Meet Hooman Majd: Gentleman, Scholar, and Modest Hero
Majd in Persian lamb diplomat (and maybe a Revolutionary Guard keffiyeh)
I met my dear friend Hooman Majd about a decade ago, when Chris Blackwell got the idea that I might be a good head of marketing for Island Records. I had known Chris for years. He is a visionary; a businessman who thinks and behaves like an artist. He brought reggae music and the Wailers to the world, not to mention developing and supporting artists like Traffic, Roxy Music, Grace Jones, Brian Eno, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Marianne Faithfull, Malcolm McLaren, U2, Tom Waits, and many others—as well as producing important films, being an important player in re-developing Miami's South Beach, and turning Jamaica into an even more delightful destination. I thought it would be great working for Chris, and it was, from the moment I started until he sold Island Records. But the best thing about it was meeting my friend Hooman.
Hooman Majd was the Executive Vice President of Island, which meant that he was Chris's right hand and left brain, the guy running the company day to day and doing much of the heavy lifting. Hooman had a fantastic ear, a great eye, superb executive ability, and the DNA of a diplomat. We were ensconced in "Worldwide Plaza," a big ugly building on the west side of midtown Manhattan that creaked and moved every time it was windy out. I had never met anyone named Hooman before, but my only surprise was that despite his unusual Iranian name, how very American he was. Well, not exactly American. Sort of haute American. A true cosmopolite. In fact one could make a case that Hooman, who I believe was what they call "stateless" at the time, was living proof that there is no nationality or culture superior to transcendental statelessness. Mr. Majd belongs to the world.
Like many of my friends Hooman had gone to "public school" in England, which accounted for his superior manners, his well-chosen words, and his pervading sense of irony. As I recall we were laughing within minutes and we never stopped. Hooman often laughed about public school, an experience he shared with Chris Blackwell and our mutual friend Michael Zilkha. Hooman would recall the headmaster warning the boys off the local girls. "For god's sake," the headmaster said, "If you must have sex, have it with a boy."
Although he was running one of the most important record companies in the world, Hooman was not a typical show-business exec. He wasn't a suit. In fact he generally didn't wear suits. I had come from ten years working as creative director of advertising for Barneys New York and I generally wore suits. One day one of our most successful acts, the Cranberries, came up to the office and I introduced myself to them as the chairman of Polygram, the conglomerate parent of Island. They didn't even blink. I guess I looked like a chairman. In fact I was really just a creative director, masquerading as a marketing director. I really don't like the idea of marketing, and all I really wanted to do was make album covers, videos, web sites, and those bizarre items record companies use for promotion—like light-up logoed yoyos or liquorice LPs. They gave me an office down the hall from Hooman's corner office, and a secretary, neither of which I wanted. If I had an office that meant someone expected me to be in it. My secretary's main job was actually divvying up the office between others who were visiting from out of town, or who wanted to make phone calls or have sex. I spent most of my time on the sofa in Hooman's office, brainstorming, drinking Evian from his fridge, laughing, and smoking cigarettes.
Hooman and I were big influences on one another. I got him into buying custom-made suits. He got me into smoking George Karelias, a Greek cigarette that we decided was the finest in the world and went to great lengths to get our hands on. We would sit around Hooman's Damien Hirst cigarette-patterned ashtray and discuss how to sell more records, how to make better videos and packaging, how to get around certain people in the company, and where to have lunch. Usually it was Barbetta, the oldest Italian restaurant in the city, where we could eat in the bar and smoke.
Producer Abbie Terhukle with Hooman at just about his most bearded
Although when I met him Hooman wasn't much of a suit guy, he was splendidly dressed. He wasn't against suits, I think he just felt that in a creative industry one didn't want to be a suit so one didn't often wear one; but I think that my rather eccentric way of wearing them was a bit of an influence, as his taste in shoes, sweaters, polos, watches, and sport shirts certainly rubbed off on me. Dandy is a misunderstood word, but Hooman exhibited a gift for combining clothes and colors that is certainly aesthetic and might be considered an art. He is the only man I know who can pull off a lavender overcoat and excite women simultaneously. We also shared certain habits. We were both into housecleaning as a hobby. I find it really zen as I believe Hooman does, and it is a testament to his absolute impeccability that although he smokes about as much as anyone still does you can't smell tobacco in his apartment. (He credits the Papiers d'Armenie that he burns. I credit his hygienic genius.)
We had a good run at Island, selling a lot of U2 records. I made a few nice album sleeves (although whenever I managed to get a sleeve or a video made I seemed to be intruding on another department). Hooman got into film production, executive producing The Cup, a wonderful film about Tibetan Monks trying to watch the World Cup soccer matches on TV, and Black and White, the ultimate wigger film, a black comedy by James Toback that starred Robert Downey, Mike Tyson, and Brooke Shields, among an all-unlikely cast.
Then after a few years, when CB sold his shares in Island, we were out—although Hooman's replacement, our mutual friend Davitt Sigerson (now a novelist) continued to pay my salary for a while out of benign neglect. But by then Hooman and I were friends for life. He is Uncle Hooman to my nine-year-old son, and practically every Christmas Eve Hooman has been there to help trim our tree. And one Halloween, I dragged Hooman out to a high-end cocktail bar, explained to him that the beautiful bartender had eyes for him, then made him go back later, alone. They have been together ever since, although today she is a master yoga teacher.
Anyway, I am getting into this for several reasons. One is that if there is someone that the Style Guy would look to for advice in sartorial matters, or matters of etiquette or protocol, it would be Mr. Majd, the son of a professional diplomat who worked for the Shah of Iran. That diplomatic background is why Hooman grew up in Washington, London, New Delhi, and Tokyo, among other places, after being born in Tehran. And because of the Shah's fall, Hooman never visited his native country between the ages of seven and, well, forty-something. But in the last few years he has been going back to Iran regularly, traveling the country and reporting on what's going on there for publications including GQ, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, the New York Observer, and the Huffington Post. Hooman also writes wonderful fiction. I published a bit in my now defunct literary magazine Bald Ego, a story about Iran that was illustrated by his excellent photographs. And now he has a best selling non-fiction book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, which explains in an entertaining and superbly informed manner what exactly is going on in a country that is perhaps more misunderstood in America than any other.
I think most of us who have Persian (Iranian) friends know that they are not Arabs. They may be Muslims or not. I'm not exactly what you'd call Hooman, who has some Jewish ancestors, descends from Zoroastrians, is the nephew of an important ayatollah (they don't come more important than Khatami), and who really, really enjoys Christmas. I hope I'm not blowing his cover by saying he's probably an observant atheist or an agnostic with Rastafarian sympathies or that his sympathies lie somewhere with mine, between Druidism and Olympus. But whatever their religion, the Persians I know are sophisticates and enthusiasts. Iran is not a backward country, it is not only a cradle of civilization but a hotbed of aspiration, where poetry and art are not ivory tower pursuits but a way of life. Their joie de vivre is expressed in the way they talk, the way the cook, and even the way they party. I find few feminine concepts sexier today than a chador worn to conceal a flimsy decolette cocktail dress and Manolo Blahnik heels.
In the final days of Bush I was terrified that the U.S. would bomb Iran. Hooman seemed certain of it. Neither of us were fans of Ahmedinejad, although I think we were both bemused by certain of his performances, but we knew enough to know that Iran has never attacked another country and its possession of nukes would be far less dangerous than the situation that exists today in Israel, Pakistan, and India. But we have made it to Obama-world and now it seems unlikely that artificially agitated hysteria will lead to a confrontation with Iran—a country that is rapidly evolving before our eyes right now.
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (Doubleday) is available as a hardback, now discounted to $15.89 at Amazon and the paperback will probably be out in August. You may have seen Hooman on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher on June 19th or on John Stewart's The Daily Show. He has become something of a regular on Charlie Rose and the rest of the pundit circuit, as he knows his stuff and is a truly gifted conversationalist. On Bill Maher, Hooman shocked the fairly unplappable host by wearing, with an otherwise rather Savile Row kit, his giveh, the traditional folk knit Iranian shoes, dyed green for the Moussavi revolution. I had seen him in them just a few days earlier, and I've asked him to help me dye the giveh that he just brought back for me from Tehran. Also to help me try to stretch them out. I don't think these are size 12 like my last pair. The green shoes really seemed to send to Bill Maher for a loop. And that's exactly what men's apparel can do, when there is thought and wit behind it.
What really threw me for a loop a while back was turning on C-Span to watch Ahmedinejad address the United Nations; and when Iran's "dictator" (he wasn't then, but maybe is now) opened his mouth, my pal's voice came out. I knew that Hooman had been spending a lot of time with Iranian politicians and diplomats but I had no idea about this. Hooman is not a fan of Mr. Ahmedinejad or his politics (quite the opposite, in fact), and is probably more horrified by the man's sartorial habits than I can imagine, and there he was—his mouthpiece. But I understood completely. One of the most difficult problems in relations between Iran and the West is what gets lost or confused in the translation. For example Ahmedinejad may have a bad attitude toward Israel, but he never said it should be wiped off the map, as in nuked. He said, "the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time." He's talking history, not megatons here. He has gone on to say that the "Zionist regime will be wiped out the same way the Soviet Union was," which was hardly through violence, but through political change.
To me my friend is a hero, utterly unsung and without any desire for such recognition. By associating himself with this despised foreign leader he was putting himself at risk in one way or another, but he understood that by twisting the Iranian president's words, even rather slightly, the administration that perpetrated a fraudulent war in Iraq might just try to excuse another gratuitious and egregious attack through fear mongering. Although Hooman might disapprove of most of what Ahmedinejad was saying, he wanted to make sure that he was understood, which is precisely what reasonable men must seek to do in times of hysteria, distortion, and unreason. What he sought to do as a translator, and what he does in his book, and everyday in his what he says and writes, is to express what was said in the cover line of Newsweek which featured an essay by him: Everything you know about Iran is wrong. Mr. Majd could probably be sitting around the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Hotel du Cap making movie deals. Instead he is patiently, painstakingly explaining what is portrayed as simple and is in fact very, very complex. Should things turn out well in Iran, that ancient storied country could turn out to be a paragon for the Middle East, a most civilized and cultured nation at peace and at ease with the West. And should that happen, Mr. Majd will have played an important role in spreading truth, by standing not only by his own word, but the word in general.
Just for the record, Mr. Majd likes Anderson & Sheppard suits, shoes from Alden and Edward Green, ties from Brooks Brothers Black Fleece, Band of Outsiders, and Hermès, and, due to the domestic unavailability of George Karelias smokes, he now puffs on Camel straights and Iranian Bahman's when he can get them. A true globetrotter, Mr. Majd always arrives with beautiful luggage—old Tanner Kroll and Globetrotter, Brigg, or Swaine-Addney—and he's on time. When we met he was driving a Landrover Discover, then switched to a Porsche 911, and now can be seen tooling round Manhattan on an extremely handsome Vespa. If you see him, wave.