An Interview with Hooman Majd

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 8/11/2008

Majd, grandson of an ayatollah and translator for presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad, plunges into the heart of modern Iran in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

You translate for Ahmadinejad on occasion. How do you get along with him?

Ahmadinejad wants to give the impression to anybody he meets that he is really, particularly Iranian. He is a master politician in many ways, but it’s hard for me to like him, although he’s certainly charming enough. And I don’t believe that he really believes a lot of the things he says.

You’re referring to his Holocaust denial?

I don’t think that he doesn’t believe it happened. I think it’s this obsession that he has with being seen as a Muslim leader standing up to Israel and Zionism. He’s not a historian and his view is sophomoric—the first time he expressed it, he said it in a very Persian way. He said, “If it happened, why do Muslims have to pay the price?” In Farsi when you say “if,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re questioning what happened; it’s a rhetorical question. I said to one of his top aides that Ahmadinejad’s biggest problem was that he said “if.” If he’d said, “It happened, but why do the Muslims have to pay the price?” it would have been much more difficult to criticize. I’m not defending him; his obsession with the Holocaust is crazy, anyway. Ahmadinejad hasn’t mentioned the Holocaust for at least a year now, and I’m convinced—not that anybody would admit it—that the Supreme Leader told him, “Back off. If you want to talk about Israel and Zionism, go ahead, but leave the Holocaust out of it; you’re embarrassing us.”

What kind of reception do you think your book will receive in Iran?

I think that it won’t be translated, and it will find its way privately into people’s homes. Personally, I feel that it’s affectionate and critical where it needs to be. I never intended to write a book that was anti-Islamic republic. It is about the people and what Islam means to them and how the country has developed in the last 30 or 40 years. I’ve told the Iranian ambassador and Khatami about the types of things I’ve written. And they laugh and they go, “It’s no big deal, nobody’s going to really care.” [The book] isn’t out and out saying, “The Supreme Leader must go!’” But Iranians are very private; they like to be mysterious. Privacy is one of the most critical parts of Iranian culture.

Tell me a bit about ta’arouf, this conversational ritual of self-deprecation and extravagant praise that you describe in the book. Why is understanding ta’arouf important to understanding Iran?

In countries like Iran, religion is one refuge and ta’arouf is another. Iranians love poetry; they love music; they love socially showing off. And in some cases, ta’arouf is about a political advantage: if you can ta’arouf well, you’re given big, big marks. Ta’arouf allows people to criticize other people without being rude; and Iranians are very much into polite society. You could disagree with someone and adamantly voice your displeasure without offending. One time I was writing an article for the New Yorker and the Iranian press officer of the mission called me up and he was very unhappy with it, but he started the conversation by heaping praise on me, how I was the best writer Iran has produced since Rumi, all that kind of stuff and then he says, I really don’t think you should mention this in your piece. But then he says, of course you know better, you’re the expert. He thinks that he’ll be able to get me to change my view, just so I’ll keep him believing that I’m the best Iranian writer since Rumi!

Read the PW review of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ here

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