05/15/2014 07:29 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

Restricted and Rolling: Tehran's 27th Book Fair

Tehran's International Book Fair, a ten-day-long, twenty-seven year-old annual event, concluded on May 10th this year in a 120,000 square-meter venue at Tehran's Grand Prayer Grounds (known as the Mosalla). This year, the book fair saw a bonus day; since it was held over eleven days.

Unlike most book fairs, Tehran's International Book Fair is more of an opportunity to purchase books than exchange publishing business and collaborative ideas.
Buying books, particularly non-Farsi ones, is quite difficult for most Iranians due to steep prices rooted in inflation and Iran's low currency value. At the book fair, however, college students manage to find textbooks at the reduced government-regulated dollar price rather than the free market price.

Touraj, a former Tehran publisher who has been involved in running running the media, communications, and bulletin-related activities of Tehran's Book Fair for many years, tells Al-Monitor that since Iran is not part of any of the International Copyright Treaties, any book fair is really similar to a giant bookstore. In a telephone interview from Tehran, Touraj adds, "Book fairs should mainly serve as suitable occasions for publishers, translators and distributors to meet, connect and exchange ideas and propositions. In Tehran's Book Fair case, it's mostly a heavily-publicized distribution and sales event."

Tehran's International Book Fair is also the only vast venue for accessing foreign books in general, not solely textbooks. It is a plentiful market for Arabic books: the reason that a large crowd of cleric students visit the fair each year. German publishers have traditionally had a good rapport with their Iranian counterparts and a large presence in the fair, and continue to be the strongest European participants. Frankfurt's Book Fair has been a venue of exchange for Iranian and German publishers since the Khatami era. While Mohammad Khatami's eight years of presidency attracted many European publishers, mostly French, British and German ones, heavy restrictions and increased censorship during the eight years of Ahmadinejad's government drove many publishers away. And not only foreign publishers.

Some Iranian publishers' books were rejected publishing permit to an excessive point. One of these publishers who wishes to remain unnamed, tells me that his books were denied publishing permit from Ahmadinejad's government with no valid reason, even according to the ministry's own guidelines. In a phone interview, this veteran owner of a credible Iranian publishing company says, "After the first two books we sent for permits were rejected seven years ago, they continued to deny publishing permits to all the other books we would send, with no rhyme or reason. We were just being picked on, and a few other publishing houses underwent similar circumstances." These circumstances drove a small group of publishers to decide against participating in the book fair, and a couple of them kept their distance even this year, despite the modifications that have already started to appear in the censorship style of books pending publication permits. However, a small number of credible publishers faced license suspension, and naturally could not participate in the book fair, and this restriction, for the most part, remained unchanged this year. In response, a few other publishers decided to refrain from participation in the fair despite being allowed to do so.

Meanwhile, in the foreign section, countries such as Turkey, Japan, and Afghanistan widely displayed their publications. Modern Western material--both magazines and books--are rare due to wide red lines of pictures and content. Poor financial management in of the past two book fairs led to debt for Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Rouhani's government failed to pay most of the outstanding balances of the previous fairs owed to a number of European publishers, who in turn declined to participate in this year's fair.

Despite all the problems connected to the logistics of the fair, it remains a popular hangout within the Iranian youth community, specially high school seniors and college students, most of whom belong to the lower and middle class demographic. The estimated attendance of this year's book fair was a daily average number upward of 270,000 people.

Other than access to cultural material--mostly books--the fair is a ten-day event suitable for showing off faces, figures, and fancy manteaux for young women, providing a convenient potential for meeting peers of the opposite sex, that is, as much as this potential would escape the eyes of the "Morality Police".
While minor displays of feminine skin on magazine covers and book pictures are scribbled with black markers--usually permanent markers--heavily made up faces with scarves pulled back behind the ears are far from scarce.

The first twenty book fairs were held in a very popular venue in Northern Tehran, known as Tehran's International Fairs Grounds, dedicated to many major events, mainly fairs. According to Iranian officials, the newer venue for the Book Fair, in Abbas-Abad Hills of the country's capital--intended for grand prayer ensembles including for the Fetr Eid (at the end of Ramadan) was a preferred location for the book fair, with vaster land and the promise of putting an end to the traffic nightmare caused by the International Book Fair throughout the ten days of the exhibition every spring.

But Ali-Asghar Ramezanpour, former director of Tehran's Book Fair, tells Al-Monitor that comparing the fairs he directed under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami with the past nine book fairs is similar to comparing night with day. In our interview, Ramezanpour, former Deputy of Books and Cultural Affairs to the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, tells me that the reason for transferring the book fair's venue to Tehran's Mosalla is that the IRGC wants the money to run the Mosallah grounds, and can do so through the rent it receives from the book fair. Ramezan-pour tells Al-Monitor, "Over the years I worked in the management body of the book fair--first as the media advisor for three years and then as the director of the fair for another four--the IRGC representatives constantly attempted to convince us to change the venue to the Mosalla. Each time, we would send an expert group there to consider the elements and would convey our negative feedback to the IRGC, stating that from a cultural standpoint, the location and logistics of the book fair were fine and holding the event at the Mosalla would damage its popularity."

Elham, a 24-year-old English Literature student at a public university in Kerman, tells me in a phone interview that she travels to Tehran for the book fair every year. She says, "I find useful resources for much cheaper prices, so it's certainly worth the trip to Tehran. But I would really like to get my hand on current English novels, which are seldom found in the fair, because they are forbidden from the exhibition due to censorship. This would be the only place where my friends and I could buy such books, but it's almost impossible."