By Cyrus Naji

A travelling fair of books banned in Iran is making its way around major Western cities. The 2nd Tehran Book Fair, Uncensored (ending May 14) highlights the reality of censorship in Iran and the innovative ways in which 15 publishers circumvent the restrictions. The fair kicked off earlier this month in London, and its itinerary includes Cologne, Stockholm, L.A., Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague.

The two-day London event at the Iranian Studies library in Ealing drew a steady crowd. Many British-Iranians delighted in the opportunity to browse new and previously unseen Farsi books. In the main space of the library, a tall airy room with bookshelves pressed two-deep against the walls, a handful of publishers chatted amiably from behind the tables where they had laid out their wares.

On display were books on the Shah of Iran and on the Iranian women’s movement. There were also many children’s books depicting mothers not wearing the hejab or including recordings of Persian nursery rhymes sung by women.

“It shows that there are certain things you can’t freely talk about” in Iran, said Dr. Namdar Baghaei-Yazdi of the Library for Iranian Studies. Dr. Namdar said what he regretted most was a lack of freedom to discuss Iran’s own history.

“There are so many books here about the time of the Shah – things from the past that you definitely cannot find in Iran today. So many writers and publishers abroad send their books free of charge to Iran, and millions of copies have been downloaded there,” he said.

The “Uncensored” book fair in Ealing, West London, provided Persian bibliophiles with a rare opportunity to browse new and previously unseen Farsi books.” Photograph: Cyrus Naji

The fair is the brainchild of Hadi Khojinian of Mehri, who began publishing after escaping Iran 15 years ago. He and the other publishers fund the fair entirely from their own resources. “As an Iranian activist, we do not fight with guns: we fight with books, we fight censorship,” he said, adding that he was aiming to publish not just online, but undercover in Iran – via a secret printing house.

“Young people in Iran are fascinated. They have a passion to read anything. They are living under the pressure of the government, they are looking for freedom, they are looking to find themselves in literature and art,” he added.

The fair gave a sense of the intensity of recent censorship inside Iran. One publisher described the eight years of Ahmedinejad’s government as “the worst time for the literature community in Iran.” Conditions haven’t improved much under President Rouhani, the publisher said. But at least nowadays, instead of rejecting a book outright after one week, censors restrict themselves to extensive cutting, the publisher added.

Others shared stories about the irrational nature of Iranian censorship. They said the same book could be banned one year and unbanned the next.

“It’s different from censor to censor. It depends on who reads your book. They don’t give you a list of what you can’t write, and it changes from government to government,” explained Azadeh Iravani, who runs the e-publishing house Nogaam. “You send your book and sit and pray for a good censor.”

Getting the green light from an individual censor is still not enough to give a writer or publisher peace of mind. “It’s risky – sometimes a censor really enjoys your book and allows it, you publish it, and it’s available in bookstores. Then someone reads it, or finds out about it, and bans it,” said Ms. Iravani.

According to publishers present, censors at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance rely on a word search for terms such as wine, boyfriend or sex to censor books. Censorship can sometimes be irrational. For example, according to Ms. Iravani, “[a text mentioning] Middlesex University was blocked in Iran because of the ‘sex’ in it. My God, it’s a university, not a porn website!”

To beat censorship, Nogaam has found a novel business. Her publishing house receives Persian manuscripts in roughly equal numbers from writers inside and outside Iran, then crowdfunds abroad to publish them as e-books under a Creative Commons License, making them available for reading anywhere. The result is that Iranians living in the Islamic Republic can access otherwise banned works of literature without paying for them. At the same time, authors are paid for their writing – although sending royalties to Iran can be tricky because of sanctions.

In four years of operations, Nogaam’s site has had 140,000 downloads. Novels can be accessed more easily from other sites inside Iran, as well as emailed between friends. Though Nogaam publishes books that would never see the light of day in Iran, 60 to 70 percent of its readership is within the Islamic Republic.

“If you had asked Iranian people five or 10 years ago what an ebook is, they would have thought it was just a scanned version of a book,” said Ms. Iravani. “Now you can download them to your Kindle.”