A whodunit with gray eminences - and red faces
The seedy offices of the Iranian publishers Tarh-e No are stacked high with freshly printed books smelling of ink on paper, the promise of literature, and - in Iran's volatile political atmosphere - subversion.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It is from such humble roots that a publishing sensation is rocking Iran, by tapping into a vein of popular discontent and focusing a democratic lens on the identity of a nation long used to absolute rule.
In a market that usually sells 3,000 to 5,000 copies of any book, "The Red Eminence and the Gray Eminences" is in its 29th printing, and has sold 160,000 copies in just four months. The book is a collection of hard-hitting factual newspaper columns that, 21 years into Iran's Islamic revolution, expose dark tales of right-wing abuse of power.
The real-life detail about political murders, a death squad in the intelligence ministry, and misdeeds of one of Iran's most powerful families may read like a whodunnit. But the book's impact in Iran, analysts say, is not unlike America's Watergate scandal because it has helped redefine politics in Iran.
The bold challenge it represents to once-untouchable forces in Iran has made the book an effective arrow in the quiver of reformers led by President Mohammad Khatami, who are locked in a power struggle with hard-line clerics who fear that democracy will undermine their dominance.
The author is Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist who plays the role of Woodward and Bernstein - the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate break-in that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
"Ganji was the first, in a highly intimidating atmosphere, to put his life on the line to investigate these forces," says Reza Alavi, an Iranian former editor of the Harvard Middle Easter and Islamic Review. "It's not wholly entertainment for Iranians - it's the everyday life of the people [at stake]: the essentials of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Mr. Ganji is now in prison for his writing, along with several other reform activists who were rounded up in an April backlash after conservative forces lost their control of parliament in February elections.
But while Ganji has sat in prison, his book has taken on a life of its own as a bestseller.
Iranians speak openly now about revelations that, just a year ago, were described in whispers. "This book has surprised everybody," says publisher Hossein Paya, whose company prints many of the top reformist titles that sell out as soon as they hit the shelves.
"People are showing support for the reformists when they buy it, and show they want accountable government," he says.
The "Gray Eminences" mentioned in the title of Ganji's book are intelligence operatives, who in late 1998 formed a death squad and assassinated several dissident intellectuals and writers. The event proved a watershed for Mr. Khatami, who had been in power since a spring 1997 landslide vote, and had campaigned to bring law, order, and openness to Iran.
In a surprise move, he managed to force the secretive intelligence ministry to admit responsibility for the killings. The intelligence chief was sacked, too, sending an unmistakable signal to hard-liners who had long used the intelligence services to carry out such political dirty work.
Ganji, a former Revolutionary Guard soldier with intelligence connections, is believed to have had inside information on the case from which he wrote a series of explosive columns. His writing paved the way for investigative work by other writers, such as columnist Emadedin Baghi - a former cleric who was also arrested last spring.