I remember I was sitting in the Islamic Republic News Agency’s office in London. Actually in Wembley, north London. August? September 1988? Somewhere around then. Few months before Khomeini’s fatwa.
I had resigned from my post and going back to the main office in Tehran. It was mostly personal, the reason for me quitting. I could no longer stand working for my boss. Nice guy, but a bitch to work with. Everyone was surprised I had been able to work with him for three years.
And it was not just my boss.
The day I landed in Heathrow in 1985 with my wife Zahra and our little daughter Mahdiyeh (she was 3), I was carrying a framed poster/painting of Khomeini that looked like a Rembrandt, with the Imam’s face radiating in the dark background. Can you imagine? At Mehrabad airport the customs guy checking my luggage, even HE looked perplexed. He had seen millions of passengers pass through but none with a portrait of Khomeini framed with such care and taste.
By the time I quit IRNA’s London office three years later, I had left my wife and child, lost my faith in the Islamic Republic, stopped praying five times a day, and slept with a hooker. I was even eating non-halal meat! :o)
So there I was in the IRNA office taking care of some paperwork to make my resignation official and go back to Tehran. Newspapers were everywhere. The TV was on text news. Telex machines were banging away. One news item caught my eye: A group of Muslims in some English city had demonstrated against a book by Salman Rushdie. The name sounded familiar. My mother had bought me Midnight’s Children but I couldn’t read more than a few pages. Magical realism? Too much hard work for me. Talk straight man!
Anyway, so I asked one of my IRNA colleagues what was going on. He said Rushdie’s novel has a dream sequence where Prophet Mohammad’s wives are presented as whores. Wha wha what!!!? Whores? Prophet’s wives?! How fascinating…
I opened the major English papers and almost all of them had done extensive features on Rushdie and his book. I collected all the articles and bought the book to take with me to Tehran where no one knew much about it. No one in my circle in the state news agencies at least. The Iranian officials in London had heard about The Satanic Verses, but they didn’t really care. Certainly not as much as Khomeini. Or me! In the Islamic Republic there could be no juicier news than a Muslim author painting the prophet of Islam’s wives as prostitutes, I thought. I thought this is one free speech issue that should be discussed and debated.
Before I left for Tehran, I was invited to the home of Iran’s cultural attache in London. He used to be a columnist for Kayhan International where I worked part-time in the early 1980s. A French-educated nuclear scientist who was following his passion for politics — and defending the Islamic Republic. You would think he would be one of the people interested in Rushdie’s book and its impact. Nothing… I got the impression if he had any views on The Satanic Verses it was personal and as Iran’s official representative he wasn’t going to make a fuss over it. And he never did.
Soon after I arrived in Tehran in Septemebr/October 1988, I went to the offices of Kayhan Farhangi (Cultural Universe), which at the time was one of the best cultural/literary magazines. Its editors were prominent moderate journalists including Reza Tehrani and Mashallah Shamsolvaezin. I don’t remember if I spoke to them personally or to an assistant. But I gave them the English newspaper clipping on Rushdie and my copy of The Satanic Verses and told them this is an important book which needs to be reviewed and discussed. They had not heard about the book and agreed to take a look.
A few weeks later, Kayhan Farhangi did run a review by a person with the last name Bozorgi or Bozorg-Nia (I don’t have a copy). Years later during a visit to New York, Reza Tehrani told me the review was written by Bahaeddin Khorramshahi, a respected literary historian and Hafez expert who didn’t want to put his real name on the piece (sensing potential trouble?).
The review was harsh but polite. I don’t remember seeing any mention of the most explosive part of the book (the prophet’s wives). Instead I do remember Rushdie being criticized for an unflattering depiction of (who else? ) Salman Farsi — Mohammad’s most famous Persian follower. The review was in the inside pages; nothing prominent/eye-catching about it. Most significantly, it did not call for any kind of punishment against Rushdie nor did it label The Satanic Verses blasphemous. If I’m not mistaken.
That was it. There was no outcry against Rushdie. The hardline papers that feed on religious controversies showed no interest. My guess is that the topic was too hot to handle. They would rather stay silent than declare Jihad on an Indian-born author hardly any Iranian knew.
When I went back to Kayhan Farhangi to pick up my book, someone told me it had been copied and was being translated. Not for public consumption of course, but to keep higher officials informed. Did they give Khomeini a copy? I don’t know. I assume so.
Next I called Adineh, the best independent and secular cultural magazine of the time, to see if they would be interested in the book. I spoke to the publisher Cyrus Alinejad who then introduced me to his editor, Faraj Sarkoohi. Sarkoohi was very interested and asked to borrow the book and the clippings. He said a review would appear in the next issue.
But it was too late. More than a dozen demonstrators had been killled in Pakistan protesting against The Satanic Verses. It was now international news. Meanwhile Khomeini was dying. The embarrassing end to the devastating 8-year war with Iraq had left a deep scar. He took one last spectacular stand for the glory of his brand of militant Islam by lashing out against Rushdie and The Satanic Verses.
After Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie, Sarkoohi, who in years to come would escape an assassination attempt and endure prison and torture for his “subversive” writing in Adineh, called and told me to come and pick up my book, since it could now cause serious trouble for the magazine if the authorities found out about its existence. Adineh was about to publish a review but pulled it just in time. There was no longer going to be any rational discussion over The Satanic Verses. Case closed.
I don’t know what I did with my copy of The Satanic Verses. I had written “Javid” on the opening page before it was banned. One day I was stopped at a random military check-point in Tehran. The soldier saw my relaxed look and waved me to move on. As soon as I drove away my heart collapsed: I suddenly remembered the book was on the floor of the back seat. If the soldier had seen it, I would have had a lot of explaining to do.
One day in 1996, a year after I started Iranian.com, I was going through some boxes in my Brooklyn, New York, apartment. I came across some of my articles in English-language newspapers in Iran. One of them was in the Tehran Times. It was an op-ed piece bashing Rushdie during the height of the controversy in Iran. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here I was — the publisher of a “free and open” online forum — looking at the not-so-distant past when I had very different views on free speech. Clearly I was not an objective observer at the time. I hated Rushdie’s guts more than Khomeini’s thirst for blood.
I was so embarrassed, I tore up the article. I felt truly gross.