Noticing a novel set in Iran that caused a stir 20 years
July 17, 2003
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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,
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
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,
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,
On March 29, 1983, I called the libraries at Spartanburg
and Whippany. The call to Spartanburg at (803) 596-3507 proved
futile. The gentleman
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
search became more promising: the library had two copies listed and the
librarian set out to verify their status. Minutes later, she returned with
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
One day, a more dedicated and detailed search, perhaps
of corporate records and other databases will reveal the story
behind the authroship and publication
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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