[inset_left]The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in IranBy Hooman MajdPublished by Allen Lane252 pagesLondon, 2013[/inset_left]
Though presented as a travelogue, Hooman Majd’s new book is, in fact, an account of one man’s identity crisis. It is interesting because today millions of people across the globe face similar predicaments. Born in one country and, having spent time in other countries, they have ended up in yet another country and culture in a process unfurling at dizzying speed.
Majd’s family hails from Ardakan, a village on the edge of the great desert of central Iran. Part of this family of peasants and mullahs ended up in Tehran and thanks to hard work and luck moved up the social ladder provided by Reza Shah Pahlavi’s modernizing project before World War II. One grandfather, a Qur’anic scholar, became an ayatollah while Majd’s father ended up a diplomat under the second Pahlavi Shah. (Incidentally, Majd’s father, Nasser, an able diplomat and a great Iranian patriot, was a friend of mine for decades.)
The dramatic break with the past was highlighted when Majd’s father decided to name him Hooman, a version of the pre-Islamic Vahouman, a figure in Zoroastrian mythology. Because of his father’s job, Majd spent much of his life outside Iran, but he never forgot his roots.
When the mullahs seized power in Tehran in 1979, Majd happened to be in the US, where he stayed and became a citizen. As far as Majd was concerned, the mullahs’ revolution had a silver lining. Several of his relatives used clerical connections to jump on the new political bandwagon. Later, one of them, Mohammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, even became the President of the Islamic Republic. Majd abandoned a career in music to become a political operator, acting as interpreter for Khatami and, later, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during annual visits to New York, and he wrote on “Khomeinist” Iran. As a sideline, he also worked as facilitator for American TV news stars visiting Iran. Over a decade, Majd felt that he was being drawn deeper into Iran and all things Iranian. In 2010, he decided to test his Iranian-ness by spending a year living in Tehran. By then he was in his late 50s, and he had just married a blonde vegetarian from Wisconsin and become the father of a boy he named Khashayar, a diminutive version of Xerxes, the Achaemenian shah who burned Athens. Later, Khashayar was shortened to Khash, as is the American habit with names.
Much of the book is an account of Majd’s travails and tribulations in Tehran, where even simple matters such as renting a flat become complicated or even dangerous. He was living with the constant fear of being charged with espionage and held hostage, remembering that the mullahs have not let a single year pass without holding at least one American hostage. (Right now, they hold five American hostages.) Having entered Iran with her Iranian passport, the Wisconsin-born American wife was also worried. However, baby Khash was an instant success, as Iranians love children and cannot resist hugging and playing with them.
To make sure that the family would not run into any trouble, Majd took other precautions. He grew a beard, not too long to frighten the horses but not too short to anger the mullahs. The wife did her bit by adopting the obligatory hijab and, on occasions, even “going native” and adopting the Islamic regime’s political narrative.
Other precautions Majd took included renewing contact with influential family members and friends. Cousin Ali, a brother of former President Khatami, proved a great help in a number of ways, including driving the Majd family through Tehran’s congested streets. A friend, Sadegh Kharrazi, was useful in shielding Majd against rough treatment by the authorities. Kharrazi is related to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and runs a think tank for him. Some in Tehran regard Kharrazi as Khamenei’s “shadow foreign minister,” although one might also suggest that the official foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, is the shadow.
Related to the Khatami clan and, through them, to the family of Ayatollah Khomeini, the mullah who created the Islamist regime, Majd clearly sympathizes with the faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The book was written when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, regarded by Majd as something of a usurper, was president. The book came out when the “usurper” was gone and another mullah, Hassan Rouhani, had regained the presidency, which the mullahs regard as their right. Despite his close ties to the mullahs, Majd is fair enough to acknowledge that Ahmadinejad’s populist brand of politics might have won him support from some segments of the population. Majd goes even further by suggesting that Ahmadinejad, having publicly defied Khamenei on two occasions, may prove to be “the spark of change” needed to transform Iran from a theocracy to an ordinary republic.
On Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two imprisoned leaders of the “Green Movement” of 2009, Majd says no one is concerned about their incarceration and there is little demand for their release. According to Majd, the Islamic Republic has become a “security state” marked by brutality and corruption since 2009. He accuses Khamenei of having a hand in the cookie jar and claims that the supreme leader is now “richer than the Queen of England.” The regime has lost much of its legitimacy because Khomeini lied to Iranians and Iranians retaliated by lying back to him. The “fascist impulses of the regime” prevent it from allocating any space even for loyal opposition groups. The result is that no one—not even a man like Majd, who is well connected with the mullahs by blood ties and who has been an advocate for them in the US—could feel safe in Iran.
Majd reserves some of his bitterest attacks for General Hassan Firuzabadi, the man who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Iranian—or, as Majd puts it, the Khomeinist—armed forces. Majd says Firuzabadi, who is generally referred to as “Fatso” because of his bulk, is an exceptionally cruel man, ready to crush the slightest sign of dissent.
The book includes passages that shed light on the inner workings of Iran’s murky regime. Majd shows that the mullahs have effectively divided Iranian society in two segments: those related to the clergy and the rest. Those related to the clergy enjoy immense advantages and are allowed a measure of dissent denied to the rest of society. Others are dealt with through a variety of repressive organs with the emphasis on mass arrests rather than massacring people in the streets. Majd believes Iranian dissidents are too dispirited and disunited to pose a threat to the regime, and that the mullahs are likely to continue ruling Iran for the foreseeable future. This is why he urges the US and other Western powers to make a deal with the mullahs.
One surprise that Majd offers is about Major-General Qassem Suleimani, the man who commands the Quds Corps, a military unit in charge of “exporting revolution.” Suleimani, who runs the Hezbollah in Lebanon, has recently been identified as the chief strategist behind Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against opponents. Majd shows that regime insiders in Tehran think highly of Suleimani. Majd’s friend Kharrazi, for example, says, “I’d give my blood for him.” Former President Khatami goes further by describing Suleimani as “the most knowledgeable and professional official” he came across during his entire presidency.
Majd writes that Khatami “depended more on Suleimani than the Foreign Ministry or the Iranian embassies in the region.”
Majd’s depiction of the clash of identities is masterly. A nexus rooted in thousands of years of historical memory, the Iranian identity is not easy for outsiders to acquire even with the best of intentions. In contrast, anyone can become American by simply willing it. Better still, the American system allows an individual to develop a designer identity with double- or triple-barrel designations. In the US, Majd could easily be an Iranian–American. In Iran, however, such a stratagem could only cause trouble. Clearly, Majd would love to live both his assumed identities, spending part of the time in Tehran and the other part in New York, crossing from one world into another as post-modern man is supposed to do.
But in the end, the pull of the American identity proves stronger. Majd does not cease to love Iran, even passionately. However, while in Iran he suffers from the loss of freedoms he took for granted in the US. A cup of Starbucks coffee becomes his version of Proust’s madeleine.
The last chapter in the book has the title “Home.” It is set in New York. Majd has made his choice.