While in New York this fall for the UN General
Assembly, conservative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted to National
Public Radio that he watches Western television: "Of course, I'm like the
rest of the people. People like movies and shows."
Though most Western media is banned or censored, it's well known that many
Iranians regularly watch Hollywood blockbusters, US television and international
news on illegal satellite dishes. Many Iranians, in fact, are familiar with
the culture of US, even if only what they're watching.
However, most people in the US, including some influential ones, have little
understanding about the culture, people, or politics of Iran. Part of this disconnect
is the complexity of Iran today. The other part is the failure to get people
who understand Iran to explain what goes on in the powerful country of more
than 70 million.
The son of an Iranian diplomat who, despite having spent most of his life in
the US, has maintained a close connection to his homeland, Majd took up journalism
after a career in the entertainment business. In recent years, Majd has traveled
to Iran for extended visits and mined a wide variety of contacts for information
Majd describes himself as 100 percent Iranian and 100 percent American like
the Iran of his book, a paradox himself. It's Majd's upbringing that gives him
a distinct perspective for explaining all things Iranian to a US reader.
In fact, when Ahmadinejad visits New York, Majd is literally the English-speaking
voice of Iran at the UN General Assembly, Majd's soft but self-assured
voice delivers Ahmadinejad's speeches to the world's leaders and diplomats,
as well as the press, in an articulate US accent.
But Majd's real contributions to dialogue between the two erstwhile allies,
turned suddenly hostile in 1979, are his original interpretations of Iranian
society found in his reportage and book. Majd's prose, with its often long,
illustrative sentences, has the conversational lilt of storytelling with a literary
attention to detail that leaves accurate impressions of Iranian curiosities.
Take, for example, the Iranian concept of "ta'arouf," which eludes
many Westerners and often confounds them when confronted by an overly polite
Ta'arouf, Majd informs the reader, is "a defining Persian characteristic
that includes the practice, often infuriating, of small talk, or frustratingly
and sometimes incomprehensible back-and-forth niceties uttered in any social
Ta'arouf, like many of Majd's overarching themes of paradoxes in Iranian thought,
is woven throughout the book. The above definition occurs on page 39, but the
following sentence sets the scene for upcoming situations of great import to
today's US-Iran relations by injecting the word "negotiations",
Majd conjures the diplomatic standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.
"Ta'arouf can be a long-winded prelude to what is actually the matter
at hand, whether the matter be a serious negotiation or just ordering dinner,
or it can... be insincere but well-intentioned politesse."
The idea of duality also dots the volume, again mirrored by Majd himself, who,
though largely an unapologetically Western-raised son of an ambassador of the
Shah's government, is "at ease" with more conservative elements
his maternal grandfather, Kazem Assar, was an Ayatollah who Majd used to visit
Majd is also related to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005),
the reformist cleric whose tenure gave way to Ahmadinejad's.
The connection to both opposition reformers and the hardliner conservatives
in power gives Majd's access, and therefore his coverage, of Iranian internal
politics a unique balance (though he clearly favors Khatami personally, perhaps
attributable to an Iranian penchant for familial pride).
And Majd's interviews from inside Iran, with everyone from religious authorities
to former and current government officials, are often remarkably frank, as are
his assessments of them.
Take his chat with one of Ahmadinejad's deputy foreign ministers, Manoucher
Mohammadi, whose Holocaust-denying and overemphasis on his academic background
Majd gently mocks in his retelling (Majd's humor is apparent).
But the interview is not combative or unproductive. Majd uses the interview
to explain "haq", or "the Iranian preoccupation with rights",
an important concept in Shia Islam.
"[The] historically-challenged deputy foreign minister... seemed delighted
in Iran's apparent change of tack in international relations from an emphasis
on ta'arouf to one on haq: from Khatami, the master of ta'arouf who presented
a benign image to the world, to Ahmadinejad, for whom ta'arouf cannot exist
without a forceful, and unambiguous, defense of haq," writes Majd.
"Ta'rouf and the preoccupation with the issue of haq form two aspects
of the Iranian character that are key to understanding Iran, but are often overlooked
or misunderstood by non-Iranians."
Along with haq, Majd uses another paradigm to look at Iranian character through
the lens of Shiaism (Iran is a spiritual center of the Shia minority sect of
Islam): an inferiority/superiority complex, explored in a more dry and wonky
setting by Brookings fellow Kenneth Pollack in 2004.
But Majd has expanded and updated the concept to better understand Iran's conservative
revival with Ahmadinejad's election in 2005. Iranians have a superiority complex
because of the nation's rich history and sophistication, and an inferiority
complex from belonging to a minority sect and Iran's common classification as
a third-world country.
It's the latter distinction, used to explain a strong class divide that remains
despite the promises of the Islamic Revolution to eliminate it, that Iranian-American
scholar and author Reza Aslan calls Majd's most important contribution to understanding
Though Majd visits friends and contacts in chic northern Tehran who drink,
smoke marijuana, and lead secular lives within the walls of private homes, he
stays in the working-class southern part of town during his visits to the Iranian
capital of more than 15 million.
It's those Iranians who propelled Ahmadinejad into office, and honest insights
into the demographic are few and far between.
That, perhaps, is what is so striking about Majd's intimate portrait of this
mis- or under-understood country: his honesty.
In a short promotional video for the book online, Majd says that he sets out
to tell "the story of Iran and its people as they are warts and all
and not how we presume them to be."
By interacting with and reporting on a broad range of subjects, including the
opinions of north and south Tehranis, reformers, conservatives, exiles, Iranian
history, and even a funny tale of smoking potent opium with addicts outside
the holy city of Qom when, unexpectedly, a mullah comes in and joins them, Majd
largely accomplishes his goal.