The Ayatollah Begs to Differ By Hooman Majd
If there is anybody is qualified to take on the unenviable task of dropping some much needed knowledge on Americans about that big mystery in the Middle East, then Hooman Majd is that man. After being born and raised in Iran he moved to New York (via England) and rose to the top of the entertainment industry as Executive VP of Island Records where he remained for many years. Majd is extremely knowledgeable about both cultures and has spent his life moving between the two. Here he gives us a book that is part travelogue and part lecture on a culture that we as a nation know next to nothing about.
Sadly Majd wraps all this captivating knowledge around a flimsy storyline (call it "Cultural Learnings of Iran for make Benefit Glorious Nation of America" if you like) that fails to captivate. So even though the book is chock full of fluffy anecdotes and fascinating information Majd fails to create a cohesive experience. He cuts the difficulty level down by speaking to the audience and using an overtly conversational tone but much is still demanded of the reader in terms of familiarizing yourself with language and custom. For instance you will get to know terms such as Haj (largest annual pilgrimage to Mecca), ta-arouf (a somewhat impenetrable politeness that often grinds Iranian conversations to a halt), and Hijab (the covering of their women, from head to toe, in Islamic garb) on an intimate level. So while the lesson plan is daunting Majd works hard to water it down and then sweeten it for you.
As his subtitle states, Majd sets out to explore the modern paradox of Iran. But what the book ultimately becomes is an examination in all the ways that their culture differs from our own. For starters it is much more religious (and Islamic) and conservative, but he also goes in depth to show the differing views on topics such as drugs, dress codes, politics, technology and a multitude of other norms alien to us. The book is at its best, however, when Majd recounts his time spent hobnobbing with Iranian bigwigs.
Besides his prominent job in the music industry Majd also contributes to publications such as GQ and The New York Times, and has served as a consultant for the last two Iranian presidents. Those contacts have over the years got him into some rather privileged situations such as a sit down interview with President Ahmadinejad’s top media adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr. During the interview Javanfekr gives a string of reasonable explanations for Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial but then squanders it all by confiding in Majd that he himself had done some independent research on the matter, and turns out the Holocaust really was a hoax.
Much time is also spent on the mutual distrust that is currently brewing between the US and Iran. This includes a history lesson that goes back to the Eisenhower era and the overthrowing of their democratically elected president Mohammed Mossadegh because he wanted to spend Iranian oil profits on…Iran, and goes up until 2007 when the US "found" a bomb in Iraq that was supposed proof that Iran was supplying Iraqi insurgents with weapons and support. These ghosts of America’s past if nothing else provide something of an explanation as to why the Iranian people support Ahmadinejad and his current nuclear buildup.
Majd clearly leans to the left in this book as he points out that a Gore presidency would have been much more understanding of Iranian internal politics. Whether this is because he is part of the Hollywood elite or if it’s a calculated move to distance himself from the enemy to sell more books in the US is a subjective idea. His largest point seems to be that we need not hate or feel superior to their culture because we are really only a few Bush terms away from it ourselves. The book itself, sadly, fails because it isn’t heavy enough for the intellectuals or light enough for the philistines and instead listlessly falls somewhere in between.