My recently co-edited books, The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie, Intimacy & Design with Rana Salam, Transit Tehran – Young Iran and Its Inspirations, with Maziar Bahari, and Kaveh Golestan – Recording the Truth in Iran, with Hengameh Golestan, provide ample examples of the challenges facing books that show a different side of the Middle East.
All of them feature a hefty mix of visuals and text. The book is explored as a curatorial space, one that not only shows the latest work of artists and photojournalists but also includes, in Transit Tehran, original memoir, reportage, fiction and neighbourhood profiles. A book like this breaks all sorts of taboos. The first one is marketing, where does a hybrid book that about a foreign place go – in travel, anthologies? If a book isn’t going to sell 10,000 copies Thames and Hudson won’t publish it.
However a more insidious problem exists. Books on the Arab and Iranian street, showcasing authenticity, are almost impossible to get published. Take as an example Syria’s racy lingerie culture. Manufactured by conservative religious Sunni families for a conservative religious clientele, it goes against the widespread Western belief that because of the veil or hijab, Islam is puritanical and sexless. After months of discussion, its current publisher narrowed the focus of the book and rejected photographs of the first Muslim woman modelling the country’s cotton lingerie – used as advertising images in lingerie stores all over Syria – because editors there feared a backlash. Wishful thinking or stupidity?