PART IV: Lie if you want to survive


The smell of formalin, the sleepless nights, the strain of supporting Maryam and myself, the ongoing persecution of our generation which never had a chance to enjoy life, see the world or spend time with friends without fear of arrests, was not all that defined my life in those years. Iranian society, too, was undergoing significant changes and upheavals. The rulers of the Islamic Republic were clearly splitting into two. Rafsanjani had set up a new political party called Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Executives of Construction) and had as its objective the reestablishment of capitalism. Apparently, as the most powerful man in Iran at the time, he had realized that capitalism was what would help rebuild the economic infrastructure destroyed during the war. In order to achieve this, he called for a more liberal approach. He was not aiming at political reform or the creation of a democracy but he was clearly advocating greater individual freedom. I remember the day when he announced that the Guards and the police should no longer harass young boys and girls if they were seen walking together. We were all amazed— and delighted—that the great taboo on the interaction of the sexes was finally done away with. It was some time before we noticed the disappearance of the 4WDs from the streets. Rafsanjani even tried to re-introduce the practice of provisional marriage or sigheh, the fixed-term marriage in Shi’a Islam. The duration of such a marriage is fixed at its inception and then automatically dissolved upon completion of its term. An attempt to legitimize civil partnerships, it met with limited success.

On the other hand, the political environment was growing even more oppressive. Khamenei announced that the universities had to be ‘Islamized’. This time the problem was not with the students since they had established several filtering mechanisms to ensure that no controversial student entered the universities; if they did, they were severely controlled. Once again, it was the lecturers and professors who were targeted and the Minister of Higher Education was assigned to carry out the plan.

In the course of a year, hundreds of professors with liberal, Western ideas were judged disloyal to the Revolution and forcibly retired, including Dad, who had been promoted to Professor a few years earlier and received the highest scientific honour in Iran. This broke his heart and he never recovered from the impact of not being able to teach any more. He, along with a few of his colleagues and former students, set up a research centre which, supported by the strength of his reputation, went on to become very successful. He was also appointed a member of the Iranian Academy of Science. But none of this could make up for the fact that he had been deprived of his only ambition in life: to die on the job, in the classroom.

Dad was no longer the same after his retirement. He lost the sparkle in his eyes although he became kinder, less autocratic and more outgoing. I couldn’t help but feel a certain sorrow whenever I saw him groping for a new meaning to his life. He was never commercially astute and his position as managing director of a company that needed to be profitable bothered him. He simply wanted to research, whereas now he had to worry about negotiations and competition from rival companies.

Mum, on the other hand, began work as a nurse after she graduated but she gave it up a year later and returned to teaching at high school, once again as a librarian.

I decided I didn’t want to follow in Dad’s footsteps by putting all my eggs in one basket. So I began to think about a second career: publishing. My work with the scientific journal plus publishing my book and my bookselling background seemed to me enough preparation for founding a publishing house. I wanted to try and fill the gap in the market for a publisher who would ‘think globally but act locally’. Most of the publishers I knew were stuck in the past: none of them seemed to have thought of bringing the industry up to international standards. I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have any experience in management. But I had an idea and a passionate desire to see it fulfilled.

I already knew that I would not be allowed to pursue my medical studies into any area of specialization. And in Iran, if one is not a specialist then one is highly unlikely to become a successful doctor. In the absence of a national health service, people turn immediately to a private consultant. If they have a stomach ache, they’ll consult a gastroenterologist rather than a GP. There are tens of thousands of unemployed GPs in Iran who wander about the country for a few years before they decide to give up the profession and move into other careers. I knew that this would happen to me and I decided to pre-empt it.

What I didn’t know was that setting up a publishing company wasn’t as easy as it seemed and that the problems had nothing to do with the business aspects: they lay entirely in government-imposed regulation. Before I could do anything, I needed a Publishing Licence from the Ministry of Culture. No one is allowed to register a publishing company and begin publishing books or periodicals without it; and not everyone is considered eligible to even put in an application for it.

In the first place, all applicants had to prove that they were reputable Iranian citizens, at least 27 years old, with sufficient knowledge of publishing and at least a Bachelor’s degree. At the time, being married was another precondition but this absurdity was done away with soon after. Applicants needed to have completed military service and have no criminal record or history of bankruptcy.

Once the forms were filled, the application was sent to the Security Department for a background check. If no deviant political, religious or moral activity was detected, the application was then scrutinized by a special committee. If, and only if, all these hurdles were surmounted, a provisional Publishing Licence was issued in the name of the ‘Responsible Manager’ of the publishing house. Licences were usually valid for a year and could be extended.

When I was thinking of setting up a publishing house, I was neither 27 nor had I done my military service. So I persuaded Dad to apply for the Licence. He was a reputable man, the author of several books and articles, the editor-in-chief of a leading journal and a member of the Academy of Sciences. I believed that the authorities would approve his application on the spot.

Dad was reluctant to apply but I insisted and reminded him that I hadn’t really asked him for anything ever since the video player. He was not entirely convinced about my decision; he believed I needed to concentrate on my studies. I had to promise to see through my graduation before I began any publishing to finally win him over to my side.

We applied in 1994. Dad introduced me as his representative and then the marathon began. I went to the Ministry every two weeks to see how things were progressing and to check if I needed to supply any more documentation. I did, every time: his qualifications, evidence of his prominence in international circles, proof that he was a writer, police check, etc.

Finally, after nine months, his file was deemed complete and then sent off for a background check. The official told me that he’d call me if there was any news.

A year went by. I was about to graduate but there was still no news of Dad’s file. I decided to go to the Ministry and see for myself.

It was almost three hours before I was let in.

‘What do you want?’

‘Has there been any development in the Publishing License application of my father, Dr Jalal Hejazi?

He looked into his files. ‘Well, yes,’ he said, smiling, ‘we had a response a while ago. But I must have been too busy to call.’

I leaned forward in my chair, ‘And?’

‘Unfortunately your father has not been approved. His background shows that he is not very loyal to the Revolution. It is not the end of the world, though. Ask him to come and see me. If he signs a statement that he regrets whatever he has done, the Security Office might reconsider . . .’

I left the Ministry in despair. Dad would never sign such a statement. I talked to him and I wasn’t surprised when he simply smiled and said, ‘Never!’

My dreams of becoming a publisher were dashed to the ground. I began to prepare for military service. I got my papers from the conscription office in April 1996 and was called very soon after.

Another two years of my life. Another two years wasted.