PART II: If you want the ultimate pleasure step on a landmine

During the summer of 1982, Mum, who believed I really needed some time off, insisted I take tennis lessons. She thought I’d got too involved with studying and reading and that I needed to think more about some sort of physical training. But, only a day before I was to begin my tennis lessons I received an offer from my grandfather Hadj-Agha: Would I come and work for him during the summer holidays?

Perhaps I made a mistake by saying yes to him. Perhaps I lost my only chance at learning how to play tennis and thereby joining the bourgeoisie. My friends and the children of my family friends went skiing every winter but my parents couldn’t afford the kit. So I missed what was for many Iranians the best opportunity for some fun in an environment rather more liberal than that of our daily lives. Tennis was an alternative opportunity and my parents were offering it to me. Had I chosen tennis over bookselling that summer I am convinced that my life would have turned out completely different. Tennis and skiing were social markers that differentiated the upper classes from the rest, the elite from the mob, the happy from the striving and, of course, the complacent from the fighters. I wanted to be a fighter. And Dad had asked me not to be a hypocrite. Pretending to a class and lifestyle different from my own would be the absolute manifestation of hypocrisy. The decision to work for Hadj-Agha had another, more significant, effect on my life: I fell in love with the business of books.

My day began early in the morning. I had to take the bus and be at the shop by 9. Then Hadj-Agha’s assistant would unlock the door. My job was to look after a stand of discounted books outside the shop, mainly novels and books for children. Most of the sales happened in the afternoon, so I usually had all morning to sit on my stool and read or watch the passers-by; a highly educational pastime, especially when I decided to play Sherlock Holmes and guess their identities. I soon developed a good sense of the character of every stranger who went by, merely through a combination of their behaviour and their clothes. I could tell if someone in an old coat was poor or simply careless about his appearance; sometimes, I could even tell how much money he had in his pockets.

Afternoons inside the shop were just as interesting. Hadj Agha was against electronic calculators and preferred that I do the sums by hand. Hence, my arithmetic skills swiftly improved and I could soon calculate any discount without putting pen to paper. I also learnt how to negotiate. When the customers saw me, they assumed I would be easy to bargain with. But when they realized I had read every book on the stand and that I could explain why each book was an important buy, and a good one at that discounted price, they would inevitably end up making a purchase. Soon I ran out of my stock of discounted books and I asked Hadj-Agha to order more. His main intention in hiring me had been to help him get rid of his unsold stock. When he realized how lucrative the sale of discounted books could be, he decided to expand. And this time he offered me a place inside.

I was officially a bookseller—and a successful one, too.

This job gave me the opportunity to engage in long religious discussions with Hadj-Agha even though I was no longer religious. I raised such a lot of questions that sometimes he would be quite furious with me. I was finally asked to stop talking nonsense or else I would be fired.

It also gave me the chance to meet several of the mullahs who came there. I would listen to Hadj-Agha’s heated discussions with them, especially when he, very carefully, criticized the idea of the Rule of the Jurisprudent. One day I heard him telling a mullah: ‘God asked the Twelfth Imam to go into Occultation. It means that God didn’t want him to rule the Muslims for the time being. This concept can be interpreted to mean that God didn’t want the State to be mixed up with Religion until the time is right for it to be so. In the meantime, the people should be ruled by the laws of man and religion should be practised individually, as a private matter. I believe Shia Islam is the most secular religion in the world!’

The mullahs obviously disagreed, although with the utmost respect.

If I hadn’t worked for Hadj-Agha that summer I would perhaps have not been able to set up a publishing house many years later nor turn it into one of the most innovative and successful publishing companies in Iran. Destiny plays its own tricks. That summer, all I wanted to do was work and make some money. And overcome my frustrations.

Nothing more.