Celebrating the launch of the English translation of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel The Colonel that is recommended by PEN, researcher and activist Aliasghar Ramazan Poor (Deputy Minister for Cultural Affairs in Iran until 2003), Director of the Small Media Foundation Mahmood Enayat, writer and activist Yousef Azizi Banitorof and the Middle East specialist Trevor Mostyn followed an invitation by publisher Barbara Schwepcke to discuss the role of literature, publishing and censorship in Iran at the Free Word Centre.
The novel The Colonel is a dark and gloomy account of the disintegration of an Iranian family. Narrated through the perspective of the protagonist, the Colonel, mainly, spans the entire Iranian history from the Second World War, the crucial years of the 1979 Revolution and beyond the end of the Iran-Iraq War which until today has left wounds in almost every Iranian family. “For me it was important to publish this novel because it has a universality to it. It is an honest and raw account of a revolution, indeed, of any revolution” said the publisher Barbara Schwepcke who was approached by the author himself. But because of its honesty and indeed brutal clarity of language the novel has so far not been published in its original language, Persian, and lies with the Iranian censorship office since 2008 now.
Literature and publishing are sensitive subjects in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Aliasghar Ramazan Poor explained why this novel by Dowlatabadi’s differs from the previous texts by the author that were published in Iran. According to the former Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs Dowlatabadi’s oeuvre has so far differed from “The Colonel” in two aspects: its language style and the subject choice. Whereas before Dowlatabadi’s language had been more allegorical and ambiguous, the author does not shy away from using clear words and criticism in this novel. Secondly, the subject is a delicate one: Up to date there is no comparable piece that deals critically with the 1979 Revolution in this raw and almost brutal language. The official stand point is that the revolution was Islamic and its result a success for Iranian society. There is no public reflective or critical examination of history.
Trevor Mostyn who was reporting for the New Statesman in Tehran at the time of the revolutionary upheavals said, “I was at the university campus and there where students everywhere. The atmosphere was quite aggressive but I did not feel threatened as a British citizen. Seemingly over night, the Islamists had put up images of Khomeini everywhere but people genuinely believed democracy was coming in Iran.” In the novel, however, the author has shown that the revolution was not a linear development and that in its course many lives were claimed. The main protagonist’s, the “Colonel’s” children, three sons and two daughters, each represent an ideological strand of the revolutionary upheavals in 1978-79 in Iran. Communists, Mujaheddine khalq, Tudeh, Nationalists and Islamists all had competing outcomes in mind for the revolution. However, like the idealistic ideologies they supported, none of the Colonel’s children stays alive.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi was a member of the Iranian Writers Union with fellow writer and human rights activist Yousef Azizi Banitorof who was part of the panel. Banitorof who has left Iran after imprisonment belongs to the Arab ethnic minority of the Iranian population and continues to campaign for their rights to publish in Arabic from his exiled position, “The writers and texts that are censored are not even necessarily politically motivated. Yet the government wants to silence them.” The journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan who was sitting in the audience supported the statement that the Iranian regime is afraid of the written word, “I reported lately in the Guardian that Ayatollah Khamenei has openly attacked ‘poisonous books’ and compared them to ‘harmful drugs’”. Moreover, the censorship office in Iran would suggest to writers to change particular words and sometimes rewrite whole passages of their works.
Today, as we witness revolutionary movements across the Middle East world, we have several media that cover political events immediately, most importantly probably, the internet. However, as the director of the Small Media Foundation Mahmood Enayat points out, international media have exaggerated the penetration of the internet in countries such as Iran. “We realized that the internet only reaches a part of society and, therefore, researched cultural censorship in Iran beyond the internet, covering the censorship in films, theatre, literature and music.” Enayat said that underground literature is thriving in Iran and needs to be supported through fundings. Further talking about the role of the internet for publishing the panel came to the conclusion, that the internet indeed provides new ways for writers to circumvent censorship and to publish independently – as the cost of printing and publishing is very high in Iran as one member of the audience pointed out. However, the continued cultural censorship harms the country and its society and what matters eventually is what happens in offline channels.
The publishing of Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel in English, is one step towards the wider distribution of his work and an important step for the author and English readers. Nonetheless, it would be even more important to publish the novel in Iran, to make it available for Persian readers and allow them to reflect on their history via this honest and truly literary account.
Report by Marina Khatibi