Foreign Policy Blogs

When Censorship Turns Against Itself: The Story of Artistic Resistance in Iran

Last Days of Cafe Prague

Last Days of Cafe Prague

Strict censorship of arts and culture in Iran emerged shortly after the victory of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Through various tactics, rules and regulations the Islamic Republic managed to successfully instill fear and control mainstream arts and culture in an attempt to “purify” the society of westernization and bring back Islamic and revolutionary values into the Iranian life. Decades later, despite its expansive and forceful tactics, the Islamic Republic still struggles to control Iranian contemporary arts and culture.

In the past 34 years of the Islamic Republic, despite the fluctuation and magnitude and severity of censorship in different political eras, the fundamental nature of control and suppression has impacted the lives and works of many Iranian artists, writers and journalists. The detention and trial of artists and journalists in Iran come in waves. Just recently, in a new wave of crackdowns and arrests that began in January 2013, 18 journalists have been detained and sent to the Evin Prison. While a few of them have been let go on bail, the rest remain under arrest. Calling them spies, mobs and affiliates of Western networks, the authorities have vowed to continue these arrests and crackdowns. As Iran gets closer to the June presidential elections, censorship and repression will reach yet another climax aimed at controlling the country’s political atmosphere during these sensitive times.

Crackdowns against freedom of expression have become a part of life in today’s Iran. Censorship is often employed to restrain arts and any form of self-expression that challenge the central power. Ironically, however, the very censorship and repression aimed at maintaining a homogeneous and closed society often result in the mastery of intricacy, subtlety, creativity and innovation in the arts and self-expression at large. Moreover, the kind of expansive and invasive censorship and repression that we see in today’s Iran move into people’s private and daily lives so much so that living an ordinary life becomes a form of art in its own rights.

Having grown up with censorship as a major part of their daily life, the Iranian youth have learned to express themselves not necessarily free of repression but alongside of its apparatus. They have learned to tell their stories utilizing various forms of simple or sophisticated genres of arts. Thanks to today’s information sharing platforms, once in a while stories of the use of arts to exhibit resistance against censorship and repression make it to the outside world.

In late January 2013, Café Prague, a popular hangout for Iranian intellectuals and artists in Tehran, closed its doors after refusing an order by authorities to install surveillance cameras to monitor its customers and their interactions. The management and fans of Café Prague documented difficult and emotional moments of closing down the café and shared the photos with the public on their Facebook page. The photos taken from that day alone serve as an exhibition of censorship and repression without making any explicit offensive statement against the authorities.

This is how the censorship apparatus delicately turns against itself and gives birth to an extraordinary exposé of stories, such as Café Prague’s closing down photography, even when it successfully manages to limit their practice as a business. By refusing to spy on fellow citizens via surveillance cameras and using photography as an artistic medium to document and share the last hours of their life at the café, these youths made a statement that went far beyond their local customers and fans. They used censorship to speak up. This is an instance of the curious phenomenon that emerged from the long years of censorship and repression in today’s Iran.

When asked about the definition and dynamics of arts and culture under censorship for urban youth in today’s Iran, Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, Editor-in-Chief of Tehran Bureau in partnership with the Guardian, whose news organization covered the story of the closing down of Café Prague and other similar stories said, “I cannot speak on their behalf. But, I think repression has always been conducive to art. People need an outlet to express their desires and frustrations. In a story we did recently about cosmetic surgeries, one woman essentially refereed to the face as a canvass where young Iranians can focus their ‘art.’”

Iran is nearing yet another difficult time in light of the presidential elections, and the Islamic Republic is intensifying censorship and repression to prevent any expression of protest and rebellion. Thus, it becomes increasingly important to not only closely follow the stories of the prisoners of conscience behind bars, but also to keep an eye on the subtle and creative ways in which the youth, artists and others will speak their mind and share their stories from their own perspective with the world.

Looking at the intersection of arts and politics in a country like Iran with complex censorship apparatus, understanding the context and circumstances that form and dictate the basics of self-expression become critical. To understand the context, many of us who have become accustomed to mass street protests such as those of the Green Movement and the Arab Spring as a way to resist and rebel, ought to challenge ourselves to seek smaller, yet powerful, glimpses of resistance carefully molded into contemporary arts and culture. There is often just as much resistance, power and rebellion in these smaller instances of self-expression as there is in mass street demonstrations.





(5) Brief Interview with Kelly Golnoush Niknejad conducted by Azadeh Pourzand on March 5, 2013.





Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.