If the dread visions of George Orwell pertained only to far-off lands suffering under revolutions betrayed, they might be obscure to us now. Orwell's triumph was to bridge the imaginations of East and West by setting his Soviet-inspired satires of political cruelty, control, and deception in familiar England. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four touch truths so universal that they unsettle the citizens of established democracies. Orwell pertains everywhere, but, even in the absence of the Stalinist superpower that honed his perceptions, a handful of states continue to provide unabashed variations on the "Orwellian" -- particularly Iran.
Orwell provided the world a new vocabulary for modes of oppression. When, in January, Iranian authorities pressured Café Prague, a popular hangout for Tehran's students and intellectuals, to install cameras whose footage the state could access, the cafe's owners protested by closing down their business. Their explanation: "We take comfort in knowing that we at least didn't let Big Brother's glass eyes scan and record our every step, minute, and memory from dawn till dusk."
Meanwhile, on the western side of Orwell's bridge, Iranian journalists working for non-Iranian media -- in particular, BBC Persian -- accused their government of forging websites and Facebook pages in their names, built around salacious themes. Close readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four will recall not only the Party's fabrications and forgeries, but the cheap pornography it distributed to the "proles" of Airstrip One, Orwell's dystopian England.
As if to confirm Iran in its Orwellian moment, Washington-based opposition cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar, well-known for portraying Iran's theocrats as animals, generated fresh controversy by caricaturing Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as Napoleon, the porcine leader and hypocrite of Animal Farm. "Comparing Orwell's story with the 1979 revolution," Kowsar explains, "you'll see that no Iranian politician has ever changed the rules to his own benefit like Rafsanjani."
And though the agents of the Islamic Republic may not actually read Orwell, they appear, on a subconscious level, to regard him with unease: An article on the government-affiliated Press TV website, which described the British monarchy as anti-Muslim, carried a Freudian slip of a photo caption, since corrected, which read:
The history of Islam has gone through sensitive [eras] in the British Isles … during the reign of rulers such as George Orwell and Elizabeth II, marked with a rise in Islamophobic sentiments.
It seems a pity, against this background, that Orwell wrote so little about Iran (or, indeed, about Islam). Having coined the term "cold war" in print, he died in 1950 at age 46, predeceasing only slightly a signal episode in that struggle that would have tested his political convictions and gone some way to determining his reputation in Iran.
The 1951 attempt by Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., as well as his overthrow two years later in a CIA-backed coup, would have thrust Orwell's values into vivid juxtaposition -- even conflict. The case would have tested his anti-imperialism (which did not always mean admiration for anti-imperialist leaders, because he disliked Gandhi), his distrust of the Soviet Union (into whose "sphere of influence" U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's administration believed Mosaddegh was leading Iran), and his socialism (when Britain's welfare state relied on cheap Iranian oil) -- not to mention his contempt for lies and dirty tricks.
As it happens, Orwell's reputation in Iran is relatively unencumbered by history, but difficult to gauge. His satires are easy enough to acquire in Farsi, but all books published in Iran pass through censors' hands. Nevertheless, books are not efficiently policed, and it may be possible for Iranians to buy cheaply reproduced, uncensored editions, especially from street-sellers.