Talk about reinvention.
Hooman Majd was a major music business executive for many years, working closely with visionary Island Records founder Chris Blackwell at that label and Blackwell's Palm Pictures, where he headed film and music.
But prior to his career in entertainment, Majd, who was born in Tehran in 1957 but has lived abroad since infancy--and the U.S. following the Islamic Revolution of 1979--was a published short fiction writer. He returned to writing after the music business collapsed, adding political journalism to his literary resume and becoming a top media talking head concerning all things Iran.
The Brooklyn resident sat down late last week at a local coffee shop to look back at his singular career trajectory as well as relate his current activities:
So what happens to the record company presidents and vice presidents when the bottom falls out?
Even for record company executives who made a lot of money, it goes fast. Some of them were able to get into real estate or sales jobs. But it’s sad for the people who never made the big bucks. A lot of people who didn’t go to college or never finished school, they don’t have a lot of applicable skills--and it’s a niche business: If you produce records, you don’t quite fit in the insurance business, for example. How do you move on? It’s hard for a lot of people.
Those who got $100,000, $250,000, half-a-million-dollar deals for their first record still have to pay off their managers and recording costs—and those days of big advances for new artists are over. We’ve seen changes in the business over the years, but this has been a complete change.
How did it all go down for you?
It wasn’t unlike the way it was for a lot of people. When Chris [Blackwell] decided to get out, he had to [contractually] take me with him. So they [PolyGram, which owned Island] were essentially firing me. But that’s what we wanted. I was always part of the plan. I had to go with him.
What happened with Palm?
We started Palm with the promise of hundreds millions of dollars raised through investment bankers. We had bought Rykodisc Records, and we made a few movies. So we had music, film and straight-to-DVD components. But basically, it was all with Chris’s own money.
Executives often have a hard time cutting back their lifestyle after losing their jobs. In our case, we had a hard time not thinking in a "big company" way, with a big staff and perks. Not that we were going crazy and flying first class everywhere, but we were still spending money as if we were a company that was making money. When it became clear that we weren’t going to get the financing to have Palm go forward the way we envisioned it, we dialed back and then fizzled out, and I was faced with “What do I do next?”
Did you want to stay in music?
Like lots of others, I was still in the music and entertainment industry. I tried to look at different opportunities, but nothing was there that was appealing to me--or that I appealed to any company! And being so associated with Chris put me in a niche. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough to find something in the music business, but I wasn’t really qualified to do much: nothing in legal affairs or finance, for example, and really just the creative side--and hundreds of people were looking for something like that at the same time and perfectly willing to take less money.
I was approached by a bank to help start up a digital label, but that dried up quickly. In the early days of digital music, some people were very aggressive in sensing opportunities, but some investors who saw opportunities got cold feet. So only a handful or so stayed with it: As we can see, there hasn’t been a tremendous wave of digital or virtual labels.
So you decided to write?
I was 40 years old and wasn’t going to keep going out to nightclubs at 3 a.m. to check out bands for a record company or myself anymore! So I was aimless for a while, and then decided to go back to writing. I had written some short stories way before Island, and had them published--but realized at the time that you can’t make a living doing it, or at least I couldn't then. But I was fortunate to know people in the media, and was lucky to get the opportunity to write journalistic pieces after leaving music.
Strictly about politics?
I actually started writing style pieces. In The New York Times, New York Observer, GQ. One day the deputy editor at GQ said, “You’re Iranian. Why don’t you write about Iran?” Well, I could do that, I thought.
But you lived here…
I’d been following Iran privately for years. I was born there, but left in infancy. But I still had family there, so I got my passport back and traveled back to Iran—and found that the subject was appealing to other media outlets as well. Through some of the pieces I wrote, my agent got me my first book deal.
That was The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox Of Modern Iran, in 2008.
It did well critically and made The New York Times best-seller list—and enabled my career as a journalist and author. But I got pegged as “the Iran Guy,” and quickly did a second book that was much more political, at the time of the Green Movement in Iran—the precursor of the Arab Spring--and the increased interest in Iran in America because of it.
The second book, The Ayatollah’s Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, came out in 2008. Your third book, The Ministry Of Guidance Invites You To Not Stay: An American Family In Iran, comes out Nov. 5.
It’s the end “The Iranian Trilogy” by Hooman Majd! I might try going back to fiction, perhaps political fiction. But I want to move away from being just “the Iran Guy.”
But you’ve kind of become “the Iran Guy” now on TV, too.
I naturally get requests to be on television and get called “Iran Expert”—which I completely object to, because there’s no such thing as an Iran expert. Everybody who claims to be one is usually wrong about Iran--perfect examples are the 2009 Green Movement protests, and the 2013 presidential election. But you can say I’m knowledgeable enough, with an Iranian cultural background—and I think I’ll continue to be used [on TV], especially now with a new president [Hassan Rouhan]. But whatever you want to call me, Iran is very much the focus of U.S. policy as it relates to Israel--and now Syria. It’s not just the nuclear issue. So I’ll probably be used for that kind of so-called analysis, whether for op-eds or magazine pieces or TV over the next few months, until this resolves itself--especially if we go to war.
And what are your thoughts on war with Syria?
Insanity. I’m a progressive liberal, and I feel the Obama Administration’s Mideast policy in general has been badly handled. How is it that we have problems with a thousand or so children killed, when there were 100,000 killed earlier? Start bombing now? I don’t see an upside. The only upside for us is to stop trying to impose our will throughout the world as the world’s greatest superpower, even though we like to think we have a certain moral standing. But the solution is not to drop bombs, rather, get the warring factions together.
How do you do that?
One way is to send in the Army and force them to talk to each other—but that’s not an option in this case because we don’t even know who they are, and we are loath to commit troops to maintain the peace anywhere. But if you really wanted to stop the killing, that's what you have to do, we just don't want to admit it. The other is not to set preconditions, like Assad has to go. Surely you try to get a negotiated settlement where war and the killing stops, and then get to Assad and his departure, which is inevitable anyway. But to do that you have to involve the Russians and the Iranians—but what are we going to do on our own? You always talk to your enemies, and it’s pretty clear that it’s in most people’s interest for the war to stop: It’s bleeding money from Iran to support Syria, it doesn’t benefit the Russians or us, and from a humanity standpoint it doesn’t benefit the human people dying there every day.
But I still feel our policy in the region is schizophrenic. Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia—all those countries have serious human rights issues. One positive I might say was Libya—drawing the line there and getting the allies and the U.N. together: Qaddafi was perhaps certifiably insane and the people wanted him out. But other opportunities or crises, like with Iran, have been missed or badly handled by this administration.
Most presidents are remembered by domestic issues. We may be more concerned with foreign policy in the big cities, but the average American is more concerned with health care, education, financial issues. That’s one reason why there isn’t much support on Syria. It doesn’t affect us. It’s not a situation of our embassy being overrun, American hostages being taken—outside of a few reporters who've been taken by both sides. There’s no real sense of American credibility being at stake. With so many problems in America, the thinking might be, Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars on another war that doesn’t affect us, when we still have problems with heath care, jobs, and people going out of business? I don’t know what percentage of time is taken up by foreign policy at the White House, but I imagine some people certainly feel that it’s taking priority over our own problems.
Is it the same as Iraq?
There were soldiers on the ground in Iraq, for one thing, and we're not talking about that at this point. But any time you travel, at any American airport you see people coming back from war--and that does affect Americans. I’m not sure they understand getting deeply involved in another crisis, which might lead to soldiers going to war.
But the situation in Syria really is horrible.
Yes. Two years with 100,000 deaths that not many people care about. I mean, of course they care, but thousands of people are dying every day from war, disease, malnutrition, everywhere in the world, and it’s not possible for Americans or anyone else to care about every human life. But indeed, the Syrian civil war is a horrible one.
Does your new book go into any of this?
The new book is a little bit of a departure. The first book introduced Iran and Iranian culture and tried to made sense of who the people are for those who don’t know. It was social and cultural, and a little political.
The second was much more political and tried to give an understanding of the political system, “the Ayatollahs’ democracy,” as I called it. It was written right around the Green Movement and uprising, which predated the Arab Spring protests a couple years later, and was as such obviously geared less to a wider general audience.
The third book is more of a memoir: I spent almost a year in Iran in 2011. I never lived in Iran growing up, or went to school there, so I rented an apartment in Tehran and I suppose tried to get a sense of what it is to actually be an Iranian. I was someone who knew the culture but hadn’t been immersed in it, and this was a very interesting and sensitive time.
It was during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency.
Yes, when someone who was an “aggressive president,” to be polite, was calling for fierce resolve against Israel and the West. So I lived there as an American who is also Iranian.
Does it go into the political climate?
It‘s a very personal book. I talk about my family, certain Iranian customs and culture. Some aspects of life there were very frustrating: Like anyone else, for me it was very different to go there either as a reporter or tourist for a few weeks and have a very good time—that wasn’t at all scary—than to have to live in Tehran under a repressive government and even culture. There were some very frustrating moments, but overall I consider it a great experience.
What did you get out of it?
To go there in my fifties and spend a year there waking up every day and going through what every Iranian does gave me an understanding of Iran that I couldn’t get from just a couple weeks at a time. Of course, I have family there, and my American passport gave me an escape route that made a big psychological difference. But I didn’t make that an overriding issue, that “this is not so bad because I can always get out.” I always looked at it like, what if I couldn’t get out?
What did it feel like, being in your home country, for the first time at length, and as an American?
As anyone else who feels somewhat rootless! If you’re rootless, where exactly is home? New York is my home, of course, but not in the way it is for you, perhaps. I didn’t grow up playing stickball in the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. I had a different upbringing from both my Iranian and American contemporaries. I grew up in different countries because my father was a diplomat, and I never had the experiences of or attachments to “the old neighborhood in Brooklyn," for example--whether here or in Iran. So it was an interesting concept for me to explore.
I was supposedly going to a place where I have roots, having been born in that land and air and environment, yet at times I felt a connection and at times no connection at all. It was like being somebody who was born in New York and after the first eight months left, and then came back 30 years later for a week and another week and then said well, “I’m moving to New York.”
You worked in the music business before all this. Before that, though, did you have any background in Iranian studies?
Some people assume I have a Ph.D. and am an academic because they see me on TV or read something of mine. But I never studied foreign relations, and have no advanced degrees. What I try to do in my writing is just expose what I see, hear and feel. My articles are generally observational, or analytical when I do op-ed pieces. But they’re not based on theory, or academic or religious analysis. The way I see it, I use my own so-called common sense--if I have any!--and at the end of the day, like all journalists, I try to get to the truth--and the truth is uncomfortable for a lot of people who are ideological.
How do your observations go over?
I sometimes get attacked from both the right and left wings, but my response is always, “This is the truth as I see it,” and I try not to let my own ideology color what I say--as it always will to some degree. But I still try to get to the truth.
Speaking of the truth, the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was reported to have tweeted “A Blessed Rosh Hashanah”! Was it him?
The foreign minister, Javad Zarif, wished Jews “Happy Rosh Hashanah.” But if the president did, what’s the significance? Is it news? Do you want it to be news? If you’re looking deeper for the truth, a lot of Americans might not know that there is a Jewish community in Iran, that former President Mohammad Khatami visited a synagogue, that there isn’t this overarching antisemitism in Iran. The previous president may have said antisemitic things, but not all Iranians think like that.
A member of parliament is Jewish, so it’s not beyond belief that the president tweeted a Rosh Hashanah greeting. It’s not news except that people in Iran are generally believed to be antisemitic and enemies of Israel, so why wish Jews a happy new year? It’s not as simple as that, but the truth is easy to get to—and it’s important to get to it because we’re considering going to war with Syria, and that involves Iran, too.
I think we need to learn about a country we’re going to war with, one that not everybody has a chance to visit. There’s a big difference between the Shiites and Sunnis in Islam for example, and before we invaded Iraq not many people knew the difference.
It’s good for people to know that stuff, if we’re going to start or get involved in a war. The whole thing in Syria, if we get beyond a couple surgical strikes, all Americans should know the makeup of Syria--what the rebels are fighting for: an Islamic country? Democracy? To behead people? Are there good guys and bad guys? Whose side are we on?
All that is good to know before we get involved in a war, but not everybody has time to figure it all out. So we rely on the president and congressmen, but most of our congressmen don’t even know. I bet some of them don’t even know where Syria is on the map! But some of their constituents do or care—and that’s why they’re being flooded with emails and phone calls.
What about future projects?
I got to get going on my next book! I’ll do publicity for my new book, and some speaking engagements, which I’ve been doing over the years. Beyond that, I do work with NBC News as a contributor; appearing and advising on some of their shows, and hopefully that will continue, too.
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