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Iran-born writer "kills" ayatollah in novel

By Martin Roberts
/ Source: Reuters

By Martin Roberts

Nairi Nahapetian gets her own back on the Iranian regime which forced her into exile by writing a novel about the murder of a powerful religious leader.

Nahapetian returned to Iran as a journalist in 2005 but says that she had to turn to fiction to fully describe the complexities of the homeland she fled when she was nine.

"Thanks to fiction I can, for example, kill an ayatollah, which is something you cannot do in real life," Nahapetian said at the "Semana Negra" crime-writing festival, attended by a million people every year in Gijon, northern Spain.

In "Qui a tue l'Ayatollah Kanuni" (Who killed Ayatollah Kanuni), Narek, an exiled journalist who returns to Iran, is in the wrong place at the wrong time when a religious leader is found dead.

The authorities instinctively suspect Narek because he has lived abroad for so long, but it soon becomes apparent that they have few clues because the ayatollah had made many enemies by sentencing people to death and by his involvement in murky financial deals.

Investigations are further complicated by competing security forces and the secrecy of all levels of Iranian society, as well as its enigmas.


Nahapetian's leading player is Leila, an Islamic feminist, which she says may appear contradictory to Western readers but only because of their stereotyped images of Iran.

Leila is like many Iranians who, says Nahapetian, have mixed feelings about the legacy of the 1979 Islamic revolution which overthrew the dynastic rule of Shah Reza Palahvi.

She said millions of people had joined the revolution against the shah. "But this revolution was also stolen from the people by the religious part," she added.

"Immediately after the revolution they started killing the Marxists who also participated. They eliminated them."

Nahapetian said she had to write her novel in Paris because it could never have got past the censors in Iran.

"It would be impossible to denounce the corruption of the regime, to talk about the repression. To talk about the killing of 20,000 Marxists is a real taboo," she said.

While Nahapetian describes repression, she also depicts people who manage to enjoy freedom in their own way by beating many of Iran's strict rules on a daily basis.

"Even the way women wear the veil is a way of making fun of the regime. Iranian women are very inventive at making a fashion statement out of this symbol of repression," she said.

Another unusual feature of Iran in the novel is the way taxi drivers will recite poetry from the country's ancient culture.

"Sometimes they quote poetry they have composed themselves. It is really very beautiful. I am sure there are taxi poets all over the world, but it is mainly in Iran that they express themselves," Nahapetian said.

The Spanish version of Nahapetian's novel has just been released and it has so far also been translated into Swedish and Dutch. A sequel is due out in February 2012. (Editing by Alistair Lyon)