PART V: Dialogue among civilizations, but not among ourselves
Although Mohajerani had promised Paulo that he would support his contract with Caravan regarding the Persian rights to his books, the next minister decided to withdraw the protection: it was apparently against the law to prevent other publishers from publishing a foreign author’s books without paying any royalties to them! So, despite the fact that we were his official publisher, 27 other publishers also brought out his books. People trusted our translations because they were recognized by the author. We also enjoyed the privilege of receiving his new manuscripts months in advance of their publication anywhere in the world. We held 80 per cent of the market share of his books. But there were parts of the market that were controlled by publishers and distributors who had oversaturated those segments with their own versions of Paulo’s titles.
When I received the manuscript of Paulo’s latest book The Zahir in 2005, an idea struck me: there was a way around this.
There’s a clause in Iran’s national copyright law which states that only works that are first published in Iran are protected by Iranian national copyright law. So, if we could publish the book in Iran before any other country, it would be protected. I shared the idea with Paulo and he agreed. The Iranian newspapers all had the same headline: ‘Iran the first country to publish Paulo Coelho’s latest book, The Zahir’ and we sold thousands of copies immediately before the Tehran International Book Fair that year. We decided to make a big splash with the new book and stocked 4,000 copies of it at our stand at the Fair.
Tehran’s Book Fair, described as the largest book fair in Central Asia and the Middle East, is the most important event for publishers in Iran. They meet their customers face to face, meet publishers from other countries, sell books and increase their cash flow. The inefficient distribution system makes the Fair an extremely important marketing and sales opportunity for publishers. It is also a major cultural festival for the public, especially young people, and every year it enjoys more than 3 million visitors. It is an opportunity for readers to access new titles from Iranian publishers as well as a selection of books from international publishers. No professional publisher can ignore the importance of the Fair, both for its prestige and as a major source of revenue.
We began a direct-mail campaign by way of advertising Paolo’s book. We edited the footage of his interview on The Zahir and added Persian subtitles, and we were ready to break the sales record for any title in the history of the Fair.
Over the past years, our stand at the Fair had become extremely popular. We sold tens of thousands of books during those 10 days and the authorities were never happy about the crowds that gathered around our stand. They were young boys and girls, talking, meeting their favourite authors published by us, discussing literature, buying books. People travelled long distances, from the remotest parts of Iran, to come to the Fair. That’s why one of the first things that Ahmadinejad did when he came to office was to move the Fair’s location to the great Musalla or prayer mosque of Tehran and destroy that atmosphere once and for all.
We sold 3,000 copies of The Zahir on the first day of the fair. People waited for hours in long queues to get a copy which had in the meantime received good reviews, despite Coelho’s lack of popularity among the intellectuals. On the second day, when I got to the book fair at 9.30 in the morning, two bearded men, accompanied by an official from the Book Department were at our stand, waiting for me.
‘Hello Dr. Hejazi, how are you?’ said the official, Mr Kamali, who knew me very well.
‘Hello Mr Kamali,’ I said, looking suspiciously at the two bearded men.
‘This is Dr Hejazi, Responsible Manager of Caravan.’
They shook hands with me, unsmiling.
‘How can I help, Mr Kamali?’
‘How many copies of The Zahir have you got in the stand?’
I asked our sales manager. She said we had about a thousand.
‘OK, Dr Hejazi, these brothers need to take all the copies you have. You will not be able to sell them anymore.’
‘What?’ I shouted.
‘I am sorry for the inconvenience. But they need to take the books now.’
‘But why? The book has got prepublication and distribution permission. What has happened?’
‘It is better you don’t ask questions,’ one of the men said.
‘Who are you anyway?’ I asked, angrily.
‘These brothers are from the Security Department.’
‘What security protocol have we breached with this book?’ I said, sarcastically.
‘You’d better watch your mouth!’ said one beard, ‘This book has been declared harmful, poisonous and deviant.’
‘Yes, and before we raid your stand in front of all these people you’d better give us the books.’
‘Are you going to pay for them?’
‘Sure,’ he said, laughing. ‘With 100 per cent discount.’
‘OK then, can you show me any written orders to confiscate these books?’
‘We don’t need to show you anything.’
‘Can I have a receipt for the total number of the books you are confiscating?’
‘There’s no need for a receipt.’
‘I can’t let you take our books away without any evidence. I have to report to our board. How can I convince them that you just took a thousand copies of a book?’
‘Ask them to call us if they have any questions.’
‘Can I have your phone number?’
‘No you can’t.’
‘Then, I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’
Mr Kamali said, ‘Dr Hejazi, be reasonable, please.’
‘Reasonable? You are taking away our stock without any explanations and I’m the one being unreasonable?’
The beard took out his gun and put it on his lap.
‘So? Are you going to shoot me in broad daylight, in front of all these people? It’s armed robbery!’ I said, smiling.
My colleague Muhammad tried to convince me to let them take the books. He said they were dangerous.
‘OK, take them,’ I said finally. ‘But I’m telling you, I will let the world know what you did.’
The beards took all the copies and the one who had been doing the talking took me by the arm and pulled me aside. ‘You will not talk about this to anyone, if you want you and your family to be safe. And you will come to the Security Department after the Fair to answer a few questions regarding this author and your loyalty to the Revolution.’
I was so enraged I ignored his warning. I called Paulo right away and told him everything that had happened.
‘Arash, my concern is not the book but your safety. Why do they want you to report after the Fair?’
‘I don’t know, Paulo. They are taking control of the country. The presidential election is round the corner, and they want to keep everything under their control. They have already disqualified most of the reformist presidential candidates.’
‘OK, the best way to keep you safe is visibility. I’ll take care of it.’
‘I’m not sure how they’ll react if news gets out.’
‘Don’t worry. Once the news is out they can’t touch you.’
That same night, news of The Zahir being banned and confiscated in Iran took over the international media: the BBC and AFP published detailed reports, and several outlets contacted me for an interview. I gave the interviews and I insisted that Paulo’s popularity had frightened the hardliners in the regime.
Next day, I was taken away by the two beards as soon as I arrived at the Fair. They interrogated me for hours. Why had I talked to the deviant international media? Didn’t I know the BBC was controlled by the Zionists? Hadn’t they told me to shut up? Didn’t I know that they could make me disappear? and so on.
I answered all the questions calmly. I said I was interested neither in politics nor in making news. But I was interested in my books and I wanted to be able to sell them. I hated making a financial loss.
They let me go after they were finished with me. I had been prepared for worse but, amazingly, Paulo had been right. They no longer bothered me; the next day, they returned all the copies they had confiscated.
There isn’t much to say about the 2005 presidential election. While the majority of society who were disappointed with Khatami’s presidency didn’t vote, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran’s mayor about whom no one knew anything, won the election. Some said that the election was rigged. Some said he won by promising to bring fundamental changes to the government and promoting the interests of the poorer classes.
He won, and we who knew him, realized that the darkest days were yet to come.