There is a conundrum facing Iranian officials. The government, on the one hand, wants Iranians to read more. At the same time, with the other hand, it wants to cover their eyes.
Love of the written word is deeply rooted in Iranian society, due to its extraordinary history of arts, sciences and literature. However, Iranians aren’t reading enough. Bookstores in Iran are a rarity, with some 1,500 shops for a population of almost 80 million. There was a time when publishers gave books a print run of 3,300-5,500 copies. Now, the numbers have dropped drastically to 500, sometimes even 300 copies.
That’s why the Iranian government recently announced it would be opening the largest bookstore in the world – by square footage – during the coming months. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this title was held by the Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York City, which covered 154,250ft. Unfortunately, the 5th Avenue flagship store closed down in 2014.
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Mahamoud Salahi, the head of the Art and Cultural Organization of Tehran Municipality, announced that Bagh-e-Ketab (the Book Orchard/Garden) will be 484,376ft (45,000m), triple the size of the once world-record holder. This bookstore is expected to cater to all walks of life and ages, but will focus on youth and include an auditorium for theatre performances, and four research departments for university professors to hold workshops and study sessions. The Tehran municipality has reportedly already spent 100 billion rials (more than $3 million) on the project.
‘Currently, we are at a stage of getting the store’s equipment. We hope that all interested publishers will be able to place their work on our shelves,’ Salahi told Iranian reporters. During 2015, he pushed for a campaign to promote reading by distributing free books and booklets on buses and subways for people. This had existed previously, but was halted three years prior, for reasons unknown.
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To fight censorship, authors and readers at home and abroad are uploading banned books to the internet, where Iranians download them for free. Iraj Pezeshkzad’s classic coming-of-age novel My Uncle Napoleon (1973) and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (1937) are readily available online, together with countless other banned Western titles translated into Persian. This includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986) as well as The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie – the very book that caused Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s revolution in 1979, to issue a death fatwa for the author, which is still in place today.
Iranians have also come up with online publishing houses to bring out writer’s works as ebooks, either from their own websites or via apps such as Google Books. The Iran-based Nogaam has published 25 books since 2013, mostly by authors who reside in the country and would otherwise have no chance of being published due to censorship. Books are crowdfunded, and once writers are compensated for their work, the titles become available for free download. Other companies such as Fidibo serve as digital libraries that feature ebooks with publishing permission from the Iranian government.