Over the years, Iran’s theocracy has fearlessly thumbed its nose at Israel, the United States, and the United Nations. But now Tehran has taken its row with the West a disturbing degree further. This week the Iranian government reportedly banned all works by Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian mystic and author of international bestsellers such as The Alchemist, The Diary of a Magus, and Veronika Decides to Die.
Authorities gave no reasons for their action nor did they even acknowledge the ban; in fact, Coelho himself blew the whistle in his blog, on a tip from his local publisher. And an Iranian foreign ministry official has been quoted by the Brazilian paper, Valor Econômico, denying that there was ever an official ban on Coelho’s books, just a clampdown by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his publisher. But Coelho’s legion of Iranian devotees would be forgiven for hiding their signed copies.
The ostensibly independent Iran Book News Agency (IBNA) published a story about a gathering of literary critics in Tehran this Monday in which Coelho was skewered by several ranking Islamic scholars. Author Meghad Hakimi, who wrote an entire book on Coelho’s oeuvre, alluded to his “strong writing” that emphasizes “drugs and magic.” The IBNA also told of growing “concern” over “the story of dark mysticism which is sealed in his works,” a theme that surfaced “following World War II and [which is] backed by the Zionists, Christianity and the [Catholic] church.”
Yet it doesn’t take a magus to see through the Iranian critics’ version. And the buzz among the international publishing commentariat is that what’s really going on is an unspoken vendetta against Coelho for his having strayed beyond the written page during the Green Revolution of 2009.
First, Iranians love Coelho. The Brazilian author, one of the cardinals of the New Age genre, whose signature novel, The Alchemist, has sold upward of 100 million copies globally, has more than a dozen titles in Farsi and since 1998 has sold 6 million books in Iran, without a murmur from the mullahs. “It makes no sense to forbid books that were being published for the past 12 years,” Coelho said in his blog this week. “The contents of the books did not change—they are still the same.”
What evidently has changed is Tehran’s tolerance of those who act, or are seen to act, in defiance of the regime, and that is apparently where Coelho ran afoul of Ahmadinejad and his theocrats. By this version, the magus’s Persian star began to fall in 2009, after his editor, Arash Hejazi, was filmed trying in vain to revive a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot dead on camera during a street demonstration over reportedly rigged Iranian presidential elections. That video footage went viral on the Web and Hejazi immediately fell under official scrutiny. Coelho worked discreetly to defend the editor—he admits to speaking on his behalf on social networks—and his family. Though it took more than a year, the payback has now come in the form of a book ban.
Coelho answered by calling on Brazilian officials to argue his case with the Iranian authorities. ”I am counting on the Brazilian government to support me and my books for the values that we all admire,” he wrote in his blog. Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota vowed to make formal inquiries into the case. Coelho said he still has hopes that the Iranian higher-ups will come to their senses. “I am honestly hoping that sooner or later the Islamic Republic of Iran will reconsider (or eventually deny) the ban,” Coelho blogged. “I still believe that this arbitrary decision was taken from a low-ranking official in Iran.”
That may be, but the ban, the seminar dedicated to his work, and the official silence from the government of Iran connote a deeper worry among the mullahs. “Nowadays those who rule the thoughts and form point of views [sic] as well as dreams, own the world,” one Iranian scholar pondered in the Coelho seminar.
In response, Coelho has digitalized all 16 of his titles in Farsi and posted them today on the Internet for anyone to download, free of charge. The mullahs have spoken but the magus may yet have the last word.