Page One

Inside the axis of evil

Monday March 18, 2002

KISH, Iran--President Bush may list Iran as part of an "axis of evil," but writers and intellectuals on this dry and weedy coral island 25 miles south of the mainland say democracy may yet thrive in their country. 

In a project designed by President Mohammad Khatami, the reformist leader re-elected in 2001 in Iran, some 30 writers gathered to meet foreign authors and thinkers recently in a program titled, "Dialogue Among Civilizations." Though censorship remains strong in Iran, especially in matters of politics and religion, most Iranians here agreed that recent years have delivered a strong and steady push toward social liberalization. 

In fact, these days Iranians are quick to compare life "before the election" and "after the election." The elections were seen as a mandate 

for Khatami's reformist policies. Soon after, the ban on satellite dishes was lifted, for instance. Use of the Internet, albeit small, is growing quickly. Western music is coming back. And bookstores are full of titles that had previously been censored. Books by Sama Behrangi, a pre-revolutionary leftist writer of children's stories, and works by the leftist poet Khorsro Golsorkhi are prominently displayed. Translations of Western authors such as Isabel Allende, Danielle Steele and Michael Crichton sell briskly. 

"We still can't write, 'The man and the woman lie down on the bed and make love,'" said Asadollah Amaraee, a 47-year-old translator of Western novels. "We have to write, 'The man and the woman lie on the bed and take turns counting the number of light bulbs above their bed.' But everyone understands what we mean." 

Iranian writers, Amaraee said, are pushing these limits vigorously. But that doesn't come without risk. 

When a Swedish scholar voiced surprise to a thirty-something Iranian writer that the Tehran government deemed fiction serious enough to hold a seminar on the topic, the author answered emotionally, "Yes, seriously enough to have a few (authors) disappeared and a few assassinated as well." 

Like many other women here, the writer wore makeup and jewelry as well as a traditional head scarf, and asked not to be named. Only a few years ago, a handful of Iranian poets and writers were disappeared and others murdered for their writings. 

But she was quick to add, "I hope you are going to say something nice about Iran. We are not evil. We are nice and we are full of hope since the last election." 

The Ayatollah Khomenei's death in 1989 and the subsequent battle between conservatives and reformists put Iran into gridlock. The economy suffered with 30 percent inflation, and unemployment still hovers at 17 percent. 

But in the 2001 elections, the reformists triumphed, overturning the conservative domination of the country's parliament. The parliament had previously blocked reform efforts by Khatami, who became Iran's fifth president in 1997. 

Now, says Mohammed Sharifi, the author of 16 novels, things are slowly changing for the better. Tiny aspects of social life, nuances that many foreigners wouldn't notice, are, in fact, indicators of important changes, Sharifi said. "Before the election, you couldn't applaud after someone read their work on stage. Now, people applaud like mad."