Reading Under Candlelight

By Nasrin Mahoutchi-Hosaini

During the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), there were constant curfews and darkness. My family used one of our big family rooms to sit, eat, read and even sleep in. At night, it was like a dark classroom with students from different ages sitting side by side, reading and writing diverse materials. My sister’s two boys, who were year one and year four, would lie down on the carpet side by side. My sister would read from their school books, giving them spelling tests. Under candlelight, my father would  study the newspaper. Next to him, using the same light, my mother and grandmother would listen to the BBC radio (nobody trusted the local stations for  news about the war) while knitting jumpers and wool scarfs for soldiers on the front line and on the other side of the room with the light of the smallest candle I was reading Persian literature.

Where did all those books come from? It was like a festival of literature, a book feast that only my generation had a chance to witness. A few weeks before the Revolution and a few months after, the bookshops and street corners of The University of Tehran were packed with books. Some of those books had been banned for years, some out of print for years and some newly published. I spent all my money from my day job buying books and stacking them up in my room. I was from a generation that constantly had experienced censorship and feared the disappearance of those books again.

It was Bozorg Alavi (1904-1997) whose prison literature gave my reading a political sense. His “Waraq-Paraha-ye Zendan”, (Torn Prison Papers), Entezar, (The Wait) and “Afwe-e Omumi” (General Amnesty) revealed the plight of  prisoners in abominable  conditions and the harsh treatments employed to destroy the inmates’ souls, which brought a new genre into n contemporary Persian Literature.  He also has distinctive lyrical and erotic themes in his non-political writing. He has shown a remarkable talent for creating  female characters that are neither sanctified nor reviled. In his novel “Cheshmhayash” (Her Eyes), we read of an educated, knowing, strong female character, which was unusual in traditional Persian Literature. Although books were allowed to be freely purchased in the streets, still I used to hide my  books from my parents.  The writers I was interested in reading had been banned for so long that they created a nervous trepidation within the general population.

The theme of captivity in literature resonated with the general feelings the population of my parent’s generation. My generation inherited the tradition of fearing dangerous literature. What I was reading under the dim candle light felt illicit and suddenly all the streets of Tehran University were inflamed with this peril. It was common to hear from my classmates that their parents tore their books or threw them out or burnt them.

The overwhelming volume of books in the streets was an indication that in spite of the years of severe censorship and persecution of authors, Iranian writers kept writing- although perhaps read their work only to small circles of trusted friends gathered under the small lights of their own homes.

In Iran the ebb and flow of the political situation influenced the appearance and disappearance of books.

The1950’s was a difficult decade for Iranian writers and intellectuals. In August 1953 there was a coup d’état which ended a relative freedom. The relatively short lived freedom experienced by Iranians after Reza Sha abdicated in 1941, brought a more liberal political and social air to the country when the publication of local writing and translation of modern western literature was introduced.  All these factors contributed to the development of contemporary Persian literature as well as access to the new ideas and critical theories in the contemporary literary world. But the dry summer heat of persecution and censorship arrived again.

In the 1960’s and the 1970’s,  years before the Revolution of 1978-79 when protests against social oppression and dictatorship were frequent, the censorship intensified and the confiscation of  published material became routine. Some authors and intellectuals were imprisoned.  Most publishing companies either closed or were under severe supervision by the authorities; the book market became small and limited again.

I could understand my parent’s generation feeling that books brought menace, but this made reading the forbidden literature even more exciting.

So, to protect myself, I coiled with my books around me, reading under shadow of my school books.

“What are you reading?” my mother asked from the other side of the dark room.

“My history book.”