May 24, 2019

Persian-language bookstore Ketab Corp. closes but maintains its mission

“Reading books is a human right,” Bijan Khalili said on Public Radio International’s “The World” last month. Then, a few weeks later, he closed the doors to his Persian-language bookstore, Ketab Corp., after 36 years in Westwood.

For thousands of Iranian-Americans in Southern California, Ketab — “Book” in Persian — represented a community institution as a physical space on Westwood Boulevard where they could reconnect with their homeland. (It continues to sell books, movies and music online and by phone to local customers and Iranians around the world.)

Like so many brick-and-mortar operations, Ketab fell victim to the explosive growth of internet book sales and the logistical challenges of high rent and overhead and operating on a busy street with limited parking.

For the Iranian-American community in Los Angeles, the closing of the storefront was a major loss — one that took some history with it. Khalili, an Iranian-Jewish Kurd, said he hung the first Persian-script vertical sign on any business in America when he opened the store in 1981, and offered the first Iranian Yellow Pages ever published outside of Iran, which is still circulated and contains 2,500 listings.

Among the most notable areas of the bookstore was a shelf labeled “Books Prohibited in Iran.”

As a college student at National University of Iran in Tehran immediately before Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Khalili delivered passionate public addresses against the Ayatollah Khomeini and encouraged students to vote against regime change that led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. In 1980 he was imprisoned, and like thousands of others, he feared he would be executed without a trial.

Khalili still does not know why he was released after 11 days. When the Iran-Iraq War began that September, he traveled by bus to Istanbul, then by plane to Zurich, where, with the help of Swiss Jews, he received a humanitarian parole visa from the American consulate.

Khalili opened Ketab roughly one month after he arrived in the United States. He brought 10 beloved books, including “1984” and “Les Misérables,” which became the first books he kept at Ketab.

The store featured books and films in Persian on a variety of topics, from controversial biographies to explanatory works on Judaism and Islam, as well as books in English about Iran. Its patrons were mostly Iranian exiles eager for a taste of Persian culture.

Ketab was often the site of debate, evening poetry readings and locals reading their own works.

“Offering prohibited books was one of the duties of Ketab,” Khalili said. “Since the freedom of choosing and buying and reading of books was respected in Ketab bookstore, I believe there was no difference that the owner was a Jew or not a Jew. More importantly, I always carried books that were pro-Islam and against Islam, and at the same time books that were pro-Jewish and against the Jewish faith, and the same with Christian and Baha’i books.”

Customers varied by faith and included many Iranian Muslims who often purchased books about Zionism and Israel, Khalili said. Ketab also published calendars, on which Khalili made sure to include all prominent holy dates related to both Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and to Jews, Christians, Baha’is and “nonbelievers,” he said.

Ketab came to promote inclusivity of Iranian identity for exiles young and old, yet fewer young people visited the store in recent years, due to their inability to read Persian or their lack of interest in the language.

Rachel Sumekh, a 25-year-old Iranian-American Jew who was born in Los Angeles, said she first entered Ketab after completing a Persian-language class at UCLA in 2012. Her mother escaped Iran by camel in 1983, and her father arrived in Oklahoma for college in 1970.

It was at Ketab that Sumekh purchased her first Persian beginner’s book, a famous children’s tale titled “The Little Black Fish,” which promotes allegorical political themes of exploration and venturing into uncharted waters. The book held “prime real estate” on her bookshelf, she said.

“I wanted to pick up a proper book to keep my reading strong, and it was easier to peruse a physical bookstore in a foreign language than it is on Amazon,” Sumekh said.

While the storefront has closed, Ketab remains a prominent Persian-language publisher who bypasses regime censors, offering Iranians worldwide information on critical topics ranging from gender equality to the Holocaust. The latter is considered a particularly taboo topic by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Ketab Corp. will continue to sell both Persian and English books online and by phone. It also will continue as a publishing source for books, as well as the Iranian Yellow Pages, which is available in a pocket edition, and the local Iranshahr newspaper.

“My hope is to send electronically all or most of the banned books into Iran,” Khalili said.

His efforts have produced unexpected results. According to the report on Public Radio International, some of those books already have made it into Iran’s National Library.