My Country


I write in a country where, only two decades ago, around 80 writers were murdered one after another and their mutilated bodies found in the suburbs. A few years later, the case was reopened and the culprits were identified; they were employees of the Ministry of Information.
As you know, a cleric-backed death sentence was issued for Salman Rushdi, the Anglo-Indian writer for his novel "The Satanic Verses".
My country has a lot of oil but people live in poverty; currently the government is pursuing a nuclear program and as a result, there are crippling sanctions from the west and the currency has lost its value by almost 60%.
In my country opium, heroin and meth are relatively cheaper than food and almost any one can go and get drugs in the nearest park or square for less than a dollar.

In my country, a woman is 'one-half of a person.' Therefore, if a man happens to murder a woman, he has only killed a 'half-person,' and won't even be considered a murderer, since he has not yet killed an entire person. To be considered a murderer in the eye of the law, he has to kill one more woman, one more half-person.

In my country people live a double-life. One indoors and one outdoors. For example, as you know, islamic dress code is obligatory for women; this is the kind of outfit the regime expects women to wear (slide) but this is what they actually wear out on the street (slide) and this is what they wear at home. Now it might be a bit clearer why Iran has the highest number of cosmetic surgeries and silicone consumption in the world.

In my country cycling is forbidden for women. Going to stadiums and some other sporting events as well. Alcohol is totally banned, for everyone. But anyone can get booze from the black market with a simple phone call.

And it is amazing that despite all this, since the revolution, the number of Iranian female writers has multiplied by 13 times. This may be a reaction to the suppression that increased after the Islamic revolution. Under Islamic rule, women faced far more limitations than before - the strict Islamic dress code being just one among dozens of restrictions that were imposed and codified. In reaction, as an outlet for expressing their emotions and frustrations, women took to writing. And in doing so, they took various approaches to depict themselves.

And now a quick word about writing and being a writer in my country:
Whether one desires it or not, to be a writer in Iran is considered a political act. In a theocratic state there are a lot of red lines, in politics, religion and sexuality. In such an atmosphere a writer is forced to send his or her manuscript to the Islamic Ministry of Culture in order to get a permit for publishing it. Sometimes it takes 2 or 3 years for the ministry to come up with the permit, if at all. Much of the book may be censored, or else it may not be permitted to be published at all. But I want to also emphasize here that it is not only the government that imposes its red lines on the writer; rather, society itself has a heavy hand in this process.

Now I want to tell you a bit about my own books. In Iran the act of writing a book is a story in itself. Because when you finish writing a book and hand it over to the publisher, you are only half way in. The other half of the journey is truly arduous, you have to tighten your belt and go back and forth to the ministry every day over the next couple of months to do some begging and some haggling, so you could publish the book with the least edition possible. And only then, when you think you have done enough, funny things could happen; I'll tell you about one or two that happened to me:

كتاب عاشقيت در پاورقي (مجموعه داستان): My short story collection, Love-making in Footnotes, was not received well by critics and the various literary circles at first. In fact, it was labeled as obscene because of the issues it (addressed) dealt with. Interestingly though, the Ministry of Culture gave its permit for the book to be published. This experience showed to me the limitations, not only from the government but also a traditional society full of taboos. In the end, the book won an important non-governmental prize, meaning that it was popular with both people and literary circles. It was at this point, ironically, that the book was banned by the Ministry of Culture that had given the green light to the book in the first place! (The absurdities only continued from here) but it didn't stop there! It got worse: now the critics and literary circles who had first (shunned) snubbed the book and then praised it, began to take the whole thing quite personally; they started to pry into my private life and I was labeled as unfaithful and a treacherous woman because I had dared to cross the line and not just hint at adultery but actually depict it.

"Negaran Nabash" (Don't Worry)

First off, when I handed the book over to my publisher, the editor refused to edit the book and said he was not going to edit the book because of its obscene content. The book was then sent over to the ministry without being edited. I took the trouble of following it up by going back and forth to the ministry. Finally after eight months of going back and forth and negotiation!, 87 seven instances were censored and the book got a permit to be published.
To be completely honest though, the book wasn't badly damaged because most of the editions were swearwords. In fact according to one of my friends, I had MINED the book, meaning that I had set a trap, they were so busy trying to censor the swearwords that they failed to spot some other things.


Earthquakes are hitting Tehran one after another. Although they are not destroying anything, people have panicked. Everybody wants to leave but the heroin, an addicted young girl, is concerned with finding some dealers who could sell her some drugs so she wouldn't die going cold turkey. Her only wish is to die while being high. She escapes from home, going from one friend's place to the next looking for drugs in the middle of all the chaos. While everybody is trying to flee the city, some young people are excited. They think now that the elderly and middle-aged are leaving, they are going to take over the city. Earthquake is the cause of great joy and street clashes among them.

Anyway, the book was published and it was a success. In the first 6 months, there were 6 editions. All of a sudden, after the presidential election was held, there was ballot rigging, people swarmed the streets and the candidates were arrested. You may have heard of it as suppressed Arab spring or the facebook revolution. Many people called me and said there are scenes on the streets like the ones from your book. It was hilarious because I had started writing the book 5 years before that and handed it in to the publisher a year earlier.

The bulletin of the ministry of information, in an analysis of the unrest in Tehran, read: Mahsa Mohebali instructs youngsters to revolt in the event of earthquakes and take control of the city.
On the other hand, foreign media constantly asked me if I had written the book under the influence of the recent developments. I kept replying by saying I am no Nostradamus!

Anyhow, the book won two non-governmental awards and finally banned in its 11th edition. Later I received a check from my publisher, the highest royalty payment I have ever received, some 2000 dollars. When I asked what it was for they told me to just cash the check and not ask any questions. Later on, I found out that after the 3 thousand copies of the 11th edition, some 20000 more copies had been sold on the black market. Well, as you can see, I am paid about one cent for each of my books! 5000 dollars for 50000 books, it is almost one cent for each book!

One other thing, because copyright is not observed in my country and any book could be published without permission from the writer or the publisher, other countries do the same to us! Quite recently, this novel was translated into Swedish but I was paid nothing. But the publisher was kind and sent over two copies for me.

And now the people: many of those who were freed from prison after the election unrest have told me that my book was the favorite among them. However, my book is equally despised by those islamists who are associated with the government, communists and leftists and also in literary circles. All of them seem to think of it as offensive to their values. Literary circles believe it is not literature. In my country when there is talk of literature it usually means eloquent poetry and prose about values not the account of an addicted girl who questions all the values.
I am not worried though, in my country this is how artists are generally treated. Like a totem. First they kill you and then they come to love and cherish you. I'm sure I will be very popular after death!

And my last book that hasn't been published yet: I have spent the last 5 years writing this book. A few months ago it was ready for publication. My previous publisher could no longer work. His permit had been revoked (which is another story). I went to another publisher who is also a friend. He was willing to work with me and publish my book. After a month though, he contacted me and said: you know what Mahsa, I don't like these kinds of girls, like the one in your story! In real life I try to stay away from them and this is why I can't publish your book!
I was going to tell him you do not hVe to date her, you just want to publish a book as a publisher!
A lot of images rushed through my head! What would happen if publishers had to socialize with the protagonists of the books they wanted to publish? Take Dracula for instance, if the publisher had to hang out with Count Dracula or Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment" to actually publish the books?

Well and the theme of my new novel:
the clash between generations of Iranians; this happens to be a clash mostly between those who came of age before the revolution and those who came after it. The generation from before the revolution was mostly idealistic. It lived with an excess of ideologies; there were Islamists, communists and nationalists. And they all had something to fight for whereas, the generation after the revolution is mostly realistic and hedonistic. Once the Islamists took power, many people who believed in other ideologies were either killed, imprisoned or exiled, or else they just retreated from their ideologies. The feelings that followed in society were those of depression and failure.

Yet with the continuation of Islamic Republic and the passage of years, the youngest generation took to an Epicurean worldview. Experimenting with drugs, alcohol and casual sex under the very nose of the Islamic regime became a way of life. The youngest generation in fact blames their predecessors for the current limitations in society and believes that had their mothers and fathers not pushed for the revolution, all of the misfortunes that followed would have never taken place. For this reason they mostly avoid any sort of ideology and follow a way of life that focuses mainly on bodily pleasures.

But there is a gap here, becuase how can a life devoted to bodily pleasures take place in a theocracy? The answer is that life in Iran is dichotomous. As I said before People live two completely different lives, one indoors and one outdoors. Outside of their homes people are forced to conform to Islamic strictures; inside their homes, however, pretty much anything goes.

Another point:
We have some governmental writers. Typically they pay some people large sums of money to write about the Islamic revolution and the war and other things the regime wants them to.
I do not refer to these as literature. May you could call them fake literature produced by fake writers. Maybe the government does this so that if some day they decided to kill eighty more writers, the number would not decrease sharply! So there would be some fake writers to replace us.
But what about the question I get asked a lot? Why I still leave in Iran? Why don't you leave and emigrate to Europe or the US?
Well I always say that is a great idea? Why don't we all emigrate? All seventy million of us? Perhaps you could send us some invitations and we could all go together?
The truth of the matter is that I don't think that's the solution. If all the writers leave Iran, which is exactly what the government wants, what will happen? After the serial killings of the writers 2 decades ago, a lot of writers did that. They emigrated to different countries. Interestingly, almost none of them has been able to write anything successful. I don't quite know why but it seems that when writers are displaced, when they are not in direct contact with the people and the culture, they somehow become neutered.

I suppose, then, that a complex society like Iran is caught between tradition and modernity.
The differences in lifestyles in such a society are so noticeable that it is often truly like traveling through time, and you only need to come out of your own home and take a few steps out on the street to feel the buzz of clashing cultures at every moment. This of course is something hugely interesting that an Iranian writer can write about. Iran, to me, is ultimately a place of strangeness, tragedy and sublime beauty where there is a synchronicity of the past and present at every moment of every day. This may cause frustration for a writer at times, but it also brings inspiration and a motivation to keep writing.