Skip to main content
Tahmineh Rostami-ENG

© Privat/Private

There will be few Iranian books at Frankfurter Buchmesse this year. The Cologne Café Schallplatte, on the other hand, with its collection and presentations of works by Iranian exile authors, is a stage for uncensored Iranian literature and also a meeting place for Iranian children who find access to Iranian culture here. We spoke to the writer, storyteller, editor, journalist and activist Tahmineh Rostami about her role in the network "Iranian Publishers without Censorship" and about the possibilities to support exiled authors.

Tahmineh, please could you introduce yourself briefly, and could you also tell us more about your Cultural Center in Cologne, Café Schallplatte?

Hello, first of all, I must thank you for organizing this interview. It is a great pleasure to talk with you. I am Tahmineh Rostami, and I am a writer, storyteller, editor, journalist, and activist. In my country, I have taught fictional literature, and have also worked in film and children’s literature. But because of all the things you know about the ongoing suppression in Iran, I – like many other Iranians – was forced to migrate. I applied for asylum to the German Government four years ago. Here, in Germany, I voluntarily work in the artistic fields, especially teaching immigrant kids about Persian literature, music, and performing arts. As I said, I have been voluntarily working for about four years with the refugees (Iranians, Afghans, and so on) in café Schallplatte. In this café and library, which is a small intercultural centre, I have been holding gatherings with the intention of introducing the works and books of the authors in exile to the Iranian audience.  We present books in all categories which are written by the authors in exile, because we do believe that censorship is one of the most disgusting aspects of the dictatorship and suppression which exists in our country and you can observe the brutal form of this censorship on the streets of Iran. Along with this activity, more than two years ago, I, again voluntarily began teaching Persian language and Persian traditional performance to the next generation of Iranians here in Cologne. In these sessions, there are Iranian kids aged between 2 to 10 years old, and together we read stories, watch cartoons, play, and sing. And through all these activities, we learn Persian language as our mother tongue.

Could you describe your role within the Iranian Publishers without Censorship Network?

Here in Café Schallplate, we connect the independent publishers with their audience by presenting the works that have not been censored in any way and have been published freely. We have provided a space and stage for all Iranian authors all over the world to speak without any fear or concern. In Iran, all the authors and even the translators are forced to omit some of their beliefs and are made to say the things in line with the governmental opinions, most of which promote terrorism and racism, and make excuses for all the brutal and aggressive actions of the politicians of Islamic Republic. They have even be known to send writers and translators to the jail because of their writing. Last year, I attended Frankfurter Buchmesse with a placard and a t-shirt which referred to the incarceration of three writers in Iran. Now, I can reveal that one of those writers, Baktash Abtin, has been killed in the prison. Anyway, here, we hold gatherings to present free works of Iranian writers in exile, especially the female writers who are put under the severest stress by the regime.

I myself would like to set fund a publishing house to present more works of Iranian writers who do not currently have a voice to be heard by their compatriots. I suppose that this cultural centre will continue to work teaching Iranian kids and being multi-language center. I would like to think that it will expand throughout Europe, but for now I want to firmly establish it in Germany. 

How is the network responding to this horrible recent and violent crack-down of the protests in Iran by the government.

Like all free and conscientious men and women all over the world we, in an Iranian network without censorship, condemn this violence which is not just limited to nowadays. I can refer to many executions and suppression from the beginning of Islamic revolution in 1979. But, as you know, this recent and brave movement was initially ignited by the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini by the morality police of Iran. As you know, the hijab is a mandatory in Iran, and from day one of this regime, we - the Iranian women - have been the target of the aggressive actions of this very peculiar but frightening police force. Every day, so many girls in Iran have been arrested due to this dogmatic rule. After the killing of Mahsa, all the Iranians have risen to protest against these rules and now we want to regain our basic rights. In the first days of this movement, the network made a statement against this cruelty and brutality. We have made so many petitions in support of Iranian people. In addition, we are making connections with many international organizations including Frankfurter Buchmesse to harness more options for the people and artists. Meanwhile, some individual members of our network have produced artistic works in support of this movement whose intention is to rebuild the human dignity of Iranians. Every day, we are talking about organizing gatherings here in Germany and other parts of the world to be the innocent voice of our sisters and brothers in Iran. We support all the writers who want to be the voice of Iran. And at this time, we are working on the ways to support this.

When was the network of "Iranian Publishers without Censorship" formed, and what is its mission?

The first “Tehran Book Fair, Uncensored” was held in 2016. Afterwards, this book fair has been held yearly in some cities around the world. The last fair was held in 2021 in many places including London, Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, Los Angeles, Munich, Wien, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Brussels, and Cologne.

Our goal is the proliferation of voices and the plurality of opinions and thoughts, so that a single voice does not dominate the literature and the world of ideas. We are hoping for a day when there is no censorship, and hoping for a day when freedom of expression and freedom of opinion are among the basic principles in Iran. We are hoping for a time when every writer can write his story the way he wants. When every publisher can publish his books without fear of confiscation and threats. When every reader can easily find and read his favorite book, without a single word of censorship. We hope that one day soon there will be no need for the Tehran Book Fair, Uncensored.

How formally is the network organized? (Is there a website?)

All the annual book fairs have their own websites. For example you can find the last fair’s information here: in a new window). We are trying to gather all the publishers in exile to attend this independent gathering because we all punished by a single regime. At the last fair, we achieved an important goal of ours. There were 20 Iranian publishers who attended that book fair. And it was held in some important cities which have more Iranian citizens. The authority central personality behind this network is Tinoush Nazmjou who is a playwright, translator, and director based in Paris. We have a statute which insists on the right of independency and freedom for all the Iranian authors all over the world.

There are different Iranian exile publishers around the world – in which language do they publish? In Farsi mostly, or also in other languages?

Yeah, they are mostly published in Farsi. But it is common for many of these publishers to publish the translation of most popular books into the local language of the country in which that publisher isresident. There are some books which are translated into English, German, French, and Swedish. 

What are the topics of interest to the Iranian community in exile?

There are so many topics on interest to the Iranian community in exile. As I am working in Schallplate, which has a close connection to books and literature, I can say that because of the huge number of Iranians in exile all over the world including Germany, there are vast topics of interest. But I can tell you that the most interesting topics for Iranians are history, critical books about Islam, fiction in all its categories, poetry, and the memoirs of political prisoners who cannot publish their experiences in the jails of Islamic Republic Regime.

Many of the manuscripts published by Iranian Publishers in Exile are written by authors who still live in Iran. That means they are putting their lives at risk… Are there ways to secure their identity?

That’s an important question. In history, throughout the whole world, we have observed the efforts of those authors writing about freedom of speech and protesting against any dictatorship. We can refer to the great authors of Africa, South America, and even Southeast Asia, as well as the authors of Middle East, like Kurdish authors, the Afghans, the Turkish, and in some cases, Russian authors. And all of them have found a way to raise their voices and tell their stories. Some of them have been put in jail, some have been killed, and some have been tortured in very violent ways. For example, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the great writer of Kenya, who was put in jail and tortured badly. And Iranian authors, in this current period of history, are experiencing one of the most disgusting and brutal reactions by the regime.

But there are some ways to publish uncensored books by them. Some decide to publish their books in exile under their real name. Some decide to publish under an alias. Some self-publish their books themselves in electronic formats like PDF, and even some of them print their books and distribute them personally among the people they trust. But all of them risk their lives. And one of the important issues that I should point out is that, if their works become famous and their audience grows over a period of time, there will be a much greater possibility that they will be punished by the regime. They often seem to find ways to locate and arrest the authors and artists. So, I think the international organizations need to bring more intense pressure on the regimes themselves and to support the organizations in exile who are raising awareness of what’s happening. In short, it is so difficult to secure the identity of the authors in Iran, and that’s why I and so many others like me are here in exile. 

How can the international publishing community help the Iranian publishers / authors in exile?

There are so many ways to support the authors in exile. First of all, the international political organizations can make the process of getting residency for the authors much easier. Because we all know so well that if a human being is not sure about having a safe home, he/she cannot focus on being creative in any meaningful way. After that, granting the publishers some small financial aids can be a great step. Then it can be very helpful to help financially those publishers who are not supported by the terrorist government to be present at international book fairs - supported by the same government that has killed so many people on the streets of Iran these weeks. Because it is not fair to compete in this market with a regime that engages in propaganda on such a large scale. Perhaps grants that encourage the translation of Iranian authors in exile, at least into the home language of the host country, can help. And at last, the most important topic at this time is about the issue of broadcasting and advertising. We expect that the state media of influential countries to be more active in this particular battle and to reflect the voices which are asking for peace more prominently.

I would like t thank you for giving me this chance to talk about the problems of the authors in exile. I should add that the topics which are censored in Iran are in some cases ridiculous. Any words that refer to women’s bodies, any sentences which are evoke a brutal action of a religious person, any mentioning about superstition in a religious country, is forbidden. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the discussion of LGBTQ issues are strongly forbidden and may lead to the imprisonment of the author in my country. In this situation, we appreciate the efforts of all those helping to the spread the word about all those helpless people currently under suppression and aggression.

Interview by Kathrin Grün, Marketing & Communications, Frankfurter Buchmesse