By: guest blogger Natalie Green, PEN Center USA
From Turkey to Switzerland to the state of Connecticut, Bijan Khalili arrived in Los Angeles on the eve of Thanksgiving in 1980. By January, he had formed Ketab Corporation: a Persian publisher and bookstore whose brick and mortar location in Westwood, Los Angeles closed its doors this August.
Khalili spent six months during the Iranian Revolution distributing books to Iranian businesses, residents and government officials. After the first month of the new regime, however, Khalili said he had to stop. Iran transitioned into an Islamic republic, and revolution leader Ruhollah Khomeini assembled an informal religious militia to enforce the state’s conservative values, including book censorship.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, “Khalili opened Ketab Corp. in January 1980, just 40 days after immigrating to the U.S. In a 2015 interview with The Times, Khalili revealed that he had been imprisoned in Iran in 1980 following the revolution. ‘I was kept there for 11 days, and that’s enough time for anyone to reconsider a few things in life,’ he told The Times. When Khalili fled to the U.S. less than a year later, he took 10 of his favorite books with him.”
The Yellow Pages was Ketab Corporation’s first publication, followed by a how-to accounting book for California residents. Khalili said these were the kinds of books needed and inaccessible to the Persian community.
“We published the first Iranian Yellow Pages for the Persian community outside of Iran … when you publish a Yellow Pages in Farsi and English, then you [realize] you have the capability to publish other books, and we had the staff and crew to be able to do it,” Khalili said in a phone interview with PEN Center USA.
Since then, Ketab Corporation has published about 600 books in the past 36 years — all of them banned books according to Iran’s censorship.
Rather than offer his favorites and risk getting in trouble with his authors, Khalili recommended browsing his website for Persian books not only published by Ketab Corporation but also by colleagues in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
“You have the golden days in the ‘80s and ‘90s to own a bookstore,” Khalili said. “[But] after the period of two decades… some of my customers had passed away and their children didn’t know anything about the Persian language.”
Khalili said the lack of Farsi readers, in addition to the problems of any independent American bookstore, caused Ketab Corporation’s closure.
Since he left in 1980, Khalili said censorship in Iran has only grown worse as the government organizes its efforts. He compares the Republic of Iran to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union: a government working to change the history of the communist party, from manipulating pictures to changing texts before dispersing information and publications to its populace.
“Freedom of expression is a human right,” Khalili said. “I was the first one in the United States who gave the possibility to the Iranian community to [walk into a bookstore] and choose whatever they want. I didn’t choose for them.”
Bijan Khalili immigrated from Iran to United States in late 1980. He founded Ketab Corporation in Los Angeles, California in January, 1981. He is now living in Los Angeles with his wife Pirayeh Khalili.
Natalie Green is PEN Center USA’s program coordinator. PEN Center USA’s mission is to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.