Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended
to enhance your reading group's discussion of Censoring an Iranian Love Story
the first novel published in English by the award-winning Iranian writer
About This Book
From one of Iran's most acclaimed and controversial contemporary writers
comes a dazzlingly inventive work of fiction. Censoring an Iranian Love Story
opens a revelatory window onto what it's like to live, to love, and to be an
artist in today's Iran.
The novel entwines two equally powerful narratives. A writer named Shahriar-the
author's fictional alter ego-has struggled for years against the all-powerful
censor at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Now, on the threshold of
fifty, tired of writing dark and bitter stories, he has come to realize that the
"world around us has enough death and destruction and sorrow." He sets out
instead to write a bewitching love story, one set in present-day Iran. It may be
his greatest challenge yet.
Beautiful black-haired Sara and fiercely proud Dara fall in love in the dusty
stacks of the library, where they pass secret messages to each other encoded in
the pages of their favorite books. But Iran's Campaign Against Social Corruption
forbids their being alone together. Defying the state and their disapproving
parents, they meet in secret amid the bustling streets, Internet cafés, and lush
private gardens of Tehran.
Yet writing freely of Sara and Dara's encounters, their desires, would put
Shahriar in as much peril as his lovers. Thus we read not just the scenes
Shahriar has written but also the sentences and words he's crossed out or merely
imagined, knowing they can never be published.
Laced with surprising humor and irony, at once provocative and deeply moving,
Censoring an Iranian Love Story
takes us unforgettably to the heart of one
of the world's most alluring yet least understood cultures. It is an ingenious,
wholly original novel-a literary tour de force that is a triumph of art and
- What do you think are the aims of this novel? How does its unique
structure reflect the ideas-and sometimes even the arguments-the author is
trying to make?
- The view of Iran with which we are typically presented comes straight
from the newspaper headlines-a journalist imprisoned, a diplomatic quandary,
issues surrounding the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and so on. How does
this novel-a story of individuals trying to create art, to live and to love
on a daily basis-challenge these snapshots?
- How does the epigraph reflect the novel's themes?
- What did you think when you came to the first censored line? How did you
approach these passages? How do they add to your understanding, as a reader,
of what it's like for a writer (or any other type of artist) to work under
the constant threat of censorship?
- Who is the narrator? Do you think his voice really represents the author
of the novel, Shahriar Mandanipour-or is he a wholly fictional creation?
- On page 8, the narrator says, "I, with all my being, want to write a
love story." How is the story of Sara and Dara a classic love story? How
does it differ from the love stories you're accustomed to reading? What
other love stories do you see echoed in their tale
- The narrator lives in Shiraz-a city with a long, poetic history that
provides him with inspiration-while Sara and Dara's love story takes place
in Tehran. Sense of place is important to this novel. How do the sections
describing both cities help us to understand the characters and their
attachment to their country?
- Discuss the significance of the characters' names: Dara, Sara, Porfiry
Petrovich, Shahriar. . . ?
- Literature plays a key role in Sara and Dara's relationship; they meet
in the library and pass notes in their favorite books-The Blind Owl, The
Little Prince, Dracula. . . Which of the literary works alluded to in
the novel have you read?
- The novel is full of Western pop culture references-from Danielle Steel
to Kevin Costner, Linkin Park to Titanic. How do these add humor and
sometimes even absurdity to the story? What effect do they have on the
- Beginning on page 35, the narrator interrupts the story of Sara and Dara
to tell the reader of his first encounter with the censor Porfiry Petrovich:
as a young writer, he had accompanied his publisher to a meeting with Mr.
Petrovich in an attempt to get his first collection of stories approved for
publication. As Sara and Dara's story progresses, and as the narrator
continues to write, Petrovich becomes an increasingly important figure in
the novel. Discuss the relationship between Petrovich and the narrator. What
does each get from the other
- In an aside about censorship on page 57, as he tries to write dialogue
between Sara and Dara, the narrator says that the word "'thing,' with its
inherent ambiguity, can be interpreted as the most vile and libelous word in
the Farsi language." After reading the book, does this strike you as
hyperbole or something else?
- There are elements of what some might consider magical realism
throughout the novel. How did they enrich your understanding both of Sara
and Dara's and of Shahriar's stories?
- Several supporting characters-the poet who died seven hundred years ago,
the medicine man Jafar ibn-Jafri, the assassin, the army of Arabs-play
important symbolic and sometimes also narrative roles in the novel. How do
the story's "real" characters relate to them? What do they tell us about the
history of Iran and literature there?
- On page 80, Dara, a former film major, says, "[T]he art of cinema can be
even more powerful and more beautiful than literature"; we also see a blind
censor screening Dances with Wolves and Scent of a Woman in
order to decide which scenes should be cut. Compare film censorship
with literary censorship as presented in the novel. How do they inform one
another in this story?
- Discuss the ghazal on page 123, written by the poet who had died
seven hundred years ago-a real poet, by the name of Hafez:
They have closed the tavern door O God do not approve,
for they open the door to deceit and hypocrisy . . .
- Discuss how the novel portrays the lives of women in contemporary Iran.
What does the headscarf signify for Sara? In what ways is she trapped or
constricted? How do the limits of her freedom compare to those placed on
Dara, a former political prisoner?
- Sinbad and Sara's parents seem to offer to Sara a safe alternative to
her relationship with Dara-yet Sinbad is ultimately a more complicated man
than he appears. Compare Dara's less affluent parents with Sara's mother and
father. Were you able to sympathize with either set of parents? How did your
feelings about Sinbad change as the novel progressed?
- Discuss the ways in which the narrator has learned to write around
controversial topics-or topics that might be perceived by the censor as
controversial: the ellipses he uses instead of finishing sentences or
scenes; the metaphors he employs from the long tradition of Iranian
literature; the stream-of-consciousness style he sometimes employs instead
of writing realistically. How does reading about these methods, along with
the crossed-out sections of the novel, affect your perceptions of
- On page 221, at the end of the chapter "A Cobra at the Window," as Dara
wanders the streets of Tehran longing for Sara and is suddenly attacked in
an alley, the narrator stops suddenly and says, "Ridiculous! I don't need
such a chapter in my love story. Please go ahead and delete this chapter
that only a novice writer could perpetrate." What does this chapter-and its
potential absence-mean for both stories? What, here and elsewhere, is the
effect on the reader when we are pulled out of the narrative and addressed
directly? What about when the characters address the narrator directly
themselves? How do these passages change our expectations of what a novel is
supposed to be and of the roles reader and writer, protagonist and
antagonist, are playing?
- After Dara escapes the assassin, on page 266, the narrator says, "I feel
the blade of a knife against my Achilles tendon." To what degree is the
writer responsible for the fates of his characters? In what sense do they
take on a life of their own?
- Discuss the fable of the damask rose, to which the narrator refers on
page 279: in this old Iranian story, a beautiful girl who is kidnapped by a
beast is rescued by a trail of damask roses that leads a young man to slay
her captor. How does this story-and the other legends, myths, tales from
Iranian cultural history-relate to Sara and Dara's narrative?
- Discuss the conclusion of the novel, which leaves much to the reader's
imagination yet in many ways (for example, with the return of the hunchback
midget) feels very fitting
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Blind Owl by Sadeq Hedayat; The Complete Stories of Franz
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
- The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca
- Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
- My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- One Thousand and One Nights
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.