PART VI: I am the one, ask the Hidden Imam

In 2007, almost on the point of a nervous breakdown because of the government shutting down BookFiesta—we had dared to publish an article on the story of Lilith and a short story by Primo Levi—I applied for an MA in publishing at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. I had fought hard, pushing against the restrictions and trying to survive. But the administration, it seemed, had simply drawn a line between ‘trustworthy’ and ‘untrustworthy’ publishers and was providing the former with every financial support while putting enormous pressure on the latter such as ourselves. I thought that a year away from Iran would perhaps help calm me a little; I could use the time to think about what to do. Maryam was exhausted after her many years of hard work and she, too, needed a break. I also thought that this course would give me the latest updates on the publishing industry and help me think about expanding Caravan internationally.

I was admitted to the course a few months later, and began sorting out my affairs for a year away from Iran. I also spent the last few months launching our audiobooks list.

Audiobooks had not been professionally and industrially produced in Iran until then; only a few poets had recorded their verse and a few children’s books were available. But mainstream fiction had never been produced. I believed so much in their success and in the gap that we could feed that I wanted to make sure we published at least one significant audiobook before my departure.

We chose The Alchemist. I needed a genius to narrate, act, compose the music, play several instruments and sing. And to not charge us a stupendous fee. Only one name sprang to mind: Mohsen Namjoo, the icon of Iranian underground music. I discussed the project with him and he accepted.

An Iranian singer and musician, Namjoo was born in 1976 in a small town in north-east Iran where he learnt to sing and play traditional Iranian music and instruments. Later, when he became familiar with Western music, he made it his mission to bring together the apparently irreconcilable styles of Iranian traditional music with blues and rock. He began to write songs and music based on this idea but was rejected by the Ministry of Culture who believed his music to be too controversial and his lyrics too openly critical of the current situation in Iran. So he went underground although he continued to record his songs, waiting for the day he would be able to publish them. Hailing from a religious background, he even explored the ways in which one could use the Quran’s verses as lyrics and he recorded those experiments.

Then his music leaked out into the world via the MP3 revolution. He said he hadn’t intended to distribute his music unofficially; he had just loaned a CD to a few friends. One of them uploaded the music online, and the name of Mohsen Namjoo burst onto the Iranian music world. His songs became so popular that you could hardly find anyone who hadn’t heard them. The year we began to record The Alchemist was also the year he released his first authorized album, Toranj. The lyrics were from Iranian classical poetry and the music—the hallmark of his success—comprised a combination of Western heavy metal with Iranian classical. His record was banned after its first 40,000 copies, then authorized, then banned again . . .

He did a brilliant job on The Alchemist. He composed 60 minutes of original music in an attempt to recreate the message of the book: the mystical union of all things. He read the book several times and then began writing his music almost in a state of ecstasy. He played all the instruments, from piano and guitar to Iranian setar. He also created 30 different vocals for different characters in the book.

We lived together in the studio for two months, after which he was overwhelmed by exhaustion and was hospitalized for two weeks. We had achieved the impossible. He left Iran for a music course in Vienna a few days after he was released from hospital, and we planned to launch the audiobook on his return. That never happened. None of us were there for the launch of the audiobook, although it was a huge success. The press dedicated pages to it, claiming it a revolution in the Iranian book industry. Caravan had marked another turning point in Iranian publishing history. It was going to be the last one, though.

A few months later, Namjoo was summoned to court and accused of ‘insulting the Holy Quran’: his experiments with setting its verses to music had leaked out. He didn’t dare return to Iran for ‘insulting the Quran’ could result in a death sentence. The court sentenced him to five years in prison.

Ironically, I, too, was going to suffer a similar fate though for a different reason. But I’ll talk about that later.