Where Iran and America meet: an interview with Hooman Majd

Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd talks about his new book "The Ayatollahs' Democracy."

Ken Browar
Hooman Majd is the son of an Iranian diplomat and the grandson of a prominent ayatollah.

Hooman Majd is Iranian. Hooman Majd is American. Like the subjects he writes about, Majd is something of a paradox. Born in Tehran to the son of a career diplomat, Majd is also the grandson of a prominent ayatollah.

But Majd grew up mainly outside of Iran and was educated at American schools in San Francisco, New Delhi, Tunis, and London. Although he was raised in a Farsi-speaking home by his Persian parents, Majd was absent from the country of his birth for three decades between 1972 and 2003.

In 1978, during the months before the Islamic Revolution that drove the Shah into exile and ushered in the age of ayatollahs, Majd was visiting Iranian friends in London who suggested they travel to Neauphle-le-Château outside of Paris where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was living. Owing to a friend’s expired passport, they never made it, but Majd recalls the excitement of that time when he, as a college student in Washington D.C., watched the transformation of his homeland.

After the revolution, however, he and other foreign-educated Iranians like him were viewed as gharbzadegi or “West-toxified.” As the son of a member of the old regime, Majd was even less welcome and his dual citizenship was not recognized. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, prospects for his return to Iran dimmed further.

During the 1980s and 90s, Majd forged a successful career in the music industry working as an executive with Island Records before moving into film and eventually – what he considers his true calling – writing.

Since 2000 Majd has written extensively on Iranian politics and society for Newsweek, The New Yorker, GQ, Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, Politico, and many other publications.

In 2003, with an easing of restrictions under then-President Mohammad Khatami (a man with whom he shares family ties), Majd was able to renew his Iranian passport and return to Iran. What he found astounded and inspired him to write his first book "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran", which enjoyed broad critical acclaim and was named a Los Angeles Times “Favorite Books of 2008.”

Majd again traveled to Iran in 2008, 2009 and this year to research his second book "The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge", which was released this week. Earlier this month Hooman Majd spoke about US-Iran relations, the importance of a better understanding of Iran by Americans, and what it’s like to work as a writer in the Islamic Republic.

During the 1980s and 90s you were in the music and film industry. What drove you into journalism?

This sounds like a cliché but I always wanted to write. After college I did some writing and realized very quickly that it’s hard to make a living as a writer. At that point I was more interested in fiction writing. I got a couple of stories published but the kind of money you were making for publishing a short story, I could see I wasn’t going to make a living at it.

As a child, I was always very interested in music and had friends who were in the music business. I kind of accidentally fell into it and loved it. There was no reason not to – it was a great career.

Then, when I felt that the music business was no longer the kind of business I had grown up with, it was changing dramatically, downsizing and all that. Then I was in the film business for a short time and I realized that was really not what I wanted to do although I would love to be able to write.

It just coincided, happily for me, at a time of great interest in Iran. It wasn’t intentional – “Okay, I’m going to be a writer about Iran. That’s going to be what I do.” It just happened that magazines and various friends in the media said, “Why don’t you write about Iran? You’re Iranian. You’re always talking about Iran.” I’ve always maintained my interest and followed things and I have family in Iran. That’s how I fell into writing about Iran. Then it became, “Why don’t you write a book?”, and I just kept going. It’s hard to actually get away from the subject of Iran even if I wanted to because people expect me to speak on Iran which is fine. I’m not unhappy about that.

What did you have in mind when you wrote The Ayatollah Begs to Differ?

I was trying for it not to be a Washington political insider kind of wonky style of writing or to get into really deep foreign policy issues. I didn’t want to turn off people who ordinarily wouldn’t read a book about Iran or politics. The fact that Iran is so much in the news, I felt that my style of writing would probably be appreciated by people who don’t necessarily follow the news every day. They hear some stuff about Iran — that it’s a big enemy, a big danger, there’s this nuclear program, this or that, Ahmadinejad’s crazy or whatever. But can they get a sense of who are these people, how do they live, what do they do? I felt this would be a good introduction for people who were curious enough to go beyond the headlines.

How about your new book "The Ayatollahs' Democracy"?

In the next book obviously, by virtue of the fact that we’ve had all the unrest last year, and Iran has been even more in the news than in recent years, and because the nuclear crisis is so much more of a crisis now than it ever was, I felt it would be hard to write a book that wasn’t perhaps more political or at least to try to give a better understanding of the politics of the Islamic Republic. This is for people who’d like to be able to read all of this in one place and try to get an understanding of what happened and what it means. What do the Iranians think? What does the opposition think? To try to get a better, more honest appraisal than what you read in 1,200 words in the newspaper.

In "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" you don’t just examine Iranian politics, society, and culture, but you provide real life, often amusing examples of what it’s like to be in Iran. It’s not only enlightening, but a very enjoyable book for anyone wishing to visit that country. How similar or different are the two books?

I think there are some similarities in style and tone, and I’ve tried to provide anecdotes and include much of my own experiences, but by its nature ["The Ayatollahs' Democracy"] is more political. The subject, as the title implies, is political, and of course because of the events following the presidential election of 2009 where the outside world became perhaps more aware of Iranian politics and the aspirations of Iranians, it would have been difficult not to focus more on the political side of things. I do try to provide cultural background wherever possible.

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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