PART V: Dialogue among civilizations, but not among ourselves

I was incredibly excited. I was at the airport’s VIP lounge at 2 in the morning, waiting for Paulo’s plane to land, knowing that there were nearly a thousand fans waiting outside to see him. Paulo had touched thousands of lives in Iran even before his arrival. His books were about believing in dreams and following the signs. With their new-found hopes for freedom, people in Iran embraced his ideas. His ideas weren’t new or original but the simplicity of his stories had tugged at their heartstrings. Since I became his publisher, we have sold millions of copies of his books and I know they have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in my country. It was Neda’s generation that was most affected by his literature.

Later, I realized that his impact was universal and that the key factor of his success could be summarized in a single word: passion. All the individuals who created the domestic and international success of The Alchemist first fell in love with it and then decided to share their passion with others; a concept now forgotten but once one of the main founding principles in the publishing industry. This passion created the most powerful marketing communication tool—word of mouth—stronger and more effective than any advertising campaign.

The Alchemist is the story of a boy who dreams twice of a treasure hidden near the Pyramids. He leaves behind the world he knows and sets off on a quest to find this treasure. He reaches the Pyramids only to realize that the treasure is waiting for him at home, at the very place where he dreamed of the treasure in the first place.

It may sound simple but the concept of travelling the world only to find the treasure at home has very deep roots in all sorts of myths and legends. The plot first appears, almost simultaneously, as ‘In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad’ in Book VI of Mathanawi by Rumi, the thirteenth century Iranian poet, and in One Thousand and One Nights where it becomes ‘The man who became rich through a dream’. It also appears in the seventeenth-century English folktale The Pedlar of Swaffham and several others. Later, it finds its way into a novel called Night under the Stone Bridge (1952) by the Austrian writer Leo Perutz. Jorge Luis Borges, too, adapted it in his short story ‘Historia de los dos que soñaron’ (Tale of the two dreamers). That was in turn the source that inspired Coelho to write The Alchemist.

The recurring nature of the theme implies that the story appeals to people because its universal message addresses one of the most important sources of human anxiety, regardless of time, nationality, language or culture. Every human being has a dream. However, in order to adapt to a society demanding conformity, they often have to abandon their dreams and live with their regrets. The story asks people to trust their dreams, to be brave and to follow their individual paths. To do that, they don’t have to be elite, intellectual, rich and flawless or even possess extraordinary strength. This is a path for ordinary people.

But Paulo’s version was much more successful than its predecessors. When the book was published in Iran, there seemed to be no hope left for individuality; the excitement of the Revolution was over and people had lost hope that one day the world could live in ‘peace and love’, The Alchemist told everyone that they could separate their personal destinies from society’s standards and that the conspiracy theory was an illusion. This new hope was what people needed at the time.

The Alchemist is full of archetypal symbols which appear in an apparently simple and straightforward style but which bear a deep and fundamental meaning that speaks to all: the alchemist; the wise old man; the female counterpart; the quest; the disguise; the thieves and warriors who try to postpone the mission; the four elements and several other symbols already established in the collective unconscious of the readers, especially in a culture like Iran’s which is saturated with references to them. Iranians are familiar with these symbols from childhood through fairy tales, fables and myths and can instantly identify with them. Coelho used the known plot, the familiar characters and elements, the archetypal references and even the well-known style of fairy tales to revive an ancient but forgotten message: be brave; the real power lies within you, not outside.

The simplicity of style and language as well as the appeal of its story make it ideal for translation. It is the most translated book by a living author: it has been translated into 68 languages and sold more than 65 million copies in 150 countries.

Meanwhile, completely ignoring the views of the critics who claimed it to be a mere commercial product, I was waiting anxiously at the airport, sitting beside the Ambassador of Brazil and the delegates from the Ministry of Culture and the Centre of Dialogue among Civilizations. I had met the Ambassador a few days ago at the Brazilian Embassy, where he had invited me to discuss Paulo’s trip. He had received orders from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil to receive Paulo well. But he wasn’t keen on Paulo’s books and considered him very commercial.

‘I will hold a reception at my house for him but I will not go to the airport. If I had not been instructed by the Ministry, I wouldn’t do even this.’

‘Paulo Coelho is a writer, and you are an ambassador, not a literary critic,’ I answered.

‘But we don’t want him to represent Brazil. We have many better authors.’

‘Mr Ambassador, so far the world recognizes Brazil as the land of football and samba. Why don’t you let Paulo Coelho represent your country for something more meaningful, like literature?’

He didn’t say anything but he and his wife both showed up at the airport.

‘I changed my mind,’ he said, when I looked at him in surprise.

So there I was, waiting at the VIP lounge for the most important encounter of my life.

I was also anxious about the bodyguards. That afternoon, two armed agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard had arrived and introduced themselves as bodyguards for ‘Mr PABILO KUBILO’. I was immediately bombarded with questions about Paulo’s visit.

‘Are you bodyguards or interrogators?’ I asked.

‘We need to report Mr Pabilo’s every move. And we are going to keep an eye on you as well.’

I said that I had already given the reasons for Paulo’s visit to the Ministry of Culture, the International Centre of Dialogue among Civilizations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

‘Yes, you have. But now we need to know the REAL reasons.’

This was an old strategy, one with which I was only too familiar. I explained again that I was his publisher, that he was very popular in Iran, that he was in love with our culture and that he was looking forward to visiting the land of Rumi and Saadi and the Muslim mystics. I told them that he was a religious person and that he had no ties with politics.

They pretended to accept my explanation, although I knew they were looking for signs of something sinister.

‘Whatever. We don’t speak English. You’re supposed to translate every word that Pabilo utters. Is that clear?’

I said I was going to be too busy arranging everything. If the Ministry of Intelligence wanted to know what Pabilo said, they had better send a ‘bodyguard’ who understood English.

‘That’s the way it’s going to be, Dr Hejazi. You don’t want to say no to us.’

I said that I would interpret what he said if I wasn’t busy doing a thousand other things.

I was pacing the corridor outside the VIP lounge when I saw a short man standing in front of me. I didn’t recognize him at first: he was so different from his photos.

‘Oh my god! You’re so young! I’ve never had a publisher this young!’ Then he hugged me and introduced his wife, ‘This is Christina.’

Christina was wearing a headscarf that covered all her hair and most of her face, and a long coat that covered her down to her ankles. She had taken my warnings too seriously.

‘Hi Christina, I’m Arash, very nice to meet you.’

She simply shook her head and said nothing. Later I realized she was scared to death as she stepped into the mysterious land of Iran. She was also under the impressions that women were not supposed to speak to men.

We went into the lounge. The representatives of the government and the Ambassador greeted and welcomed him. The Ambassador’s wife laughed when she saw Christina wrapped in so much clothing and told her that she would give her a proper headscarf in the morning. The ‘bodyguards’ too, introduced themselves and greeted ‘Mr Pabilo’ in Persian and asked me to translate what they said.

We left the lounge and all of a sudden Paulo found himself among more than a thousand fans who burst into applause as soon as he entered the Arrivals area. The bodyguards stepped forward protectively. People held up their books, and Paulo asked the bodyguards to let him sign them. A dozen domestic and international reporters had arrived at the same time to cover the first Western author’s visit to Iran.

Then we left for Hotel Homa, where we had booked a room for them. It was four in the morning when we left Paulo, Christina and the two bodyguards at the hotel but I had found a chance to have a private chat with Paulo, explaining that the two bodyguards were actually intelligence agents.

‘I knew, Arash. Don’t worry, I know how to handle them.’

We visited the Bazaar the next day, although the Centre of Dialogue had planned a lot of visits to museums. Paulo refused to go to any museums on the first day of his visit.

‘I never go to museums. Whatever you want to show me, I can find online. What I can’t find online is the actual life of the people. So I am going to the Bazaar tomorrow, and I am sure that Hamid and Khusro—the bodyguards—know a lot about the Bazaar and the life of people. They will show me around.’

So we went to the Bazaar. In the afternoon, when we returned to the hotel, about a hundred people were waiting for him. Instead of going to his room, Paulo sat in the lobby and chatted with them, drinking coffee incessantly, signing books, chatting, explaining, discussing scenes from his books, listening to tales from Iranian culture. Finally, he said he needed to go to his room and rest. Softly, he asked me to wait for a while. After half an hour, he returned, laughing.

‘The bodyguards are snoring. So I thought perhaps we could have a private chat.’

It was then that I met the real Paulo. He wanted to know about me, and he told me about himself. He believed I was too young to handle the situation and told me how to deal with the press, the government and the fans. He also said that he wanted to visit one of the Shia shrines if it were possible.

The next day was the fortieth day after Ashura, the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. It was a day of mourning and Paulo wanted to watch the people. We went to the Shrine of Abdulazim, in South Tehran, after which the ‘bodyguards’ forced us to visit the graves of the martyrs of the war as well. My friend Farhad, from the Centre of Dialogue, was with us all the time. I was meeting him after 18 years. He was the one with whom I had founded the cooperative in our first year of junior high; we trusted one another.

‘Listen, Arash,’ he said, ‘we have a mystical ceremony at home tonight. Do you want to bring Paulo? I’m sure he’d want to be present at an authentic Sufi ceremony.’

I told Paulo about it, and he was very keen to attend. But it was dangerous. The government of Iran did not approve of alternative religion, especially mysticism. Farhad, however, said it wouldn’t be a problem because the Centre of Dialogue was under the protection of President Khatami.

So we set off for Farhad’s that night, accompanied by the bodyguards who thought we were going to attend a traditional mourning ceremony. People sat on the chairs or on the floor in the large living room. Everything seemed as usual: people were chatting, drinking tea, eating dates, introducing themselves. Paulo was talking to a professor of physics who was also one of the most important mystics in Iran, and I was chatting with Maryam about the stress I was going through. The two bodyguards sat beside one another, whispering.

Then the lights went off. One of the guests took out his daf—a Middle Eastern musical instrument mostly used during mystical dances—and began to sing and chant and call on the name of Ali and other famous Iranian mystics. Many of the guests stood up and joined in the dance. Within a few minutes they were all in an ecstatic state, shouting, dancing, whirling. I whispered to Paulo, ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s normal.’

‘Don’t be stupid, Arash, I know.’

And then I noticed the two bodyguards leaving the house. I decided to follow them and see what they were up to.

‘You left too? That’s sacrilege, isn’t it?’

I lit a cigarette and answered, ‘I needed a smoke. I’m not really into mysticism.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Hamid said, while Khusro stepped to one side and spoke into his mobile phone.

‘Your dear friend Farhad seems to be really into it, though.’

‘Oh no, he’s not.’

‘He will pay for taking Pabilo to this heretic ceremony.’

‘It’s not illegal, is it?’

‘You were supposed to tell us the plans.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘We’ll see.’

During the next 10 days, while we were travelling around the country, Farhad and the Centre of Dialogue were in trouble. Apparently the agents had called the Security Department the same night and they had begun to investigate the case.

Mysticism in Iran is older than religion itself. It’s part of the soul of the nation. Indo-Iranian mystery religions have given birth to several schools of thought and religions around the world. Worship of the mysterious Iranian god of light and the keeper of promises Mithra found its way to the Roman Empire and became the foundation of the Mysteries of Mithras, particularly popular among the Roman armies. Most of the Mithraic rites were absorbed and reapplied by Christianity. December 25, celebrated as the birthday of Jesus, was originally the birthday of Mithras and the beginning of the winter solstice; it is celebrated widely in Iran as Yaldaa—the birth—marking the victory of light over darkness before the nights shorten towards the end of the year.

There are other parallels between Christianity and Mithraism: shepherds attending the miraculous birth of a saviour; the idea of eternal life gained from the blood of a sacrificed saviour; communion; the Last Supper; Mithras’ ascension to Heaven during the spring equinox and his unification with the sun god; Mithras’ heavenly titles ‘light of the world’ and ‘messenger of truth’; and baptism by the blood of the bull (lamb in Christianity); the Eucharist; and the idea of Mithras’ eventual return to save the world.

Zoroastrianism was also a religion of mysteries in which the believers were regarded as warriors who had to take sides in the battle between Good and Evil. The idea of Satan, Apocalypse, the Last Judgement, Heaven and Hell have their origins in this mysterium. All these pre-Islamic Iranian mysteries were synthesized in third-century Manichaeism which then spread throughout the known world from China to the Pyrenees and survived for many centuries.

After the Muslims conquered Iran, the Iranians decided to camouflage their beliefs within Islam and they founded Shiism. Shiism was later divided into two paths: the orthodox religion or Sharia; and the mystic strand or Tariqa. The mystic strand was the continuation of Manichaeism and Mithraism and claimed that Ali was God’s chosen representative in the same way that Mithra and Jesus were God’s embodiment on Earth. It was even claimed that Ali was the reincarnation of the biblical Elijah or Ilia. It believed that mankind should communicate with God directly, instead of following the strict rules of the Sharia. Each person had a unique way of purifying himself or herself, and God wasn’t a remote and vengeful being sitting on a throne but a harmonizing entity flowing through nature and connecting all beings. All were one. Love was the only thing that could keep this universal network going. And one had to get rid of his or her worldly prejudices in order to feel the presence of God. Sama, or the mystical dance, was a way of casting aside all assumptions and of experiencing God directly.

And it is as alive in today’s Iran as it has been throughout history. And it is as frowned upon as it has been throughout history. Most of the Grand Muslim mystics, Sunni or Shia, died gruesome deaths and the stories of their lives form part of mythology. After the Revolution and under the pressure of the state-sanitized Sharia laws, people were turning to mysticism, more and more and the government did everything it could to prevent this. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, one of the prayer centres of the dervishes in Qom was attacked by the police and razed to the ground.

Paulo was fascinated with these rites and I made sure news of the trouble wouldn’t reach him. I also needed to make sure that the journalists who accompanied him were not broadcasting any negative images about Iran. The ‘bodyguards’ had been quite explicit: if the Islamic Republic was hurt in any way because of this trip then it would be my responsibility. Farhad, on the other hand, was sacked a month later.

We went to Shiraz and visited the tomb of Hafiz, the great Persian poet, and to Persepolis. Paulo had two conferences in Shiraz which thousands attended. Then we returned to Tehran for his meeting with the Minister of Culture and his public speech at the Opera House.

The Minister of Culture, Dr Mohajerani, received Paulo at home. He was as popular as Khatami, and everyone believed he had the best chance of being Khatami’s successor. He had publicly declared that he was against censorship and that an Islamic government should welcome the expression of contradictory ideas without doling out fear and persecution. He had already begun to abolish prepublication censorship by making it a matter of choice for the publishers. If they were happy to accept responsibility for what they published, the Ministry wouldn’t scrutinize the books.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance to do what he wanted. He was forced to resign a year later and he never forgave Khatami for abandoning him.

But that day he was a popular minister and I was excited to meet him.

He lived in a simple house, with a very small living room where we all sat after the initial greetings. Then Paulo and the Minister began a philosophical conversation on the concept of divine omnipresence.

‘God is on Earth, and Earth is part of God,’ said Paulo, ‘Different races are only there to create endless possibilities for communication and the movement towards a final unification. They may have conflicts or fail to understand one another but they are one. In the Iranian story, Conference of the Birds, by the Sufi Attar, thousands of birds set off on a quest to find Simorgh, the king of birds. But when they reach the end of their journey, they realize that Simorgh is nothing but all of them together. They are one, and they are many. The same applies to different cultures.’

The conversation went on for an hour or more. At the end, Paulo said that he was going to fund a literary prize in Iran to introduce Persian contemporary literature to the world. The Minister said that he would do anything to help, and he would also protect the copyright of Paulo’s books. They shook hands and said goodbye. They were going to meet later that night at the reception organized by the Centre of Dialogue to which several Iranian authors and poets had been invited.

The Centre had managed to convince Paulo to visit at least two museums. Paulo had accepted grudgingly, saying he wanted to be left alone; he wanted to meet the people and observe the ordinary life of the city. He didn’t want to be followed all the time. This was not going to happen, of course. On the other hand, the bodyguards had forced us to move Paulo and Christina to the Laleh Hotel that belonged to the Security Department. That way, they would have more control over what he did, whom he met and what he said over the phone. Of course, Paulo was smart enough not to use the hotel phone; he used a mobile phone I had lent him.

While Paulo was travelling around the country and visiting the Iran that the government wanted him to see, there were several things happening on the political scene.

The absolute triumph of the reformists in the parliamentary election was the last warning to the hardliners. Having lost two major pillars of power, the government and the parliament, they decided to act before they were excluded from power completely. The judiciary began by clamping down on the newspapers. In the course of a week, 70 independent or reformist newspapers were shut down by the order of the judiciary. Some days earlier, a few Iranian authors, journalists and intellectuals had attended a conference in Berlin to discuss the new developments in Iranian politics and the reformist movement. The idiotic behaviour of the opposition in exile had turned everything upside down. A woman stripped in public in the middle of the conference to show that she detested reform and to prove that the Islamic Republic had to be overthrown. This led to the arrest of all the Iranian intellectuals and authors who had attended the conference as soon as they came home to Tehran. Some of them, such as the prominent author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi and the contemporary poet Sepanlou were released shortly after but the reformist journalist and author Akbar Ganji was held in prison and remained there for another five years.

Dowlatabadi and Sepanlou were both invited to the reception that night, a few hours after their release. As Paulo announced that he was launching a literary prize for Iranian writers, Dowlatabadi came up to me and said, ‘Does he know what’s going on in this country? Does he know we were interrogated before this party?’

No, he didn’t. No one dared tell him what was going on and that it was only going to get worse.

Paulo’s public conference was a huge success. Thousands gathered in the streets around the Opera House to get a chance to see their favourite author. The Opera House itself was packed. I couldn’t believe my eyes; we, the five people who worked for Caravan Books, had managed to move several thousands. It made me feel a huge sense of responsibility. Paulo wasn’t a rock star, he wasn’t running for an election, he had never won a sports competition. He was, simply, a novelist, and there were thousands here to see him. Those who criticize him for being commercial have never been able to move such crowds nor affect lives in quite this way. I thought this was so only in Iran but when I accompanied Paulo on several signing sessions in various other countries, I realized he was able to touch people regardless of their backgrounds, race, nationality and religion. Isn’t this an achievement? Isn’t this the kind of globalization that is so sorely needed?

After a huge round of book-signing in the evening, when at least 10,000 fans blocked the streets for hours, and after a press conference and a Q&A, Paulo bade farewell to hundreds of his fans who had followed him to the airport. He left Iran promising he would be back in no time. That was 10 years ago and it hasn’t happened yet.

After the plane had taken off, I was left drained of all the energy that had kept me going for the past 10 days. Maryam and I went home. I slept for 14 hours.

Next day, I was summoned by the Security Department to explain a few things. Why had I taken Paulo, a non-Muslim, to visit a Shia shrine? Why had I taken him to the night of the dervishes? Why had I not given a full report of whatever he had said during his visit? Why hadn’t I translated for the bodyguards every single word he had uttered? Why couldn’t I control the journalists who were accompanying him? Why had they been able to write about the Jewish inhabitants of Shiraz and the junkies on the streets? It went on . . .

I remained silent during the questions, then I showed them Paulo’s interviews with the international media about his journey to Iran: he had only said good things about the country.

‘But he has said that President Khatami is a brave man. What does he mean? Does he think that Khatami is brave enough to overthrow the Islamic Republic?’

No, I said. It meant that Khatami was brave to try to and battle the prejudices against the Islamic Republic.

‘Very well, then. But the Ministry of Intelligence is not happy about his popularity in Iran, and it will make sure that the Iranians understand that their own culture is much better than this Brazilian’s mumbo-jumbo.’

‘Do whatever you think you should do.’

‘And we are going to keep an eye on you. How is it that you began to publish only two years ago, and your books have already flooded all the bookstores? Are foreign intelligence agencies funding Caravan?’

‘Of course not,’ I said, and explained how we had earned every penny through nothing but our hard work. They could check our accounts whenever they wanted. We had nothing to hide.

They asked if I had succeeded in convincing Paulo to convert to Islam.

‘I’m sure he was eager to,’ I said, ‘but the main obstacle is that he needs to be circumcised if he wants to convert. Can we exempt him from that part?’

I thought they wouldn’t fail to notice the sarcasm but they took me at face value and began to discuss seriously. ‘Unfortunately it’s not possible,’ they finally concluded, ‘he does have to be circumcised. But the procedure is totally painless nowadays. Please assure him that we can provide him with the best surgeons.’

‘Sure,’ I said, ‘I’ll let him know.’

Paulo’s visit to Iran sent ripples across the media, both in and outside Iran, and created the sort of publicity and prestige for Caravan that money could not have bought. We were on our way to becoming one of the most important publishing companies in the history of Iran.

Paulo had been fascinated by Iranian women. A few months later, when we met again in Barcelona, he told me, ‘The Iranian women are genuinely beautiful. But what mesmerized me was their eyes. They have to cover their hair, their body, their legs and the only outlet for expressing their sexuality is their eyes. I’ve never seen so much passion in a woman’s eyes anywhere else in the world.’