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It’s tempting to think of all Iranians in terms of the mob that stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 or the intemperate remarks of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about Israel and the Holocaust. But certain recent events in Iran provide insight into what its people are really like and why we shouldn’t be hasty about dropping bombs on them.
An Associated Press story by Ali Akbar Dareini reports that Iran’s Culture Ministry, tasked with vetting the content of books before they’re printed in Iran, made the mistake of allowing the production of 5,000 copies, translated into Persian, of “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They sold like, well, hotcakes.
I retrieved my own copy of the book from a shelf close by and gave the slight volume a quick rereading. It’s a steamy tale about an elderly, cultured journalist who’s never had sex without paying for it and who decides on the occasion of his 90th birthday to spend the night with a 14-year-old virgin. The book is for grown-ups, of course, but it’s not pornography; it’s serious writing by a great literary master.
Still, it’s not hard to see why Islamic fundamentalists might object, based on the claim that the book promotes prostitution. But when the government forbade a second printing, interest surged, and “My Melancholy Whores” began to sell on the black market for double its list price.
Why? Ahmad Abbasi, 28, says it all: “I don’t know what the book is about. But when the government bans a book, there is something interesting in it. So, I’m buying the book out of curiosity.”
Clearly, Abbasi doesn’t sound like an Islamic nutcase who’s likely to become a suicide bomber for Allah. In fact, he sounds more like the Americans described in the same edition of my local paper that carried the story about Iran.
As it turns out, governmental bodies in America ban books, as well. According to another Associated Press story, by John Raby, the Kanawha County Board of Education recently banned “Beach Music” and “The Prince of Tides,” two novels by Pat Conroy, from classes at Nitro High School in Charleston, W.Va. The episode is only one of hundreds of book-banning attempts at schools and libraries monitored by the American Library Association every year.
In West Virginia, the students objected to the banning and Conroy came down on their side with an eloquent and emphatic e-mail in which he makes this point about the ironic effect of most attempts at censorship: “…every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them.” This is a concept that Ahmad Abbasi would understand completely.
When we think of Iran, we think of its government, particularly the high-profile Ahmadinejad, but its people are largely mysterious to us. More than half of the population was born since the Islamic revolution in 1979, and many Iranians are intensely interested in the West. The Internet flourishes. In “The Shia Revival,” scholar Vali Nasr points out that Persian is the third-most-popular language on the Internet and Iranians maintain more than 80,000 blogs. He notes that during the last decade philosopher Immanuel Kant has been translated into Persian more often than into any other language. And Kant sells almost as well in Iran as Marquez.
A small black-and-white photo accompanies the news story about book banning in Iran. It portrays the interior of a Tehran bookstore. Three sides of a broad aisle are lined by seven shelves, floor to ceiling, of neatly arranged books. The bookstore owner is searching the shelves for a book for a female customer. Except, perhaps, for the woman’s headscarf, this picture might have been taken anywhere in America.
Perhaps the Iranians aren’t as different from us as the hawks would have us believe. In fact, given Iran’s democratic tradition, which dates back nearly 100 years before the Islamic revolution, perhaps these aren’t people we should even be thinking about bombing, at all, unless we can come up with better reasons than we have so far.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Reach him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)