US sanctions, high prices take toll on Tehran International Book Fair

Tehran International Book Fair, that attracts thousands of people each year to the event, is being overshadowed by the unilateral US economic sanctions on Iran that have left their footprint on the middle-class purchasing power.

Ali Dashti

1 May 2019
ID : 21950
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Tehran International Book Fair, that attracts thousands of people each year to the event, is being overshadowed by the unilateral US economic sanctions on Iran that have left their footprint on the middle-class purchasing power.

32nd Tehran International Book Fair. TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/M. Hossein Movahedinejad

Half past two in the afternoon, the Grand Mosalla of Imam Khomeini. The large prayer hall is hosting 32nd Tehran International Book Fair, the largest cultural event in the Iranian capital that draws every year thousands of avid book readers, enthusiasts, students and all walks of life to this place. It’s lunch time. Walking past crowds of people who have sat here and there in the shadow on grass or benches, munching on snacks, sandwiches, kebab, … the grand mosque appears in the scorching sun. Down the stairs, the show begins. The first stop-the hall of Iranian importers of books written in English.

Masses are crowding around the booths, looking at the latest titles, asking prices. “Do you have a book on Roman painting?” a woman, in her 30s, clad in chador, asks a publisher that imports books written in English. “Yes, we do. It’s 135,000 tomans [some $10],” a man replies. “No, thanks. I was looking for a book ranging between 40 and 50,000 tomans [$4-5],” she responds, politely saying she couldn’t afford it. “The thing is all our books start from 100,000 tomans [some $7].”

Conversations like this are frequent at this edition of the capital’s book fair. On every corner, questions on prices and a simple “NO” are common.  

“The prices are so high. I haven’t been able to buy any books so far,” Farida Yazdani, a 21-year-old student of Chinese language at the University of Tehran, told Iran Chamber Newsroom as she was chatting with her friends in front of China’s huge red and white pavillion.

Guest of honour at this edition of Tehran Book Fair, China’s big pavillion, decorated in red and white with staff, fashioning adorable small panda dolls on their chests, sits at the centre of the international publishers hall on the second floor. 

Forex rates shot up last August when the US reimposed the first round of economic sanctions on Iran following Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the international nuclear agreement on Iran nuclear programme, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Yuan was no exception either. Each yuan is traded at some 2000 tomans while it equaled 900 tomans on the same day last year. 

“They have brought so many books from China. Many of them in Chinese. Who and how many people know Chinese here? No one. It’s only us the students of Chinese language. But the prices are too high that even we can’t afford these books,” Hanieh Ghorbani, another student of Chinese at Shahid Beheshti University told Iran Chamber Newsroom.  

“A children’s book in Chinese cost 30,000 tomans [about $2] last year, but now it’s 50,000 tomans,” she said, adding that staff and the pavillion have lowered the prices themselves as they couldn’t sell much. 

“And if you come at the end of the day, you will get lots of discount just because they couldn’t sell it,” Farida said rushingly, jumping into the disucssion. 

Afghan publisher Sobh-e-Omid, one of the 4 publishing houses that represent Afghanistan, was ready for someone to vent out his concerns and mild anger. “Paper, sir, paper,” complained Mousa Hosseini, the publishing house director. 

“There are four factors that are affecting us and the customers both. Forex rates' surge, people’s shirking purchasing power as well as increasing paper prices and transport costs,” he added. 

Although the publisher is now specializing in medical and children books, he is not selling much even to the Afghan diaspora who have been hit the hardest by the US unilateral sanctions on Iran. 

“The Afghans living in Iran are the ones who don’t earn that much, that’s why they can’t buy many books,” he told Iran Chamber Newsroom. 

He also complained about the delays and customs tariffs on the border with Iran that make it a burden for Afghan publishers to bring in their books. 

Slow-speaking Tony Hunt, who was enjoying his hot tea at the Pathfinder stand, is all aware of the price challenges and how the Iranian economy is resisting under the US economic sanctions. “That’s why,- he says- we are offering our books at the lower official exchange rate of 5,000 tomans”. “We decided ourselves,” he stressed. 

Despite all the hardships, he says he has seen “many” people buying the Pathfinder books, whose selection for this year “explains the breakup of the capitalist world order,” according to the publisher’s flier that he gives to Iran Chamber Newsroom. 

Malcom X, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Lenin portray the books’ covers, giving an idea about the publisher’s choice for the Iranian taste. The star so far, according to this British, has been “Are they rich because they’re smart?” by Jack Barnes; a $10 on class, privilege and learning under capitalism. 

A few meters away, bodybuilding trainer Sanaz Sabouri sits idle by herself, somehow bored, in a cornered stand, selling original English language books “from the beginner to the adults”. It’s her day one at this stand, rented by Nahl Publishing. But, she knows how the sales are going on in the other stand where she had stood since the start of the new book fair. “They are good. Prices are up but people keep buying,” she told Iran Chamber Newsroom. 

Michelle Obama’s best-seller 'Becoming' as well as “A1-sized maps” are the most wanted books that this publisher has been able to sell so far. “It’s not bad, you know. Not so good either,” Sabouri said. 

Yemen, a country in the midst of an ongoing five-year war led by Saudi Arabia, has managed to make it to this year’s fair. Mohammad, a 20-something Yemeni national, is wearing the country’s typical men dress, decorated by a frightening dagger. It was covered, fortunately. With his smile, Mohammad talks to Iran Chamber Newsroom about the hardships he’s had to set up the stand. “We didn’t have anything. You can’t get anything out of Yemen now because of the embargo,” he says in Persian as he has been here in Iran for the past six years. 

The stand, very modestly decorated, is comprised of three main parts. On the right, some Yemeni handicraft “lent by the Yemeni Embassy in Tehran”. In front, some books in English about Yemen’s history, culture and art and on the left, documents about the war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition. Even if he didn’t mention it, the books’ red covers were tell-tale signs. 

“Even not many Iranians know about Yemen’s past, that’s why I’m telling them all about it,” he said. 

Asked about the most interesting item for the Iranian visitors, “this,” he says, pointing to his dagger, and bursting into laughter. 

But, what's happening outside in the open air is dominated by the telecom companies and fast food restaurants. Only a few number of people are looking at the one or two books that have bought. 

For certain, the economic sanctions and hardships have taken their huge toll on the Iranian middle-class that made up the bulk of book fair visitors. Less people and less purchasing power have overshadowed the largest cultural event in Iran.

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