Monday, May 28, 2007

Reading Almost Nothing in Tehran

When Time journalist and author Azadeh Moaveni moved to Iran to work as a journalist, she says that she aspired to belong to a literary circle:

... not unlike that of the engaged women of Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” who found relief from their authoritarian society in the imaginative world of novels.
In the New York Times she describes the impoverished reading culture of the country. For a start, there were few bookshops per se, most doubling as stationary or toy stores. And what sells?:
Self-help books and their eclectic offshoots, on topics like Indian spirituality and feng shui, enjoy the most prominent position on bookstore front tables. The emergence of the genre, which did not exist before the 1979 Islamic revolution, may suggest a culture trying to cope with the erosion of traditional gender roles, or with rising rates of divorce and premarital sex. But Iranian intellectuals are quick to blame “cultural repression and spiritual crisis,” as one prominent magazine editor said to me, or as a friend who owns a bookstore put it, Iranians who have “lost their minds.” The success of translated titles like “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” has given rise to some homegrown authors’ specializing in more culturally specific advice. ... When Iranians aren’t reading about depression or the harmonious arrangement of furniture, they’re drawn to soap-opera-ish novels about family life and chaste, unrequited love, bearing titles like “The Solitude of Lonely Nights.” After the revolution, which created a caste of literate women with no more social clubs or cultural centers to frequent, the market for women’s popular fiction swelled. Demand is highest for Persian translations of Danielle Steel (with intimate scenes either blotted out or obliterated by euphemism) and her Iranian equivalents, Fahimeh Rahimi and M. Moaddabpour, neither of whom has ever been seen on television (used in Iran mainly to promote state ideology, soap and rice). The most popular novel of the last two decades, Fattaneh Haj Seyyed Javadi’s “Listless Morning,” about an idle aristocratic family under the 19th-century Qajar monarchy, has sold an unheard-of 185,000 copies since 1998 and spawned dozens of imitations.
And we think things are dismal on the reading front in Malaysia? says Moaveni:

When I arrived seven years ago, writers and publishers were making the same predictions about the impending death of reading heard perennially in the United States. In a nation of 70 million with a nearly 80 percent literacy rate and a centuries-old literary tradition, they argued, book sales — 40,000 copies for a typical commercial best seller and 2,000 to 5,000 for novels and literary nonfiction — were dismal. According to Mohammad-Reza Neymatpour of the Nashr-e Nay publishing house, sales have been declining steadily since 1979. Though books are inexpensive by any standard — generally costing no more than the price of a couple of sandwiches — little in public life encourages reading. There are few public libraries, no reading contests in schools and scarce promotion of any book apart from the book. (Billboards inform Iranians that if they can memorize the Koran in its entirety, they will be awarded a formal university degree.) Even the government is growing concerned. In advance of the Tehran Book Fair, held earlier this month, the state newspaper, Iran, published a scolding article under the headline “Let Us Learn How to Read.”

And get this:
In April, an announcer on state radio lamented that the average Iranian spends only 16 seconds a day reading.



Anonymous said...

I could have sworn she was actually describing the Malaysian situation, Sharon. The difference being, at least Iranians have a philosophical/intellectual tradition going back centuries.

- Ruhayat X

Obiter Dictum said...

The land of Omar Khayyam is such state? Hope it os not the moving finger having writ and moved on but a temporary. Even from recent past it has produced such eloquent writer like Ali Shariati and Montezari.

It is always painful, such news.

sympozium said...

Another strong argument for the complete and total separation of State and Religion.

Anonymous said...

It's odd isn't it, people predicting the end of reading. I'm reading every day, the newspapers, the websites, email etc. I'm probably reading more now than when I had books. What probably may come to an end is the practice of selling words for money. The supply of words have suddenly and exponentially increased due to the Internet, so the value of which has dropped a lot. Also the subsequent proliferation of above-average writers on the Net means that you have to be really good now if you want to charge money for it.

Blog Rasmi Motivasi Minda said...

apa khabar puan,
Saya menemui laman blog ini dari universiti PTS. Salam perkenalan.


bibliobibuli said...

ruhayat - they do indeed have a philosophical/intellectual tradition going back centuries, but i wonder how much things have changed in recent times. i don't think those things can survive under a totalitarian regime

obiter dictum - painful indeed

anon - good point. maybe it does push up the standard though ...

wonder btw what the internet penetration in iran is like? iran censors a lot of internet content related to politics and social comment.

selamat datang zamri. zamri ada banyak blog-blog lah! saya berharap blog ini boleh motivasikan minda zamri juga.

animah said...

In my list of Top 10 languages I would like to learn if I had the time (which competes with the Top 100 things I'd like to do when I have the time) and the ability - Persian is one of them (after Portuguese because I'd like to sing all those lovely Gilberto songs).
Why? Because Persia surely has the most amazing literature tradition. How wonderful to read their works in their original text. And now you're telling us they don't read?!! What happened?
Now tell me that there is absolutely no way that what happened there, will not happen here....

Anonymous said...

Would intellectualism die under totalitarian rule? Dunno about that. Then again, I'm one of those of the opinion that great works need (great) suffering to come forth. Which is why there's a dearth in Malaysia and Singapore. We got our independence dead easy, and we're still cruising now.

Milan Kundera wrote his best works while under the socialist regime. After that he's as boring and flat as last week's opened bottle of cola.

Let the artists and poets starve, I dare say. But give them their moleskin notebooks.