PART IV: Lie if you want to survive
There I was, 26 years old, in the autumn of 1998, feeling stripped of my youth, stripped of my medical career, stripped of my money—I had lost my investment in the publishing house through a few fraudulent distributors and their bounced cheques—but I was still hopeful. Society had become much more open under Khatami’s presidency: there had been an explosion of independent newspapers which openly discussed political matters. The film industry was flourishing, despite the restrictions—such as the law that actresses had to wear hijabs in the films, even in their bedrooms—and was attracting a huge audience to both its commercial and intellectual releases. The arbitrary and unleashed censorship on books and other media was done away with (although prepublication censorship was still at work). The economy was opening up as well as a result of Khatami’s paradigm of ‘Dialogue among Civilizations’. The idea had been well received in international societies and Iran’s relationship with Western countries was improving day by day. Khatami had addressed the American people—previously the Great Satan—as a ‘great nation’. There was nothing but hope to be seen on the horizon. I had dedicated myself full-time to publishing but it had got me nowhere so far.
It was the Internet, another great revolution, that changed my life forever.
In its early days the Internet was not available to everyone; it was considered a very dangerous tool. But we members of the BBS community managed to gain access. I remember one of my first discoveries on the Internet was Project Gutenberg, a vast database of books already in the public domain. For us, who had no access to the outside world and no way of buying books, it was spectacular! We could download a major portion of human wisdom! This was so exciting that we decided to download the entire Project Gutenberg and make it available to our BBS Book Forum.
But the major joy of the Internet wasn’t information, it was communication. Until the Internet, we had no access to the outside world; now we could get in touch with anyone who had an email address anywhere in the world. The youth of today cannot imagine life without the Internet—without mobile phones and SMS and Facebook and Twitter—just as I cannot imagine life without radio and TV. We think we know how life was before TV but we haven’t a clue. When Dad was a child, people spent their time playing in the streets and sitting under a special heating system powered by coal, listening to the stories of their grandparents. Nowadays the children don’t have time. They are busy playing videogames, sending texts or emails, watching TV and surfing the Internet on their mobile devices.
For us, the Internet was a magic much more exciting than flying carpets and crystal balls.
Suddenly, I had an idea. As I have mentioned earlier, international copyright conventions are ignored in Iran. This can, at times, lead to a certain amount of confusion when it comes to translations. None are authorized and some are clearly a great deal better.
Then, I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and was astonished by its resemblance to a story by Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi in his book Mathnavi. The Alchemist was translated and published by a medium-sized Iranian publishing house and was relatively successful. But I thought the author deserved much more. He was Brazilian, and literature from Latin America was extremely popular in Iran, thanks largely to Jorge Louis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He also touched on subjects close to Persian mystical lore and I felt that having their stories re-told by a Westerner might interest Iranians. Rumi’s stories had been around for 800 years but they weren’t reaching the younger generation any more. Now, Coelho had made these complex ideas accessible to everyone.
I searched for and located Coelho’s website and sent him an email. I explained that I worked as an editor in a small publishing house and that I wanted to publish his latest book, Veronika Decides to Die. I also sent him a translation of my novel, Grief of the Moon.
He sent me the complete text of Veronika Decides to Die in Portuguese and told me that he was enthusiastic about having an official publisher in Iran. He introduced me to his agent, Monica Antunes, and told me that he was very interested in visiting Iran. He also said he had enjoyed reading my book.
We signed an agreement with Monica. All my colleagues said that this was stupid; I could easily translate and publish the work without paying a cent. But I was determined to respect Paulo’s rights. He had trusted me by sending me his book and I had a good feeling about the relationship.
But the book was in Portuguese and we could find no translators. I decided to translate it myself. I knew a little French and a little Spanish, and one of my friends told me I could easily learn Portuguese. I spent eight hours a day teaching myself Portuguese. I had no one to speak to but after three months I had a good grasp of the language, enough to begin to translate the work with the help of dictionaries and by checking my translation against the English and the French. When the translation was finished and we had edited and prepared the book, we sent it to the Ministry of Culture for prepublication scrutiny.
The book was published at the beginning of July 1999, with a note from Paulo Coelho introducing us as his sole official publisher in Iran. The book was released exactly at the same time that the political scene was changing again. The Iranian student protests of 9 July 1999 were on their way.
The two years of Khatami’s presidency, from September 1997 to July 1999, witnessed a significant opening up of the political scene. Various independent newspapers kept alive the various political debates; new moderate parties were founded and the reformist movement that had begun by supporting Khatami was gaining power. The reformers believed it was time to revisit the Islamic Republic’s strategy at home and abroad. Prominent leaders of the movement, most of whom had been Khomeini’s closest friends and allies during the Revolution, claimed that having survived the war, international sanctions and internal threats, the Islamic Republic was now strong. They believed the world had accepted Iran as a legitimate power in the Middle East and that the government no longer needed to suppress every contrary opinion and idea to survive. At the same time, a more liberal political attitude would build up Iran’s profile internationally and motivate all of society to participate in taking the country forward. And all of this, without betraying the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its constitution.
However, there was another political current very much alive: the hardliners, supported by the Revolutionary Guard. It had fallen silent for a while and everyone had assumed it had accepted the changes. Apparently it had not: the democratic environment created in the past two years hadn’t appealed to it at all. Democracy meant that power was no longer polarized in the hand of the Supreme Leader and his army of followers. So, after a year of silence, it decided to show its hand.
There were incidents that accelerated the crackdown, the most important of them being the case of the Chain Murders.
The Chain Murders of Iran included about 80 murders and disappearances over a period of eight years. At first, no one realized that these mysterious deaths were related. Some were car accidents, some were stabbings, some were robbery-related shootings, some (staged) suicides and one a ‘heart attack’. Some had even happened outside Iran and the victims were from varied backgrounds: writers, translators, poets, political activists and academics.
In 1998, three writers, a nationalist political activist and his wife were found dead within less than two months. Journalists associated with the reformist movement began to investigate the murders alongside the Revolutionary Guard and the Ministry of Intelligence. Khatami promised he would personally oversee the investigations and, finally, was forced to admit that the deaths had been masterminded from within the Ministry of Intelligence. It was revealed that over the past 10 years, the Ministry—or ‘rogue elements’ within the Ministry—had conducted several assassinations within Iran and abroad, including that of Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of Iran before the Revolution. Khatami discharged his Minister of Intelligence and arrested those involved. The entire responsibility was placed on the shoulders of Deputy Minister Saeed Emami who had been in the Ministry for many years. However, before a proper investigation could take place, Emami was found dead in his prison cell, allegedly having committed suicide by consuming Vajebi, a powerful local brand of hair-remover. The rest of the arrested suspects disappeared without their identities ever being revealed.
This incident alarmed the hardliners who were responsible for the thousands of crimes, assassinations and illegal executions. The politically open atmosphere and the free press were not welcome any more. The press came under pressure and Khatami’s administration was attacked via the judiciary (still in the Guard’s control) and the full force of the Basij militia. A year later, Saeed Hajjarian, the director of one of the most important reformist newspapers, survived an assassination attempt but was left paralyzed for life.
As we were about to distribute Veronika Decides to Die, in which we had invested everything we had, the Judiciary ordered the shutdown of Salaam, a leading newspaper from the reformist front. This was the first of nearly a hundred other newspapers and periodicals that were to be banned in the years to come.
Our office was located quite close to the student dormitories of University of Tehran so we immediately realized that something was wrong in that first week of June 1999.
A number of students formed a group to protest peacefully against the closure of Salaam. We knew this was happening but we were sure that it would not be a problem. During Khatami’s presidency, peaceful student demonstrations happened every once in a while, lasted for a few hours and then everyone went home. My partners and I decided to proceed with our marketing activities for Coelho’s book. We had already signed a contract with two high-circulation reformist newspapers to publish our ads every day. We were the first publishers who had decided to advertise our books in the mainstream press and they had given us a significant discount to encourage other publishers to follow suit.
We had also printed a thousand posters. There was no money left to hire billboards so we decided to go out in the middle of the night and put them up ourselves in the areas designated for free posting. We began at 2 a.m. on 10 June 1998 and we had no idea of what had happened a mile away until our eyes began to burn from the teargas and we were seized by the police.
‘What are you doing?’
I turned around and my blood froze in my veins at the sight of the patrol police.
‘Putting up posters, Sir . . .’
‘Get off that stool, now!’
I stepped down from the stool we had been carrying with us all night.
‘Why in the middle of the night, if you are not doing something illegal?’
My partner was left speechless. I tried to remain calm.
‘We didn’t want to get caught in the daily traffic.’
‘What is that poster? Give it to me. To which political group do you belong?’
My partner handed over a poster with trembling hands.
‘Veronika Decides to Die? Is this a secret code for suicide attacks on the Revolution?’
My colleague pulled me back and answered, ‘No, Sir, by no means! It’s an ad for a book we’ve just published. The book is authorized by the Ministry of Culture and has the permissions.’
‘The Minister of Culture? You mean the same asshole who instigated this mess?’
‘What mess, Sir?’ I said, ‘It’s only a book, a nice novel on why suicide is a bad thing. And as you know, suicide is a cardinal sin in Islam. This book is preaching the same principle.’
I tried to speak in the language learnt during my years in the Revolutionary Guard.
The officer laughed and returned the poster.
‘I don’t mean this shit! Haven’t you heard? The city is ablaze. Go home, boys. It’s not a good time to promote your books. You might get killed. Tonight, Tehran is a slaughterhouse.’
Next day, we realized what had happened. My friends in the dormitory told me the whole story.
A few hundred plainclothes hardliners, the Ansar-e Hezbollah or Supporters of the Party of Allah, and the Basij had attacked the university dorm. They had broken the doors and windows, attacked the students and set fire to everything. They had thrown students from the third-floor balconies onto the pavement. Three students were killed and dozens were injured while the police stood by and watched.
Thus began the street protests that took over Tehran for the next few days. Students poured into the streets protesting the way they had been treated after their peaceful demonstration. The Basij and the plainclothes forces cracked down on them, killed a few more, arrested hundreds and beat thousands. My friends and I attended one or two of the protests. The streets were filled with armed plainclothes forces who beat us in front of the police. No one knew who these plainclothes people were, who could move around so easily and terrorize the people without being prosecuted. Then it was revealed that they belonged to the Revolutionary Guards’ secret service.
People ran in different directions, the air was filled with teargas and terror governed the streets. But the students, led by the Islamic Society of Students, announced they would remain in the streets until justice was served.
Khatami appeared on National TV at the end of the week and implored the students to go home. He promised that he would investigate the raid on the student dorms and make sure that those responsible were punished. This statement calmed the students and the protests slowly came to an end.
However, over the next few months, not only was no one held responsible for the raid but hundreds of students were taken to court and sentenced to long-term detainment despite Khatami’s objections. The Supreme Leader had decided to take control of the country into his hands again and strip the President of his powers.
But the reform movement proved stronger than the hardliners thought: in the parliamentary election of 2000, the reformists won the majority of the seats.