November 4, 2013
Guest: Hooman Majd
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today is the 34th anniversary of the 1979 storming of the American embassy in Tehran, when Iranian militants took 66 hostages and held most of them more than a year. U.S.-Iranian relations have been contentious ever since, but recent events have stirred hopes for progress. Iranian voters overwhelmingly chose a more moderate president in June, and American and Iranian negotiators are meeting to try and resolve disputes about Iran's nuclear program.
Few people are better positioned to offer insight into U.S.-Iranian relations than our guest, Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd. Though he's lived most of his life in the U.S., he's the grandson of an Iranian ayatollah and related by marriage to a former president of the country. His father is a former Iranian diplomat under the shah. In 2008, Majd was the formal translator for a United Nations speech of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though Majd criticized the government in many of his writings.
Majd has a new book that offers a street-level view of life, culture, politics and political repression in Iran today. It recounts and reflects on the year he spent in Tehran with his American wife and young son, an effort to reconnect with the land of his birth as he began his own family. Hooman Majd's previous books includes "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" and "The Ayatollah's Democracy."
He talked about his new book, "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay," with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well Hooman Majd, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, early in this book you describe a trip to Iran you made with an NBC crew, and this was before you moved there with your wife and son. And I'd like you to tell us how you were treated there, particularly by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. What happened?
HOOMAN MAJD: Well, I was pulled in for questioning by the ministry, actually by what I believe to be Ministry of Intelligence officials at the Ministry of Culture, where they told me in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to work, I was not allowed to accompany NBC, who I worked with as a contributor - and I still do - and basically somewhat threatening in terms of what my position would be with the ministry, the various ministries in Iran related to security and related to what they call Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is the ministry responsible for press and foreign press.
So I left within 24 hours that time, and it happened one or two more times later, but it's not that unusual for people who are in the media to be pulled in for interrogation. But it's very uncomfortable. You know, they go through files and files of stuff. They've translated everything you've ever written. They know everything you've ever said, and they discuss that with you in a somewhat menacing tone.
You know, there's usually a good cop, bad cop. I refer to them as bad cop, worse cop, because neither of them were particularly pleasant.
DAVIES: What was fascinating about this, as you describe is, you know, you're first pulled aside at the airport, and they're saying, Saturday you're to go to the ministry, and you say, well, who do I talk to, and they say well, they know you're coming. And sure enough, you walk in, the receptionist knows exactly who you are. You're ushered into a room. This is not left to chance.
MAJD: No, no, no, not at all. It's not left to chance, and it's actually startling because most Iranians and many others believe that bureaucracies in the developing world can be, you know, labyrinths where things get lost, and, you know, there's no communication and so on and so forth.
But in terms of how Iran treats its security apparatus, they are incredibly well-organized and computerized and know everything, and there's been other - there was one other instance where my passport was actually taken away from me at the airport, and I just imagined that that passport would disappear, would never show up again, even though I was told to go somewhere for another interrogation and have my passport returned to me.
But in fact I didn't have to go to interrogation that time. This was recently, with the new administration in Iran, where they did return my passport to me. It was kind of astonishing to me that they actually knew where it was once it disappeared at the airport.
DAVIES: The guys that you met with in the ministry here, I mean, went over your writings in some detail with you. And what struck me about this, did they know - I mean, surely they must know that just five years earlier, you were translating for the president of Iran in the United Nations.
MAJD: Oh yes, they - I mean they definitely did know that. I think that's - to them wasn't very relevant, for whatever reason. And they also knew that I'd written an article about it, and that was the reason I did it in the first place. I did a cover story for the New York Observer at the time, and clearly they weren't very happy with that article, and subsequent articles.
And I had been very supportive of the Green movement and being related to former President Khatami and visiting him every time I go to Iran. They knew that, and they were, you know, not particularly, you know, happy about that because he is considered a seditionist by some of the hardliners in Iran.
So, I mean, we have to remember that Iran is a place where some of them - you know, the most revolutionary regime insiders have spent time in jail and have been accused of all things, including sedition and treason. So I'm nothing compared to some of those people.
DAVIES: In the time that you spent in Iran with your wife and son, I mean, you weren't arrested, I don't think, but there were these frequent little contacts. Do you want to just describe a couple of them?
MAJD: Yeah, I mean, you know, you'd get - first of all, I know that my cell phone in Iran, because I've had the same cell number for a number of years, I know that's bugged, and they listen in. My emails I'm sure are monitored inside Iran. They have my email address. It's not like they can't snoop on it. They're probably as good as the NSA when it comes to snooping, if not better.
But yeah, I think they were just concerned about what it was I was doing there. They kind of couldn't believe that I would be in Iran with my - I mean, it probably helped that my family was there because that was my excuse, as it were, that I was there to - and it was also a true excuse that I was there to experience life, and for my family to experience life, in Iran.
But they also, you know, as someone who had written for foreign magazines and newspapers and written books, they imagined that there was something else going on, as well, that I was going to write about stuff, and, you know, I'm sure the most paranoid of the people in the Intelligence Ministry probably assumed that I was a spy without any hard evidence. But still, they make that assumption sometimes.
DAVIES: Now you write in the book that the Islamic revolution in Iran's path, that of modernity fused with religion, is unique in the world today. What are some of the ways in which modernity is visible in Iran?
MAJD: Well, I think it's visible immediately, as soon as you land in the airport. I mean, the city of Tehran is a very modern metropolis, and there's an emphasis in the Islamic Republic on science and advancement and technology. We see that with the nuclear issue. So you do see - I mean, there's industry, there's heavy industry, they make everything from cars to refrigerators to electronic goods. So it's a very modern place and very European-looking in many ways.
That emphasis is something that you don't see in other Islamic countries, as much as you do in Iran.
DAVIES: Superhighways streak across the country.
MAJD: Oh yes, yes, yes, yes.
DAVIES: And education and literacy, yeah.
MAJD: Education, literacy, the Internet, highest penetration in the Islamic world, I think - I'm sorry, in the Middle East, anyway. Yeah, superhighways, you know, rest stops that look just like a European superhighway rest stop or rest stops that we have here with fast food and - you know, everything that you would expect in a modern, developed country exists in Iran.
DAVIES: Yeah. You say the city is clean.
MAJD: And it's superbly, yes, maintained, as well as it can be given that it's a city of - sprawling city of 14 million people. I mean, they collect the trash every single day, seven days a week. It's remarkably clean. It's something my wife noticed right away, even though there's heavy, heavy pollution.
DAVIES: What about life in Tehran was hard? What was unpleasant?
MAJD: Well, there's a few things that are unpleasant particularly for foreigners who are not accustomed to life in an Islamic republic like Iran. The dress code is the first thing that comes to mind, certainly for a woman and certainly in the hot summer months, when it's, you know, well over 90 degrees every single day. They have to have their hair covered, and they have to wear a long overcoat of some kind. It can be a very light cotton coat just in the summer that covers their behind and comes down to at least the knees.
My wife was stopped a couple of times for - one time for her overcoat not being long enough, or she was wearing a shirt, a long shirt over a regular shirt. And, you know, it's just uncomfortable to have to always think about what it is you're wearing when you go out. And for men - to a lesser degree for men. Nowadays short sleeves are OK for men. In the early days of the revolution, you couldn't even wear short sleeves.
Shorts are still out. You cannot wear shorts even if it's 105 degrees. And, you know, they can harass young people for certain, you know, wild hairstyles or - whether they're boys or girls. And so thinking about that on a daily basis, and then, you know, for my wife having a child, an infant that she had to lift up and carry sometimes, and he would grab her headscarf, and he would pull it off in the middle of the street, I mean, those are things that are very frustrating about daily life in an Islamic - for a foreigner.
For Iranians who are used to it, they tend to, you know, dismiss that as a minor inconvenience compared to the other things that they're fighting for.
DAVIES: And just on the dress code, they are enforced by - what do they call them, morality squads?
MAJD: Yeah, I mean, it's translated as the morality squad, yeah, it's called (Foreign language spoken), which is the - I guess the Cultural Ministry's Islamic guidance arm, the Islamic guidance police. And yeah, there were about 70,000 cops in Tehran, men and women, who patrol in these, you know, vans, green and white vans, and they park themselves on corners of streets in busy areas and by shopping malls. And they're kind of quite menacing to a foreigner or to someone who doesn't live there.
It seems like Iranians are like - they just would take it with a grain of salt and argue with them if the women were pulled over by other women in chadors and said, you know, your hair is sticking out or something. I saw a number of times women screaming at them, like mind your own business and stuff like that. But sometimes they would get arrested.
DAVIES: When you first went there, you stayed with an old friend, and you write that he had taken to describing other Iranians in Tehran as savages. What did he mean?
DAVIES: What was he talking about?
MAJD: Well, I think for a lot of Iranians of an older generation who remember the old Iran, fondly remember, are nostalgic for an old, simpler Iran, a city which has grown from a population of, you know, under three million at the time of the revolution to perhaps as much as 15 million today, has become impossible to navigate in many ways.
People are hustling for work, hustling for jobs, hustling for money. There's all kind of schemes going around. The economy has been in bad shape - had been in a bad shape for a very long time, it's not just recent because of the sanctions, but the economy has just generally been not very good. People struggle to make a living every day, and they have become less Persian in their character for those Iranians who remember a simpler time.
And a lot of Iranians, not just my friend, describe other Tehranis as, in particular people from Tehran, as being savage compared to what they remember Iranians as being, kind of gentile people who had a, you know, slower pace of life and were nicer to each other and didn't engage in the kind of hustle, dog-eat-dog society that - or live in that kind of society that they associate more with the capitalist West.
DAVIES: What is Internet access like? And is it censored?
MAJD: It is absolutely censored, and there is Internet access for everyone, and a lot of people have high-speed Internet. The speed is throttled by the state. Ever since 2009, the Green movement protest of 2009, the government instituted a ban on anything faster than I think 128K, which is basically a little bit better than dial-up.
So even if you have a fast line, you're still limited in your Internet speed unless you work for a business, and you can get permission to get a faster line installed or not have your Internet throttled. So there's very, very good Internet penetration in Iran, and there's Internet cafes, and there's Wi-Fi everything and everything. The speed is slow, and if you don't have a VPN, a virtual private network where you can get around the censorship, much as in China, almost any site that you want to visit is censored and blocked, and you get this, you know, you try to load that page, and it says this site is not permitted, and it guides you to some Islamic sites.
DAVIES: So how common is it for people to get VPNs and get around the censorship? Is it like Prohibition, where it's just winked at?
MAJD: Yes, yes, it's - clearly it's winked at. It seems like everybody has a VPN, almost everybody that I know, and not even just in the secular or Westernized middle and upper-middle class. You know, a lot of ordinary people living even in South Tehran, among the religious classes, they also have VPNs. It's very, very common, and it's very cheap. And it seems like many of the VPNs are Canadian-based VPNs, the ones that you get in Iran.
And the government every now and then will announce, oh, VPNs are illegal and will find a way to block a certain VPN, and then people get a different VPN. But, you know, Facebook, for example, is blocked in Iran. But the mere fact that there are 17 million Iranian Facebook users inside Iran shows you how many people actually have VPNs and have access to the wide open Internet.
DAVIES: Do the clerics have Facebook pages?
MAJD: Not to my - I mean, yes, well, actually, they deny that they themselves are running it, but there are pages. Even the Supreme Leader has a Facebook page. And right now with this new administration in Iran, the only government official who has copped to the fact that his Facebook page and his Twitter feed are indeed his is the foreign minister.
DAVIES: But the Supreme Leader has a Facebook page? I bet he gets a lot of likes.
MAJD: He does get a lot of likes, less than the foreign minister, though, oddly enough.
MAJD: He gets a lot of likes. He also has a Twitter feed, and he has an Instagram account, which is even nicer.
DAVIES: This all seems like another reflection of what you were saying about how you have an Islamic revolution that wants to maintain its religious character yet in some ways embraces modernity.
DAVIES: You make rules, and you just don't enforce them.
MAJD: Exactly. I mean, it would be very difficult for them after years of saying that Facebook and Twitter and all these are, you know, corrupt Western influences to suddenly say, oh, it's open and free, you can do it, you can use those services. But at the same time, they know that so many Iranians do use Facebook, do use Twitter, do use social media, and including some of their own officials, and that they are useful.
The new President Rouhani has actually said, and he said in his campaign and subsequently after becoming president, that he believes that social media should be open and available to all in Iran and that it's a good thing. So - and he's a cleric, so...
DAVIES: We're speaking with Hooman Majd. His new book is "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd. His new book "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay." How do you see the effects of the economic sanctions that the United States and others have imposed on the country?
MAJD: Well, the effects are quite severe, and in the time that we were there in Iran, the most severe sanctions had not yet been imposed, but they were starting to - the effects of them were starting to be felt. Unemployment, companies can't manage well in an economy where they're not connected to the outside world. Banking sanctions have caused inflation to go sky high, devaluation of the currency. People are struggling.
It very much has affected things like medical supplies because although medicine is supposed to be exempt from sanctions, there's no way for the Iranians to pay for the medicine because they can't transfer funds back and forth because of the banking sanctions. I actually know someone who had cancer, and unfortunately she's passed away, but she couldn't get medicine anymore in Iran, could not get cancer medicine. Did not exist as a certain point.
And she was fortunate enough to be able to come to America in the last months of her life, and it was too late. So she passed away recently in America. But that's true of other cancer patients in Iran who have not been able to get medicine, medical supplies and the kinds of drugs that they need.
But even simple things like, you know, imported goods that, you know, in previous years were widely available are less available now. So importers have been affected by that and have lost their jobs or lost their ability to make money. Exporters have lost their ability to export goods. And Iran had a manufacturing base, and again they can't be paid for certain things.
So the economy is actually quite critical, and the sanctions are a big part of that because when - Iran is not a hermit kingdom like North Korea. It's very - it was very interconnected with the world economy, and being shut off from that, apart from the fact that they can't export their oil to the extent that they were in the past, and so there's less of a supply of money in the economy. Apart from that, there's so many businesses that are affected by it, and people being laid off and joblessness and so on and so forth. So it's quite severe.
DAVIES: Did it affect your personal finances? I mean, you were an American with American bank accounts, living in Iran.
MAJD: Well, with an American bank account, you can't access that account from Iran. So I'm fortunate enough to have family in Iran and was able to always get funds from them to pay for things like rent and electricity and so on and so forth. But so, no, it didn't affect me, but we couldn't access our American bank accounts from Iran because if you do, if you access your account from Iran on the Internet, for example - first of all you can't transfer money from the U.S. to Iran. That's illegal.
But even if you tried to even check your balance or pay a bill online, your bank account will be frozen because they'll know it's an Iranian IP address that is accessing the bank accounts. So you have to use a VPN to even check your bank balance or to make a payment.
So I arranged to have automatic payments for various bills that had to be paid here. So there was no access to the bank account from Iran.
DAVIES: And I think you describe one moment in which your wife had kind of absentmindedly tried to execute a routine credit card transaction over the Internet and then realized with terror she was about to give away the fact that she...
MAJD: She was doing it from Iran because she had forgotten to use my computer, which had the VPN on it, and she was using it on - just normally, just going on - I mean, it was the one time we were thankful for the Internet being so slow because the page hadn't loaded by the time she screamed that, oh my God. But thankfully...
DAVIES: And what might have happened? What was at risk?
MAJD: Well, at risk was the fact that her bank account would've been frozen. She was making a credit card payment from her bank account in New York, and her bank account would've been frozen, and then it would've been - generally speaking when that happens, and that has happened to other Iranians who have visited Iran and sort of not realizing that they can't access their bank account back home. Then when they come back to the States, they have to go see the manager and, say, well, I'm actually a dual citizen, I was not actually transferring funds to Iran, wasn't doing anything illegal. But banks are very, very strict about that because they don't want to fall afoul of U.S. Treasury laws.
GROSS: Hooman Majd will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Majd has a new book called "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Hooman Majd, a journalist who was born in Tehran but has lived most of his life in the U.S. In 2008, he served as the formal translator for a U.N. speech by then-President Ahmadinejad, even though Majd had been critical of the government in his writing. His father worked as a diplomat under the Shah. His grandfather was an ayatollah. Majd has a new book about the year he recently spent in Iran with his American wife and young son. It's called "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay."
DAVIES: Iranian politics are complicated. And you describe a phenomenon known as, I guess in the Iranian politics and culture to some degree, which you describe as The Big Sulk.
Explain what you mean and give us an example.
MAJD: Well, I wrote that chapter called "The Big Sulk" because when we ran Iran, President Ahmadinejad, not being able to get his way on one particular thing he was trying to do - which was to fire an intelligence minister - engaged in a sulk. He just decided to go home and say I'm, you know, I'm not coming to work. And he did that for about 12 days. And it reminded me of this characteristic that we have in Iranian culture where, you know, people do sulk - whether it's for something as simple as a social sulk or a family sulk, or if it's political. And it goes all the way back in Iranian history and most famously with Prime Minister Mossadegh, who was overthrown by the CIA in 1953 - CIA and British intelligence in 1953, who was constantly engaging in sulks in order to get his way. And if he didn't get his way he would suddenly fall ill or faint and cry and take to his bed and even have meetings from his bed wearing pajamas.
It happens in families. People engage in sulks for decades. Or it happens in our politics more often than one would imagine it would have been in politics in Western countries. Sulking...
DAVIES: And I guess if it's such an important part of the culture to be gracious and courteous and have good manners, when someone suddenly withdraws, it's supposed to horrify you and you're supposed to say...
DAVIES: ...my goodness, what's wrong? Why can't we be friends?
MAJD: What's wrong? Exactly. What have we done? Yes.
MAJD: It's childish behavior. There's no question about it. But it works in a lot of cases. In Ahmadinejad case it didn't work. His sulk didn't work. He was not able to get his way and he realized after 10 or 12 days that if he didn't go back to work his unemployment may be permanent.
DAVIES: Does this describe in some way the Iranian government's posture toward the United States at times?
MAJD: I think it does. Yes. Absolutely. There's been a huge sulk since 1979, so it's a decade-long sulk. It's like OK, you know, we don't approve of the way you've treated us so we're not going to speak to you and see if we care. You know, it goes back to Khomeini's - Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution. When the hostages were taken, his famous statement: America can't do a damn thing. It's like OK, you know, you can't do anything to us. And we're offended by your behavior, so we don't care and we're not going to talk to you. And, you know, you can impose sanctions on us. You can do this, this, and that, and we don't care, we still won't talk to you. And it's been going on for 35 years and to this day it still goes on. You still have Iranians saying oh, we don't need to talk to the Americans. They're evil. They're bad. Until they come up and apologize and beg us to come back and have relations with them, we shouldn't do that. We should never go to them and beg them for relations.
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean and, of course, I mean there have been a lot of tensions in the Iranian-American relationships - over its nuclear programs, over its support for Hamas and Hezbollah and, you know, not to mention the Syrian regime.
DAVIES: How do the Iranians regard Americans? I mean you've certainly had a lot of experience with this - ordinary Iranians.
MAJD: Ordinary Iranians like Americans, I would say. I would say not just ordinary Americans. I would say even people in the regime like Americans. They are at pains to tell you how much they hate the imperialistic American government - or at least the people who are anti-U.S. government. But are also at pains to tell you how much they love Americans. You get that in every strata of society, and my wife experienced that all the time. A lot of people if she was out alone would assume that she's German or Scandinavian because there just aren't that many American women traveling on the buses of Tehran. But when she'd say she's American a crowd would come around her and like ask her, you know, what part of America are you from? What are you doing here? Why are you here? Are you crazy? You know, when you have a life in America, why would you want to be in Tehran?
DAVIES: And so when so many Americans have images of Iranians as calling America The Great Satan and having demonstrations in which Uncle Sam is burned in effigy and, you know, death to America is chanted, is that something which is not reflective of the majority or is that an impression that's outdated?
MAJD: I mean certainly there was more of that in the beginning of the revolution. But even among those who demonstrate, if you, whenever a reporter has been there or a foreign reporters has asked them, well, you know, they say, well, we don't mean the American people. We don't mean America. We mean the American government. And so it is - it's outdated and it is a minority. I mean most people - and including this president, this current new president - believe that that slogan, death to America, should be, you know, retired. And they've said so publicly. And there are hard-liners in Iran who say no, no, That's the essence of the revolution. Our anti-imperialist, anti-American hegemony stance is what makes us unique in the world. So there's that argument going on going on right now in Iran. That argument wasn't there during the Ahmadinejad years because Ahmadinejad himself believed in down with America, so - or death to America or whatever you want to call it.
DAVIES: I think you made the point the last time you were on the show that death to America is maybe an imprecise translation of the Farsi expression; down to America would be closer, down with America.
MAJD: I think, and that's what the government tries to translate it as, down with America rather than death with America, death to America. I mean it is technically death. The word marg, it means death. But since Iranians use that word for everything - I mean, you know, they'll say death to potatoes if they feel like potatoes are too expensive.
MAJD: I mean things like that. I mean they'll say death to myself - marg, you know, (foreign language spoken), you know, is like death to myself, which doesn't mean they actually mean they want to die. But it's like, you know, it's just an expression. Marg in that sense is probably not accurately translated as death to America.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk a bit about kind of where things stand now and how you see the prospects for a better relationship. I mean in June, Hassan Rouhani was elected president. Describe him to - how does he compare to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? And he was elected overwhelmingly. What does this tell us?
MAJD: Well, I think, you know, back in June, a lot of people thought that these elections would be meaningless because - that there were handpicked number of candidates and then people would argue that it wasn't going to make any difference who won. But the Iranian people who live in Iran could see that there was a difference between the candidates. There were six ultimate candidates, ultimately six candidates at the ballot box and they chose the one who was the most moderate, the candidate who is most on the reform side of things and wanting to engage the world, have better relations with the world, have the nuclear issue resolved, and to provide a better atmosphere for Iranians to live in inside Iran, and to improve their lot in life. And like I said, he even talked about the security atmosphere in Iran. He talked about social media, about women's rights in Iran. All these things. So he was a very different candidate from the other candidates and a stark, stark contrast to Ahmadinejad.
I mean, in terms of, you know, comparing him to Ahmadinejad, well, the first thing is, is he's not delusional and Ahmadinejad was certainly in some ways delusional. Rouhani has had experience with the West, has lived in the West. His administration is filled with people who have lived and spent a lot of time in the West. Ahmadinejad was a person who was, had never traveled outside of Iran until he came to New York the first time a month after he was inaugurated in Iran.
DAVIES: And what were his delusions, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
MAJD: Well, his delusions were that, you know, America is crumbling, the capitalist state is crumbling. His delusions were sort of like, you know, if you read Pravda, the Soviet newspaper back in the, during the Cold War, or if you watched Soviet television, you'd think that America is actually crumbling because you'd see riots on the streets, you'd see poverty, you see homeless people, you'd see black Americans being treated, you know, horribly. You'd go, oh my god, that society is horrific. You see bread lines; you see shelters - homeless shelters. You wouldn't see anything good of America. And I think Ahmadinejad had delusions about that because - partly because he really didn't have the experience. Delusions about the messiah coming shortly, within his lifetime. And delusions of grandeur - his own grandeur and he Iran's grandeur. And, you know, delusional about the state of Iran's economy even, apparently, according to things that we've heard since the new president has taken over. But oh, there's no problems in Iran, you know, the economy is in great shape. When actually, you know, the treasury is bankrupt.
DAVIES: So what do you think the prospects are for real progress on issues, for example, like the nuclear program?
MAJD: I think the prospects are good. I think there has to be a will on both sides and that will is being tested right now as we speak. There are negotiations ongoing and next week there are going to be further negotiations between the Iranians and the West, and particularly the United States, in Geneva. I think there's a real will on the Iranian part - on the Iranian's part to resolve this issue. Because without resolving the nuclear issue, other issues aren't going to be resolved. This is the priority and you still have this threat of war. You still have the Israelis saying they could attack Iran's nuclear facilities, which would end up being a war, basically. And you have the United States even saying all options are on the table to stop the Iranian nuclear program. So that has to be resolved. I think there's a real will on the Iranian side. And I think there's a real will on President Obama's side. But there are factions in both countries who are opposed to making a deal, making a nuclear deal, and we'll see if those factions are capable of derailing the process. But I think once you have the will, it's not an unsolvable issue, the nuclear program. Iran demands a certain amount of respect that we have up till now been unwilling to give them, recognition of certain rights that they believe they have as a sovereign nation, and the U.S. demand certain things Iran that Iran has been unwilling to give. But I think those are not unsolvable. The prospects are better now than they've been for a long time with this new president.
DAVIES: And can we infer from the fact that this president was chosen, was allowed to take office, and that he has been, has made these overtures, can we infer from that that the supreme leader endorses that course?
MAJD: Yes. I think we can. I think the supreme leader is someone who has in the past been very careful in terms of supporting what the popular will of the people is. You could argue that in 2009 he went against the popular will. His argument would be, and the people who support him, his argument would be that that was a minority of people who were protesting - even though three, four, five million people did protest - that was still a minority in his mind. And in his mind and in the minds of his supporters those people were misguided and they were, they're lied to by their leaders, Mousavi and Karoubi. But in general he has been, he has gone with the flow, as it were. So he recognized that the people in Iran - or it seems this way - that he recognized that the people in Iran want to change and wanted progress and wanted the issues that Iran has with the West - particularly with the United States - resolved so that people can get on with their lives and get on with what is most important to them, which is their jobs and money and the economy. And without resolving this problem, that's not going to happen.
People voted overwhelmingly for Rouhani, the candidate. And the supreme leader wasn't going to go, this time he was not going to go against that will. And so, yes, the inference that he is supportive and he has shown that he has been supportive of it up till now, I think is correct.
DAVIES: Well, Hooman Majd, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
MAJD: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Hooman Majd spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Majd has a new book called "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. He grew up near Chicago but has studied and integrated music of his Iraqi heritage. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar grew up near Chicago playing jazz. In the early 2000s, while in his mid-20s, he began investigating the music of his Iraqi heritage, studying in Baghdad and with ex-patriot musicians in Europe. Then he began combining the two.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of ElSaffar's latest.
AMIR ELSAFFAR: (Instrumental)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM ALBUM, "ALCHEMY")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Amir ElSaffar from his new disc, "Alchemy," a step forward in defining and refining his concept. A couple of his earlier albums featured what struck me as an uneasy mix of jazz and traditional Iraqi instruments. It was as if the trumpeter were still digesting his influences. Alchemy is for a straight jazz quintet. But ElSaffar brings all he knows about Iraqi rhythm patterns - strong, weak and silent beats, and about the maqams, traditional scales built on narrow intervals and the melodic patterns that go with them.
WHITEHEAD: A maqam colors a performance the way the blues scale tints the blues. The extra challenge is the notes may lie between the ones trumpet and saxophone are designed for, and then the players have to improvise on those scales.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Among hip New Yorkers, Dan Weiss is the go-to drummer for integrating complex global rhythms into limber jazz time. He and bassist Francois Moutin warm up for this stuff playing Rudresh Mahanthappa's cross-cultural music. Negotiating those Iraqi microtones led Amir ElSaffar to also try on a quarter-tone scale of 24 notes to the octave; it's a way to reconcile or split the difference between Western and Eastern tuning systems. This leads him to some very colorful harmonies - some newly charted blue notes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: ElSaffar and saxophonist Ole Mathisen play those quarter tones so precisely, they make a freshly tuned piano sound exotic. Eastern scales pose special problems for pianists stuck with the same old 12 notes, but John Escreet compensates using dissonant harmony and the power of suggestion. His solos often reflect the sound of the Iraqi santur. That's a zither played with small hammers, which is basically what a piano is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: There are echoes of John Coltrane's so-called sheets of sound in John Escreet's scale-based approach, just as Amir ElSaffar's compositions may reference Miles Davis's modal jazz or the oblique melodies of Wayne Shorter and Andrew Hill. The Iraqi strain is a new twist, but cultural hybrids have been jazz's bread and butter since W.C. Handy dropped a tango into his "St. Louis Blues."
Sun Ra's Egyptian-inspired modal pieces of the 1950s also paved the way, and the work of Ra's Egyptian admirer, Salah Ragab. Every new idea becomes new again in time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: The music on Amir ElSaffar's "Alchemy" doesn't always sound lived-in; the players appear a little cautious at times. A two-week tour might easily cure that. Meantime, there are many global musical systems that jazz hasn't absorbed yet, though everything gradually draws closer together. And jazz tradition keeps stretching to incorporate what musicians bring to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Down Beat, and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Alchemy," the new album by trumpeter Amir ElSaffar on the Pi label. Coming up, John Powers tells us about a novelist he thinks is so good he's forced copies of her books into the hands of friends. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The Italian writer Elena Ferrante was described in The Economist as the best contemporary novelist you've never heard of. Since 2005, all six of her novels have been translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published to great acclaim by Europaeditions. The most recent of these is "The Story of a New Name," the second volume of a trilogy about the life stories of two young girls who grew up poor in Naples dreaming of something more.
Our critic-at-large John Powers says that it's fascinating both in itself and for what it reveals about a writer so fiercely good he's been known to force copies of her books into the hands of his friends.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Some writers you read and move on, but every now and then you read one whose work knocks you back against the wall. This happened to me with the great Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. I first encountered her through her scalding 2002 novel "The Days of Abandonment," whose narrator, Olga, may be the scariest jilted wife since Medea.
What makes Olga scary is not what she does but what she thinks and feels. And her ferocious precision in describing everything from lousy sexual encounters to her not altogether maternal feelings about her children. Hooked, I quickly devoured Ferrante's other available novels, "Troubling Love" and "The Lost Daughter." They too spoke with such personal directness I felt sure they must be confessional.
Yet when I tried to confirm this, I soon discovered that Elena Ferrante is a pen name and that she's as publicity shy as J.D. Salinger, leading some male commentators in Italy to claim, predictably enough, that she's actually a man. Me, I was left wondering how Ferrante came to write with such fearless power. Then two years ago, an indirect answer proposed itself: She brought out "My Brilliant Friend," the first volume of a trilogy known as the Neapolitan novels.
Narrated by a 60-something writer named Elena, the book feels like Ferrante's personal origin myth; her portrait of the artist as a young woman. This seems even clearer in volume two, "The Story of a New Name," just out in a keen English version by Ferrante's regular translator, Ann Goldstein. The Neapolitan novels tell the story of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who meet at age eight in early 1950s Naples.
They bond over their love of books and their yearning for a life larger than what's offered by their poor working class neighborhood that cruelly grinds down everyone, especially women. Where Elena is a bright, accommodating girl eager for approval - she's a classic A student - her brilliant friend Lila is more gifted, sexier, and utterly implacable. She does what she wants. In a decision that alters their lives, Elena's parents pay to let her continue beyond gradeschool.
But Lila's father refuses. As "The Story of a New Name" begins, the ripples of this decision couldn't be more obvious. Even as Elena goes to high school and pines for a handsome upperclassman, the gorgeous Lila is getting married at 16 to Stefano, a local grocer who buys her clothes like Jackie Kennedy's, but whom she holds in contempt.
Over the course of the novel we watch their destinies diverge. Elena is thwarted in love and feels intimidated when she starts mingling with the educated classes at college in Pisa. Lila's trapped in a vulgar gilded cage whose bars she shakes until her husband beats her. As ever, Elena feels overshadowed by Lila, whose life always seems more incandescent than her own, while Lila envies Elena's shot at escaping their old neighborhood's small-mindedness and machismo.
While Ferrante's first three novels are remarkable for their compression and intensity, "The Days of Abandonment" remains her masterpiece. "My Brilliant Friend" and "The Story of a New Name" leaven her fierceness with a new warmth and expansiveness. They don't merely offer a teeming vision of working class Naples with its cobblers and profesores, communists and mobbed-up businessmen, womanizing poets and downtrodden wives; they present one of modern fiction's richest portraits of a friendship.
It's temping to say women's friendship because Ferrante follows Elena's and Lila's search for freedom in a culture so male dominated that 50 years later Silvio Berlusconi could hold bunga bunga sex parties and still keep getting elected prime minister. Never one to fear dark or spiky emotions, Ferrante captures their shifting friendship in all its jagged complicity and competition, its furious jealousies and lasting affections.
For all of Lila's defiant grandeur, these books are finally about Elena. To find her own original voice, she must shake off the crushing value she was raised with, resist the blandishments of conventional success, and learn from Lila without being overpowered by her. To achieve all this is an arduous struggle; but then again, that's no big surprise. As her novels make painfully clear, you don't get to write as brilliantly as Elena Ferrante for free; you have to earn it.
GROSS: John Powers writes about film and television for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed "The Story of a New Name" by Elena Ferrante. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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