PART V: Dialogue among civilizations, but not among ourselves


Paulo’s book was a huge hit. We sold 10,000 copies in the first two months and demand for it spiralled. Distributors came to us, begging to take on the title and bookstores called us incessantly to order more copies. My publishing career had finally taken off. In the first year, we published 10 titles and our marketing campaigns, unprecedented in the history of Iranian publishing, attracted massive attention. Then I received an email from Paulo in which he mentioned his interest in visiting Iran.

Given the political context, we decided we couldn’t invite him on our own. If he visited Iran, he would be the first non-Muslim Western author to do so since the 1979 Revolution. So I decided to consult both the Ministry of Culture and the International Centre of Dialogue among Civilizations, an organization founded by Khatami to promote dialogue between Iran and Western countries. I wrote letters to both, and they both responded by saying they would do everything they could to welcome this prominent Brazilian author—though they couldn’t pay for the costs of the visit! I wrote to Paulo and we decided to share the costs: he would pay for his flight and hotel and we would pay for everything else.

Paulo requested his visa be sent to the Embassy of Iran in Warsaw. He was visiting Poland before travelling to Iran.

We began to plan: the places he had to visit, his conferences in Shiraz and Tehran, the book-signing session in one of Tehran’s best bookstores and the press conference. We sent out press releases announcing his arrival at Mehrabad Airport on the evening of 25 May 2000. Moreover, during the Tehran International Book Fair, we began to register the names of participants for his conference in Tehran’s former Opera House. In only a few days we had 5,000 names.

But then, a mere two weeks before he was due to fly to Tehran, Paulo called. ‘Hi Arash, I’m just on my way back from the Embassy of Iran in Warsaw. I asked them for my visa but they said they had no idea what I was talking about.’

I said I’d check with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When I called them, they said they needed four more weeks to process the request. I said that was out of question, that everything was already planned, that the Ministry of Culture and the Centre for Dialogue among Civilizations were involved, that thousands of people were waiting for him. But their only answer was, ‘Sorry, we need four more weeks.’

I called Paulo and explained everything. He remained silent for a few seconds, and then said: ‘I am very upset, Arash. And this will not go unnoticed. I am a supporter of President Khatami, I believe he is doing really well. All I wanted to do was to visit Iran and see with my own eyes that this change and dialogue was real. I was planning to let the world know that they need to put aside their prejudices against Iran and accept it into the international community . . .’

‘Perhaps we can reschedule the visit . . .’

‘There will be no rescheduling, Arash. And I will let the world know how the government of Iran treated me.’ the gaze of the gazelle

Then, after a pause, he continued. ‘I will go back to the Embassy the day after tomorrow. If my visa is ready by then, I will happily come to Iran. Otherwise this visit will never happen and I will not remain silent.’ And he hung up.

I threw myself into a chair, desperate to find a way out of this mess. When I had announced that Paulo Coelho was visiting Iran, the media had received the news with scepticism; they couldn’t believe that a small publishing house was able to pull of an event of such magnitude. If the trip was cancelled, they would never believe I had been telling the truth. This would discredit Caravan and the prestige and popularity that it had built up over the past year. Our reputation as the first publisher to respect international copyright and acquire the rights of an international author, the first publisher to modernize book marketing and promotion in Iran, and the first publisher to invite an international writer, would be destroyed in a minute.

But I knew there was nothing I could do. I simply sat and stared at the wall in front of me. Exactly five minutes later, my assistant opened the door. ‘I’ve just received a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs!’

‘OK, put them through.’

‘They hung up but they left a message for you.’ ‘And?’

‘They said that Mr Coelho’s visa is ready at the Embassy of

Iran in Warsaw and he can collect it tomorrow.’

What?! I couldn’t understand what had happened but I didn’t need to. I called Paulo immediately and gave him the good news. He laughed and said, ‘OK, then everything is all right and I am very excited. Thank the government of Iran for me.’

Then I began to give him guidelines about what he and his wife could and could not do in Iran. His wife would have to cover her hair and remember to never shake hands with men. Also, that they couldn’t drink alcohol.

‘I don’t mind not drinking but I’m a smoker. I hope that’s not going to be a problem.’

No, it wasn’t a problem. Everyone smokes in Iran, I explained. Later, when we met, he told me that his harsh tone on the phone from Poland had been deliberate. He was sure our conversation was being overheard by the authorities and that short speech had convinced the Ministry to change its mind and issue the visa.