Iranian novelist: “Our society is in a state of turmoil”
Publishend in “Tageszeitung” (“taz”) on November 2, 2009
Mahmoud Doulatabadi’s novel “The Colonel” is being censored in Iran. The novelist talks about the current protest movement, Ahmadinejad’s antisemitism, literature, and censorship in the theocratic state.
taz: Mr Doulatabadi, was it difficult for you to get a visa for your journey to Germany?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: I did not encounter any extraordinary problems. There are bureaucratic trifles to which we Iranians have long grown accustomed to.
taz: Can you give us an idea about the procedure of getting a visa for exiting Iran?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: Once you have a visa, you can usually leave Iran. However, in case they imposed a travel ban on you, you will not know about it before you are at the airport.
taz: You have just finished a reading tour in Germany, presenting your novel “The Colonel”. You once said that censorship might become less strict after the election. When will your novel be published in Iran?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: Of course I hoped that the elections would run smoothly, and there would be a different situation afterwards, a situation in which books like mine could be published. But the elections have been difficult. Many problems have arisen, and the situation has been very tense since. In the long term, I do hope that one day my novel will be published in Iran.
taz: “The Colonel” is a very bleak piece of work, dominated by violence – male violence – within the society and the families shortly after the revolution of 1979. Why have you decided to once again look into this period that dates back quite far?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: Eighteen months ago, long before the recent incidents, I submitted the manuscript to the censorship of publications board. I completed the novel 25 years ago, but I have always wanted to avoid that the novel is being read in a too close a context with the political situation. That’s why I have always hesitated to publish it. Literature is something that should not be reduced to the daily political affairs. The press is responsible for reporting current events. Literature has a different mission.
taz: You once said during a conversation that the Iranian censorship board described your book as a “masterpiece”. And still it is not being published in Iran. That sounds pretty absurd.
Mahmud Doulatabadi: To me this does not sound absurd at all. It is a substantial contradiction which has been existing for a very long time and dominates our culture to this day. Those who read and reviewed my manuscript have on the one hand, in their function as experts for literature, observed that it is a good piece of literature. On the other hand, however, in their function as government officials, they had to make an ideological decision, which says that it is better to not publish the novel.
taz: How do you react to that? Are you able to do readings in Iran, and is there a culture underneath the supervised surface?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: There are rarely any opportunities for public readings. It is possible that some people gather in a private home, and one of them reads from his works. However, it is not advisable to read from a book that was not published and is blocked by the censorship board.
taz: Following the presidential elections in June, there were weeks of unrest in Iran. People abroad spoke of the birth of a new opposition movement happening beyond the 1979 paradigm of revolution and counter-revolution. How do you perceive these events?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: Those unrests were not inspired by revolution, and they had nothing in common with the revolution of 1979. It was a peaceful protest movement within the framework of the existing constitution, protesting against the contempt of the constitution and the laws. To describe this as a revolutionary movement would be sheer wishful thinking.
taz: How did you experience the elections and the protests? Did you participate in the street protests, or would that have been too dangerous?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: I have not personally participated in the demonstrations, but I have been closely following them, and I have been writing about them. One of my texts was published in the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT. I was very worried that the government would violently crack down on the protesters. That’s why I did not participate in the demonstrations.
taz: Isn’t it peculiar that a person like Hossein Moussavi, who stands for the brutal regime of the 1980s, now has become the bearer of hope for the opposition and the new Iran?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: Our society is in a state of turmoil, that’s why this movement formed spontaneously. It needed a leader, a symbol. And Moussavi was the one who appeared to be the best choice within the framework of existing laws and realities. My impression was that Moussavi himself was taken by surprise by the momentum and dynamics of the events. Hardly anybody had expected that.
taz: During the Shah period, you yourself were a victim of repression, you were imprisoned for two years. What is your perception of today’s situation after the crushing of the protests?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: There is a big difference: The Shah’s regime had a transparent and rather predictable system. The Shah tried to target specific political opposition movements. Today, however, it is, or at least it seems that one part of the established society opposes another part of the established society. This inscrutable situation is quite negative compared to the past, when the fronts could be clearly distinguished. Because of this, the situation is so unclear and difficult. In the late 1970s, a dictatorial regime, a closed system, was opposing the entire nation. Today, however, the rifts run right through the nation and also through the establishment.
taz: What always amazed observers abroad was how many people under such conditions took to the streets, while they were risking a lot. Where does this bravery, this energy stem from?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: You must not forget that those who are now revolting are the sons and daughters of the generation that boldly went to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invaders. During these eight years of war, they have made many sacrifices, have risked and given much. They are not easy to intimidate. It is their country too.
taz: So it’s indeed their own people who now are turning their back on the regime?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: Yes, but this has been a lasting process. They just had no opportunity to publicly articulate it on a larger scale before.
taz: Barack Obama has recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Is this also a message to the Iranian regime?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: It is most likely also an appeal to the Iranian government to act more peacefully. However, I, as a person standing in between, can only recommend to Obama not to understand this appeal too onesidedly. The regime in Iran does not have my vote. But if Obama wants to continue pursuing the peace process, he will have to accept Iran as a nation and as an independent state.
taz: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likes to use antisemitic rhetoric. What does the population think about that? Is there really such a thing as an everyday antisemitism in Iran?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: It is difficult to comprehend why Ahmadinejad says these things. I do not understand it. I disapprove of it. I do absolutely not agree with it. However, these statements must not be used as a pretext for inappropriately confronting Iran. We need the willingness for understanding, and I firmly believe that we can achieve it. One of the best ways is to support the Iranian civil society.
taz: Does culture play a role in the current conflicts? My last impression, for example from recent Iranian films, was that there is a debate going on about who represents the “real”, the “genuine” Iran. But isn’t the return to tradition, the struggle for a hegemony of national codes also a fairly conservative program?
Mahmud Doulatabadi: This tendency exists. And it is amplified also by the fact that we do not have a free press. The framework of the discussion has always been predefined from above, and thus it currently is dominated by religion and nationalism. Even in the cultural sphere, we can not speak out freely. Not even about Iranian history and earlier developments. You see, in Germany I can read from my novel, but in Iran I can not. This lack of freedom produces certain contradictions. Some can speak their minds in these controversies. The others must remain silent.
Interview: Andreas Fanizadeh