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Source: literary Hub

Aug 24, 2023

Dotted Lines: On Writing and Humiliation Under Iranian Censorship

"A time will come when our stories shall be told in their entirety."

By Moeen Farrokhi

I have never told this story in its entirety to anyone: not to my therapist, not to my closest friends, and not even to my family. I’ve divulged bits and pieces of it to different people. When my friends back home in Iran asked me why I was leaving, I made up a thousand different reasons. When my friends in Istanbul asked me what happened and why I came, I said that a part of me had died, that my ambition, courage, and hope for the future had dried up. But I didn’t explain why. I couldn’t connect the single moments into a coherent narrative.

One of those singular moments: I am sitting at the corner of Baharestan Square, a few hundred meters from the Book House of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. On my cell phone, I have the tracking number of the book I had edited. A publisher friend told me that I should visit the acquaintance she introduced to me, but she was gone.

“Now what?” I ask on the phone, talking to my publisher friend “What should I do now? Where should I go? Which room?”

I have to find a certain lady in a certain room. They say that no one will answer me with my long curly hair. I am wearing a formal shirt, though. I’ve tried to fix my hair. I am directed from the second floor to the third floor, from the third floor to the fourth floor, from the west side of the fourth floor to the east side of the second floor. I keep saying the tracking number of the book. I say that I have come on behalf of the publishing house to protest against the censorship of the book.

I say that I want to talk to “Momayyez” himself, the person who read the book and decided that the middle finger that one character showed to another person in his pocket should be removed. We had altered the middle finger to cursing in his heart. The answer was clear: No way. I got lost in the corridor of the rooms. They recommended that I submit a written letter to the system, which I had already done, but it remained unanswered. Eventually, we had to omit it completely.

For two years, I was the editor of the translation desk of the most popular literary magazine in Iran. At the beginning of every month, my job was to select stories from many different candidates, recommend them to translators, edit the translations, discuss every word with the translator, and finalize the text. However, the final text was never really final. We had to send it to “Momayyez” and wait a few days for him to read it and return it with some notes. The person in charge was a bald man who always spoke calmly, telling us to change certain parts of the text. We had to make the kisses and sex into just “intimacy,” replace “alcohol” with “drink,” cover up the women’s clothing a little, make the political references in the stories more obscure and incomprehensible.

Soon, even the words “drink” and “intimacy” were added to the blacklist. In the stories, people drank Cola and got drunk. A man and a woman—gay characters were completely out of the question—got intimate just by talking to each other. We were not naïve. We knew that the removal of words was more extensive and systematic. Deleting a word changes the story’s dynamic, and that changes human relations. Altering human relations affects our perceptions of life. We fought over every single word. The removal that occurred was never justified, and more importantly, it never had a serious alternative. If we did not compromise anywhere, practically no magazine would be published.

Let me share another one of those singular moments: You probably don’t know Nasser Taqvai, one of the pioneers in Iranian new-wave cinema. For me he’s one of the best directors in the history of Iran. However, 22 years have passed since his last film, and he has remained half-finished in several different projects. A few years ago, the Cinematheque of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts held a tribute to Nasser Taqvai. They played one of his old movies, and then he himself, old and weak, came and spoke loudly and eloquently about Iranian artists.

Before that, the moderator had come and introduced him, “Everyone, clap your hands in honor of dear Nasser Taqvai, who is here with us and has fought against censorship for years.” He said. The moderator was a movie critic and encouraged the fight against censorship. He was also the same bald man who censored the stories of our magazine. If the whole censorship is like Kafka’s stories – judgments that come suddenly from an unknown power – we too would be Sisyphus pushing a stone. We writers and artists are forever striving against a force that seems determined to defeat us at every turn. Sometimes I wonder what Sisyphus was thinking the first time the stone rolled down.

Inside myself, I had lost my sense of values. When I should have been brave, I was a coward. When I should have thought of an alternative, I stopped thinking altogether.

One morning, I woke up from disturbed dreams to a phone call from my publisher. Up until that point, I had written two books and translated several others, but it was my third work that held particular significance. A series of interconnected stories, it delved into the lives of isolated individuals who were oblivious to the fact that they were inexplicably linked. Craving a connection with another being to alleviate their loneliness, these characters were bound by their own mental shackles, unable to perceive the limitless opportunities of the world beyond.

As I committed my character’s stories to paper, I was mindful that it would be scrutinized by the Department of Islamic Culture and Guidance. Consequently, I was acutely aware of the “red lines” that must not be crossed, such as explicitly depicting sexual acts or introducing political undertones. Rules that every writer in every authoritarian system is aware of. When I woke up, I called the publisher, and they said that the “corrections” of the book had arrived.

“Well, then the work will be done with the some corrections?” I asked.

“You should check for yourself”, they said.

It was four pages. On top of it, they wrote to the publisher that the following texts should be observed to issue permission to publish the book:

A certain page, such and such line: this phrase should be corrected or deleted.

So I went down and thought, “How am I going to fit these omissions and corrections together and save my stories at the same time?” Pages 80 to 102 had to be deleted. Page 80 would be the third page of a story, and page 102 would be where the female character of the story fades away. In the meantime, a bold woman entered the life of an isolated and shy man. The man and woman would talk to each other (seriously, all they did was just talking) and the essence of their relationship would change.

They were walking together. The man was living his life. The woman was living her life. The woman would go to the man’s house and there they didn’t know if they wanted to sleep together or not (I had arranged this whole scene in a way that it wouldn’t come out artificially in the envelope of their conversation) and eventually they didn’t sleep together. The woman would disappear from the next day. The man, in the absence of the power that had animated his life, wandered around the streets in confusion to find some sense of belonging.

The following week, I returned to the Baharestan building. I had lost my sense of direction, the building – old and tall – was there, but somehow I managed not to see it. It’s strange how memories can disintegrate from one place to the next. I remember walking from one room to another, and then feeling confused in the surrounding streets afterwards. I don’t recall what happened once I stepped in that room, but I remember every moment of being inside it. I don’t know how long I stayed, nor do I remember the exact order of our conversations.

I stood in front of the room’s door, which had a table blocking it so I couldn’t enter. A woman dressed in a black “chador” stood behind a computer and talked to me. I had given her the tracking number of my book, and she was looking half at the computer and half at me, probably reading from the “momayyez” report.

“Why are you here? You should check the items and make corrections,” she said matter-of-factly.

“They had asked me to delete 20 pages but I didn’t know where to make the changes.” I insisted.

“We have boundaries, they are written on the website.” She reminded me.

I knew she wanted to get rid of me, to make me revise the book again, so I told her that I had read the website carefully and followed the red line.

“There were many societal events that you shouldn’t write about, it’s like putting a woman with ‘bad hijab’ on the book cover, of course you can see them on the street, but you just can’t normalize it.” She said.

I asked if there was no way to fix the problem, as if the problem was mine. She said no, and then looked at her computer and said that my writing was admirable, but I needed to rewrite it.

The next few days were a hazy mix of slumber and consciousness. I never admitted to anyone that in those few fleeting moments, as my rage mounted, so did my shame. I was nearly certain that I had uttered those words resisting any change, yet in my recollection, I saw myself as someone who stood frozen and speechless before the door and table. I yearned to cry out, but I restrained myself. I had stifled my own voice, all by myself.

But what was even worse was that I didn’t recognize my own anger. I told myself that I should be honest with myself, that worse things had happened to many people, and that my book wasn’t worth that much anyway. In the outside world, I don’t know what was lost. Inside myself, I had lost my sense of values. When I should have been brave, I was a coward. When I should have thought of an alternative, I stopped thinking altogether.

I didn’t write anything for two years, and I haven’t yet written a good story. In all my stories, I had tried not to reveal the core of the story and the characters’ feelings, instead focusing on the network of meanings and emotions. However, the core of my personal story was embarrassingly inescapable: I couldn’t defend myself, I couldn’t console myself. Instead of brandishing my middle finger, I shifted it into curses inside my heart, and even that very curse was oppressed into silence. I was exposed. I had lost the lines and lines of feelings and meanings.

The desperate need to share my story (or any story, if it mattered) overwhelmed me, yet I could not discern a beginning, an end, or the narrative thread. Within a realm devoid of both past and future, where time folded upon itself like a gif on an endless loop. I couldn’t bring myself to try again, fail again, fail better. Unless you have possessed Beckett’s spirit, it is highly possible that you end up writing nothing when paralyzed. In my case, I didn’t even try. It didn’t seem like a writer’s block, but rather an impenetrable blockage that stood between me and anything I could write, or have written.

Days after days were spent revisiting my book repeatedly, desperately hoping to make it work somehow. Yet, I could no longer recognize the author behind those words. I began to question the very act of writing itself, what I had previously considered the profound potential that literature offers: the ability to recreate alternate existences, to imagine lives denied, and to peer through the dimly lit chamber into the vast expanse of the outside world. I found myself exiled within the confines of my own being, akin to the hapless characters in my book who had severed their connection to the world.

In solitary moments when one seeks a point of connection, one might find themselves surrounded by dots that they must connect themselves. One faces meaningless dotted lines in the middle of the story. This arises from the absence of access to silenced voices. Before me was an unpredictable system that intentionally mixed signals and noise. It aims to confuse people. Without a clear boundary, anything can become a red line. Fighting against the red line becomes futile and exhausting. Over the years, many Iranian directors and writers have attended foreign festivals and claimed that censorship in Iran is not severe and that we can still find ways to tell our stories.

Some have even praised censorship for inspiring new forms of expression unique to Iranian story-telling. However, many later discovered that negotiating with censorship was a dead end and were either forced into exile or left to abandon their creative work. Their career was left unfinished. In an interview, director Nasser Taqvai observed that censorship has led to the discovery of new forms of expression and may have contributed to the distinctive signature of Iranian cinema. But, he added, no one talks about those who were silenced, the stories that could not find a form of expression, and the ideas that remained unspoken. My book was one of those.

I found myself exiled within the confines of my own being, akin to the hapless characters in my book who had severed their connection to the world.

My book ended with the story of a young man who, after ending a relationship, attempts desperately to heal by forming a new relationship. On the day of the agreement between Iran and the West on the nuclear program and the lifting of sanctions, he goes to the house of a girl to keep her company during this historic moment. They watch the news together and witness the moment of agreement. As they get physically closer, the young man realizes that he is still raging and grieving, that he is still unable to tolerate intimacy.

He leaves the house and joins the crowd in the streets who are celebrating and expressing their anger. This young man is the only character in the entire book who finds a connection to the outside world and understands that the path to healing is not personal but collective. The next day, he wakes up and remembers scenes from his lost relationship. He recalls his girlfriend asking him, “What’s your story?” In that moment, a realization dawns upon him—he has never truly opened up and shared his own story. With this newfound awareness, he musters the courage to embark on the journey of narrating it. He understands that the path to redemption lies in confronting the suppressed anger that lurks beneath layers of shame. Reading his story again, I could see how even back then I was unconsciously struggling to seek a fresh beginning, to untangle the threads of a narrative yet untold.

When I left Iran, my plan was to observe my homeland from a distance and reinvent my storyteller identity in a new language, within a new life. I never imagined that I still have unfinished business there. However, after the tragic killing of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, it became apparent that the closure would not arrive any time soon.  I had only fled. Over these months, the unmistakable voices of Iranian women and people have grown louder, drowning out the silences. They have arisen against the red lines, and grasped that fighting on the red line with this oppressive regime is foolish, and instead, they must fight with the whole weight of their being against oppression’s very existence.

Though I am not a woman, their powerful voice resonates within me. That deafening silence I had experienced was the dotted lines in an otherwise striking, more inclusive, story. Before that, I was oblivious to the fact that each one of us has a story of humiliation, a deep-seated resentment that is lurking underneath anger and despair which has been censored, silenced, suppressed. Now I know each narrative contributes to the collective voice. When I watched street demonstrations far away from home, I heard my own voice amidst the slogans of Iran’s streets, a cry that I never made, and do not know when it emerges. Nevertheless, a time will come when our stories shall be told in their entirety, liberated from those maddening dotted lines, flowing seamlessly from beginning to end. No doubt that it will be a happier story, full of hope and redemption.

Moeen Farrokhi is an Iranian writer and translator. His works in Farsi include two short-story collections, The Pure Snow (Cheshmeh Publication House, 2016) and Artificial Dreams (banned from publication), along with the long essay A Supposedly Nonpolitical Narration of a Political Event: Iran’s Election 2017 (Cheshmeh Publication House, 2018). He has translated the works of David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith into Farsi. His latest translation, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, is scheduled for publication in the Fall of 2023.

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