International Bestsellers: The Iran-Coelho Affair

Book-Banning Scare in Iran, Expats Unite in Turkey

Despite having completed all of the normal and rigorous procedures required to get permission from the government, Arash Hejaz, the Iranian publisher of Paulo Coelho‘s latest international sensation, THE ZAHIR, was threatened and terrified last month by the authorities. The novel was the first foreign title to be protected by copyright in Iran since 1979, and Iran was in fact the first country in which the book was published (24 hours before it was released in Coelho’s native Brazil), a condition imposed in order to obtain this copyright protection. Last month, however, it was banned by the powers that be in dramatic fashion “because the main character has a behavior that is not proper,” according to Hejaz, of Caravan Books.

What followed was a series of dramatic emails from Hejaz to Coelho, in which he detailed concerns about his own safety and the safety of his family.

“I have not slept during the last 48 hours, trying to contact people in charge, no answer. But today, someone from the ministry of culture came to me and told me that they have become extremely afraid of the increased popularity of Paulo Coelho after the release of THE ZAHIR.” Coelho’s book drew particular attention as thousands of people gathered around the Caravan stand at the Tehran Book Fair in early May, to buy the book, watch an interview of Coelho with Persian subtitles, along with a documentary on his visit to Iran in 2000.

Hejaz also distributed tie-in posters featuring Coelho with the heading “Freedom is not being uncommitted; it is to choose, and then commit to that choice,” and the words “Man, Knowledge, Freedom” along the bottom. The Government Intelligence Service soon sniffed out the stand and confiscated remaining copies of the book, threatening to burn down Hejaz’s office if he refused to stop selling books and distributing posters. Hejaz’s fear was evident in further emails: “The presidential election is near. They are doing everything to keep things under control. People are disappearing; it is exactly like year 1976 in Argentina…They can do anything.”

At the same time, another title attributed to Coelho was also released in Iran, with the title ON THE WINGS OF LOVE. “It seems there’s a conspiracy going on,” Hejaz wrote to Coelho, “as this book has not been written by you.”

In a sudden and unexpected change of events, (and presumably a result of pressure from the international press), representatives from the Ministry of Culture returned the confiscated books, explaining the threats away as a simple misunderstanding on the part of the police.
Meanwhile, despite these trials and tribulations, Coelho has already beaten his own sales records in each and every one of the 30-plus countries where THE ZAHIR has been published to date.

On a recent sojourn through the bustling bazaars of Istanbul, our very own Constance Sayre had a fortuitous encounter with the husband of US expat, author Catherine Bayar, who recently contributed two stories to an impressive anthology featuring 33 international women and their stories of Turkey, its people and its culture.

TALES FROM THE EXPAT HAREM: FOREIGN WOMEN IN MODERN TURKEY T is the brainchild of two editors, Anastasia Ashman and Jennifer Gokmen, who sailed off on the internet searching for women with stories to share. The two wanted to bring together “a modern view of how women live in this much misunderstood place… “how [they] each react and adapt to [their] adventures in Turkey.” Like a modern day metamorphosis of the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, these “reflections of foreign women on their Turkish lives bridge the gap of understanding that seems to exist between the Western world and continent-straddling, paradoxical Turkey.”

The wheels were set in motion in an Istanbul writing workshop, attended by American women who realized that they were all writing about their Turkish experiences. Soon afterward, a small Turkish-American press bought their proposal for an anthology and over the course of a year Ashman and Gokmen called for submissions through expatriate, writing, and women’s groups.

“We heard from more than 100 storytellers from the worldwide diaspora of foreign women whose lives have been touched by Turkey and worked with many, most not professional writers, to fashion a personal tale that revealed as much about the woman and her own culture as the country she uncovered,” said Ashman. This spring they delivered a manuscript with settings “as diverse as the country itself, through the voices of artists and scientists and Peace Corps volunteers, among many others.”

As the project continued to grow, the small press allowed the editors to move the anthology to a larger publisher, Dogan Kitap, which would be better equipped to promote the book through its media conglomerate of television and radio stations, magazines and newspapers as well as sell the volume in its nationwide chain of bookstores.

Advance reviews have been pouring in from prominent voices in Turkish culture and politics, along with experts in expatriatism and acculturation, and so far everyone likes what they see. Ashman reports that the latest praise comes from Elif Shafak, the award-winning Turkish novelist (THE SAINT OF INCIPIENT INSANITIES, FSG 2004), and a feminism and Near Eastern studies scholar at the University of Arizona (whom Orhan Pamuk called the best author coming out of Turkey in the past decade). Shafak praised the book for “successfully transcend[ing] the cultural stereotypes so deeply-embedded in perceptions of the Eastern harem…”

The manuscript is now being submitted in Europe by Jonathan Lyons at Curtis Brown (NY) and the book has found a home with Seal Press (the feminist imprint of Avalon Publishing Group) which will publish the book in the USA and Canada in March 2006.

Hoping to build upon the success of their first major writing endeavor together, both Ashman and Gokman are preparing proposals for their own memoirs, and are also hard at work planning a second volume of EXPAT HAREM. In their spare time, they are working to expand the Expat Harem brand to other countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Visit for more information about the editors and contributors.

As Turkey continues to knock on the door of the EU, a contentious issue for EU member nations (see France’s recent “Non!”), they lead the way in reconciling the many conflicts and misunderstandings between east and west. We hoped to bring you a Turkish bestseller list, but our moles tell us that current lists bear a striking resemblance to product placement.