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by Shahriar Mandanipour

WWB Campus is currently developing a collection of literature from contemporary Iran. You can find the first few stories under the theme "Leaving Home"  on the right-hand side of the page. 

 A unit introduction is forthcoming; in the meantime, we are publishing an excerpt from Shahriar Mandanipour's essay, "The Poet, His Cut-Off Head in His Hand, Went Singing Songs and Ghazals: Literature in Iran," first published in the magazine Words Without Borders 

Iran’s literature is wounded, but it still has blood, and in its blood lies a secret….

Iran’s sky is filled with recollections of drifting paper ashes, and its rains bear ink in their memories. But during all these centuries, as some countries and governments and even languages around the world have vanished and entrusted their place to others, Iran’s literature has survived, and its survival has a secret.

The secret lies in the Persian language. After every occupation and plunder and pillage, the only thing left to the Iranian people has been its language. The Persian literary language known as Dari, which followed Pahlavi Persian and from about thirteen hundred years ago became the modern-day language of Iranians, has, despite the best efforts of conquerors and usurpers, been protected and preserved by every means possible. And literature has been the best and most beautiful medium of safeguarding it….

I have always maintained that we should not seek out censorship only in government ministries and offices of bureaucracies, that we should not summarize it in the faces and beliefs of people such as Andrei Zhdanov or his Iranian counterpart Moharram Ali Khan. Censorship has an ancient social-historical existence. Just like Ridley Scott’s aliens, it lays eggs, in the bodies of governments, and it tears through their chest to emerge with a new form and figure so as to mutilate books and shed their blood….

The effects of censorship on contemporary Iranian literature are widespread:

Because of censorship, which at times functions shrewdly and at times foolishly, Iranian writers are persistently at a loss about what is permitted and what is not.

The regime has to some extent succeeded in forcing writers to self-censor, especially those who have bravely stayed in Iran and are successful.

The desire to evade censorship has to a certain extent fostered artificially complex and contorted writing.

As a result of the closed society, which limits social experience, some young writers, consciously or unconsciously, are drawn to writing the narrative of their own soul and spirit instead of writing the stories of others. They write of their own perplexities and confusions.

Because of social aberrations, war, poverty, and politico-religious limitations that have even banned Iranians’ expressions of joy and joviality in many areas, in modern stories the number of characters who are emotionally troubled, hopeless and despairing, and preoccupied with death have substantially increased….

And so, the story of storywriting in Iran, as Ferdowsi, the revered poet who lived at the turn of the first millennium wrote, is a story drenched in tears. The beauty of it is that Iranian writers, despite the adversities that lie ahead and regardless of the tyranny and idiocy of censorship, have written and continue to write their stories and have always found a way to publish them….

Literature’s war in this world continues. 

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