Censoring an Iranian Love Story - A Book Review

Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2009, Translated by Sara Khalili) is one of the strangest and most interesting books I read. You see, I always had a thing for Persian culture, but being an Egyptian today I know it is almost impossible to be able to witness its greatness through my own two eyes. So when I found Censoring an Iranian Love Story, it was like a treasure to me, hoping it would give me an idea about the modern-day Iran without having to visit! So let me tell you a thing or two about this book.

The Story

As Raha Namy puts it in the Quarterly Conversation, Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a multi-layered story. This - more than slightly - surreal tale tries to give numerous details about the Iranian culture and censorship in a mix of real and fictional story layers that continuously intersect, sometimes confusing between what is real and what is fictional, making it hard for the non-Iranian reader to build a real idea about Iran.

Layer 1

The innermost layer is the love story between Sara and Dara, whom we don't know if they're completely fictional or based on real characters. Sara is senior student in the University of Tahran studying Iranian Literature, coming from a middle class family that falls behind by the year as a result of the increased inflation that is not met by an increase in her father's pension. She seems normal, but has a revolutionary soul. However, being in a country with very tight limits to freedom of speech,  this revolutionary soul is mostly seen in the dark, away from the government's and the "Campaign Against Social Corruption's" eyes.  Sara is an avid reader and so has a membership in the local library, this is where Dara first finds her.

Dara too used to be a student in Tahran University studying cinema, he was about to graduate before he got detained for being a communist. When he was finally freed after two years, he found out that he was expelled. Dara's family too used to be middle class, but has already fallen far behind as result of the father and son's detentions for being communists. This has led to the father losing his job, as well as his will to live, and the son being unable to find a decent job as a result of losing his almost acquired university degree. Oppression has turned Dara into a passive, defeated person, but one who still loves his country with all his heart.

There are also two secondary characters of the story. The first is Mr. Sindbad, Sara's suitor who has a story of his own. Mr. Sindbad came from a very poor family, but was able to fight his way into a government job. He was never into politics and wanted nothing more than the stability that would help him lead the simple life he's living. After the Islamic Revolution, however, he found out that this won't be possible, and that if he wants to continue to live at all, then he'd have to learn to be somewhat a hypocrite. Thus, by hypocrisy and brilliant ideas, he became one of the most powerful and richest businessmen in the country. The other is Dr. Farahad, one of the country's most famous surgeons, who is loved and respected and sees poor clients for free. Dr. Farahad appears a few times in the story in very different and confusing settings.

Sara is first introduced to the reader holding an interesting sign in a student protest; it has "DEATH TO DICTATORSHIP, DEATH TO FREEDOM" written on it, she's only a few minutes away from her death. But at last minute, Dara finds her and begs her to abandon the sign and leave with him. This is after one year of exchanging letters through a code they used in library books. When they finally get to the dating stage of their relationship, they have to think of places to meet so that they won't get caught (according to the author women and men who are not direct kin can get arrested if found together). So they meet in a hospital's emergency room, a mosque, an internet cafe and keep their relationship mostly online.

Layer 2

Comes after this, the layer where the author and the censor work together in writing the story. We're introduced to Mr. Petrovich, who works in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and has the responsibility of revising all books prior to giving a publishing permit. In this layer the author sometimes acts like a god to his characters, telling them what to do and what not to do. Mr. Petrovich, on the other hand acts like a divil, trying to ruin the beauty of the love story thorough wanting to change the storyline or sending other characters in the story. At other times we find the characters working their own destiny and deciding what to do for themselves, despite the author's and censor's intentions.

The writer always thinks of what Mr. Petrovich would say and so we'd find him sometimes striking out his own words, because Mr. Petrovich wouldn't give the book a publishing permit otherwise. He also sometimes has to give more details about his love story characters in this layer, because they're details that the censor won't approve. Thus, he gives his readers an idea of how Iranian love stories may lose their depth as a result of censorship.

The layer between Mandanipour and Mr. Petrovich is a story in itself, but to make matters more complicated, there is sometimes an intermingling between Layer 1 and Layer 2's characters that sometimes turn so surreal that you wouldn't know what to get out of it.

Layer 3

In this layer we find popular fictional and non-fictional characters from other literary works and real life coming to the story to give symbolic descriptions. There's the hunchback midget's corpse that keeps appearing in different places to different people. Then ghosts of other writers. Then an Assassin's phantom. Then poets who died some hundred years ago. These characters are mostly symbolic, and this is where surrealism reaches its peek, making it sometimes weak and thus very hard to grasp what the author is trying to tell with his symbols. 

One interesting, yet one may argue clichéd, use of characters is how the author used Nizami's poem, Khorsow and Shirin. This poem is about a love triangle between a king (Khorsow), a Romanian woman (Shirin) and a poor man (Farahad). Shirin ends up marrying Khorsow and they make sweet love. When Sara and Dara met in the emergency room, they meet a bride named Shirin who was raped by her groom, who is also called Khorsow, and she is saved by Dr. Farahad.

Layer 4

The outermost layer is where the author finally writes in non-fictional, first-person. He explains different aspects in the Iranian culture and different types of censorship. He tells stories of his own experiences and gives summaries of Iranian classics that are mostly used for symbols. This layer was almost always my favorite. It is here that the author talks of self censorship that was used by poets hundreds of years ago. During that time, they used to use similes from nature in describing a woman's body or a love making scene. He thus explains that censorship sometimes helps get the imagination going.

Then he goes on to explain government censorship today, and how they have power (and dirty mind) to sexualize everything.  But that's not all, there is all the social censorship, where girls are not allowed to have boyfriends, or to talk to boys they're unrelated to for that matter. With all these levels of censorship, it become impossible to write, or even live, a real love story in Iran.

Overall Critique

The book as a whole was more than anything confusing, with the never-ending intermingling between fact and fiction, as well as the different story layers. There is depth in the protagonists of the main story, but the elaboration on them is mostly cut through to discuss other things. The love story is extremely weak, but one may argue that this is exactly the writer's point; you cannot write a love story in that sociocultural setting. I, however, have sometimes felt exaggerations in the extent to which Iranian couples can't be together. The fact that this book, being published in 2009, and does not have one mention of cell phones makes me wonder. Same with Iranians being unable to watch movies and listen to music. What happened to VPN? I know from living in a country where censorship does exist (although far from that extreme, in some cases at least) that people always find ways out. What with Iran and Saudi Arabia (and Egypt, too) being among the countries with highest online pornography consumption (according to unofficial lists). Yes, literary works sometimes need to reach extremes to be more interesting, but again, not separating fact from fiction makes this problematic.

While I generally don't mind surrealism, in some parts of the book I felt that it's too much, making the reader actually miss the story itself. The symbols all through the story were sometimes clichéd and other times too much to take. As for the writing itself, it was far from creative. In fact, it mostly felt like you had the writer sitting in your living room telling you the story.

Without really getting into politics, the author actually got into politics. We see how revolutionaries like Dara were defeated and are now busy just trying to live. We see how even those who were "good" Islamists were abolished from the political scene and had turned into brothel visitors. We see how hypocrisy in modern-day Iran can lead to reaching the top of the ladder. We see how Iran wanted to enrich uranium while its citizens are suffering from increased poverty by the year. Most importantly, we see how women, throughout different eras in Iran were oppressed and sexualized, be it under dictatorships or so-called freedom. We see that revolutionaries did nothing when women were forced to cover up their bodies and spirits, when they have been treated as a shame. We also get into the sociocultural aspects of marriage and relationships in Iran. We see how marriage is the families' decisions more than the bride and groom's. We see how every relationship has to happen in the dark, we see how one of the main deal makers or breakers vis-à-vis marriage in Iran is money and social class. Mind you, these are all the author's opinions, I know nothing about modern-day Iran.

Egypt and Iran: enemies that are so much alike

I know nothing of modern-day Iran, but I know a lot about Egypt and the similarities are striking. Although Egypt and Iran's diplomatic ties have become at least not so strong following the Islamic Revolutions, and although some religious fanatics in both countries see us the other as enemies or infidels, for following different Islamic sects (Egypt is mostly Sunni and Iran is mostly Shite), both being middle eastern countries, one can't help see the similarities. Both Egypt and Iran are countries of great civilizations that have been great, and are not anymore. Both countries were once so modern, but have become something else as religious fanatics took over people's minds. When Islamists managed to take power in Egypt for a short period, there was talk of closing shops at 11:00 pm in a country that never sleeps, just like what happens in Iran. People started to talk about a "Campaign Against Social Corruption", just like that of Iran. Women were very much sexualized, just like Iran. Thankfully, the Islamist rule in Egypt lasted only a year, but there are still a lot of sociocultural similarities between Iran and Egypt. Some Egyptian families still wouldn't want their daughters to have boyfriends, marriage is still the decision of families, sociocultural and governmental censorships exist, sexualization and sexual discrimination exist. But most importantly, both Egyptians and Iranians can't help sticking their nose in other people's businesses.

There are also similarities between what happened right after the Egyptian and Iranian Revolutions, but I won't get into that too; if you go back and read layer 1 you'll get what I mean. My point is this, being someone who hasn't visited Iran, and would probably not be able to visit any time soon, I can't say that this author's idea of Iran is correct. But the similarities between us and this author's idea of them, makes me feel that he might be correct, and that one may build an opinion based on some of his. It also made me think of how sad it is, how similar we are, yet we're enemies.


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