Where Iran and America meet: an interview with Hooman Majd
Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd talks about his new book "The Ayatollahs' Democracy."
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What kind of feedback on "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" did you receive from people in Iran? Has the book been translated into Farsi?
The book has not been translated into Farsi, and I’ve been told it would have to be heavily censored in order to be released in Iran, but I have heard from many in Iran that they read it in English, and very much liked it. The reaction from Iranians in Iran who have read it has been overwhelmingly and gratifyingly positive, with most people remarking on how true it is to Iranian society.
Do you travel to Iran on an Iranian passport? On official forms and documents, do you state your profession as a journalist?
Yes, I do travel to Iran on my Iranian passport. It is not easy to get visas on an American passport, and in the case of someone like myself, born in Iran, Iran does not [officially] recognize dual citizenship and as such would not give me a visa. I always describe myself as a writer, everywhere.
As a journalist working in Iran, how restricted were you?
Not very. I have the advantage of language and no visa restrictions, so if I’m working, I get a press pass from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and otherwise I’m left alone. Foreign journalists have to have an approved interpreter assigned them which they have to pay for, who also acts as guide. As an Iranian, even writing for foreign media, I’ve been mercifully unrestricted.
You’ve said that when you work in Iran one thing you miss is the lack of a free internet.
It can be frustrating. [We] rely on the Internet so much. I’ll get an email from a friend in America and they say, “Did you see this in the New York Post” and I forget I am in Tehran and try to go on and – bang! – the site’s blocked. It’s frustrating and annoying. If I lived in Tehran full-time I would get around those things, but as a visitor I am basically restricted on the Internet.
It’s odd though because there are times you think some sites will be blocked and they’re not. Like the Jerusalem Post is not blocked but the New York Post is…. Some sites get blocked then unblocked – on any given day you never know.
Other countries do that too – China, a lot of Muslim countries.... So it’s not that I am singling out Iran saying it’s a horrible place for the Internet. Some of the countries we think are our closest allies have severe restrictions on the Internet and I would be just as frustrated about that.
For people wishing to better understand Iran, what English language media do you recommend? Also, in addition your own books, what do you recommend as must reads for those who wish to educate themselves about Iranian society and culture?
I think Tehran Bureau on the PBS/Frontline website is good, and the English pages of official Iranian news agencies are useful, for although those are state-controlled and obviously not uncensored, they sometimes do provide an understanding of what Iranians are thinking.
In terms of books, I think Ryszard Kapuściński’s "Shah of Shahs" is crucial for understanding the revolution of 1979, and Stephen Kinzer’s "All the Shah's Men" for understanding the roots of the Iran-U.S. split. There are fewer books on society and culture, although I recommend Afshin Molavi’s "Persian Pilgrimages." I also think fiction is useful, and "My Uncle Napoleon" by Iraj Pezeshkzad, available in English translation (written before the revolution), is a great book that shows Iranian culture at its best and worst.
Jon Letman is a freelance writer on the island of Kauai.
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