Books as Revolutionary Objects in Iran

By Naghmeh Sohrabi

“My father hated books,” she said. “Which books?” I asked. “Books,” she answered.  “He didn’t want any books in the house ever.” The person I was interviewing for my book on the Iranian Revolution had been in high school in 1979. She both thought of herself as politically active during the period between 1977-79 and not.  In discussing her activism she would often say “but we were young. Being politically active allowed us to do things we normally couldn’t like hiking and be around boys.” And in her case, have access to books. 

As we talked, she remembered speaking to her father years after the revolution about his opposition to books. He had told her that his store in their provincial town of Qazvin had been across the street from a bookseller and over the 1970s, he had watched the bookseller get hauled in by the Pahlavi state’s security service (SAVAK) for possessing and selling illegal books. Once, when the bookseller knew that the SAVAK was coming, he had sent his assistant to her father’s shop to hide some books.  Her father’s experience with the bookseller had led him to believe that books, as objects, were dangerous. The best way to keep his children safe was to stay away from them.

Books keep popping up in my interviews in expected and unexpected ways. For student activists in the 1960s and 70s, books occupy an important place. Many of my interviewees will name almost the same books that had influenced them in their youth: John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, Nicolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel was Tempered, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Samad Behrangi’s The Little Black Fish, and books by Ali Shariati, who famously re-cast socialist revolutionary thought into Shi’i imagery.

But books also popped up in less expected ways — as objects around which political experience became defined. Books were not just the means through which knowledge was transmitted but also the mere owning and distribution of books defined political action for many in the decade leading up to the revolution.

When I asked one interviewee who self-identified as a Marxist-Leninist with Maoist leanings what it meant to siyasi or be political in the late 1960s and early 70s, he said it meant to read illegal books and discuss them. When in the 1960s, he had gotten hold of a book by Lenin, he had set out to make 6 copies of it manually using 5 sheets of carbon copy paper. As he painstakingly pressed down to make sure all the copies were legible, he realized he couldn’t possibly manage to do this alone. He identified another student whom he knew was also siyasi to help. “We didn’t sleep for 2 days.” This story is by no means exceptional. Many interviewees defined their early political activity as copying illegal books manually in order to distribute them.

The Pahlavi state was highly sensitive to the possession and distribution of illegal books, even though the definition was kept a blur. One interviewee was imprisoned in 1970 for a survey he wrote about May ‘68 events in France. In the early 1970s, publishers, knowing that they would lose money or go to prison if they printed a “subversive book,” became the first line of censorship, responsible for rejecting problematic books.[1] In his case, the book in question had been his undergraduate thesis, his advisor had urged its publication, and it had been found innocuous by the publisher who had sent it to the printers. But SAVAK officials during a random inspection of the shop had taken one look at it and stopped the printing. They jailed the publisher for a brief period and imprisoned the author for two years. When I asked him how was one to know which books were illegal, he quoted a SAVAK official: “In a pharmacy, selling some kinds of poison is legal but it doesn’t mean everyone has the right to buy it.”

Crucial here is the ways in which the Pahlavi regime turned ordinary things into subversive objects. When something is legal one day and illegal the next, or when something is legal for some and illegal for others, the range of what is considered political expands, making it oddly enough, easier to become politicized. Relatedly, resistance becomes defined by this shifting conception of political activity. Many interviewees would describe their “hidden” [makhfi] life in terms of hiding illegal books (inside bags of rice, in the arm rest of a couch) and their first reaction to news of their comrades’ arrest as “cleaning” their apartments by getting rid of all the books (and pamphlets).

The arrival of “white books” in the fall of 1978 signaled to many that things had irrevocably changed even though the victory of the revolution was still months ahead. These were illegal books that had been covertly reproduced with a white cover that had no title or author on it and were sold secretly in Tehran bookstores. What’s fascinating about them is that they occupied a somewhat liminal state: they were illegal but unlike a decade earlier, the sellers, buyers, and readers were no longer prosecuted for possessing them.  The same books that for a decade had simultaneously defined state repression and political activism had now come to represent, if not revolutionary victory, then the irreversible decline of the Pahlavi state.

In its immediate aftermath, the Iranian revolution perplexed scholars who until then had never seen an “Islamic Revolution.”  As such for a variety of reasons, it has been studied in a limited way: Why did the seemingly stable Pahlavi state fall? What was the importance of Shi’ism to the revolution? But it’s important to remember that the Iranian Revolution was happening in another “age of revolutions.” From Algeria, to Bolivia, Nicaragua, Grenada, and even Vietnam (which figures prominently in the Iranian revolutionary imaginary), predominantly young people were breathing in revolutionary air. The Iranians were no different. Looking at books not for their content but as objects around which activism was defined allows us to expand our inquiry into this crucial event beyond the “Islamic” and into the global.

Naghmeh Sohrabi is Charles (Corky) Goodman Chair of Middle Eastern History and the Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of the book Taken for Wonder: Nineteenth Century Travel Accounts from Iran to Europe (Oxford University Press, 2012) and numerous articles on Iranian history and culture. She is the 2014 recipient of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, and is currently researching a book on the experience of the 1979 revolution in Iran, tentatively titled The Inner Lives of the Iranian Revolution. You can contact her at

Title image: Iranian woman holding up the books Young Lenin and The History of the Russian Revolution (circa 1979).

[1] According to a report written by Reza Barahani in the 1978 issue of Index on Censorship, a directive was handed down in 1966 to print shops “ordering them to submit copies of every book they printed to the Writing Bureau of the Ministry of Arts and Culture.”

Further Readings:

Michael Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2003.   

Farhad Khosrokhavar, Anthropologie de la Révolution iranienne : Le rêve impossible. Paris; Montréal : L’Harmattan, 1997. 

 Charles Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Roy Mottahedeh,The Mantle of the Prophet. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1985.

Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey: Modernization, Secularism, Democracy, and the Fadai Period of National Liberation in Iran, 1971-1979. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010.

Behrooz Ghamari, Remembering Akbar: Inside the Iranian Revolution. OR Books, forthcoming 2016.

Manijeh Nasrabadi, “‘Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do’: Gender and the Affects of Solidarity in the U.S. Iranian Student Movement, 1961-1979” Women’s Studies Quarterly, 42:3 (Fall 2014): 127-145.

Annabelle Sreberny and Ali Mohammadi, Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994.

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