Tehran is hosting an international book fair.

Well-read ... Tehran is hosting an international book fair. Photo: Tehran Municipality Website

THE idea of an international book festival in Tehran might sound incongruous. Leaders of the Islamic Republic are not great book enthusiasts. Many writers are banned and as one of the world's most censorial countries, Iran has a relatively low level of book reading.

But Tehran's international book fair, held annually in the first half of May, attracts half a million visitors a day. The figure is more than the number of people who visit Frankfurt Book Fair, which claims to be the biggest in the world, over its duration.

In a labyrinth of identical stalls, more than 2000 publishing houses stand next to each other in alphabetical order. Crowds flock to the stalls, sometimes pushing each other to catch a better glimpse of newly released books on shelves. Titles range from the Farsi translations of works by J.G. Ballard, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Haruki Murakami to new reprints of the Koran and books about the significance of Imam Mahdi, Shiite Islam's messianic figure.

For those interested in the extraordinary events that have been sweeping the Arab world in the past year, there's a special section called ''Islamic awakening'', a term Iranian leaders use to describe the Arab Spring, which they say is reminiscent of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The fair's venue is an unlikely setting. Due to its vast open space in the heart of the busy capital, Tehran's enormous Grand Mosque Mosallah has been forced in recent years to open its doors to book lovers.

This is to the dismay of religious fanatics - who complain its sacredness could be contaminated by ''Western decadent'' books - and the intellectuals who believe the regime is intending to influence the publishing industry by holding the festival in a religious place.

Schools and universities across the country send students for a cultural tour, creating a huge traffic jam in the packed streets of Tehran.

Those coming from neighbouring provinces head to the capital early in the morning or even the night before. It is more like a busy fruit market than a 10-day book fair.

''For me, it is the most exciting cultural event of the year,'' said Reza via online chat from Tehran. ''In this country, we almost don't have any public carnivals to celebrate, we just have religious mourning ceremonies. The book fair is like a national celebration, like a carnival, it's absolutely fun.''

Not everyone goes to the fair to buy books. In a country where male-female relationships outside marriage are not tolerated in public, boyfriends and girlfriends find the book fair the perfect meeting place. It's a good excuse to seek their parents' permission to get out and it's less likely they will get in trouble with the moral police. Boys and girls strolling aimlessly, hand in hand, enjoying an ice-cream or sandwich, are common.

Some visit the fair several times. ''Every year, I go twice. I usually buy so many books that I can't carry them home in one visit,'' said Ali, a physics teacher from Tehran. ''The fair is so crowded and big that you can't visit all stalls in one visit anyway.''

For publishing houses, the international book fair is simply a special opportunity. Many sell more books in 10 days than they sell annually, albeit with tempting discounts.

International publishing houses are limited to those coming from friendly countries or those that publish books conforming to the strict rules in Iran, such as scientific and medical books. This year, several prominent publishing houses have seen their licences revoked and have been banned from the fair. They includes Cheshmeh, a prominent publishing house in Tehran specialising in literature and poetry books, which has released several titles by authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster and Kazuo Ishiguro.

A recent crackdown on Iranian writers and publishers followed the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments last year about ''harmful'' books.

In the face of the new measures taken against publishers, 160 acclaimed Iranian writers and translators signed a petition addressed to the country's ministry of cultural and Islamic guidance complaining about the new restrictions.

Guardian News & Media