Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour
|Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Clare Reddaway|
|Summary: Charming, shocking and illuminating, this novel combines a clever love story with comentary on contemporary Iran. It is one of the best polemics for free speech that I have read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: July 2009|
|Publisher: Little, Brown|
This is no ordinary love story. How could it be, with the protagonists Sara and Dara living in contemporary Iran where two unmarried, unrelated members of the opposite sex meeting one another without a chaperon is considered a deadly sin by society, the family and the law? Dara falls in love with Sara from afar, and conducts his initial courtship of her through books – he writes to her by placing dots under letters in The Blind Owl, a book he has overheard her requesting at the library. Such ingenuity continues when they actually meet and speak, a crime punishable by imprisonment by the patrols of the Campaign Against Social Corruption. So Dara takes the unusual step of suggesting the A & E Department of the hospital as their meeting place, somewhere no-one would question their conversation. This plan backfires, but that does not denigrate its cunning. That their story exists at all is a testament to the strength and endurance of love to overcome obstacles, and it is a charming and at times moving story.
However, what makes this story particularly unusual is the dialogue that the writer conducts throughout between himself, his readers and Mr Petrovich, the man at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance responsible for issuing publishing permits for all books. Films and literature are heavily censored in Iran according to strict Islamic criteria. In this novel, Mandanipour self-censors his story, striking black lines through his prose if it is overly sensual (that is, if a body part is mentioned without a flowery Iranian metaphor, usually of fruit, to denote the breast, arm or leg) or if it is politically unacceptable. He discusses with the reader, and Mr Petrovich, what actions the characters should, could or are allowed to take next.
Mandanipour frequently digresses for the sake of his Western readers to explain why certain phrases or actions are not allowed, and by doing so gives an extraordinary picture of modern Iran. Here is a story of a girl arrested watching sparrows with her boyfriend in a quiet park. Taken first to medical examiners to determine whether she is still a virgin, she is then confined to her house for a month. Browbeaten by her family, she reveals the boy's address. He is arrested, detained for twenty days, then beaten to a pulp by her uncles. Here is the tale of schoolgirls wearing brightly coloured shoes or buttons - a short rebellion. Here are the women in his childrens' text books sprouting headscarves and long sleeves. Mandanipour tells how customs officers have now perfected the technique of blacking out Western models' naked arms and legs in imported magazines such as The New Yorker – they use a magic marker resistant to efforts to erase with water or nail polish remover. He describes how films are made, using a metaphor for physical contact, so two lovers sitting at a table take turns to stroke a sparrow's back – a description of enormous sensuality. He is very funny about the contradictions of modern Iran – his descriptions of registering the birth names of his children is glorious – and he is often angry, bitter and horrifying as he outlines the actions of the revolutionary regime.
This is a complex narrative. Mandanipour attempts to introduce the morés of modern Iran as well as themes and highlights of Iranian literature, history and mythology to a new audience, at the same time as telling a love story which becomes ever more mangled by an enthusiastic censor and whose characters wilfully take on a life and actions of their own. Sometimes, I felt, the narrative suffered some loss of tension as a result. However, this was more than made up for by the wealth of story and insight that this book provides. There is a moment at which Sara, the woman at the centre of the love story, stops to talk to an old book peddler on the street. We discover he was one of Iran's most famous poets before the revolution. He offers to sell her a five-hundred-year-old handwritten copy of the narrative poem Khosrow and Shirin – in return for her headscarf. It is a testament to the skill with which Mandanipour had described the iron control of Iran's social police that this request sent a shiver of shock and fear down my spine.
This is the first of Mandanipour's many novels to appear in English. I shall look forward to future translations with great interest. In the meantime, this is an important book for anyone who is interested in Iran and Islamic social politics, censorship and women's rights. Oh, and anyone who fancies a good love story.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
It's almost impossible to find a book similar to Censoring an Iranian Love Story but if this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes.
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