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Intrigue

Project Norouz
Noticing a novel set in Iran that caused a stir 20 years ago

By Guive Mirfendereski
July 17, 2003
The Iranian

The term "Project Norouz" in today's parlance refers to an international joint effort under the auspices of the United Nations to combat narcotraffic in Iran. Twenty years ago, "Project Norouz" was the title of a paperback novel which stirred up quite a buzz among the Iranian expatriate community in Washington, London and Paris, largely because it provided to the exiles the greatest narcotic of all, hope.

This political thriller, wrapped in clever intrigues and laced with spicy sexual lure, told the simple yet then-plausible story of the downfall of Iran's Islamic government and its replacement with a constitutional monarchy. The project's name, Norouz, meaning literally "new day", provided the catch-word for an Iranian renaissance, to be accomplished on one Iranian new year day, also called Norouz, by a massive assault on Iran's clerical establishment.

Who would dare to do such a thing, you ask? Michael Kir, that's who!

Michael Kir is an international gem dealer with "money, brains, ... three beautiful assistants and the United States government on his side" whose aim is to "topple a backward government and then rebuild the nation as a gleaming jewel for all the world to see." In 24 hours, he would "reshape an entire country -- or destroy it!" So went the blurb on the book's jacket, depicting a swooping screaming eagle at the ready to pluck away its prey.

Suffice it to say, Project Norouz is well written, very lively, gripping, and highly entertaining. Obviously, every novel tells a story, and every story also has its own history. The 'how' and 'why' of its creation and its longevity or perdition can at times be as compelling as the narrative that unfolds inside the covers. It is this aspect of Project Norouz that has fascinated me for 21 years ago. And I am today nowhere closer to unlocking the mystery surrounding its authorship and publication than I was on that cold January morning in Manhattan in 1983.

From the onset of its publication, in 1982, Project Norouz had become next to impossible to obtain. Reputable libraries did not carry it and if they had carried the book then the copies had gone missing from the shelves for some time. Bookstores, too, such as Barnes & Noble, Scribner's, and dozens of others, which I contacted, did not carry the book either. Yet, I persevered, especially in the light of discovering very soon a few curious anomalies about the book's authorship and publisher.

I first enquired about the book at Scribner's, in Manhattan, on January 17, 1983. The store did not carry the book, but according to Books in Print: 1982-1983 (Title Index), page 3777, the paperback book, 512 pages long and bearing the ISB No. 0-505 51834-1, was written by one Rebecca Swift and published by Tower Books (New York City); priced at $3.50.

The next day, on the way to Penn Station, I took my curiosity to the New York Public Library for a thorough workout and was again disappointed. However not all was lost: the librarian suggested that I contact the publisher or the distribution company directly. She provided me with the particulars of both: Tower Books was located at Two Park Avenue, Suite 910, telephone (212) 679-7707; and the sales company, Capital Distributing Co., was at the same address with the same number.

Boston-bound, when I arrived at the train station, I called the number from a pay phone, only to learn by a recording that the number was no longer in service, with no further information available. I then called the telephone directory assistance, but it had no listing for either of the two outfits.

I decided to postpone my trip to later hour in the day and instead took a cab to Two Park Avenue. Suite 910 was empty; there was no sign of Tower Books or Capital Distributing. The doorman informed me, however, the publisher had moved out in November sometime, he thought.

On the train, I went deep into my shallow thoughts. How could this be? A book in print, yet inaccessible, with its publisher vanished into thin air. Could the book have been withdrawn from the market? Controversial? Threat of lawsuits? Not enough copies printed?

As I turned over these queries in my mind, I remembered an equally frustrating search I had experienced when looking for Kermit Roosevelt's Countercoup at year's end in 1979. An American operative in Tehran, Roosevelt had written a book about the debunking of Mossadegh from power in 1953.

The book first appeared in the Fall 1979. Although it had received clearance from Central Intelligence Agency, the publisher soon withdrew the book from the market; apparently, the British Petroleum Corporation had objected to Roosevelt's intimation that the company's predecessor-in-interest, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, had been a cover for the British Intelligence agents in the 1951-1953 period. Re-edited, Countercoup was re-issued by McGraw-Hill in the summer of 1980.

The irony was not lost on me. There had been in 1953 back-to-back cataclysmic political upheavals in Iran, first a challenge to the monarchy and then a backlash on the part of many against the United States and the CIA for restoring the Shah to power. In 1979, too, first came the challenge to the monarchy, and then a backlash against the U.S. treatment of the Shah in exile and a profound fear of a CIA repeat performance and restoration of the Shah to power.

On November 4, 1979, the revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy, dubbed by them as the "den of spies," and held onto 52 Americans as hostage for 444 days. The hostages were released on January 21, 1981. The first two to emerge from the plane when it landed in Algiers were the two women hostages: Ann Swift and Kate Koob, hand in hand, walked down the ramp. Kathryn Koob, 42, had been the embassy's cultural affairs officer, and Elizabeth Ann Swift, 40, had been the chief of the embassy's political section, and both were detained on the suspicion or knowledge of being CIA agents.

The similarity between the names of the author of Project Norouz (Rebecca Swift) and the hostage (Ann Swift) was halting to me. Could the hostage have written this book? Then, for whatever reason, was it recalled for corrections or altogether withdrawn? I needed to learn more, obviously.

In Boston, I redoubled my efforts to get a copy of the book. My working assumption was that the sheer size of the country and its biblio-structure made it impossible for a complete recall or withdrawal of books from the marketplace. Somewhere in this great land, one or two copies of this book had to be sitting on a shelf. I must have called up more than 50 bookstores.

No luck. Next, I turned to the many libraries in the Boston area, but received the same disappointing response from a place like Weidner Library at Harvard University as I did from tiny public libraries in the suburbs, where by their own admission paperbacks were their primary collectibles. The news from Washington, D.C. was not encouraging either. The bookstores knew nothing about the book and my contact at the Library of Congress reported that no such work had been catalogued at the library.

Late one February day I received a call from my contact at the Edwin Ginn Library at Tufts University, in Medford, where I was, despite all this, supposedly busy with writing my doctoral dissertation on the legal status of the Tamb (Tonb, Tunb, Tumb) islands. She reported that according to her volume of Books in Print: Supplement 1981-1982, "Project Norovz" (printed with a v as opposed to a u) was written by two writers, Marion Swift and Rebecca Ross! Priced at $3.75, its distributor was given as Increased Sales Co., located at 327 Main Avenue, Norwalk, Connecticut, with the telephone number (203) 846-2027. Next morning I called the number: a recording informed me that the number had changed to (212) 679-7707, which was Tower Books' disconnected number.

The plot had just thickened. Now, the earlier listing for the book (1981-82) had shown two authors, with the added twist that each name had in it one of the two components that made up the later name of Rebecca Swift (1982-83). Who were these people? Obviously, Rebecca Swift, as an individual's name, was a composite name, a pseudonym. But then, if there was chicanery there, who was to say that any of these names were real?

I reverted back to my contact at the Library of Congress and this time asked for a search of the Copyright Office's registration records. A little over a weeks later, I received startling new information about the book and its authorship. The LOC had three manuscripts responsive to the search term "Norouz." One manuscript (349 sheets) was titled New day, but registered as Norouz: the work was created in 1979 and registered on October 15, 1979 under TXu-30-741 (COHM).

The next manuscript (691 sheets), a revised version of the first one, was titled as Norouz; new day, but registered as Project Norouz: Iran: it was created in 1980 and registered on February 25, 1980 under TXu-39-530 (COHM). The third manuscript (654 pages), which was the revised version of the second one, was titled Project New Year: Iran; Norouz, but was registered as Project Norouz--Iran: it was created in 1981 and registered under TXu-78-747 on September 21, 1981.

This new information cast a very big doubt on my prior musings that the hostages Ann Swift and/or Kate Koob may have written the book. The date of the first manuscript's creation (and registration) was in advance of the hostage crisis: it was safe for me to assume that given the situation in tehran at the time, neither one of these very responsible positions at the embassy would have had the time or inclination to dabble in writing, which, especially, promoted the downfall of the nascent Islamic regime.

The second manuscript, revised and filed in 1980, occurred when the two were still in bondage. Nor could I believe that following freedom, in January 1981, either of the two would have had the time or stomach to relive the nightmare of their illegal captivity through writing a novel.

That is not to say that Swift and Koob did not wish to tell their tale, which they did, in print, media, and books. Kathryn Koob returned to her alma mater at Wartburg College in Iowa and published Guest of the Revolution (November 19, 1982). Elizabeth Ann Swift eventually turned to the study of Indonesian politics and published The Road to Madium (1989) about the 1948 communist uprising there.

There was one other compelling, most compelling, reason why I had to discount Swift and Koob as the likely writers of Project Norouz. The three aforementioned manuscripts, according to the copyright office's information were written by and registered in the names Rhonda Lee Bennon and Andrea Gayle Hallgren! Quite a far cry, I thought, from the "Marion Swift - Rebecca Ross" combo and "Rebecca Swift".

Equally interesting, I thought was the ages of Bennon and Hallgren: Bennon was born in 1952 and Hallgren in 1951, which made them in their very late 20s, 27 and 28 respectively, at the time of the Iranian revolution and date when the first manuscript had been registered. Their youth, I believed, would have had very little bearing on their ability to turn out a book like Project Norouz.

There were already on the international press circuit, for example, a few women correspondents who could have spun a yarn like this: one such person, a relative newcomer at the time, was Elaine Sciolino, born in 1948, and already with extensive experience as a world traveler and writer for Newsweek when she received the call to cover the Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran. But then she and her likes were too busy covering the news as opposed to indulging in noveleering.

By March 1983, my every attempt at getting a copy of Project Norouz, and learning more about its authorship and publication had resulted in more questions still. One other mystery had been the publisher. Tower Books (new York) shared the name with a publisher at 2538 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, California. I was disappointed to find out that the two publishers were not connected.

The owner, however, was quite helpful. He said, publishing companies were often set up to publish a book or two and then disbanded; if they were dissolved for reasons other than business tactics, then their left-over stock usually was purchased by other houses. As far as he was concerned, no left-over stock from Tower Books (New York) had been offered for buy-up. He concluded, Tower Books was probably set up for the sole purpose of publishing and marketing Project Norouz.

In early March, I returned to the Ginn Library, where my contact, Barbara, had readied her computer terminal for the task at hand. We were going to conduct a nation-wide systems search for the book. The computer did not recognize Marion Swift or Rebecca Ross, but identified Rebecca Swift as the author of Project Norouz. The search also indicated that the book had been catalogued last into the system in South Carolina on September 25, 1982. The system also showed the date on which the system had been used to provide information about the book: September 27, 1982. No further inquiry had been addressed to the system about this book until ours.

In this day and age of information technology and the internet, such searches are routine: in 1983, however, this was a novelty and, of course, a big deal, as we were still doing term papers on type-writers, often in long hand even, and library card catalogs consisted of 3x4 index cards jammed into overstuffed drawers with a metal bar running through them.

Next, Barbara asked the computer to identify all the libraries in which the book was still listed as existing. The computer gave out two just names -- Spartanburg County Public Library in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Morris County Free Library, in Whippany, New Jersey.

On March 29, 1983, I called the libraries at Spartanburg and Whippany. The call to Spartanburg at (803) 596-3507 proved futile. The gentleman with the reference department informed me that the book was listed in their catalog but was neither on the shelf nor checked out!

I then dialed Morris County Free Library in Whippany at (201) 285-6101. The library's initial response was that it did not carry the book. When I insisted that they not rely on memory and check their catalog, the search became more promising: the library had two copies listed and the librarian set out to verify their status. Minutes later, she returned with the news that for some months now one copy had been missing, which they were unable to trace; the second copy was checked out to one of the library's branches, this, in Mine Hill, New Jersey, for which no phone number was readily available.

On April 1, 1983, I called back Whippany to see if Whippany had contacted Mine Hill about the book. The librarian, Mrs. Mcdonald, informed me that the librarian at Mine Hill was instructed to forward the book to Whippany so that an inter-library loan could be made to the Ginn Library. I was elated. Shipped on April 11, 1983, from Whippany Project Norouz came to rest in my trembling hands a few days later.

I read it from cover to cover, overnight into the next afternoon, savoring every aspect of this travelogue of political times, with many familiar things, places and names. No doubt, the person or persons who wrote this knew much about and of Iran. The crispness of the experiences described led me to the conclusion that much of this writing had come from firsthand, direct and personal experience of the author(s).

The identity of the author(s) of Project Norouz and the circumstances of its withdrawal from the market has nagged me for twenty years. If anything, with the passage of time and internet research the mystery of the authorship of the book has thickened still. Who are Rebecca Ross, Marion Swift, or Rebecca Swift, Rhonda Lee Bennon and Andrea Gayle Hallgren? Were these the real authors or go-betweens for the writers who sought to be anonymous? Were these names fake or the later one? Why did this book, likely written by two people, end up published under one name? What was the true gender of the authors?

The inscription on the inside of the book-cover itself provided additional information about the publisher. It gave the address for catalog orders as Tower Books, P.O. Box 511, Murray Hill Station, New York, N.Y. 101156-0511. It also referred the reader to Tower Publications, Inc., Two Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016, Attention: Premium Sales Department for titles currently in print and available for industrial promotion at reduced rates. It also indicated that the book, A Tower Book, was published by Tower Publications, Inc., Two Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. Copyright 1982 by Rebecca Swift. Printed in the United States.

The other night I decided to make my peace with the mysteries of Project Norouz. I searched the internet for information about Tower Publications, Inc. A few bits of interesting data jumped out at me. The publisher had been sued sometime in the 1970s because it had published a book on the scandals of scientology.

The publisher did not seem to survive past the early 1980s. Perhaps the threat of another lawsuit sent it under, this time, over Project Norouz perhaps. The descriptions of some of the characters in the book did conjure images of real-life people and any of them, in high station or office, for personal or reasons of national security, could have caused the publisher to withdraw the book or fold.

Most intriguing aspect of Tower Publications, however, I found, was that it published many offbeat titles including a whole host of works which, according to Mount Saint Vincent University's Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection, related to lesbianism -- A Bit of Fluff, Operation: Sex, and Lesbian in Our Society, to name a few.

I would not make much of this last tidbit but for the opening scene of Project Norouz: it takes place at the Houston Tennis Club, founded in 1980, where Michael Kir and his former college roommate from Stanford, Jack Tucker, are in the middle of a contested tennis game, while Jack's wife, Jeri, and her bimbo court-side floozie friend, awash in locker room-talk, await match-point. The Houston Tennis Club, according to an article by Sally A. Huffer in OutsmartMagazine.com, "promotes the enjoyment of tennis among Houston's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender population."

One day, a more dedicated and detailed search, perhaps of corporate records and other databases will reveal the story behind the authroship and publication of the book. And, maybe, one will learn one day of the reason(s) why the publisher went under, and the book was withdrawn or never adequately marketed. It will tell a compelling story of its own >>> Read excerpts

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