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Trying to write in 'black period' Iran: Writers critical of the regime have always fallen afoul of censorship. Now more of them are turning up dead.

TEHRAN, IRAN — TEHRAN, Iran -- On March 29, a little more than a month after he disappeared, Ibrahim Zalzadeh's body turned up at the morgue in the city coroner's office.

In another country, his family might have assumed that the 49-year-old magazine publisher had been the victim of a car accident or some other relatively innocent tragedy. But in Iran, thoughts tend toward the more sinister.

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Indeed, a few days later, when friends of the family finally saw the body and reported that Zalzadeh had been stabbed three or four times in the chest, the family's suspicions deepened. "He was stabbed in the heart," says a close friend who asked not to be identified. "It certainly wasn't an accident."

No one knows for sure and, most likely, no one will ever know whether Zalzadeh was killed by the Islamic regime that rules Iran. But he had been on the bad side of the government, having publicly criticized it for censoring authors. His own magazine, Mayar, had closed after its supply of newsprint was cut by the government, and in the weeks before he disappeared, he told friends that he felt threatened by the government.

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His death came after similar misfortunes befell other writers and intellectuals. In all, more than a half-dozen of Iran's intellectual elite have been mysteriously killed in the past two years here.

"It's all very, very suspicious," says Daryoush Farouhar, a longtime opponent of the Iranian regime. "Zalzadeh is not the only one who has died recently."

All these years after the mullahs took power in Iran, it's hardly news that the government of Iran has no soft spot for writers and intellectuals. Since the Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power 18 years ago, the government has refused to tolerate movies, books, magazines or other artistic endeavors that make use of sexual imagery or are perceived as excessively "Western," unfavorable to Islam or even slightly anti-government.

The Rushdie affair

For those who didn't get the message, there was the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, in which Khomeini issued a religious decree calling for the death of the British author for writing a

novel deemed blasphemous to Islam.

The most recent crackdown -- the so-called "black period," which began about two years ago and has meant imprisonment and, in the opinion of many Iranian intellectuals, death for a group of those who would not be silenced -- is a new low, a part of a concerted effort, according to human rights groups, by authorities to clamp down on thought and expression perceived as dangerous to the Islamic republic. Human Rights Watch, in a letter to the head of the Iranian judiciary this spring, expressed concern about "a pattern of repression directed against independent writers and publishers in Iran."

"The regime is determined not to see the reality that is before them," says Abas Maroufi, an Iranian writer and publisher whose magazine, Gardoun, was closed down and who was himself sentenced to 20 lashes and a six-month prison term for an article that supposedly criticized the regime and insulted its leaders. "They know that writers are like a mirror, and that if you let them write, you cannot any longer ignore the reality."

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But the battle goes on. One publisher says that he has 35 books -- some with thousands of copies already printed, others in manuscript form -- gathering dust in the office of the censors at what is euphemistically known as the "Ministry of Culture and XTC Islamic Guidance," and that he had so far been refused permission to distribute them to bookstores.

Films are routinely cut and changed by bureaucrats in the office of film censorship. Books of poetry, some of which have been published for decades, are being banned or changed in their ninth or 10th editions. Famous Iranian writers have been deleted from the latest editions of the Iranian Encyclopedia of Literature. In the past year and a half, according to Farouhar, about 20 publications have lost their licenses to publish, and editors, in many cases, have been arrested, convicted and punished.

The latest wave of repression began after Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani died in detention under mysterious circumstances in the end of 1994. A coroner's report was never released. Then, when 134 writers and intellectuals signed a letter to then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani protesting the handling of the case, every single one of the signers received anonymous death threats.

One of the signers, Ahmad Mir-Allai, an editor at the magazine Zendehroud, died in suspicious circumstances in Isfahan in October 1995, according to Human Rights Watch. In the months that followed, security agents raided the houses of writers and broke up meetings. A number have been sentenced to lashings and prison terms.

Though other things are more horrible, perhaps nothing is as eerily symbolic of what's going on as the melting of books. It's happened on numerous occasions: The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance takes books that have already been printed, but not yet distributed, and they hold them in a warehouse while reviewing the content. If they decide the book should not be allowed into the stores, they take all existing copies -- in one case, there were 11,000 of them -- and bring them by truck to a cardboard plant, where they are washed in a big pot to get the ink off.

The pages are then shredded, and finally are cooked into a paste. The paste is then recycled into cardboard.

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"They've burned my store down and they've arrested me and they've taken my books and put them back into the pot and made them into dough," one publisher said. "But the funny thing is, I still love my job, because I feel I haven't made any compromises to them. The problems here have happened gradually and we've become resistant or used to them, or we just learned to survive them."

Fight, flee or self-censor

There are numerous responses to the repression. Some publishers have gone ahead with their work and have been punished for it. Many writers and intellectuals, particularly in recent days, have left the country altogether. Many others have learned to censor themselves.

"Self-censorship is extremely common," said one person in the book industry. "First, the writers kill their own creativity and suppress their talent so their books will be acceptable to the regime, and then the editor makes further changes. You can imagine what the result is."

But the crackdown has not completely chilled free expression. Writers and publishers still gather at people's houses and read their work to one another. Poems that have been banned are photocopied and distributed. Western books are smuggled into the country and duplicated. Like the samizdat publishing endeavors of the former Soviet Union, entire books are copied unofficially and passed hand-to-hand through Tehran. Underground newsletters are distributed by fax.

"The government is frightened, of course," Farouhar says. "In any atmosphere this oppressive, the writers, artists and intellectuals are the ones who best convey the suffering of the people, the emotions they're feeling -- and dictators are afraid of that. But they won't be able to stop it."

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Pub Date: 6/10/97


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