An advance copy caught the eyes of our staff when it came through the PW newsroom this year—a rare occurrence considering the volume of incoming books for review. That ARC, for Najmieh Batmanglij’s Cooking in Iran, was a huge hardcover. But it was no finished book with a “for review/not for sale” sticker slapped on it. It was a proper galley.
When reached for comment about the galley’s remarkable quality, Mohammad Batmanglij, the publisher of Mage Publishers in Washington, D.C., and husband to Najmieh, said that such galleys were fairly simple to produce these days, and that his small house only printed a few ARCs for each book it published, to send exclusively to trade publications that ask for them months before the book’s publication. “They’re a little expensive, but they do leave the impression that it’s something to look at,” he said, before gently asking, “But how did you like what was inside the book?”
What is inside the book—which received a starred review in a recent issue of PW—is an exhaustive guide to regional styles of cooking across Iran, a country that remains much misunderstood and maligned in the West. Cooking in Iran, which Mage will publish in November in a roughly 4,000-copy first printing, is the product of five years of research and thousands of miles of traveling in a country from which the Batmanglijs were forced to flee following the end of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
When the Batmanglijs first left Iran, they settled in France. “It was a nostalgic thing for my wife, to go into cooking as a way of staying connected with Iran,” Mohammad said. “As Iranians are wont to do, she would invite neighbors over to eat, and one of them suggested that she do a book: ‘It would be useful—the French would like it.’ ”
That book, Najmieh’s first, was La Cuisine D’Iran, published by Jacques Grancher in 1984. It was, to the Batmanglijs’ knowledge, the first Iranian cookbook published in France.
The Batmanglijs decided to leave France soon after, realizing that they would never be treated as French. The couple had caught the publishing bug but found it difficult to publish in France at the time: “They were not particularly receptive to letting outsiders in,” Mohammad explained. So they visited Washington, where his brother was living, and met with publisher and Georgetown professor Don Herdeck, who ran Three Continents Press, which published the work of Naguib Mahfouz in English for years before he won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. The Batmanglijs moved to the capital, where Herdeck helped the couple acquire a small office, and they began doing business.
Mage’s first title in the U.S. was a cookbook, Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, also by Najmieh, now considered the definitive English-language volume on Persian and Iranian cuisine. (PW reviewed the book upon its release in 1986; a 25th-anniversary edition was published in 2011.) The book was a hit, and Mage branched out with children’s books based on Iranian myths, but the titles found no traction in the market.
So, along with more cookbooks by Najmieh, now considered an authority on her national cuisine in America, Mage tried a different tack: Iranian histories and translations of Persian classics. It began selling paperback licenses to Penguin Classics, including the Shah Na Meh, or Persian Book of Kings, and the poetry of Hafez, such as Faces of Love, while publishing the books in hardcover and distributing through Ingram Publisher Services and Amazon.
The history books were typically sold to colleges as course material, and, as publishing technology got better, Mage began printing those titles on demand to help keep overhead low. The publisher releases roughly five books per year, with seven in the works for 2019, and has about 60 titles on its backlist.
Mage is a small house; Mohammad is its publisher, and he and Najmieh are its only full-time employees. Other staffers—including copy editors, typesetters, and the like—work part-time. The publisher’s print runs fluctuate: Najmieh’s cookbooks often receive runs of 4,000–5,000 copies, depending on the size of the books, whereas other books receive more modest print runs of approximately 2,500 copies. The publisher’s writing stable is also compact: Najmieh, historian Willem Floor, and poet and translator Dick Davis are Mage’s primary authors.
Challenges in growing the business, Mohammad explained, stem from either lack of interest in the Middle East or from politics. “Iranian culture and literature… There’s demand, but politics has been against it—it’s an uphill battle to present good things about Iran. There is a Eurocentrism to our culture that we still haven’t overcome. It will be gradual, and publishing houses are a help to that.”
The impact of politics, however, is hard to avoid. Although Najmieh has been back to Iran once since the revolution—to research her latest book—Mohammad has never returned, as travel is harder to get approved, and, even if it is, Iranian-Americans are viewed with significant suspicion. That suspicion exists in the U.S. as well, where anti-immigrant rhetoric abounds. But Mohammad and Najmieh—both American citizens—didn’t doubt their decision to move here in the 1980s, and still do not regret it.
“We had two boys, and we thought that, in America, they would be Americans,” Mohammad said. And indeed, they are. And of note: their elder son, Zal, is the cocreator and director of the Netflix series The OA, while their younger son, Rostam, was a founding member of the indie-pop band Vampire Weekend.
Despite the climate, Mohammad remains hopeful—both for Iranian culture and for immigrants. “The darkest before the dawn… Demographics are going to fix it, I imagine,” he said. He added that, in spite of nativist sentiments, there is another side to the coin: “There is a receptiveness, of people in our neighborhood, for example. They’re more conscious of the idea that someone’s come from somewhere else. The unconsciousness of that, when I was a student here, had its own charm. But the fact that now, people are more considerate of wanting to know where you’re from… That also has its own elements. It goes both ways.”