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Iranians, Afghans Plead With Amazon For Self-Publishing In Persian

In this photo the book on the left is the Persian translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the book on the right is George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell
In this photo the book on the left is the Persian translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the book on the right is George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell

If you write a book in Manx Gaelic, a Celtic language thought dead until recently, you can use Amazon's self-publishing service to get your book to the estimated 1,800 people who can read and speak Manx, most of them on the Isle of Man.

If you write in Persian, on the other hand, a language spoken by more than 100 million people around the world, you can't get onto any e-readers through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

Thanks in part to Amazon's decision to merge its Kindle Direct and CreateSpace services last year -- but by some accounts also due to fear of U.S. financial sanctions aimed at punishing Tehran's behavior and its weapons programs -- Amazon's self-publishing services don't currently support Persian, also known as Farsi.

The resulting exclusion catches Iranians around the world in the crossfire of a diplomatic dispute, say critics trying to get Persian onto Kindle, and misses a chance to encourage free speech at the same time.

Amazon, the world's largest book retailer, allows authors to publish books through Kindle Direct, which boasts "hundreds of thousands of authors" since its launch in 2007, making books accessible within a few days to tens of millions of potential buyers and readers worldwide.

A representative for Amazon, which had a market capitalization of around $921 billion on May 15, told RFE/RL via e-mail in response to a question about its Persian policy, "We are actively reviewing author and reader feedback to evaluate which features and services we offer in the future, including expanding KDP's supported languages."

For Freedom?

Persian is thought to have around 110 million speakers worldwide, including in Iran, Tajikistan, and much of Afghanistan. Its alphabet is a modified form of Arabic script.

Amazon lists 40 languages for Kindle books and content and removes content in languages that are not supported.

Until about a year ago, people could publish their own Persian-language texts, as a paperback or e-book, through an on-demand service owned by Amazon called CreateSpace. But Amazon merged CreateSpace with Kindle Direct in 2018.

An online petition launched in Canada and signed by more than 14,000 people calls on Amazon to once again support Persian. It cites Persian culture and literature's place as "one of the greatest throughout history."

Its organizer, Ottawa-based Iranian poet and translator Mahyar Mazloumi, also argues that establishing Kindle Direct in Persian would be a "huge step to fight censorship and promote freedom of speech."

He tells RFE/RL he's planning to publish poems on Kindle Direct to evade Iran's tough censors, whose written and unwritten rules are a major hurdle for authors and translators.

Iran's Culture Ministry regularly vets books and translations of foreign books before their publication and allows itself considerable discretion. Censors routinely ban books that are deemed immoral, anti-Islamic, or harmful to national security.

In some instances, books have been banned weeks or months after their publication. Tiny passages -- a sentence or a paragraph -- are often censored. And the words "Israel," "alcohol," and "dance" are frequently cut.

Poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari told RFE/RL in 2016 that in order to get her first book of poetry published, she used dots for words and sentences she thought would not get past Iranian authorities.

Petition organizer Mazloumi says that "some of the books published in Iran are so heavily censored that they're not worth reading."

"I didn't want a single word to be touched [by censors]," he says. "Those outside the country who want to publish their books independently and escape the censors' razor can't do it [on Amazon] because Persian is not available."

Evading The Censors

Mazloumi has posted poems that touch on erotic, social, and political themes, including the arrest of labor rights activist Esmail Bakhshi, via the cloud-based messaging app Telegram, which is said to remain popular among Iranians despite a decision by the authorities to block it in 2018.

He has also published a selection of English-language poetry on Amazon.

The Internet has become a crucial platform for Iranian writers who have little chance of being published inside the country. Some have posted digital books independently, while others have used the services of publishers based outside the country.

Millions of Iranians access banned sites and applications through so-called virtual private networks (VPNs) or other antifiltering tools.

Malta-based Afghan writer and publisher Aziz Hakimi says his and other publishing houses also sell books that have been written and published outside the countries where Persian is an official language.

Hakimi, the founder and editor of online literary magazine and Nebesht publishing, suggests that Amazon might be concerned that revenues from books sold online could end up in Iran, which could be a violation of recently reinvigorated U.S. financial sanctions.

"This could be an issue for Amazon," he says.

As part of its high-profile efforts to challenge Tehran over its missile program, its use of armed fighters and other alleged proxies in the region, its rights record, and its disputed nuclear program, the United States has recently doubled down on its punishments for international transactions with banks and other entities in Iran.

Asked by RFE/RL about the refusal to offer self-publishing in Persian, the Amazon representative did not mention sanctions.

"Amazon has to find a way so that all Persian speakers, even those who are not based in Iran, do not become victims of sanctions," Hakimi says. He also suggests that the U.S. administration make an exception for cultural products, like books, when it comes to sanctions.

Despite sanctions, Kindles are sold in Iran, where their pros and cons are debated in online forums. It is unclear how Kindle owners inside the country download books onto their device.

Millions of ethnic Iranians and Afghans live abroad, where they can easily purchase books from Amazon's online store.

Hakimi says he believes that due to its popularity, Kindle could revolutionize book readership among Persian speakers by making books in Persian easily accessible to a vast audience. "We have to be ready for the future," he says. "We already publish books that can't be published inside the country due to censorship."

Several writers, including British author Salman Rushdie, who was forced into hiding following a death sentence proclaimed by Iranian revolutionary and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, have agreed to let Nebesht make electronic versions of their books available to readers inside Iran for free.

Acclaimed Iranian writer Moniro Ravanipour, a supporter of the campaign for Kindle Direct to support Persian, tells RFE/RL she previously published several of her books through CreateSpace. "It was the only way for us. I would publish my books without censorship and I had readers," Ravanipour, who has faced state censorship in Iran, says.

"As a matter of fact, I would celebrate with every book that was published. It made me feel that the Islamic republic [of Iran] has not defeated me."