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Hooman Majd, Considering The Iranian 'Paradox'

When President Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke at the UN this week, his translator was Hooman Majd. But Majd isn't a professional translator. He's a writer, and his new book is called The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.

42:32

Other segments from the episode on September 25, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 25, 2008: Interview with Hoomahn Majd; Review of the film "It happened in Brooklyn."

Transcript

DATE September 25, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Hoomahn Majd, author of "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ,"
on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The often fiery speech that the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
delivered Tuesday at the UN General Assembly was translated into English in a
modulated voice that belongs to my guest, Hoomahn Majd. In a new article in
Salon, Majd says there were times during the speech, a blend of sermon and
anti-Zionist rage, when it was hard to keep a straight face. Although Majd
translates for Ahmadinejad at the UN, he isn't a professional translator.
He's an author and journalist who has been critical of the Iranian president.

Majd was born in Tehran in 1957, grew up in America, and was educated here and
in England; but he's very well connected in Iran. His father was a diplomat
under the shah. His grandfather was an ayatollah. Majd is a dual citizen of
the US and Iran. He's written a new book called "The Ayatollah Begs To
Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran." It's based on his recent travels through
the country. Here's Majd Tuesday at the UN translating for Ahmadinejad.

(Soundbite of President Ahmadinejad's speech before the United Nations)

Mr. HOOMAHN MAJD: American empire in the world is reaching the end of its
road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders.
Today the thought of hegemony quickly becomes a demerit. And now a few words
with the expansionist governments ruling global relations. Be aware that
living with obedience to God and carrying out his orders, compassion for
people and striving for the fulfillment of justice is to your advantage, too.
I invite you to return to the path of God, the prophets and to the path of the
people of the world and to the truth and justice. The only route to salvation
is a divine, straight path. Otherwise God's hands of power will emerge from
the sleeve of the oppressed nations and will make your life difficult and will
put an end to your hegemony.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Hoomahn Majd, welcome to FRESH AIR. So that's your voice
translating...

Mr. MAJD: That's...

GROSS: ...Ahmadinejad.

Mr. MAJD: Yes. Yes, rather embarrassingly so, yes.

GROSS: That is a lot of pressure to be under, translating...

Mr. MAJD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Ahmadinejad

Mr. MAJD: Yes.

GROSS: Can you translate the meaning of what you think he's saying when he
invites us to return to the word of God? Is he inviting us to become Muslims?

Mr. MAJD: I don't think so. I think he's inviting us to be more religious,
which, I guess he's not aware that the current administration of the United
States is quite religious. Or he is aware, but thinks they should be more
religious. Or at least he doesn't believe that they follow the divine
religion as he would like them to follow it.

GROSS: Well, say you thought that he was unaware that President Bush is
religious. Is that the kind of thing you would tell President Ahmadinejad
before he delivered the speech?

Mr. MAJD: Is that something I would tell him?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAJD: I think--in the few instances where I've seen him, he's
actually--and talked to him--he's actually been quite--he seems quite informed
and does seem quite aware of the political situation in the United States.
And he does read a lot and he does understand things. But I think that he
basically plays to his domestic audience and to a world audience that
understand him a little bit better than we do. And so he won't allude to
things that he thinks don't work for his domestic audience. He likes to say
that the United States, for example, is not religious, is not following
Christianity, and he always says that Christianity and Islam and Judaism are
all the same in the way that, you know, they're all divine religions. They're
Abrahamic faiths and so on and so forth. But he likes to say that the
actions--that Bush's actions, for example--are not in keeping with the
Christian faith. And, I mean, George Bush would obviously disagree, but
that's the position that he likes to take.

GROSS: Do you see a copy of Ahmadinejad's speech in advance?

Mr. MAJD: Oh, yes.

GROSS: So you could have the translation pretty well prepared, but does he do
any ad libbing within that?

Mr. MAJD: He doesn't, no. He doesn't. His ad libbing is done on--you know,
by pencil on the plane flight from Tehran. The way it works is he does--he
writes his speech usually like a day or two in advance and then has it printed
up for him, sits on his flight from Tehran to here and makes some notes, takes
a few things out, adds some things, and then it arrives here at the Iranian
mission to the United Nations. And what I do is I go there and we look at it
and they have an English translation already made up in Tehran, which is
usually not very good.

GROSS: Give us an example of what the English translation from Tehran is
compared to how you translated it.

Mr. MAJD: Gosh, I wish I'd brought a copy of the original with me. I'm
trying to remember. There's all kinds of, you know, little mistakes, using
the wrong word, the wrong verb, so on and so forth. Stuff like that, which
are not horrific but they're just mistakes that we have to correct. And then,
you know, there are certain kinds of expressions, like, you know, the Zionist
regimes. I've tried in the past to kind of like say, `Well, that doesn't
really work with an American audience,' but it doesn't--I mean, they don't
care. They want those terms translated exactly the way he says them. So, you
know, you leave those in.

But basically, in terms of correcting the translation that comes from Iran,
it's usually just, you know, bad English. In some cases they actually get the
whole context of what he's saying wrong and, you know, sometimes it takes as
long as 10 hours to re-translate the speech with the Iranian, you know, deputy
ambassador or ambassador and, you know, some people from Ahmadinejad's office.
And then there's, you know, phone calls back and forth to his hotel or
whatever. You know, `Is this what you really mean? Is this what he's saying?
Is this what he's saying here? Is this exactly what he--well, the English is
wrong, so let's correct the English and try to make it as accurate as
possible.'

So I saw the speech on Monday morning, and we finished the official
translation, I guess, by around 10:00 at night. And he did not--last year he
ad libbed just a couple of lines, which throws one off completely when you're
sitting there translating because I don't expect him to do that. And, you
know, all the raised eyebrows and, you know, frowns and stuff like that are
reserved for when we're actually translating the speech. And all the like,
`Oh my God, I can't believe he's going to say that.' But once you're actually
at the UN and translating, it's just, you know, I don't think about it at that
point.

GROSS: So do you feel like at all complicit when you're translating this?

Mr. MAJD: I don't feel...

GROSS: When you're his like public voice because you're the translator?

Mr. MAJD: Right. I guess so. I mean, I've made it--I do it for
journalistic reasons, first of all. That's how it started out. I've done it
for journalistic reasons. I've always--the condition under which I've agreed
to translate for Ahmadinejad has been that I'm allowed to write about it. And
I have written about it. I've written about being his translator in the past,
and they're OK with that. And so I don't feel complicit particularly. I
mean, last year they asked me to translate at Columbia and I turned that down,
and they've asked me to translate it on other occasions...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. MAJD: ...and I've turned that down. I've felt I could rationalize
translating at the UN because I am an Iranian citizen as well as an American
citizen, and as an Iranian citizen I'm translating Iran's speech to the UN.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAJD: I don't really view it as his speech--although it is his speech, I
don't--I view it as the position of the Iranian government at that point
because I think that--whether I agree with it or not, I view it as the Iranian
government's position at that point. And so that particular speech, as
offensive as it may sound to many Americans, or to many Westerners, actually
tends to be one of his less inflammatory speeches, or less inflammatory. He
did, you know, call Israel a cesspool last night, which was like, you know,
certainly offensive to Israelis and probably to many other people. But he
didn't deny the Holocaust in this speech. He didn't threaten to wipe Israel
off the map in this speech, because those are not the official positions of
the Iranian government. And he quite honestly would probably not be allowed
to make that kind of speech.

GROSS: So you didn't translate for him at Columbia because it wasn't an
official...

Mr. MAJD: Exactly.

GROSS: ...expression of the government policy like his speeches to the UN?

Mr. MAJD: Yeah, I find if I'm just translating at the UN, I'm neutral, as it
were. I'm certainly not--I mean, if anybody reads my book, I'm certainly not
a fan of Ahmadinejad and I am a fan of former President Khatami. And I think
the Ahmadinejad people know that. But I think translating at the UN is a
somewhat neutral thing, despite what it sounds like. I mean, there are
moments that are uncomfortable, I don't deny that.

GROSS: What is the most controversial thing that Ahmadinejad has said that
you've had to translate?

Mr. MAJD: Well, I would say this year, probably more than any other year,
the most controversial thing is his, you know, anti-Zionist, or anti--I mean,
some would say anti-Semitic part of his speech, which I thought was just
horrific, the stuff about the Zionist conspiracy--which has not only been
discredited, but is just, you know, irrelevant to Iran's problems in the world
right now.

I mean, controversial, it's hard to say. I mean, as far as the--I mean, many
of the things he says make a lot of sense to the Iranian public. When he
talks about the great bullying powers--well, American is viewed as a bullying
power, and certain Western countries are viewed as being bullying powers.
Those things are not controversial. When he talks about Iran's nuclear
rights, those are not controversial at all in Iran, and I understand it from
the perspective of an Iranian, that what he's saying actually makes a lot of
sense for Iranians. Why should the United States, which has atomic weapons,
thousands upon thousands, has actually used them, why should they be the ones
to tell us not to even have a peaceful program? I mean, things like that make
a lot of sense to the Iranians. This idea that America, you know, shoves
around the rest of the world because they feel like it and they can. Anyway,
he says those days are over.

And when he says American empire is at an end, what he means to say is that,
you know, we're not going to take it anymore. `We're mad as well and we're
not going to take it anymore,' is basically what's he's saying, and that's
appealing to Iranians, you know, a developing country or a third-world
country, if you want, that has been a pawn of the great powers for the last
few hundred years, this sense that they cannot be a pawn, or don't have to be
subservient to the great powers, is exhilarating for many.

GROSS: Were you translating when Ahmadinejad said that Israel must be wiped
off the face of the map?

Mr. MAJD: Oh, no, no. He said that in Iran, early in his presidency, and he
actually didn't say "must be wiped off the face of the map." He said, Israel
will--I mean, the exact translation was, "Israel will vanish from the pages of
time," which was--he was quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the
revolution. I don't think at the time he said it he thought it was going to
be a very controversial thing. If I'm not mistaken, I think it was The New
York Times that wrote that translation. Once it became the translation, I
think he saw that that--I mean, it became a political decision in my mind,
because I even asked some Iranian authorities, `Why don't they--why doesn't
the Iranian government issue a statement saying that the correct translation
is this, which is "Israel will vanish from the pages of time," which is a far
softer thing to say than "Israel must be wiped off the map." And I think--I
couldn't get a straight answer, but I thought--my impression was the reason
why they don't want to do it is because that actually resonated quite well in
the third world, particularly the Muslim third world, and he sort of became
this hero on the Arab street, for want of a better word, for being one of the
few Muslim leaders who stands up to Israel.

GROSS: Well, now Ahmadinejad is saying--and you translated this this
week--that what he means about, you know, Israel vanishing or being wiped off
the map is that there should be an election in which all the Palestinians in
Gaza and the West Bank, as well as returned refugees, participate along with
Israelis and vote on a new government, and since that equation would mean a
Palestinian majority, it would be a Palestinian government.

Mr. MAJD: Yes.

GROSS: Do you think that's...

Mr. MAJD: That's been the position of the Iranian government since, gosh, I
mean, even before the Khatami days. The Iranian government's foreign policy
is set by the supreme leader, despite what President Ahmadinejad would like
the impression to be. It is set by the supreme leader. And the foreign
policy of Iran vis-a-vis Israel has always been exactly that. This is not
something new. President Khatami said this to me in an interview I did with
him for GQ five years ago for exactly the same thing. It's always been Iran's
position that the Palestinian people should choose--now, whether--I mean, what
you say is absolutely correct, because they also know that that means that
there would no longer be an Israel if that were the case. If there were a
referendum which includes--and I actually asked this question, `Do you mean
Palestinians who are currently living in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza?'
And they'd say, `Oh, no, no, no. All Palestinians.' So, in other words, you
know, the Palestinian diaspora gets to vote as well. So obviously that just
skews it so far to the Palestinian side that that means that there would be a
Palestinian-Muslim state there.

They know that, but it does sound to them good to their audience. It's like,
well, how logical is that? This land belonged to the Palestinians. Shouldn't
the Palestinians--including all the Jews who are Palestinians as well, and
they always are very keen to say that, the Jews who are Palestinians as
well--they should all vote and, you know, whatever they decide is good enough
for Iran.

GROSS: My guest is Hoomahn Majd. He was the English translator for the
Iranian president's UN speech Tuesday. Majd's new book is called "The
Ayatollah Begs To Differ." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hoomahn Majd. He's an
Iranian-American writer, author of the new book "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ:
The Paradox of Modern Iran." And he has also translated Ahmadinejad's speeches
before United Nations' General Assembly.

In your book, you say that you think the American government has actually
given President Ahmadinejad more power than he really has because a lot of the
power's really in the hands of the supreme religious leaders who is the
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What are some of the powers that the supreme
religious leader has that the president does not?

Mr. MAJD: Well, the supreme leader officially is commander in chief of the
military, and that's all branches of the military, including the Revolutionary
Guards. They all report to him directly, not to the presidency. He also has
direct power in foreign policy. In other words, he sets the foreign policy.
Supreme leader sets the foreign policy. The president executes foreign
policy, but does not set foreign policy. But basically, what you can say is
he's not just the supreme religious leader. He is the supreme leader, and
they don't call him supreme for nothing. He is supreme. He is the ultimate
authority in Iran. His title is...(foreign language spoken)...which is
"leader of the revolution, the Islamic revolution," which makes him actually
even a bigger authority than a leader of the Islamic republic. So he has
complete authority over everything, if he wants to exercise that authority.
He doesn't, as--you know, in practice, he doesn't. When it comes to the
economy, unless things get really bad, you know, he might intervene. But
basically he allows the president a certain latitude in managing the affairs
of the country. But when it comes to big decisions, there's no question, it's
undoubtedly the supreme leader's decision.

GROSS: So, on the one hand, the supreme leader has the real power, not the
president. But on the other hand, the the supreme leader doesn't leave Iran
and he also doesn't talk with people who aren't Muslim, so we couldn't really
negotiate with the supreme leader.

Mr. MAJD: Well, he does talk to people who aren't Muslim--on rare occasions.
For example, former President Putin, when he visited Iran was granted an
audience with supreme leader, which is considered a great honor. Evo
Morales--when I was in Tehran a couple of weeks ago, Evo Morales of Bolivia
was in Tehran on a state visit, and one has to wonder why Bolivia--Russia's to
Iran is actually moving its sole Middle Eastern embassy from Cairo to Tehran,
but Evo Morales was also granted an audience with supreme leader. So he does
talk to non-Muslims, but non-Muslim allies.

He doesn't negotiate, no. He doesn't negotiate. And we would never negotiate
with supreme leader. That would not be his style. We would negotiate with
whomever the supreme leader designates to negotiate. So, if we were--if the
United States were to decide it wanted to engage in negotiations with the
Iranian government, it's actually rather easy. They make the efforts through
either an intermediary, like the British government, which has an embassy in
Iran, and whomever they end up talking to, one can be assured is the person
that the supreme leader has designated as the person to negotiate basically on
behalf of Iran.

In the case of the British hostages who were taken, the British sailors who
were taken hostage by the Iranians--or, arrested, let's say--by the Iranians
in the Persian Gulf a little over a year ago, it was Ali Larijani, who is now
the speaker of Parliament and was a chief nuclear negotiator at the time, who
was designated the person to negotiate with the British government--not
Ahmadinejad, for example. That just gives you an example of how the supreme
leader acts.

GROSS: You write in your book, "When I drive by the nuclear facility in
Natanz, I can't help but think that this is probably the US Air Force's number
one bombing target should the nuclear confrontation between Iran and the US
spiral out of control." How much do you worry about the US or Israel attacking
Iran?

Mr. MAJD: I think I worry more than most people in Iran do, but I
think--Iran is--I mean, people in Iran do think there's a possibility. I
personally think that there's more of a possibility than we'd like to admit,
because I cannot see how Iran is ever going to give up their nuclear program,
whether it's peaceful or not. I mean, I don't--I believe at the current time,
right now it is peaceful. They do want nuclear power plants. I mean, I was
in Tehran again, as I said, two weeks ago, and there are long, long lines at
gas stations. I mean, four or 500 cars lining up to get gas. There's gas
rationing. Electricity goes out two hours a day. Iranians are being
told--and this is partially true--that they don't have the energy needs--even
though they're one of the world's biggest exporters of oil, that they cannot
provide energy for their own people. And nuclear energy is clean,
nonpolluting and efficient, and they should have it. And I think that that
works for Iranians.

But I don't think that the US is also going to--or at least Israel--is going
to tolerate another nuclear power in the Middle East. So I think the danger
is there. I think if there is a will on the side of the United States and a
will on the Iranian side to get into some kind of discussion that would allow
for Iran to have some fuel enrichment on its territory, but heavily, heavily
monitored so that it could not be diverted, that fuel could not be diverted to
a weapons program, that that's the only solution. Otherwise I do think that
there's going to be an attack, yes.

GROSS: What do you think the odds of negotiation are?

Mr. MAJD: I think the odds are not very good right now. And then of course,
that said, it'll also depend on whether the next president of the United
States, whomever it is, would want to negotiate to negotiate with Ahmadinejad,
if indeed Ahmadinejad is the person who is designated to negotiate, and I
think he will be, because as president he will be designated to be the person
to negotiate with the US.

GROSS: Hoomahn Majd will be back in the second half of the show. His new
book is called "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ." I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Hoomahn Majd. He
translated for the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN Tuesday,
but although he's also translated UN speeches by the former Iran president
Mohammad Khatami, translating is a sideline. Majd is an author and journalist
who's been critical of Ahmadinejad. Majd was born in Tehran, but spent most
of his childhood in the US. He's a dual citizen. His new book is called "The
Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran."

Even though you grew up in the United States and were schooled in the United
States and England, you're very well connected in Iran. Tell us a little bit
about your family tree.

Mr. MAJD: It's a little complex. I'm actually related to Khatami, although
not by blood. Khatami's mother is the aunt of most of my cousins in Iran,
because a brother and a sister from the Majd family married a brother and
sister from the...(unintelligible)...family, and all those children are
cousins, obviously, all the kids from both those marriages. And they happen
to be my cousins, too, on my father's side. So I am related to him, not by
blood, but by marriage. And I know that's one reason why there's a certain
amount of trust, I guess, in me, by the Khatami side. And I think having
seen--the Iranian authorities in general, having seen my relationship with
Khatami and, you know, what I've done for Khatami or, you know, translating or
being an adviser, they have a certain amount of trust in me that I'm not an
anti-regime Iranian, because a lot of Iranian-Americans are anti-regime. So
that's how the whole translation thing started, and the connection to
government is really through Khatami more. But, however, again, because I
have been around Ahmadinejad and his advisers, I also have a connection to
them.

GROSS: And your father and your grandfather were both diplomats in the shah
of Iran's government.

Mr. MAJD: Correct.

GROSS: But you also have a grandfather who was a very highly placed
ayatollah, and in fact a lot of the ayatollahs currently in power studied with
your grandfather?

Mr. MAJD: Yes, that's also correct, yes. My grandfather on my mother's side
was an eminent ayatollah who died well before the revolution and...

GROSS: So you have blood on both sides there, on the shah side and on the
revolution side?

Mr. MAJD: Yeah, although my grandfather wasn't really a revolutionary
because there was no revolution at the time. He died in 1974. The revolution
was 1979--well, it started in 1978. So he didn't live to see--my ayatollah
grandfather did not live to see the revolution. But many of his students
participated in the revolution, yes, indeed. And, you know, he himself, was
very anti Reza Shah, who was the shah's father, which I explain in the book
about, you know, the shah's father was a secularist who forced mullahs to
remove their turbans and forced women to take the chador off and they couldn't
wear a head scarf and stuff, so on and so forth. So he was against that as a
religious figure. But he wasn't really political. He wasn't known as a
political ayatollah, like Khomeini was always known as a political ayatollah.

GROSS: But has his stature among ayatollahs helped you develop a relationship
with ayatollahs, including the supreme leader of Iran?

Mr. MAJD: No question about it. I don't have a relationship with the
supreme leader. The supreme leader basically doesn't have a relationship with
anybody except for the very, very small handful of aides...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAJD: ...that work in his office, and generally speaking the president
of Iran and probably the speaker of Parliament. Very, very few people get to
see the supreme leader. But yes, it has helped me. Being the grandson of an
ayatollah has definitely helped me with many of the other clerics, and it
gives you a certain status, although it doesn't grant you immunity. There are
plenty of sons and grandsons of ayatollahs who have been in prison in Iran.
It does not grant you immunity, but it gives you a certain status, yes.

GROSS: You must feel in a very difficult position right now. You have joint
citizenship in the United States and Iran. You grew up in America and really
understand the country here, although you did spend some time in Iran when you
were growing up, which helps explain why you speak Farsi. You describe
yourself as secular; Iran is a very religious country. You say that you don't
oppose the government in Iran?

Mr. MAJD: Yes, I'm not an opponent of the regime.

GROSS: What are the difficulties you're feeling politically and emotionally
now watching American and Iran be, you know, seemingly on the verge of
confrontation?

Mr. MAJD: Well, it's very disturbing to someone like me, mainly because I
think it's so unnecessary, more than anything else. I think the United States
and Iran have so many more common interests that they have differences that
it's almost preposterous as an Iranian to be sitting here watching this crisis
descend into, you know, potential conflict, potential military conflict. I
think--and this true of almost any American--not Iranian-American, American
who's gone to Iran in the last couple of years, you know, the first thing they
say is `Gee, this is, you know, it's not what we thought it was. People here
are so nice and they all love Americans.' And that's pretty much true, you
know, across the board.

And in terms of common interests in the Middle East, I mean, there's no
question there are common interests--Afghanistan, Iraq, the greater Middle
East. The biggest area of contention is Israel, but even that I don't think
is unworkable in terms of Iran and the United States. Iran really has no
vested interest in Israel and Palestine, long-term interest. But it needs to
be persuaded, let's say, that it doesn't need to be involved in the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and I think it can be persuaded that way. But
it also needs to get something in return, which America so far has been
unwilling to give. So yeah, it's a very uncomfortable position. The idea
that we would be bombing Tehran, for example, is extremely distressing.

GROSS: Let me ask you. You've said you're not an opponent of the Iranian
regime, and a lot of our listeners will be wondering, why not?

Mr. MAJD: Well, because the regime itself--I mean, I may be an opponent of
some of the policies of the regime, which I am, but I'm not for a regime
change, when I say I'm not an opponent of the regime. If the regime is to
evolve, and I think it's going to evolve rather than change drastically, it'll
happen organically in Iran, and I don't believe that, you know, there should
be a coup d'etat, and I don't believe there should be military action to
unseat the regime. The regime has many good things, and it has a number of
flaws. The current regime there, the regime of President Ahmadinejad, I'm
very much against. I'm very much against many of his policies.

GROSS: My guest is Hoomahn Majd. He was the English translator for the
Iranian president's UN speech Tuesday. His new book is called "The Ayatollah
Begs To Differ." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hoomahn Majd. He's an
Iranian-American writer, author of the new book "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ:
The Paradox of Modern Iran."

In your book "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ," you try to explain to Americans
what day-to-day life in Iran is really like and what the Iranian people are
really like, and one of the things you focus on is the difference between
public and private life, and it sounds like in private life, behind closed
doors, anything goes. You write about, you know, alcohol, marijuana commonly
at parties, the kind of thing you'd not see on the street. Can you talk about
that divide between public and private life in Iran?

Mr. MAJD: Sure. I mean, there's always been that divide. In the latter
years of the shah's regime, private life spilled over into public, which is
actually one of the reasons some people will tell you inside Iran that there
was a revolution in the first place, because some of that private life
spilling over into the public sphere was so offensive to the people of Iran
who are very religious--and there's still a majority of the people who are
very religious--that they couldn't tolerate. They viewed Iran as becoming a
decadent and corrupt society. But there's always been an understanding that
there's a private life, and there's always been this paradox that even
religious people that I know, for example, will drink. They will drink, but
they will also fast during Ramadan, and they will pray. But they will have
the occasional beer or whisky. But that's viewed as being, you know, well,
that's private. It's not something--they would never drink in public, for
example, even if there were bars in Iran, which there aren't.

But because the Islamic system has created this society where there is
basically very little public entertainment, it all happens in the home now,
and the government basically turns a blind eye to it. Occasionally there's
the occasional raid or the occasional crackdown, for example, on satellite
dishes or something like that. But, you know, they pop back up the next day.
If the government comes 'round to an apartment building complex and removes
the satellite dishes, you know, literally within 24 hours they're all back up
again.

GROSS: What do you think is the Iranian government's rationale for having
this enforced morality in public life while it's more of anything goes in
private life? If everybody knows this is happening in private life, why go
through the effort of cracking down on public life like that? Because we're
talking about like dress codes and things like that.

Mr. MAJD: Indeed, yes, yes. I think it's realism. I think the Iranian
government is very realistic. It knows that this has always been the case in
Iran. Society has always operated that way, and the reason to crack down in
public is because they are still people who believe that certain things
shouldn't be done in public. And actually they may even be a majority. You
know, homosexuality's a good example. Homosexuality is not tolerated
publicly, but privately it is. You know, two men living together are not
going to be harassed by the police. If they walk down the street, even hand
in hand, because that's not viewed as a homosexual behavior, they probably
won't be harassed, but if they start kissing in the street they will be
harassed, because that's something the culture says is not right.

And then, you know, it goes to Islamic culture as well, where a woman has to
be modest, has to have the appearance of chastity and so on and so forth.
That goes with the scarf and the covering of the skin, and that's just
something that says, well, these are the mores of society; despite what people
may do in their own homes, this is the imagine a society likes to see. A man
does not want to be offended, a woman does not want to be offended when
they're on the street. Even though that that may not even be true in certain
parts of Tehran, for example, it's just something that you can't say, `Well,
in north Tehran we'll let the women not wear head scarfs, because no one's
going to be offended, but we won't in south Tehran because they will be
offended.' And that I know for a fact, people in south Tehran would be
offended if a woman walked down the street without a head scarf.

I think that's true to a certain degree in America. Some American women may
want to lie on the beach topless, for example, as they're able to do in
France. The fact that they don't do it here doesn't mean that they're, you
know, being hypocritical. It means that society in America doesn't really
accept that, even though this is a society that is, you know, quite sexually
liberated.

GROSS: You didn't translate Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University.

Mr. MAJD: No.

GROSS: But he said, `In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country.
We don't have that in our country. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I
don't know who's told you that we have it.' And these comments were met with
boos and laughter. What do you think he meant by that?

Mr. MAJD: Well, this is exactly what one of his aides said to me immediately
after that speech was that, `Oh, they misunderstood. They completely
misunderstood.' He was referring to the fact that when he said the word
"phenomenon"--`we don't have that phenomenon in Iran'--that's what he really
meant. He meant that there's no gay rights in Iran. There's no gay rights
movement. There's no gay activism in Iran. There is no public expression of
gay rights in Iran.

GROSS: So the problem in his mind was the gay rights movement?

Mr. MAJD: Well, the problem is a public gay presence in the political and
social scene, gay activism.

GROSS: So in other words, `We don't have that problem because we don't allow
it to happen, therefore there's no problem'?

Mr. MAJD: Well, the government doesn't have to not allow it. It just isn't
going to happen.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MAJD: I mean, you know, if somebody walks down the street holding up a
gay rights banner, the government doesn't have to beat them up, the people
will. I mean, that's unfortunate, but it's true. As it was true in America
in, you know, the 1950s. So, you know, as Khatami said when we were at
Harvard University a couple of years ago, he was giving a speech and he was
asked about liberal democracy vs. Islamic democracy, and he said, `Look, you
know, Iran is not a liberal democracy and is not going to be one any time
soon.' And he gave the example. He said, you know, when it comes to gay
rights, this is not a question of the government. This is a question of the
culture. The culture is not accepting of that. And I think that's true. I'm
not saying it's right, but it's true. And perhaps 20 years from now, perhaps
40 years from now, it'll be completely different, but right now everybody
knows there's gays in Iran. There's, you know, quite an active gay culture in
Iran, subculture and underground. But, you know, publicly? No, the culture
doesn't accept that.

GROSS: What do you think now when you hear crowds chanting in Iran "death to
Israel" or "death to America"?

Mr. MAJD: Well, first of all, doesn't happen very often, and the people who
do chant it, they don't do it with a lot of enthusiasm. And it's kind of a
government line. I mean, people who go to, like, for example, Tehran Friday
prayers, tend to be the most loyal of the Islamic regime's citizens, and they
tend to be the people who are the most conservative and who would just
basically blindly follow whatever the government tells them to do. But there
isn't a great amount of enthusiasm for it. And I think, you know, if you ask
them, when you do ask them, they say, `Well, death to American doesn't mean we
want America to die. It means, you know, death to that hegemonic system. You
know, death to the government. Death to the way that they treat us,' for
example. And I think they're being sincere when they say that, and I think
that, you know, I mean, Khatami basically forbade "death to America" anywhere
he was present when he was president of Iran. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad has
not done the same thing.

But in general, it's not the way it used to be in terms of like, oh, there's a
parade every week or there's a march or the protest every week with "death to
America." I mean, you know, there's a British Embassy in Iran, and if Britain
does something that Iranians don't like, you know, people gather around
outside the British Embassy and say, "death to Britain." So, you know, "death
to" in Farsi is not to be taken literally.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. MAJD: (Farsi spoken)...does not mean, literally, `We want it to die or
be killed,' whatever that entity is, human or otherwise.

GROSS: What does it mean?

Mr. MAJD: It means "down with." I mean, that's a better translation. We do
say...(Farsi spoken)...which means "death." But Iranians are good with
hyperbole. The meaning is more "down with."

GROSS: Finally, before becoming a writer, you were--or maybe while starting
as a writer, you were an executive at Island Records and you also worked at
Polydor Records. Tell us some of the records that you had something to do
with.

Mr. MAJD: Well, I guess when I was at Island Records, everything that Island
put out I had to do with because I was executive vice president in charge of,
you know, virtually all areas of the record company except radio promotions.
And, you know, everything that we put out, whether it was U2 or Melissa
Etheridge or The Cranberries, I was very much involved with all those acts and
those records.

GROSS: Which of the records that you helped produce had the biggest life, the
most popularity in Iran?

Mr. MAJD: I would say Bob Marley. Bob Marley's huge in most of the third
world and is obviously huge in Iran as well, and has been. I was involved
with a lot of the reissues and putting together some new records from old
tapes and old recordings. So I guess the association with Bob Marley is
probably most impressive to Iranians--young Iranians, even. Young Iranians
who obviously weren't even born when Bob Marley was around. Bob Marley the
most. But people know U2 very well, too.

GROSS: OK. With Bob Marley, how do you explain the popularity in Iran? Is
it the ganja weed or the beat?

Mr. MAJD: Oh, no, no. The popularity is the revolutionary...

GROSS: The rhetoric?

Mr. MAJD: The revolutionary rhetoric, yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh. OK. Well, Hoomahn Majd, I want to thank you very much for
talking with us.

Mr. MAJD: It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Hoomahn Majd is the author of "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The
Paradox of Modern Iran," and he translate for the Iranian president for his
speeches at the UN.

(Soundbite of "Get Up, Stand Up")

Mr. BOB MARLEY: (Singing) Oh, get up, stand up for
Stand up for your right
Get up stand up
Stand up for your right
Get up stand up
Stand up for your right
Get up stand up
Stand up for your right

I say, rich man don't tell me
Heaven is on the earth
I know you don't know
What life is really worth
It's not all that glitter is gold

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, a DVD of a 1947 Frank Sinatra film leads our critic Lloyd
Schwartz to hear something he never heard before in Sinatra's voice. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Lloyd Scwartz on the DVD release of "It Happened in
Brooklyn"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Lots of people regard Frank Sinatra as the greatest pop singer of all time,
but could he also have been an opera singer? Classical music critic Lloyd
Schwartz wonders and raises the issue in his review of an early Sinatra movie
now on DVD.

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: A bunch of Frank Sinatra movies have just been released
for the first time on DVD. They prove once again what an amazing singer he
was. My special favorite is "It Happened in Brooklyn," a musical comedy from
1947 in which Sinatra stars with comedian Jimmy Durante and leading MGM
operatic soprano, pretty Kathryn Grayson. There's a delightful number in
which Jimmy Durante is trying to help Sinatra get a job demonstrating pop
songs in a music store. His advice is that the song's got to come from the
heart. Sinatra catches on very quickly.

(Soundbite of "It Happened in Brooklyn")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (As Danny Webson Miller) OK, Nick. Stand back.

(Singing) It doesn't have to be witty or smart

Mr. JIMMY DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) Smile

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson, singing) Long as it comes from the heart

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) Keep going

(Soundbite of tapping feet)

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson, singing) It doesn't have to be classic or art

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) Great.

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson, singing) Long as it comes from the heart

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) (Unintelligible)

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson, singing) I'll give them that
I'll give them this
I'll strut away

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) Boy, you can't miss!

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson, singing) Just put a star on my chart

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) They won't need this anymore

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson, singing)
'Cause the song's going to come from the heart

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) Don't work cheap

Mr. DURANTE and Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson and Nick Lombardi, singing in
unison) On opening nights, your name in lights

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi, singing) Why, we won't stop
Till you reach the top

Mr. DURANTE and Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson and Nick Lombardi, singing in
unison) We'll order our meals a la carte

That's expensive!

(Singing in unison) If the song comes the heart

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson) We'll be tremendous

Mr. DURANTE and Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson and Nick Lombardi, singing in
unison) If the song comes from the heart

Mr. DURANTE: (As Nick Lombardi) They'll holler `bravo!'

Mr. DURANTE and Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson and Nick Lombardi, singing in
unison) If the song comes from the heart
Heart

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Of course, Frank Sinatra already knows how to sing in the most
meltingly heartfelt way. The score is mostly by Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein,
and it includes one of Sinatra's loveliest early hits, "Time After Time."

(Soundbite of "Time After Time")

Mr. SINATRA: (As Danny Webson, singing) Time after time
I tell myself that I'm
So lucky to be loving you
So lucky to be
The one you run to see
In the evening
When the day is through

I only know what I know
The passing years will show
You have kept my love so young, so new
And time after time
You'll hear me say that I'm
So lucky to be loving you

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Another number that's particularly dear to my heart is not by
Kahn and Stein, but by Mozart and his best librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. It's
the famous comic duet from "Don Giovanni," "La Ci Darem la Mano." Don Giovanni
is attempting to seduce the peasant girl Zerlina on the day of her wedding to
the hapless Masetto. `There,' Don Giovanni sings, pointing to his palace,
`we'll hold hands. There's where you'll tell me yes, and I'll change your
fortune.' Zerlina is reluctant and cautious. She feels sorry for Masetto, but
even she can't resist the Don's promises.

In "It Happened in Brooklyn," this number takes place in an Italian
restaurant. Grayson is a budding opera singer and Sinatra is trying to get
her to sing for him. But she can't sing a duet alone, and so he joins her.

(Soundbite of "It Happened in Brooklyn" performed in Italian)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Too often, when pop stars cross over into classical music
their attempts to be refined makes them stiff and they lose all the liveliness
they have when they sing their own kind of music. But Sinatra is as
comfortable with Mozart as with Julie Stein. His voice is so rich and warm,
he doesn't need to make it operatic, and he sings with such spontaneity and
seductive intent--the way he sings pop music--he actually gets Grayson to
loosen up and give one of her most delightful and teasing performances.

Of course, his voice wasn't big enough to carry without amplification in a
large opera house, and opera singers are never encouraged to croon. But I
wish more opera singers had Sinatra's uncanny phrasing, musical flexibility
and emotional directness, and I wish he sang more opera.

(Soundbite of "It Happened in Brooklyn" performed in Italian)

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed Frank
Sinatra's performance in "It Happened in Brooklyn," which has been released on
DVD.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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