PART V: Dialogue among civilizations, but not among ourselves

Khatami’s two terms as President passed in a trice. By 2005, we were a well-established publishing house, releasing about 150 titles a year and a very popular literary magazine called BookFiesta. We had founded Iran’s first book club and one of the first independent literary prizes in Iran called Yaldaa. We had 20,000 official fans who avidly read everything we published.

My second novel, The Princess of the Land of Eternity, was published in 2003 and met with huge success. It was officially declared a bestseller in only a few months and nominated for two literary prizes. For reasons that are beyond me, one of the passages in the book became widely quoted.

It is like the stare of a gazelle that has been fleeing from the hunter for many hours, and now lies on the ground, exhausted, with an arrow deep in her side. She lies down, warmed by her own blood. From where she is sprawled, she can see the brutal hunter approaching with a knife in his hand. Her gaze reflects neither hope nor despair. She has no desire. At this moment, a vague perception of life creeps into her veins, runs into her soul and spreads through her mind. How can I name your feeling at that moment anything other than the Gaze of the Gazelle . . .

Maryam had been promoted to managing director of a large company in a conglomerate and was very successful. I was both the managing director of Caravan Books and the editor-in-chief of BookFiesta. We sold more than 1,000,000 books a year. We were an active member of the Union of Publishers and Booksellers and had an undeniable influence on the industry. All my dreams seemed to be coming true.

But, for the past three years, hopes for further reform had been fading rapidly. Khatami had failed to fight for the rights he had promised the people. The younger generation had lost faith in the reformist movement. Khatami’s Minister of Internal Affairs, who had struggled so hard to support the formation of independent parties and re-established city councils, had been impeached and imprisoned for questioning the absolute authority of the Supreme Leader. Minister of Culture Ata’ollah Mohajerani had been forced to resign, and had fled the country fearing persecution. Saeed Hajjarian, a prominent reformist figure and Khatami’s senior consultant, had been paralyzed for life after an assassination attempt by a hardliner; the assassin was released from prison shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment. The Guardian Council had disqualified most of the reformist candidates for parliament despite Khatami’s threats that he would resign. He didn’t. Most of the newspapers had been shut down. The Ministry of Culture had been overtaken by hardliners who had reinstated official censorship. Corruption had infiltrated all levels of the public administration and people were beginning to believe that reform would go nowhere as long as the Supreme Leader had absolute power and the Guardian Council prevented independent figures from entering the political scene.

But something in society had changed: there was a new generation on the scene. Neda’s generation, not yet born at the time of the Revolution, had only a vague idea of the years of war and oppression and all the atrocities of the regime. It had grown up experiencing a gradual opening up of society, with PCs, satellite TV, the Internet and mobile phones, and it was not as naive as we had been. This generation was not going to give up the comparative freedom that had been achieved during Khatami’s presidency. It had not experienced the horrors of my generation: it had not lost friends to the firing squads and it had not witnessed how a strong man could crumble under torture in the interrogation rooms of the Islamic Republic. All it knew was that beyond the borders of Iran lay a world where people were free to do what they wanted and say what they wished. They could read and wear what they wanted and celebrate life. And this generation wanted that life, too.

Most important, it had arrived at the belief that freedom was the only thing in the world worth dying for. Women who, during Khatami’s reign, had managed to re-establish their position in society as workers, writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, managers and politicians, were not going to give up their hard-won independence.

The student movement was there to stay, too. Although politically active students were persecuted, sometimes even expelled from university or imprisoned, they continued actively to challenge tyranny. What most surprised me was that the Islamic Association of University Students, responsible for spreading terror during my student years, was now the forerunner of the freedom movement. The regime was reaping its own rewards. It had sponsored anyone whom it had assessed as a loyalist, it had cleared the path for such people to enter higher education and it had supported them all the way. During my time as a student, I could feel their views changing. Those who were always looking to report ‘misconduct’ among their fellow students had become doctors and now wanted to be accepted by their colleagues. They had realized that there was diversity in the world, that everyone was entitled to believe in whatever they wanted: that difference led to a much more interesting society. This was exactly what had happened to Dr Muhammadi in the Revolutionary Guard.

Now the Islamic Association would be satisfied by nothing less than a secular government. An organization nurtured by the fundamentalist, religious government was no longer loyal to that government. Most important, the Islamic Association knew, inside out, the foundations and behind-the-scene interactions of the regime. The 2005 presidential election was drawing near and there was an unspoken consensus among the people to boycott it. They believed that Khatami was the best that could come out of this election and even he had not been able to fulfil his promises.

By then, I was a consultant to Tehran’s Union of Publishers and Booksellers and we were trying hard to convince the Ministry of Culture to reduce its renewed grip on the control and censorship of books. I had covered most of Europe alongside Paulo and had many adventures—perhaps that will be another book—and made many friends in the publishing world. But Caravan was out of favour with the Ministry of Culture; it believed we were propagating ‘deviant’ Western culture among the young and, although it didn’t try to shut us down, it tried to paralyze us by not authorizing many of our books.

In 2003, the Freedom to Publish committee of the Union sent an open letter signed by the President of the Union to President Khatami, reminding him of his promises and the illegality of prepublication censorship. We requested him to abolish the sophisticated system of censoring books prior to publication: ‘censorship means prioritizing the opinion of a few over the taste and choices of a mature nation, and indifference to the right of freedom of speech as an inseparable right alongside other kinds of rights of a nation’. We also spoke of the ‘indifference to the rights of authors and publishers and the choices of the readers’, and the authorities’ view of the nation as ‘immature’. We concluded with the claim: ‘The only way to put an end to the ambiguous, confused and unstable situation of books is to abolish censorship.’

Khatami never replied to our letter. However, two years later, we realized he had tried to pursue the case but his efforts had been neutralized. It seemed he had lost control over everything, and that was what disappointed people most. The president did not issue an order revoking prepublication censorship and no further actions were taken on the subject. It was as if an authority more powerful than the president had intervened and impeded any efforts towards the abolition of censorship.