By Niloufar Rostami
April 16, 2021
Parnaz (Nazi) Azima is a journalist, author and translator. Some of her books have been published in Iran, but still more have gathered dust waiting to be rubber-stamped by the censors of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Objections have been raised not merely because of the books’ content, but because of the name of Nazi Azima and her past. She had first left Iran in December 1983 after losing her job as a librarian, but years later in January 2007, during the Ahmadinejad’s presidency, she returned briefly to the country to visit her ailing mother.
On arrival at Imam Khomeini Airport, Azima was arrested and her passport was confiscated. For eight months she was subjected to a travel ban and summoned repeatedly for questioning. Finally she was allowed to leave the country eight months later.
Upon her return to Prague, the Revolutionary Court sentenced her to one year in prison on charges of “propaganda against the regime” and two years and six months on charges of “conspiracy against national security.”
Azima now lives in Washington, D.C. Her recent collection of short stories, The Islanders, was been published by Mehri Publishing in London. Initially she had tried to get it published in Iran, but was told: “It’s hard to get permission to publish your translations, let alone your own writing.”
This veteran author has sent manuscripts to the Ministry of Guidance during the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani, and was denied permission by all three administrations. In this interview, she reflects on her personal experiences of censorship toward the end of the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi era, and under the Islamic Republic.
What was censorship like in the pre-revolutionary publishing arena?
Was there even something called censorship? Censorship has existed since the birth of book publishing and the press in Iran. During the reign of Nasser al-Din Shah, an office was established whose job was to censor books and the press. But at that time and later on, it was usually political issues and new Constitutionalist ideas that were scrutinized by the censors. That was why dissidents who wanted to be heard published their books or newspapers in other countries, such as Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.
Later, during the reigns of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, there was greater censorship of political topics, especially Marxist and leftist ideas. The use of words such as forest, rose and Siahkal were banned; the names Marx and Lenin were banned. When writers wanted to write about Marx, instead of mentioning his name, they wrote ‘the founder of the theory of historical materialism’; a reader who knew the codes knew what it meant. But the censors of that time had nothing to do with other subjects, such as people’s daily lives, male-female relationships, and so on. If censorship took place in those areas, it was the work of the author himself, choosing to self-censor.
During the reign of the Shah, for instance, I really wanted to translate Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by D. H. Lawrence. I loved this book, but I did not do it, out of fear. Because at that time, if someone published unusual poems or writings, their personage was also questioned. I did not dare translate this book because I was afraid of being hit with the label ‘immoral’. Then, a translation of this book – called The Adulterer of Lady Chatterley – was published, and it was a very bad translation. But there were no others. In this book, the relationship between men and women, which leads to creativity and the flourishing of both, was beautifully described, in a way that would have been useful for Iranian society at that time; maybe even for now. Anyway, let’s move on. But during the Islamic Republic, the circle of censorship expanded to include all aspects of human life.
Tell us about the translations you published before the revolution. Were they also censored?
I translated two books before the revolution: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and a book called Seven Voices from Latin America [by Rita Guibert]. The latter, which contains seven interviews with Latin American writers and poets, was published in 1979 during the Revolution. But I had submitted the book to the publisher a couple of years earlier, when publishing the book was not as quick and easy as it is today, and it took time to type up and edit the text. The publisher moved the book’s first interview with Pablo Neruda to the end, and the last interview with the Cuban author [Guillermo] Infante to the beginning, so that there would be no problem in publishing it – because, according to him, he wanted to take the “poison” out. Therefore, Neruda, who was a communist and defended his cause, was moved to the end of the book, and the book began with Infante’s anti-communist and anti-Castro remarks. With this shift, the meaning of the book changed completely. The book ended with a quote from Infante that said “I love happy endings”. This sentence was also, symbolically, a happy ending for the book. After the revolution, when the publisher wanted to reprint the book, I returned Neruda’s interview to the beginning.
You left Iran forever a few years after the revolution, but you kept up your literary collaboration with the country. Over the years, have there been any books of yours that were not published at all?
In the late 1980s, I translated Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and gave it to a friend of a publisher in Iran. But it was censored: words, sentences, whole paragraphs had to be changed or deleted, and even a few chapters of the book had to be removed. I said this was no longer a translation, and I did not accept it. The publisher said, “So, we’ll wait until it gets better.” But of course, no better time came, and the publisher died.
After that, perhaps four or five other publishers read the book and liked it, but they all said, “Unfortunately, we cannot publish it.” After that, I translated Jewish Musicians and the History of Jews in Iran, by Alan Shawley: a book that dealt with music from the heart of the Jewish community. It was in 2008-2009 that I sent the translation to a publisher who happened to be dealing in music-themed books. But he said that because of the two words ‘Jewish’ and ‘music’, they didn’t stand a chance. Several other publishers said the same. This book never even went through censorship; it was censored by the publishers themselves.
The last book was not about religious minorities, nor love, nor music; it was about economics: a book entitled When Misery Hunts Poverty by Dr. Majid Rahnama. The book was published in French in France in 2003, after which the author asked me to translate it into Persian. It took me one to two years to translate it, and I finally gave it to a publisher in Iran, under the title The Reputation of Poverty. The publisher read it and liked it very much. The editing and typing up began. It was in those days that I went to Iran, which led to the confiscation of my passport and court summons. The publisher then said he could no longer publish the book because of my name.
Did you make another attempt to publish it? Or did the story end there?
Yes, I did. Some time later, another publisher took it on and sent it to the Ministry of Guidance. But this book, like others at that time, was locked up for eight years during the Ahmadinejad presidency. Two months before the end of Ahmadinejad’s tenure, people in the Ministry of Guidance began reading books again, including my translation. Four objections to it were raised. One of the strangest was the book’s preface: the author had dedicated it to his granddaughter Maya and written a sentence along the lines of “Dedicated to Maya, and hoping that the world of the future will advance the dreams of the youth.” They said the sentence should be removed – because of the word Maya and its “connection with Hindu rituals”.
Unfortunately, the censors have a list of words that they want to remove wherever they see them, regardless of where and in what context they are used. Another issue was about “Rumi’s elephant”. Somewhere in [canonical Persian mystical poem] the Masnavi, Rumi speaks of an elephant that everyone has his own idea of, when touching it in the dark. The author of The Reputation of Poverty also mentioned this, and said that everything ought to be looked at in its entirety, and just looking at one part of a thing leads to incorrect judgment. The censor wanted the elephant to be removed. I told my publisher: “You should tell them [the author] that they are going to delete the Masnavi.”
Elsewhere, the censor wanted to remove the names of two characters, [medieval Sufi teacher] Mansour Hallaj and [the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law] Imam Ali, and replace them with other names. I asked, “So what names do we put in their place?”
They suggested [Sufi master] Abol Hassan Kherghani instead of Mansour Hallaj and [Ali’s son] Imam Hossein instead of Imam Ali. Among the Shiites, Imam Ali and Imam Hossein are symbols of two completely different things. Imam Hossein is a symbol of martyrdom and Imam Ali is a symbol of a perfect human being, while the Sufi dervishes have taken Ali as an example of a perfect human being. Now, if we called Imam Ali Imam Hossein in the book, what would this have to do with Sufism? How could we replace Mansour Hallaj with Abolhassan Kherghani? Each of these people holds a specific position. One really does not know whether to laugh or cry over these things. I still don’t understand and I wonder how a censor can better know literature and economics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, and sociology. A person who has written a book on a subject has spent a lot of time and effort on it. But these gentlemen reject their books out of hand. How offensive, not only to the author and translator, but also to the reader.
Were all these changes finally made in the book?
We were still negotiating over these strange requests when the Rouhani administration came to power, and a new person replaced the previous censor. My friends who were following the progress of this book were happy, thinking that with the arrival of a different cleric, more books would be published; they even said these four objections would be discarded. But the cleric who replaced the previous censor said: “This book is generally problematic and unpublishable.”
It took some time for another publisher to take it up. Since the beginning of the Rouhani administration, seven publishers have read the book, but none of them were able to publish – the last said several months ago that he had been told ‘The translator herself is problematic’. That is, even I was subjected to censorship. The book was sent to the Ministry of Guidance by various parties but in both the Ahmadinejad and Rouhani eras, it was not possible to publish it. Finally, I gave the book to Mehri Publishing in London, which publishes censored or banned books in Iran, and this book was finally published after 15 years of waiting.
Tell us about the books that were published post-censorship in Iran.
My translation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was finally published with some changes and omissions a few years ago. I remember one of the cases of censorship was the word “thigh”. Somewhere in the novel, and in the hustle and bustle of war, as it rains and the city is covered in mud and everyone is fleeing, a truck driver puts his hand on the girl’s thigh to ask her a question. They said it should be removed. At the time, I was constantly wondering, if thighs are bad, then what do they call chicken thighs? What do they say when they want to order chicken thighs? Another case was the word “breast.” Somewhere in the novel, there’s a woman with big breasts. They said the word “breast” should be removed too. I asked, “Is the word ‘chest’ good?” They said no. Finally, we wrote “a large upper body”. In another part of the novel, a boy was having to wear a jockstrap; the censor had a problem with that word. In addition, they wanted to delete two paragraphs, which I think were some of the most important parts of the book. I said I could not do that. The editor suggested substituting other sentences. I said I was not willing to budge. When the book was published, I felt a cold sweat on my forehead. I thought my reputation would have been damaged in the eyes of the reader.
Your collection Islanders was recently published by a publishing house outside Iran. Did you not want this book to be published inside the country?
The [Iranian] publishers told me, “They might allow your translations to be published, but not your own work, no way.” That was why I gave it to Mehri. They published it within a month.
Can it be said that censorship has caused a decline in the quality of storytelling in Iran?
Honestly, I think I’m lucky to be out of Iran, because when I want to imagine and write something, I just need to free my mind; but my heart burns for the young writers who are inside Iran. What can they write about? They ask why the Persian novel is in decline, why we no longer have good poets and writer. This is because the artists’ imaginations are not free and comfortable. With every thought or word that comes to our minds, we must first consider whether it is allowed. We cannot write on sexual, emotional, and romantic issues, nor can we write about religion or politics. Writing about social reality is not allowed because one will be accused of painting a bleak picture. To those who say we no longer produce worthy creations, I can only say that the reason is the atmosphere. Imagine a painter who wants to portray a nude human form, but is only allowed to paint cars and buildings. In the system of the Islamic Republic, a human being must be eliminated. The censorship of the Islamic Republic mirrors its government; the government is anti-human; men and women alike. It opposes both.
In my opinion, authors and creators of works of art, who require permission from the government to distribute their works, should not give anything in protest. Just like the unions of workers and teachers who go on strike against the non-payment of salaries, artists should not submit their work to the state for a period of time: that is, they should not give in to censorship or self-censorship. Except for in Iran and a few other backward countries, a book is a matter between the author, the publisher and the reader.