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Unlikely forum for Iran's youth

Goodreads, a book lovers' site based in Santa Monica, has become a place to let off political steam.

January 02, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

Incensed when a government official hailed the conservative newspaper Kayhan as a paragon of dissent, a 20-year-old who lives in Southern Iran logged on to a popular website.

The praise for the state-controlled daily was "the biggest political joke of the year," Ali wrote in a message posted on his profile. "I can't believe what a stupid nation we have and what a stupid president we have and that people are still following him."

The post set off a debate about freedom of speech and censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where criticism of the government is rarely welcome and the outspoken are often punished. The cynics on didn't pull their punches.

They were angry, amused and dispirited. "People have reached a point in our country," wrote a student who called herself Fatemah, "where they don't do anything about their own destiny."

Unexpectedly, Goodreads -- a year-old networking site for book lovers run out of Santa Monica -- has become a place where young people in Iran feel safe letting off political steam. A year after its launch, Goodreads' membership is more than one-fifth Iranian.

Like readers the world over, those from Iran recommend, review and rate books. Their second-favorite, after "The Da Vinci Code," is George Orwell's anti-totalitarian novel "Animal Farm."

But on the site's Persian-language groups, literature isn't always the main subject.

"Usually, they discuss political issues," said Maysam Shahsavari, a student from Qazvin, a city northwest of Tehran, about the students in the 321-member Iranian University Students group she created on the site.

In November, a photo of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looking with apparent puzzlement at a water spigot was posted on the site after he visited a rural part of the country. More than two dozen comments were made in response.

"A pretentious and cunning fox," wrote Mehdi, a 23-year-old living in Karaj, near Tehran.

"Great pretender," wrote Katayoun, a 23-year-old studying for an MBA in Britain.

Even religion isn't off-limits on Goodreads. In one discussion group, a member listed incidents in the Koran that he said were too fanciful to be believed, including passages about supernatural creatures called jinn and people being turned into monkeys.

The Iranian government demands that private Internet service providers block access to MySpace, YouTube and several other social networking sites, and it arrests bloggers and online journalists who write unfavorably about the regime. Two feminists, Maryam Hosseinkhah and Jelveh Javaheri, are in Evin Prison in Tehran, charged with "putting out inaccurate news, stirring up public opinion and writing against the Islamic Republic" on the Internet.

But Goodreads seems to be mostly under Tehran's radar, possibly because it has a relatively small audience and is ostensibly focused on books rather than politics. Not all service providers filter out the site, and enterprising Iranians often find proxy servers or other online tools to circumvent restrictions.

"It's not about dating or networking. It's not controversial -- it's a cozy nerd forum," said Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian author living in New York whose first novel, "Sons and Other Flammable Objects," was published in September. She recently created a Goodreads group called Literature of Iran & the Diaspora that attracted 80 members in a matter of days.

In a country where public meeting spaces such as coffeehouses and shisha, or hookah, cafes are shuttered without warning and young people face an ever-changing set of rules dictating what they can and cannot do, Goodreads is a refuge. And it is a winner, so far, in what Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, called the "cat-and-mouse chase," with the government shutting down forums for discussion and people as quickly setting them up.

"We don't have any place to speak about our ideas," said a 25-year-old journalist in Tehran whose online name is Nazanin. She said in an e-mail interview that a cafe-bookstore in her neighborhood was recently closed by the Ahmadinejad administration, which has also tightened access to some Western books and cracked down on vendors selling Western CDs and movies.

"When we see a site that we can share our ideas on," Nazanin said, "we attach to it."

For all of the government's apparent lack of interest, Goodreads hasn't escaped the attention of self-appointed censors. Members post pictures of themselves in their profiles when they join, and recently a Goodreads intern noticed that photos of Iranian women without head coverings were being marked as inappropriate by Iranian men. The site's founder, Otis Chandler, investigated and found that members flagging the photos had no friends or books in their profiles. He let the women's photos remain on the website.

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