In Other Words

Beyond Lolita in Tehran

FOREIGN POLICY: Describe Tehran’s reading culture. Hadi Semati: The city’s literary sphere is quite open. One can buy anything in the bookshops of the university quarter or in the two multilevel bookstores called Shahreketab ("book cities"). FP: What sells most? HS: Entertainment, fiction, and love stories, as well as women authors. Popular books include Shahla ...

FOREIGN POLICY: Describe Tehran’s reading culture.

Hadi Semati: The city’s literary sphere is quite open. One can buy anything in the bookshops of the university quarter or in the two multilevel bookstores called Shahreketab ("book cities").

FP: What sells most?

HS: Entertainment, fiction, and love stories, as well as women authors. Popular books include Shahla Mozami’s Runaway Girls, Pour Reza’s Violence Against Women, and Shahla Lahiji’s Women in Search of Liberation. Poet Simin Behbahani, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, and feminists such as Noshin Ahmadi Khorasani and Shadi Sadr all write and tour the country.

FP: What do people think of the international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi?

HS: Actually, it isn’t available in Persian. Even so, people dislike its emotional and possibly exaggerated account of the state’s recent intrusiveness.

FP: Do books on Iranian history have an audience?

HS: A recent autobiography of Ayatollah Khalkhali received a lot of attention. After the fall of the shah in 1979, he became known as the "hanging judge" for his malicious summary executions. People also like histories and fiction on the shah era, such as the memoirs of Assadolah Alam, the shah’s court minister.

FP: What happened to the writers who called for democratic reforms in the past few years?

HS: Akbar Ganji’s Fascist Interpretation of Religion and Government, Saeed Hajjarian’s Demystifying Power, Ibrahim Nabavi’s satires, and Abbas Abdi’s account of political imprisonment remain powerful calls for Iranian democracy. Ganji and Abdi are now political prisoners.

FP: What foreign works do Iranians read?

HS: Translations into Persian — such as paperbacks of John Grisham and Agatha Christie — are experiencing a boom market. People also read novels by Toni Morrison and Milan Kundera, as well as political books by Anthony Giddens, Hernando de Soto, and Francis Fukuyama. Europe and Latin America remain Iran’s key cultural reference points, so many Iranians cherish Sir Karl Popper, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, and Gabriel García Márquez.

FP: What about newspapers?

HS: The most popular ones are the daily sports papers, as well as a paper called Havades ("Incidents"), which focuses on crime and accidents. The publicly owned city paper of Tehran, Hamshahri ("Citizen"), has lost some popularity, but former Hamshahri journalists enjoy wide success with their own globally minded and sophisticated paper, Shargh ("East").

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