In a recent interview with the Chelcheragh magazine in Iran, president-elect Hassan Rouhani spoke of his desire to minimize censorship and his opposition to Internet filtering. He told the magazine that he wants the state to provide protection to artists and writers, rather than interfering with their work.
It is a move that distances him from the acrimonious regime of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that will kindle hope among many Iranians. However, politics and the arts have been intertwined in Iran for as long as anyone can remember. The story of the Iranian Writers’ Association is a striking example, one that is worth examining in depth.
Politics and the Iranian Writers’ Association
During the 1979 revolution, Mohsen Yalfani was a member of the board of editors of the Iranian Writers’ Association, and he lived through this hectic period within the association. In 1970, he was arrested by the SAVAK because of his play, The Teachers. He did not stay quiet, and in 1974 he was arrested during a rehearsal of Maxim Gorky’s Les Petites Bourgeois, along with all his colleagues in the Iran Theatre Society, and was this time sentenced to four years in prison. He was released in 1978, along with over a thousand other political prisoners.
He was a member of the association’s board of editors twice, but a year after the security forces attacked the association in 1981 he moved to France in secret. Now many miles from Iran, he told The Majalla: “It is very difficult for me to talk about the future of the association, but it seems to me that its record in fighting for its freedom is good enough for it to carry on. The association is important enough that its members can meet again and revitalize it.”
The Iranian Writers’ Association has been the victim of a wide variety of groups throughout its life. For an organization that was supposed to be cultural and non-political it has felt the specter of politics forever over its shoulder. Politics is present in the very fabric of the association, from members with political allegiances to governmental opposition and restrictions under the Shah and after the revolution.
In response to the question “Is the association political?” Yalfani says: “The writers’ association is fundamentally a non-political organization, but its primary goal of freedom of expression and opposing censorship has led it into confrontation with the government. The association does not want to be political and its members have no authority on political issues.”
He continues: “From the very beginning of the writers’ association in 1968, some of the members had political and party allegiances. Has this issue damaged the association?” He admits that the answer to his own question is “yes”: “During these forty-five years, there have been members in some sessions who wanted to force their own political opinions on the association and influence the Board of Editors.”
Yalfani indicates that members wanted to impose politics on the association because the country was in a state of rebellion against imperialism, and they believed that the association should not make its own demands. Such an opinion was unimaginable. Freedom of expression and opposing censorship did not go against the goals of the revolution.
The association has had three working sessions: the first from 1968 to 1970, the second from 1977 to 1981, and the third from around 1988 until today. In all three periods, members of the association suffered pressure from the state, including arrest, interrogation, being prevented from holding general meetings or electing a board of editors, being prevented from holding poetry nights, being banned from registering officially in all three of its sessions, and even the murder of writers. I asked Yalfani if the association had threatened these governments in any way to cause them to act like this. He replied: “Apart from talking, releasing statements and holding cultural gatherings, the association was not a threat to anyone. But when the word ‘freedom’ comes into play, some governments get scared.”
The first session: a protest against censorship
The first serious movement to establish a writers’ association was in July 1946و when the first Iranian Writers’ Congress was held. The idea of holding a second congress came from the government, and many independent writers sought to boycott it. There are many theories on the cause and motivation behind the establishment of the Iranian Writers’ Association. Some people support the traditional cause of opposing censorship, but Mohammad Ali Sepanlou believes it was a product of a boycott of the congress by writers. He says: “In the winter of 1968, the Congress of Iranian Writers was organized by the government. Young writers gathered around Jalal Al-e Ahmad in Tehran and asked him to start a petition and gather signatures to issue a statement against the congress, which in their view was run by the state.
Al-e Ahmad agreed, and in February 1968, after a few discussions, a document called “A statement on the congress of writers” was released. The support of writers, poets and translators for the statement forced the government to announce it would no longer hold the writers’ congress. The signatories to the document decided to use the same gathering to form the free union their document spoke of.
Reza Baraheni talks about the content of the meeting with Amir Hoveyda that led to the writers’ association being formed: “Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Ahmad Shamlou, Darwish Shar’et, Gelam Husssein Sa’idi, Cyrus Tahbaz, Yadollah Royaee and I went to see the prime minister; Mr Hoveyda said that he was unaware of censorship. After that visit, the idea of forming a bolder association than had existed previously for writers was etched into the mind of Jalal Al-e Ahmad and the rest of us. In that meeting, he banged his fist on Hoveyda’s desk and shouted, ‘Your sword will be broken by our pens!’”
Meetings to form the Iranian Writers’ Association were held from the end of 1968 in Café Nadiri and writers’ homes. Ali Ashgar Haj Seyed Javadi, Mohammad Ali Sepanlou and Nader Naderpour were elected to write the constitution. On April 21, 1968, many of the writers of the time met at Jalal’s house and, after the reading and approval of the manifesto, forty-nine members were selected as the founding board. On the same day, a special commission was ordered to make preparations for elections for the association’s first board of editors.
This session of the association came to an end in 1970. The government refused to give the association a license, imprisoned some of its members, threatened, intimidated and banned a number of others from writing, and placed harsh restrictions on the activities of the association. Differences due to political alignments within the association also posed a problem. There were three political factions within the association: those colleagues who thought along the same lines as Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Tudeh-supporting members led by Behazin, and another group, mainly young people, who did not agree with either of these groups and always took the most extreme positions. The supporters of Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Behazin managed to compromise on their differences and cooperate within the association
The second session: The expulsion of Communism
The association’s second period began in 1977. At the end of 1976, a number of the old members, as well as other writers, agreed to restart the association. The first step towards resuming the writers association was to prepare and send an open letter to Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda. This letter was signed by forty writers and demanded that fundamental laws on the freedom of thought, expression and writing be observed. It also highlighted the need to stimulate cultural growth and intellectual creativity in society.
In 1979, the Writers’ Association wanted to hold a poetry evening; five Tudeh writers (Behazin, Siavash Kasraie, Hushang Ebtehaj, Fereydoun Tonekaboni and Mohamed-Taqi Barmond) were among those against holding poetry evenings. Three days later, in the heat of argument between supporters and opponents of holding poetry and spoken word evenings, the five Tudeh members published an open letter in the Keyhan newspaper. The association’s board of editors held a meeting and suspended their membership. After announcing this news publicly they left the final decision on the matter to the general assembly. Following the board’s decision to suspend the membership of these individuals, a number of association members, who were mainly Tudehs, stood before the board of directors and indicated their support for them.
Mohsen Yalfani told The Majalla: “The most important event in this period was the expulsion of five old, prominent members who were insistent that the association follow their party.” He suggests that the fighting within the association was between the ideals of wanting justice and wanting freedom: “Those five members believed in the Tudeh party’s mantra of justice and followed it with utter devotion. The board of directors and the majority of members resisted the propaganda of members who supported the Tudeh party inside the association . . . and eventually they decided to expel them. This led to a kind of rift within the association.”
He says: “The Tudehs followed the political goals of a leader and the state, and it was important to protect the association from that. The association followed freedom for all without exception or arrest: freedom without limitation.” After their expulsion, another group of members who supported the Tudeh party handed in a joint resignation and set up a group of their own.
At the end of 1981, the attack by the government’s forces on the association’s office and and the confiscation of funds in June of that year ended the activities of the association.
The third session: Present-day Iran
The third period of the association began in 1988, when demands such as holding a commemoration for the poet Nima were made. The protest against the arrest of Saidi Sirjani in 1993 and the publication of the document “We are writers” in 1994, with the signatures of 134 writers, were big strides towards renewing the association.
Cultural matters became more open Under the government of Seyed Mohammad Khatami, and on November 25, 1999, the Iranian Writers’ Association held the first general meeting of its third session, with 120 attendees and a message from Ahmad Shamlou and Simin Daneshvar. However, the association’s attempts to register officially and to gain approval from the state and government officials remained unsuccessful. In recent years, many members have served lengthy prison sentences even though the association has been restricted to issuing statements.
Hassan Rouhani’s desire to remove censorship from Iranian arts and media is certainly a positive development for Iran’s writers, journalists and artists, but as the history of the Iranian Writers’ Association demonstrates, censorship is an ingrained part of political and artistic life in Iran. Regardless of Rouhani’s wishes, it will prove almost impossible for him to completely free the media—if he intends to go that far in the first place.
Iran is likely to see the level of censorship decreased and the media and the arts may well enjoy a degree of freedom. But rather than a complete withdrawal of all censorship, we will probably see a return to life as it was under Khatami. There will likely be a greater degree of tolerance for artists and writers both on the page and online, but with the state censor still quietly operating in the background.