Forty-six years ago, a group of Iranian intellectuals founded Iran’s Writers Association. The association was launched as a protest against a government-sponsored writers’ gathering, initiated by the Empress Farah Pahlavi.
Little did they know that, in 2014, under a completely different political system, the activities of the association would still be suspended.
A recent statement by Abbas Salehi, Deputy of Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, brought fresh attention to the plight of independent writers in Iran and the widespread government censorship they face. The official stated that if the Writers Association “sheds its old skin”, it might be allowed to resume its activities.
In an interview with the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), he emphasized that he was stating his own personal opinion and was not talking about a change in ministry policies. “The Writer’s Association is engaged in a dispute about history,” he said. “This dispute was important in the past but today many of its members have passed away or don’t have the energy or the patience to be active, so shedding their old skin can benefit both the association and its members.”
The association has not been allowed to hold a general meeting for many years. As recently as January, the association reported that security agents prevented it from holding its monthly consultative meeting.
In a recent report, the association criticized President Rouhani’s statements at a meeting with a group of artists and writers. “What is the relation between those odes to freedom and art...and these threats and acts of suppression?” it asked.
After Salehi stated his “personal” opinion, the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, the same authority responsible for the nuclear program, asked the media not to follow up on the issue. Nevertheless, the conservative daily Kayhan, under the direct supervision of the office of the Supreme Leader, did not let it go, directing a barrage of criticism against Salehi. In its February 11th issue, it called the Writers Association a “war room” for internal enemies and accused its members of a wide variety of offences. Other hardliner webites followed suit.
Why has the Writers Association suddenly morphed into a sensitive security issue for the Islamic Republic?
“We were the protest generation of that era,” writes poet and literary critic Mohammad Ali Sepanlou in his book A Letter From Writers. “We had no doubt that we would not participate in this congress and the government people knew this, so they did not invite us. But we wanted our refusal to be known, not buried in silence.” So he and a group of other Iranian writers and artists, including Bahram Bayzai, Ahmad Reza Ahmadi and Nader Ebrahimi, signed a letter declaring that they would not participate in the state-sponsored congress because “until the pen is free, there will be no writers”.
After many meetings among writers, poets and artists, the association was at last formalized. The founders issued a statement called “A Necessity”, in which they demanded freedom of expression based on the constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The first phase of the Writers Association activities came to an end in 1968 when internal conflicts over political tendencies broke it into three groups. One followed the prominent writer and anti-communist (and former communist) social critic, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad; the second supported pro-Soviet Marxist and writer Behazin, and third group were not affiliated with any political movement. Ale-e-Ahmad died the same year and the arrest of some members put an end to the activities of the association as a coherent group.
In 1976, under pressure from international human rights groups and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had made human rights a central plank in his agenda, the Shah allowed the political environment to open up ever so slightly. This marked the beginning of the second phase of the Writers Association’s activities. In 1977, a group of them wrote letters to the Shah’s prime minister, demanding freedom of expression.
The most memorable events of this phase were the “poetry nights” at the Goethe Institute, sponsored by the Iranian-German Cultural Institute, in autumn 1977. It became very popular and about 60 poets read their poems to overflowing crowds, in a revolutionary and anti-censorship atmosphere.
“You Are Free, But...”
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 did not end this phase of the association’s activities. In February 1979, a group of prominent members met with Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and asked him to oppose any kind of censorship.
Khomeini’s answer set the tone for future relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Writers Association. “Gentlemen,” Khomeini told them, “you writers have a great responsibility now. They broke your pens before, but now you can write freely. However, you must put this freedom in the service of the nation’s freedom, in the service of Islamic teachings. This nation that you see is united under the banner of Islam.”
What happened subsequently put the government and the association on a collision course with one another: books were banned, bookstores were raided and censorship was imposed. The Writers Association wanted to launch another series of poetry nights, “Nights of Freedom,” at Tehran University, but association members belonging to the Tudeh Party, who were pro-Soviet communists, opposed it. They believed that the Islamic Republic deserved support because of its “anti-imperialist” stance. As a result, political divisions within the association deepened and the council of directors decided to expel members of the Tudeh party, including Behazin.
(Despite its support, the Islamic Republic did not treat the Tudeh party kindly. It was banned in 1982 and its leadership was arrested, along with 10,000 of its members. Hundreds were killed in 1986 in a mass execution of political prisoners.)
In this phase of its activities, the Writers Association wrote a letter to Mehdi Bazargan, the interim prime minister of the Islamic republic, asking him to officially recognize the association. Bazargan disregarded the letter, according to Mohammad Mohammadali, a member at the time. Shortly after, in the summer of 1981, the offices of the association were occupied and its contrents confiscated.
In 1990, after a devastating earthquake in northern Iran, some members gathered to mobilize assistance for the victims, but their meetings continued to be banned, even in private homes.
A bigger showdown, however, occurred in March 1994, when Saidi Sirjani, writer, poet, journalist and a critic of the Islamic Republic, was arrested by Ministry of Security and Intelligence. Eight months later, in November 1994, he died under mysterious conditions while in custody.
Sixty writers objected to his arrest In an open letter. Following this, 134 writers wrote another open letter, entitled "We Are Writers", in which they asked for freedom of association. “Our unity with the aim of creating a professional writers’ association in Iran is the precondition for our independence as individuals,” the letter said. “All writers must enjoy the freedom of conscience to create their own work, criticize and analyze the work of other authors, and to express their experience and beliefs.” Regarding the targeting and punishment of individual members, the letter added that, “since people are responsible for their own political beliefs and social actions, the writers’ general agreement in dealing with the common problems of all men and women of letters does not mean that individual members shall be held responsible for other members’ individual deeds and actions.”
Sirjani’s death was not an isolated incident. In 1998, a scandal known as the “chain murders” came to light. Investigative journalists exposed that, during a ten-year period starting in 1998, agents from the Ministry of Security and Intelligence had systematically killed political and literary figures critical of the Islamic Republic, among them more than ten writers and members of the Writers Association.
The authorities first denied any responsibility for the series of murders. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and hardline media blamed foreign enemies who, they said, wanted to create “insecurity to try to block the progress of Iran's Islamic system”. But then, In January 1999, the ministry of intelligence issued a statement in which it accused “rogue elements” within its own staff of having committed the crimes. Several people were arrested but the accused mastermind, Saeed Emami, allegedly committed suicide in prison by drinking a bottle of “hair remover”.
Before this affair came to light, in 1996, state-run television broadcast a report entitled “The Identity”, which included forced confessions by writers and political figures. Among those who confessed were members of the Writers Association, including novelist and critic Hooshang Golshiri, and literary historian Abdolhossein Zarinkoob, who were accused of being “spies”. It is rumored that the accused mastermind of the chain murders and Hossein Shariatmadari, the current managing editor of the hardliner daily Kayhan, were the program’s behind-the-scenes producers.
The “Death Bus”
Another bizarre plot within this greater scheme to eliminate writers critical of the regime was the “Death Bus”. In the summer of 1996, after unfavorable weather conditions cancelled their flight, a group of 21 writers, poets, translators and journalists boarded a bus to travel to Armenia at the invitation of the Armenian Writers Union. Along the way, however, they discovered that the bus was a trap to murder them.
According to one of the travelers, writer and poet Mansour Kooshan, they woke up at dawn and noticed that the bus had stopped on a winding road overlooking a cliff; the driver’s seat was empty. He found the driver a little further down the road. “I was sleepy; got afraid and got off,” he explained. The passengers encouraged the driver to continue the journey, even though they were frightened, and placed two people close to hist seat to keep an eye on him. After a very short distance, about four meters, the driver pushed down the gas pedal and jumped off the bus. Fortunately, one of the two men was able to grab the steering wheel while the other pulled up the handbrake.
When the bus arrived at the police station, Mostafa Kazemi, the Intelligence Ministry’s head of internal security, who just “happened” to be there, interrogated the writers. As it turned out later, both he and the driver were complicit in the “chain murders” conspiracy.
These public disclosures, unusual under the Islamic Republic, took place in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist presidency, from 1997 to 2005. The Writers Association was even able to hold elections for its board of directors during this time, but it activities were once again curbed following the end of Khatami’s presidency.
The Writers’ Association Today
In recent years, the association’s activities have been limited to issuing strong statements against censorship that none of the domestic media dares to publish. As expected, the Writers Association reacted sharply to Salehi’s statements and declared that the association supports freedom of expression and is against censorship. “It is the government and the Ministry of Guidance that must ‘shed its skin’,” the statement announced, “not the Iran’s Writers Association”.
In their personal capacities, individual members have criticized Salehi. “The association is not a snake that will shed its skin,” Shahryar Madani Pour, a 57-year-old writer who left Iran seven years ago, told IranWire. “It is a thorn, a thorn in the eye of censorship. It bites with words.” The criticism was harsh, but also poetic: in Persian, the words “snake” and “thorn” are very close, with only the first letter differentiating them.
“Where did Salehi get the statistics that the living members of the association ‘don’t have the energy or the patience to be active’?” he asked. “Many of independent writers and poets have lost hope that they will be published, so they do not give their works to publishers.”
“The association’s past is still relevant,” according to Iranian poet and one of the association’s founders, Esmail Nooriala, who spoke to IranWire. “As long as there is censorship, the writer has three choices [if he wants] to remain a writer: accept censorship, practice self-censorship or fight it as hard as he can. As long as censorship exists, the Writers Association has to engage in professional and political struggles. It will become an exclusively professional association when there is no censorship.”
“The revolution of 1979,” Nooriala says, “was based on opposition to tyranny, suppression and censorship so, obviously, many of the prominent figures of the Writers Association were attracted to it. The revolution, however, became religious and Ayatollah Khomeini insisted on muzzling writers and making them Islamic, so a major portion of the association’s members parted ways with the center of power and decided to expose its activities against human rights.”
The Silver Lining
There is a silver lining to Salehi’s recent statement, says Iranian writer and critic Younes Trakameh. “There is no alternative to hope. In all these years of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s Writers Association has kept this frail fire alive. This and nothing more. For many years, the government tried to find a replacement for the association, the same way that it tried to produce government-sponsored writers who receive government-sponsored literary prizes, but it did not succeed in either venture. The fact that the deputy to the Ministry of Guidance brings up the name of the Writers Association shows that these gentlemen have found out that they cannot disregard the association and its historical record, regardless of whether the deputy was expressing his personal opinion or not.”
The “gentlemen” might not be able to disregard the Writers Association, but they don’t have to like it. The saga continues.