PART VI: I am the one, ask the Hidden Imam
I was invited to participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair Fellowship program at the beginning of the new government’s term. The Fellowship Program, which lasts three weeks, was one of the best times of my life. We were about 18 young editors and literary agents from around the world, travelling through Germany, visiting German publishers and making friends along the way. We spent the days visiting publishers, networking, discussing the future of books, exchanging ideas; the nights we frequented bars, talked, danced, ate, sang our local songs . . .
My friendship with Tirza, the Israeli editor, was a strange one. The first two days we didn’t talk much. I had grown up fearing the Israelis; she too must have been apprehensive, knowing that I was from Iran, the arch-enemy of Israel. Then we began talking and found out that we had so much in common: we were both from the Middle East; we shared the same skin colour; we shared a history; we knew about the geopolitics of the region. But most important, we were both so inquisitive. So far I had only heard about the atrocities of the Israeli government; but what I had never thought about—although I always thought that I had—was that there were people living in Israel who were not even born when the state of Israel was formed. Tirza is one of the most amazing people I’ve met. She was very sympathetic to the Palestinians as long as they didn’t bomb civilian areas in Israel.
The same was happening with Li from China and Grace from Taiwan. They kept their distance at the beginning but, by the end of the program, they had become inseparable friends.
Then, the good times came to an abrupt end. First I received a call from my office in Tehran, saying that our permissions to publish 20 titles had been revoked, including Le Desert by J. M. G. Le Clézio, most of Coelho’s books, My Century by Gunter Grass and several Iranian books. This was the first initiative of the new Minister of Culture: most of the books published during Khatami’s presidency, especially those that were literary or dealt with the humanities, were declared ‘deviant’ and ‘poisonous’ by Ahmadinejad’s administration. I could do nothing from Germany; so I asked them to wait until my return. Many of the books were already printed or reprinted and ready to be distributed. The Ministry’s change of mind meant a huge financial pressure.
I was furious. I had expected as much and had implored everyone I knew to use their vote and to not let Ahmadinejad take control. I felt we were well and truly doomed now. And that was why, one night, when I was approached by a German reporter at a small bar in Munich, trying to have a shot of every drink from every country represented in our group, I spoke up.
I didn’t know he was going to report our conversation. I thought we were just talking and, with an unreasonable amount of alcohol in my blood, I gave vent to my rage and spoke of everything: the censorship, the crackdown and the oppression. The next day, to my horror, I saw my name in an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung.
I received another call from my office. There had been queries regarding the ‘interview’, and I needed to explain as soon as I got back. The good times really were over. Reality had come calling with a crashing blow. No, although we all loved books and literature, although we had found more common ground than differences, although we had all been able to enjoy a few days of borderless peace and happiness, I bore no similarity to my friends from other countries. They had different concerns, adventures, excitements, businesses and hopes. They discussed literature: which author was going to win the Nobel Prize; which author they were going to bid for; how they were going to promote their books; what the future held for the publishing industry . . .
I had no one to discuss things with. I was alone, isolated. My concerns were different. Could we survive this government? Could we publish the books we had tried so hard to get to the point of publication? Was I in trouble because I had spoken about our condition? What was going to happen to all those students, journalists and intellectuals who were rotting in Iranian prisons?
We were from different worlds. I felt cut off from the group. But I hung on to my sense of humour and participated in the group activities; I danced and enjoyed myself . . . Eduardo, my Mexican colleague, once said to the others: ‘You know what I like about this guy? His neck is on the line, yet he’s laughing.’
I had to return to Iran earlier than I had planned.