Hope, again?

August 1997
The Iranian

From "Leap Into the Snake Pit" by novelist Abbas Ma'roufi, published in the July 28, 1997 issue of the German magazine, Der Spiegel. Ma'roufi has been living in exile in Germany for nearly two years. His cultural magazine, Gardoun, has been banned for criticizing the excesses of the Islamic Republic.

A smile graces his face; in the crowd of people he behaves like one of them, and they thank him for his natural behavior with joy. It is the first time in the 18 years since the Islamic revolution that I have seen the people of my country so cheerful, so close to an important personage. The cheering ones are people who had lost their self-confidence, who had become tired of and indifferent to the empty promises. Now they are reviving, because they have hope again -- hope they place on future President Mohammad Khatami. For him they cast their votes into the "ballot box of freedom" in the elections in May. Now Khatami is the last arrow in their quiver. Will this man be a president to touch? Is he looking for dialogue? And will he really respect the will of his voters? As far as I know Khatami: yes, there is reason for optimism.

At the book fairs in Tehran I saw him occasionally when he visited the stands. He exchanged a few words, bought a book, and moved on. He was culture minister and was pleasantly different from the mullahcracy, who only used the people to raise themselves up. According to the habits of the leaders of the Islamic Republic, his arrival and departure during public appearances should have been quite different. The entire area should have been cordoned off for the minister.

He should have appeared in front of the innumerable cameras only for a very short period.

However, Khatami was not like the others. He arrived simply and also left simply. Certainly, he, too, was accompanied by people who would have loved to carry his briefcase. But he never needed sycophants; he has not had his personality warped thus far. Will he now also survive the leap into the political snake pit? Khatami, who was most recently banished to a small room in the National Library, has passed through six years of silence and loneliness.

In 1990 the followers of current religious leader 'Ali Khamene'i threw him out of the management of the Kayhan newspaper in an insulting manner. And afterward Kayhan was no longer a newspaper but the weapon of the regime that crushed people with leaden words and the support of the religious cement heads -- sometimes also reinforced by squads of motorcycling brawlers.

Even though Khatami kept the office of culture minister at that time -- the struggle within the apparatus was not yet decided -- the people in Tehran and, finally, also those in the Western world became aware of the power struggle only when it had already virtually been decided. The attacks by the brawling squads against editorial offices of the newspapers, the insults to people who thought differently, and arson attacks on book shops finally made the scope of this brutal struggle for power clear to all the world.

My magazine was hit on a Saturday, on 10 August 1991. Ten women in black veils, who claimed to be employees of the Kayhan newspaper and the Organization of Islamic Public Relations work, attacked the offices of Gardun. I asked them where they came from and they told me that they were acting at the order of the office of the religious leader. They took out their guns and said that no one can do anything against them because they are members of the families of the "martyrs." They devastated the editorial offices, cut the telephone lines, tore all pictures and photographs from the walls and shredded them.

Later, at the police, I turned from complainant to defendant. They demanded my consent to put the whole thing on the shelf. The state-owned press inflated the incident and branded me a "traitor." In particular, Khatami's former paper, Kayhan, did not let the matter rest. However, Khatami demonstrated steadfastness. Two days after the attack on the office of Gardun, the minister went public with an official statement and condemned the attack as an attempt "to poison the atmosphere of the country's press life." Such "autocratic and irresponsible measures to hamper the free work of the press as well as the incitement to such steps" are "illegal" and cannot be "tolerated by the law."

And then Khatami added sentences which his voters hope he will not forget as president: "The preservation of a healthy cultural atmosphere in society, the consolidation of a free spirit, as well as the principles of the Islamic and revolutionary steadfastness demand that we deal with the problems and ambiguities of cultural life and the press carefully and free of artificially inflated outrage. Therefore, the Ministry calls on everybody involved to respect the freedom of the press and of opinion." Such words may be a matter of course in the free West -- for the muzzled intellectuals in Iran they were a ray of hope on the dark horizon at that time.

A storm of outrage, which had been fanned by the regime, descended on Khatami: The minister of culture and Islamic guidance was showered with accusations and insults.

However, even though Khatami and Gardun were bedeviled by the opponents of freedom of thought in the same breath, we were on two different sides, because as a writer committed to freedom I saw Khatami's censorship office as my natural opponent: After all, his Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had banned my book, "The Smell of Jasmine." The ban has never been lifted.

At that time I saw Khatami as a cultured, tidy clergy, who always wore white shirts, occasionally smoked a light cigarette, and sat behind the big desk in his ministry with his usual smile as if he were afraid of dirtying his shirt. Khatami did not like dirt. And this was the decisive influence on his life. It was this aversion against dirt that brought him to the small room in the National Library.

Thirteen days after the attack on Gardun, the Prosecution of the Revolution officially started its work at the urging of hardliners in the press. Eleven writers and myself were summoned. The investigating judge of the Prosecution of the Revolution wrote to me officially: "Your sentence is the death sentence." As minister of culture Khatami said at a meeting: "It would be a pity if this young novelist fell victim to a conspiracy." And with this he initiated his last and best measure to defend the freedom of opinion: the establishment of the Press Arbitration Committee. "They wanted to go very far and even insisted on your execution," he told me when I visited him later. "I had to use all my power to save the author of 'Symphony of the Dead.'" And he gave me a friendly smile.

In the 165-year history of the Iranian press it was the first time an arbitration committee was established. A year later this committee saved me from prison; without it I could hardly have left the country. However, there was no protection for Minister Khatami.

The political noose around Khatami's neck became tighter and tighter. In a speech in 1991 Khamene'i, the religious leader and successor of Khomeyni, spoke in harsh words of the alleged "cultural invasion" -- which the lax culture minister had favored. Khatami had not wanted to dirty himself and was forced to resign. President 'Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was always considered a moderate in the West, did not do anything to save him. He silently permitted his best minister to be sacrificed at the urging of the revolutionary fanatics. He banished him from politics -- and made him the insignificant head of the National Library. The press law had lost its sole protector.

What was the difference between Culture Minister Khatami and his head of state and government, Hashemi-Rafsanjani? Khatami thought that economic and technological development is impossible without simultaneous loosening up and freedom. The powerful theoreticians of the regime, who had been trained by the guardians of the revolution, were of a different opinion. They advocated the view that a radical Islamic cultural policy is the precondition for boosting the country's economy and technology. Head of state Hashemi-Rafsanjani liked these prospects -- and thus committed the biggest mistake of his presidency.

Only rarely did Khatami dare to venture out of the silence of his national Library: one evening we were astonished to see him in a televised panel discussion. He said that freedom and even God can be reached with music. My astonishment turned to admiration when Khatami announced: "Art is the greatest gift that God has given man." Those responsible in the regime had always seen religion as Allah's greatest gift. However, with his usual quiet smile, Khatami raised art above everything. This appearance dominated the social discussions for a long time -- at least in the small circle of Iranian intellectuals.

My first intensive personal meeting with Khatami took place in Khatami sat in the National Library behind his desk in a small room. I had just read his latest book, a surprising advocacy of the freedom of thought. It dealt with liberalism, renaissance, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and the achievements of Western civilization. However, my compliments did not cheer him up. He was sad about the atmosphere of repression and deplored the fact that he had been unable to change the development for the better. Now he seemed to completely escape into his work in the library, while outside "cultural rabies" was rampant, as he put it. He smiled and pointed at his desk with his finger. "I like the quiet here. I write, read, think. It is a peaceful corner -- quiet and without noise."

However, as personally impressive as this meeting was -- I am afraid that Khatami might fail now as president precisely because of his humaneness, his intellectual integrity.

This cultured man, who takes such painstaking care to keep his freshly starched shirts clean, who loves quiet and the clarity of thought, this intelligent man may have little chance against Tehran's mullah machinery. Or should he chose the worst of all paths and now just put on some presidential robe, like other would-be heroes of history -- and sell his sensitive sole for an office? The Khomeyniists are now rearing up as if they feel the change of times, which Khatami's victory at the elections has initiated. The Kayhan newspaper threatens writers that they might suffer the fate of author Sa'idi Sirjani, who died of torture in prison -- official cause of death: heart attack. This article was published in a rubric that is written under the leadership of the security apparatus.

In a speech outgoing head of state Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that the president holds only the third highest office in the country. Whom, apart from religious leader Khamene'i, may Hashemi-Rafsanjani have placed above Khatami, contrary to all constitutional principles? Perhaps himself, because Hashemi-Rafsanjani intends to keep all the strings in his hand even after leaving the office of president? As chairman of the important Mediation Council between Parliament and Government he, indeed, has extraordinary influence.

In his speech Khatami courageously countered that the president is still the second-highest personage of the country. The public counter, a foretaste of the power struggles that will threaten Khatami, gives me hope despite all my skepticism. More than 20 million voters for Khatami, above all women and young people, are fed up with religious patronage and want to get rid of the dictatorship of the clergy.

Khatami obviously wants to fight and not give in. He did not particularly push for the office but was hauled into the office by his friends -- and then by an overwhelming majority of the votes (69!) -- and was virtually longed for as the savior. However, the ultrafundamentalists will not just try to bring Khatami to their side with threats, they will also try to seduce him. In obviously prudent foresight, religious leader Khamene'i visited Khatami, whom he hated for his political views, at home for a personal talk even before the election campaign began.

However, the ayatollah relied on another candidate: archconservative Parliament President 'Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri. Khatami himself probably did not believe in his victory -- otherwise he would not have so much trouble putting his cabinet together. It is still open whether "his" government team, which will probably also include women, will be confirmed by the conservative parliament.

I remember that during the conversation with Khatami I complained about the regime's inhuman action against the writers and journalists and asked him: "Mr. Khatami, are these lies and deceit the message of Islam?" He placed his hand on my hands and consoled me. "I understand you and I am sorry. However, you should not attribute this to Islam. Be patient! Be strong."

In his latest message to the Iranians Khatami asked them to help him and to let him know where there are deficiencies and problems. He added that after the elections he has not had an opportunity to walk among the people for an extended period and to address the people directly.

Nevertheless, he stated very clearly that he will choose ministers who represent the new way of thinking and the new ideas. The people have been patient long enough. Now it is Khatami's turn to be strong.

Ma'roufi links (In Persian)

* Defense statement in Tehran court
* Last editorial in "Gardoun"
* Excerpt from the novel "Sal-e Balvaa"

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