstart a new golden age for Iranian literature.

To read our recommendations, download our full report!