Notes from the Book Group on May 19, 2015

For Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

Present: Sydney Owens, Barbara Powell, Dorianne Low, Dodie Rees, Anne Ipsen Goldman, Katherine O’Connor, Roo Dane, Sandra Lovell, Corny Robart

book group May 2015

Reporter’s Note: In the printed book, the formal love story appears on the page in boldface, the authorial interpolations in roman type. I have adopted Mandanipour’s technique of using different typefaces, in this case for words not my own but gleaned from other critical/reader sources. In the surprisingly satisfying Kindle audio version, voice modifications identify these changes.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. In a country where mere proximity between a man and a woman may be the prologue to deadly sin, where illicit passion is punished by imprisonment, or even death, telling that most redemptive of human narratives becomes the greatest literary challenge. evokes a pair of young lovers who find each other – despite surreal persecution and repressive parents – through coded messages and internet chat rooms; and triumphantly their story entwines with an account of their creator’s struggle.

Dara, a male film student jailed for political activity, and Sara, a student of pre-revolutionary Iranian literature, have a relationship begun in secretly marked library books, continued over the internet, and finally evolving into a “He loves me, he loves me not” exploration of how to be together in puritanical modern Iran without the morals patrols discovering them and arresting Dara again.

Mandanipour wants to write a love story published in Iran, but must pass the censor’s scrutiny, word by word and line by line, in order to gain permission. Some writers have been waiting 25 years to see their works published. In fact, Mandanipour had to “go to the West,” the dream of writers and artists, to see his novel published in Farsi but not in Iran (and reputedly brilliantly translated by S. Khalili).

The writer wants to go farther than the traditional, poetical means of describing feminine beauty via nature (her lips were like cherries, her cheeks pomegranates), but frequently censors himself before Mr. Petrovich, the virtually and literally blind censor, can wield his pencil. Different typeface shows which is the intended story, which has been self-censored by the author, and which is the author’s narrative, complete with asides and gossip. This latter includes many observations about what Iranian citizens must be on the alert for, such as ordinary acts of dress (different-colored shoelaces) or casual proximity of young men and women, reported to or observed by the morals police or a zealous citizen. These infractions may result in imprisonment, even torture.

New Yorker critic James Wood wrote, “The first hundred pages or so  of “Censoring an Iranian Love Story” [regarding the writer writing on writing] are exciting.” Most of us disagreed: “Tedious”; the love story was trite, not a real love story; the author didn’t care about the lovers. But the action picks up as the censor becomes more and more involved with the evolving story of the internet lovers, eventually falling in love with Sara himself. Petrovich is a heavy presence in the novel, and is both creator and critic; the writer is always anticipating the imagination of prohibition even as he tries to outwit it. Even more interesting, the writer, in this situation, becomes his characters; he wants what they want….Many issues are raised then blurred or treated ambiguously: tradition vs. modernity, such as contemporary Iranian literature, scorned as anti-Islam and given no place in school curricula.  Death of the novel, though not the lovers. So it is that many stories . . . in maneuvering their way through the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance either are wounded, lose certain limbs, or are with finality put to death.”

Does Petrovich progress from scolder to satirical supporter? Or, more probably, does he embody the true nature of censorship in Iran, a struggle to maintain total power over the populace. We see glimpses of life in the Islamic Republic, not new to readers of post-revolutionary literature but certainly given a fresh regard through the censorship process, the expression of the paranoid fear of human behavior which is uncontrollable and therefore dangerous to the state(d) order. “The best job in Iran seems to be that of the censor,” suggested one reader.

Unfortunately, the references to the traditional stories from the Arabian Nights and Khosrow and Shirin escape most of us Westerners, although in some countries such as Denmark traditional lore is taught in school and remains viable to this day. A young Iranian friend of mine, newly escaped from the Khomeini revolution, nearly became teary-eyed when explaining the importance and beauty of their pantheon of philosopher-poets – Rumi; Omar Khayyam; Attar of Nishapur. We have glimpses, oh, so brief, into the constant watchfulness Iranians must exercise to avoid attracting unwanted attention by behaving outside the tradition of purity and chastity. Women are a special target, of course, for dress, behavior, liberty of movement….

A mysterious humpback character appears at certain key moments in the story, as in the first time Dara and Sara see each other in person, and at the end when the couple are waiting to be denounced or discovered.

This humpback appears in one of the stories from the Arabian Nights. He is the King’s buffoon. One night a tailor invites him to his home. There his wife forces him to choke on the food she has prepared. The panicked, guilt-ridden tailor disposes of the body at the cabinet of a Jewish doctor, who, bumping against the corpse in the dark, knocks the humpback downstairs. Believing he is responsible for his death, the doctor props the humpback up against the wall of a Muslim home. A Christian comes along, believes the humpback intends him ill, and clobbers him with a hammer.

The corpse passes from “killer” to “killer,” each antagonistic religion becoming involved in the Humpback’s “death.” Finally a “murderer” is arrested. At the gallows, the accused is reprieved thanks to the confession by the previous “murderer,” and that one reprieved by the previous one, until the story reaches the King, who laughs and laughs and causes the story to be writ in gold. No mention of a hanging is made, nor any moral homily, and the humpback story gives way to yet another fantastic tale. Like love, or truth, or literature, the Humpback never really dies, but is kept alive one way or another, despite censorship from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Further reading on Iran: The Conference of the Birds, long poem by Attar of Nishapur (12th Century) ; The Colonel: A Paperback Novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi; Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, Paperback, Shahrnush Parsipur; Cypress Tree: Hardcover by Kamin Mohammadi; Savushun: A Novel About Modern Iran (Persian Classics) Paperback by Simin Daneshvar. Film- About Elly


Cornelia Robart ‘ 61