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Iran's Enormous Book Garden In Tehran Houses More Than Just Books


A new bookstore opened in Iran. Not just any bookstore - a store that Iran claims to be the largest in the world. And it certainly is a contender.


This thing measures some 700,000 square feet. So if you're wondering how much that is, take an average-size Walmart, and then add six more Walmarts.

INSKEEP: Inside are movie theaters and an art gallery and a prayer room and a restaurant and an awful lot of books. Bloomberg reporter Golnar Motevalli went to see.

GOLNAR MOTEVALLI: They have these kind of, like, comfy seating areas - kind of like pretentious brainstorming zones in, like, a Silicon Valley startup - where people could kind of sit round with their books and just read.

INSKEEP: The Book Garden opened in a country that is noted for its official censorship, which just reflects the complexities of Iran.

MOTEVALLI: I think in Iran, we're kind of long past the days where you would be stopped at the airport for having a magazine in your handbag or books in your suitcase. But there is a high level of scrutiny from the authorities on what can be published and what cannot. But books written in English tend to be censored, in terms of chunks of them or parts of them being omitted from the official Persian-language translation.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is very interesting and is reminding me of neighboring Pakistan, where, if there's an English-language newspaper, they can say, they can write almost anything. But if it goes into the native language, people are much more restricted. And the government can scrutinize them a lot more or may scrutinize them a lot more. That's what you're saying is happening in Iran. They - they're OK with some messages for the elites but not for the masses.

MOTEVALLI: I mean, the thing is here, literacy levels are very high. So I'm not sure if it's the kind of means of making sure that the masses don't have access to literature. I just think it's a way of making sure that things like graphic sexual content, stuff that kind of rubs up against the morality laws, you know, doesn't get into books.

But I know in other bookstores, I've seen a wide variety of books on political science here - from stuff that's been around in Iran for literally centuries, like Plato to Hannah Arendt. So, you know, there's a huge, huge book-reading culture here. And there's this misperception, I think, in the West, that somehow the advent of the Islamic Revolution has somehow damaged the richness of what's available here and what people can read.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the reading culture because this is also a country with a certain literary tradition. I'm thinking of names that would be familiar in the West - Omar Khayyam, Rumi.

MOTEVALLI: ...Rumi - shoutout to Beyonce for naming one of her twins Rumi.

INSKEEP: (Laughter). But also, I mean, I'm thinking, Hafez was an Iranian poet...


INSKEEP: ...And Ferdowsi, this kind of historical poet.

MOTEVALLI: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Ferdowsi's famous "Shahnameh" - this, you know, huge, huge epic piece of work - probably two-thirds of Persian names you hear in Iran, or just in the Iranian diaspora, come from the "Shahnameh." These are massively influential texts. So, you know, Iranians are very, very proud of their literary tradition, and that transcends the revolution.

You know, there are restrictions on what can be written here compared to somewhere like the United Kingdom. But I don't think that the appetite for reading has been affected in any way. And the fact that they've built this giant bookshop is testament to that.


INSKEEP: That's Golnar Motevalli in Tehran, who is with Bloomberg and joined us by Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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