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Brooklyn Hipster Finds The 'Big Sulk' In Iran


Hey honey, why don't we spend the year in Tehran? Well, that's kind of what Hooman Majd asked his wife, Karri, a yoga instructor who was born in the Midwest, not the Middle East. Mr. Majd was born into a politically prominent family in Iran. He came to the U.S. when he was eight months old. He became a music executive and a writer for GQ, The New Yorker and other publications.

Karri encouraged her husband to bring their young family, including their infant son, Khash, from the hipster confines of Brooklyn, where they lived, to spend a year in a place ruled by a theocracy with religious police, no free speech, security police and an un-hip pervasive threat of imprisonment. And a place which prohibits drinking and has no organic farmers' markets.

Hooman Majd, author of the previous book, "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," has written a book about his family's year in Tehran, "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay." And Hooman Majd joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOOMAN MAJD: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: May I ask you about everyday life in Iran, because you say at one point that the rules in Iran are guides, but meant to be broken?

MAJD: That's what Iranians believe. I don't think the government wants you to think that they're meant to be broken, although even as recently as just a month ago when the new president, Hassan Rouhani, was here, he kind of scoffed at the notion of Iranians aren't allowed to watch television broadcasts or be on the Internet. He said everyone has a satellite dish in Iran.

And that's true, so I think there's an acceptance of breaking the rules and I think in any kind of autocratic society there's an element of that, and it's been like that in Iran forever. Under the Shah it was the same thing. There were certain red lines you did not cross. Many of the things that I say or other Iranians might say comfortably in American would land us in jail if we said the same thing publicly in Iran.

SIMON: You mention one red line not to cross, which is criticizing the government. Others that you needed to learn about?

MAJD: Well, you can't criticize Islam or particularly Shia Islam; going against the regime itself, the Islamic republic as a system of government, and you can't criticize the supreme leader.

SIMON: You refer to an aspect of Iranian national character called the "Big Sulk."

MAJD: Yes.

SIMON: Help us understand that.

MAJD: Well, it came out of my experience having just arrived in Tehran and the President of Iran deciding that he's going to go on this huge sulk and not go to work for 12 days 'cause he couldn't get his way. And it just reminded me of this personality quirk that we Iranians have of rather dramatic expressions of dissatisfaction and the drama that we like to inject into everything, including politics.

And even this new administration in Iran with the foreign minister falling down and saying: Oh my God, my back hurts and I can't work anymore because of all this pressure the hardliners putting me under. There's a history of that sulking and it's called gar(ph) in Farsi, where you just sort of like say I'm not going to talk to you, you know, you're going to have to beg me to come back to work.

SIMON: And the extent of life, everyday life that takes place behind closed doors...

MAJD: Yes, yes, yes. Well, everything happens really, I mean, everything interesting happens behind closed doors. You'll see people in restaurants, you'll see people shopping, but you don't see a very cheerful group of Iranians going about their daily business. People are rather dour, but once they get behind closed doors and they can be free to be who they are, you see a completely different Iranian, I think, because of the social restrictions today. That is how people entertain themselves.

SIMON: I was struck by a perception you had in the book where you say a lot of Iranians maybe be upset with their government over corruption or suppressing freedom of expression and dissent, and a lot of Iranians certainly fear the religious police, but you say that many still like the idea of Islamic law.

MAJD: Very few Iranians believe that Sharia Law, as we know it and as it is very strictly interpreted, should be applied all the time. But it's a religious country. And, you know, in the same way that many Americans believe in the Ten Commandments, many Iranians believe in the commandments of the Quran, even if they might break some of those commandments some of the time.

I would say that's true of, certainly, you know, the working class, certainly the religious classes. You know, again, I can't tell you what the numbers are and polls are inaccurate in Iran, but there is that segment of the population and it is rather large.

SIMON: You related to former president Khatami.

MAJD: Yes.

SIMON: And he tells you over tea one day that a lot of Iranians want human rights and democracy but don't have the culture for it...

MAJD: Yeah.

SIMON: ...which means what?

MAJD: Even though most Iranians profess to want democracy, even though most Iranians want human rights, the political culture of Iran is immature and it's partly immature because of the obstacles that have been put in its way, some of which are the fault of the Islamic Republic, some of which are the fault of the Westerners. Just as an example, when you have the West constantly saying all options are on the table for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue - in other words, we can potentially go to war or bomb Iran if Iran doesn't do what we say, you have a culture created inside the political system which says we are under the threat of attacks so we can't allow the kind of freedom that we would like to allow, even among certain liberal politicians in Iran.

It's a difficult question to answer and I'm not sure I have the answers, but I certainly think that many of the Iranian reformists who have tried to bring about change in Iran have been dismayed by the lack of movement and the lack of support, even, in some cases, of the people for change. And I think that's where the question really is, is the culture ready for it?

SIMON: Hooman Majd, his new book, "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay." Thanks so much for being with us.

MAJD: Thank you very much.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.