PEN and IRI;A chronicle resistance…

The pen and the Islamic Republic:
A chronicle resistance

Perhaps on a historic perspective there was never a moment when the pen could be said to have begun its confrontation with despotic power. It is certainly beyond my abilities to define this moment.

We could perhaps agree that the seed of this conflict was planted the moment the ruling powers stood against freedom to think, to express and to disseminate its fruits; when they tried to bring the pen, a versatile and influential of the expressive means for enlightening, under their control and monopoly.

The pen reacts with greater swiftness and directness than other art forms to rulers who succumbs to corruption and distance themselves from people and independent thought and block the path for society’s bloom. The pen’s revelations echo society’s most secret loathing and protests.

This is a general rule to which Iranian society is no stranger. From the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 onwards Iranian writers and intellectuals have embraced countless dangers by rising against the restrictions imposed from above. Such was the intensity of their desire to secure the instruments of freedom and democracy. The most telling document, as true today as when written nearly a century ago, is the shining article by Jahangir Shirazi. He was a pioneer, as well as one of the victims, of the movement for democracy in the Constitutional Revolution. Writing in Sur-e Esrafil, published contemporaneous with the victory of the revolution, it was directed at widening the meaning of justice-seeking: ”

A pen that god has sworn on, cannot be enslaved to the brandings and chains of a despotic office. God never appointed an angel to scrutinise the acts of man before they took place, let alone delegate it to devils” he remonstrated at the rulers and the champions of moral censorship [1].
From the instance the Islamic regime came to power in Iran, belief in the same freedom caused the independent community of writers to make identical demands, and to confront the very fabric of the regime. They put their finger on the same knot. They criticised, without heed to their own safety, the antiquated features of a regime which denied freedom and sovereignty to the people in their social existence. And they bore its vindictiveness from exile, to uprooting prison and even death.

A simple reading of the contemporary history of Iran, with its ceaseless suppression of freedom, will show that nearly nine decades after a huge coalition for constitutional government and justice had taken shape, the primary aims of that movement remain unfulfilled. This despite the unbroken resistance of men and women of intellect and the pen. In the shadow of uncontrolled despots of the time, the gate to democracy continued to revolve round repression. So, without for one second ceasing to pay homage to the huge multitude of victims of the road to freedom, I will concentrate on the response of the pen. And on the story of the confrontation, over two decades, of the progressive cultural-literary fellowship in Iran with the Islamic government.
Historic moment

Examining the revolt against oppression outside this or that political organisation, and independently of this or that cultural personality, the organised and comprehensive assault on the institutions defending freedom in June 1981, such as the Association of Writers (Kanoon), can be seen as a specific historic moment. That was a year of immense savagery and bloody repression. That was a year when the Islamic government unveiled its terrifying plans to obliterate any opposing idea and to impose an order on society that was one-sided and totally opposed to freedom.

That was a year when the Kanoon was deprived of any right to open activity. Books were confiscated at the printers and fuelled countless bonfires, bookshops were closed, independent publishers banned and other-thinking writers were either arrested or went into hiding. Said Soltanpour, a Kanoon executive committee member and a popular poet and artist, was shot on orders of Lajevardi, prosecutor and the head of the regime’s prisons. A large number of writers, poets and intellectuals chose exile to escape the cutting edge of repression and to continue the struggle.

Yet the barbarous mobilisation of force to obliterate free thought and impose authority on society by liquidating the independent pen and opinion did not succeed as planned.
Millions and millions of marchers had shouted again and again that they had revolted against the Shah for freedom. Even the most arid-thinker in the religious government knew this. The one way to retouch this and to pervert the will of the revolution was to bore into the people’s traditional beliefs in order to invert their demands. They did this by crawling under the deep-rooted flag of tradition. They ridiculed the very concept of new-thinking. Modernism was apparently a tainted present from the West. The innocent minds of the devotees of freedom and justice was cleansed of any tendency towards modern culture and literature.
Purged but alive

In the first instance the bureaucracy, the education and the social system of the country had to be forcibly purged of anyone who thought different. The price, bloody or otherwise, was irrelevant. Immediately afterwards, and without respite, any pen or written word which opposed the out-worn culture should not have a chance of making links with the emotions and thoughts of people, even in the attic. According to this vision, and that of its political and cultural disciples, our society should be protected from the seditious pen and free thought, and live in the closed circles defined entirely by sharia’ laws and Islamic morality. Then will religious rule preserve.

This policy at first satisfied its supporters. It insured the survival of their rule for the next 20 years. Political associations were suppressed and those who thought differently were expelled from influential social positions. But in the realm of letters and arts and the complicated emotional bonds with people, the policy failed.
Writers driven from their homeland, added the words “in exile” to the Association of Writers and proclaimed its existence in the absence of its inside-half inside the country. The “Kanoon in exile” was totally explicit in exposing the hostility of the Islamic government to freedom. In echoing the protest of its inner-half against repression it assumed a heavy and uplifting role. The sincerity and anguish of this effort, was not lost to the outside world. World literary figures and cultural circles joined in and objected to the denial of the human rights and dignity in Iran.
The ricochets of the success of the free-thinking exiled community of the pen within Iran, had unpleasant repercussions for a regime which pretended that its only concern was to impose its religious will, and was unafraid of being challenged by the rest of the world.
Conciliatory moves

At the beginning of 1994 the then president, Hashemi Rafsanjani brought into play a new trick. In order to damp down the confrontation with the writers remaining inside Iran, and to nullify the defiance of those abroad, he sent an invitation to the influential members of the “repressed Kanoon”. He asked them to help the government remove the obstacles that had appeared in the path of literary publications, and to advance the cultural climate of the country. There was not the slightest mention of the crimes committed by the regime, nor any explanation as to why the regime’s policy towards the community of writers had changed. While no member of the Kanoon answered these letters, a broad group of writers were provoked into rejuvenating the Kanoon inside the country.

It is interesting that what prompted the original idea of setting up the Kanoon in 1967 was also the political …. of the government of the day. The Kanoon then was to be a counterweight to the Shah’s plan to impose a congress of Iranian Writers and Artists. This congress was supposed to collect the scattered representatives of Iranian art and literature under one roof and promote the conditions for the growth of the national culture and literature! Writers and intellectuals moved swiftly to counter the political aims of the monarchy, which was itself the main obstacle to the growth of culture and literature.

The Iranian Writers Association was proclaimed in 1968. Writers belonging to the Kanoon still consider this declaration as the basis of their work:
“The people and the functional organisations of the country, especially those who deal with ideas and creativity, must learn to tolerate the expression and thoughts of others, whether or not they approve. They should not limit freedom to themselves. They should not be a nanny or guardian or worse.

Freedom of thought and expression are necessities, not luxuries; the prerequisite for the future of our individual and social growth. It is based on this need that the Association of Iranian writers begins its activities on the basis of two principles: comprehensive and unrestricted defence of the freedom of expression and the specific task of defending the professional rights of the people of the pen”. [from the first declaration of the Kanoon – April 21, 1968] Soon after the letter from the office of president Rafsanjani, 134 of the most well known writers of Iran signed the manifesto “We are Writers”.

This statement on the one hand addresses the difficulties for the publication of literary and cultural works, and on the other reveals tragic truths regarding the insults which Iranian writers are subjected to.


Under the shadow of a regime where the murder of Salman Rushdie for writing an undesirable book is a sacred duty, where dancing and expressing joy even in a wedding is a sin, where women are stoned to death for loving another, where those capable of thinking regularly face death or imprisonment, the coming out of 134 writers in defence of the freedom of thought, expression and dissemination was courageous. As we will see it was not left unpunished.
They had announced:

We are writers. It is our natural, social and civil right for our writings to reach our audience freely and without hindrance.
Writers should be free to create their work, criticise and judge the works of others and in expressing their beliefs.
No person or institution has the authority, under whatever excuse, to place obstacles in the publication of their creations.

We will oppose all hurdles placed on writing and thinking. Since this is beyond our individual ability we have no option but to function as a group in order to realise the freedom of thought, expression and publication, and the struggle against censorship.
Prying into the private life of a writer is an assault on their sanctuary. [2]

In our world, such statements are not particularly remarkable. For a regime which makes accepting anything conditional to its being compatible with the stamp of sharia’ this was an outrage to its authority. Particularly as some of Iran’s most famous names, such as Ahmad Shamlu, went on to declare that freedom of activity for the Kanoon, and a safeguard for its continuity, is dependent on other democratic institutions resuming their operation.

Freedom is an indivisible totality, they were defiantly saying: “As a member of society, I have always emphasised the [importance] for the unhindered and enthusiastic presence of democratic political and trade organisations as a sign of freedom of association … I have the same opinion with regards to the activity of the Association of Iranian Writers, while it maintains its historic, social and cultural position and authority,” [3].

Or Mansur Kushan wrote: “some day the system and its rulers will realise this truth that one must not, and cannot, impose the usual give and take on the culture of a nation – and in particular its literature. It is not possible to silence a voice, especially that of intellectuals, poets and writers of a nation. Undoubtedly the written will be written and [ultimately] published, but only when all prospects have been lost”. [4]

A regime, who at that time had the blood of the eminent writer and researcher, Said Sirjani, who had opposed the despotism of the keepers of sharia’, on its hands and which has began a deceitful policy against writers, suddenly found itself facing 134 writers. Here was a united gathering, who believed that cultural and literary growth required the removal of all the institutions of censorship and the resumption of activity of the Kanoon. The reaction of the regime was predictable.


“A torrent of accusation and insults rained on the head of the courageous men and women, who in that dark and suffocating climate were weighing up the glorious word freedom, from the morrow of affirming this question and publishing the manifesto” warned the critic and poet Dr Reza Barahani [5].

To understand the importance and historical value of this collective move, I will list what Barahani had called “torrent of accusations and insults” that rained on the heads of those who signed the manifesto:

Dr Zaryab Khoi’, a prominent professor of literature could not take the insults for more than a few weeks and had a stroke.
The body of Ahmad Mir-Alai’, writer and translator was found in an Isfahan alley. He was said to have died of a heart attack.

Ghaffar Hosseini, poet and translator, and member of the Consultative Group of writers, was found bloody and dead in his home. His death was said to be through heart attack and stroke.

Ghazaleh Alizadeh, a famous storywriter, was found dead a long way from her home. She was said to have committed suicide.

Shahrnush Parsi Pour had to quit Iran and live abroad in unfavourable material and physical circumstances.
The prominent sociologist Ariyan Pour humiliated himself and retracted his position regarding censorship.

Ebrahim Zalzadeh, publisher and director of Ebtekar publications was kidnapped after publishing and defending the “manifesto” and his mutilated body was found in a wasteland.
The literary monthly Gardoun was closed, accused of supporting the Kanoon and its editor Abbas Ma’rufi fled the country fearing for his life.
The monthly Takapu was closed and its editor Mansur Kushan, who was a member of the

Consultative Group and one of the signatories of We are Writers, was arrested a number of times, threatened with death and finally fled the country fearing his life.
Faraj Sarkuhi, editor of the monthly Adineh, was also a member of the Consultative Group and a signatory. The world knows of the story of his disappearance, torture, and the outrageous story made up by the regime to discredit him [6].

Only after he courageously exposed the lies, and the tortures, and the international outcry was he released and forced to leave the country.
The plot by the Information Ministry to plunge a bus-load of 21prominent writers, all signatories, into a ravine on their way to Armenia to attend a cultural event. [7]

Attempt to taint members of Consultative Group with working for foreign powers and espionage.

A new chapter of crimes began with the murder of two well known personalities in Iranian literature – Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Ja’far Pouyandeh, both members of the Consultative Group.

Alongside these were a stream of preposterous slanders in the official-police television programme of hovviat (identity) against many prominent Iranian writers such as Ahmad Shamlu, Houshang Golshiri, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Reza Barahani after they made their collective objections to censorship and repression.

Global echo

We are Writers was first handed over to newspapers within Iran and later passed over to International Pen and other cultural institutions abroad. It was given a wide publicity because it portrayed so accurately the depth of oppression in Iran.

The support of a group of exiled writers, the Kanoon in Exile, for the “manifesto”, irrespective of their ideological hue, gave further depth to the challenge of the “manifesto”. Arthur Miller read it at the International Congress of Pen, and the broader community of writers came to its defence. Its authority was enhanced.

The Islamic rulers in Iran became anxious The mass of scientific, cultural and political personalities had broadly identified with the indisputable rights of Iranian writers. They had stressed the right to freedom of the pen, thought, expression, and publication. And they had unequivocally condemned the repressive climate and censorship in Iran.

The “manifesto” became a historic document. A written document that after 16 years brought news of the collective voice of Iranian writers and intellectuals in opposition to the official repression. The “manifesto” has also joined the tormented and resisting writers within with those outside its borders: with a single voice they have called on the world to defend the rights of Iranian people. It vindicates the resistance of hundreds of Iranian writers and artists in exile. It unmasks the murderers of the likes of Said Soltanpour, Rahman Hatefi, Saidi Sirjani… and countless others. A historic wisdom is hidden in its every line. To compromise or play timid games with a repressive regime has only one end: submission of humans to its humiliating authority.

Charter for new Kanoon

In September 1996 a draft charter, the result of the brave, and bloody, deliberations of the Consultative Group was completed. It announced the rebirth of the Kanoon and a practical step in realising the idea.

Freedom of thought, expression and publication in every sphere of private and public life without any limits and exceptions is a universal right. This right is not in monopoly of one person, group or institution and no one can be deprived of it.
n The Kanoon recognises that the growth and flowering of the various languages of the country is one of the mainstays of the growth of culture, of the bonds and of understanding among the peoples of Iran. It opposes any discrimination, and exclusions in the field of printing, publication, and distribution of works in any of the existing languages [of the country].

n The Kanoon is opposed to a one-voiced policy of the visual and aural and electronic media. It demands the plurality of the media in the cultural arena. [7]

Freedom speaks through ideas and the pen. Any attack on this voice is a broader assault on the foundation of the individual and society. How can one hope for fruitful changes in Iranian society today and tomorrow and yet physically and psychologically remove the guarantors of this development?

We have witnessed 20 years of collective resistance against the aggression of the religious rulers to the intellectual and material resources of culture and literature in Iran. They have shown by their ability to embrace danger that they will not remain silent until the moment freedom is assured. Let time once again attest to the fact that the Islamic government, as all other totalitarian rule, cannot insure its life through hostility to freedom of the pen and its champions.

The proud achievements of this collection of resisters was their courageous defence of the human dignity of the pen through exposing repression and acclaim for freedom. This same resistance has led the domination process of the dark-thinkers ruling our country up such a dead end, that any capitulation to freedom is now understood as equivalent to their death.

Mansur Khaksar

Mansur Khaksar is poet and critic and an influential member of the Iranian literary scene both while he was in Iran, and in exile. He edits Daftarhaye Shanbeh in the USA. He has recentlt translated Farrokh Afrooshteh, Dena PO BOX 3953, Seattle Wa 98124-3953, USA.
1. Sur-e Esrafil May 31, 1907
2. “We are Writers” September 1994, extracts – see also iran bulletin no 8, Winyter 1994.
3. Interview with Ahman Shamlu, Adineh, no 88
4. Mansur Kushan, editor of the monthly Takapu in the last edition before it was banned.
5. Reza Barahani. Shahrvand no 291.
6. See iran bulletin no15-16 1997. For ythe text of his letter see The Guardian (London) January 31, 1997
7. It was only the quick thinking of one of the writers that averted a tragedy.
8. Articles from the draft maifesto by the consultative group September 9 1996, Adineh no 130

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