Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Sepehr Haddad On Making Art from Life and On Making a Life in the Arts

By Susanne Pari, Center Volunteer Editor/Writer 

In the diaspora, Sepehr Haddad is mostly known for being half of the instrumental guitar duo ‘Shahin and Sepehr,’ whose first album debuted in 1994 and caused a whole lot of us to put aside our Ottmar Liebert playlists in favor of theirs. Chances are, you’ve heard their music, either because your parents and grandparents played their songs or you played them for your children and grandchildren. Their music was so broadly successful, appealing to audiences of all age groups and nationalities, that their CDs rose on the Western charts, including Billboard’s, where they reached #6.

More recently, Sepehr turned his creative energy toward writing a novel based on what seemed like a fantastical family story his grandmother told him in 1978 about how his grandfather fell in love and almost married Tsar Nicholas’s niece while studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music in 1913. The novel, A Hundred Sweet Promises, has won several historical fiction awards and focuses on a period in Iranian history that is often ignored. ‘’The West’s view of Iran is shaped by two time periods,’ says Sepehr. ‘One is of Cyrus the Great because it’s in the Bible, and the other is of Khomeini because of the Hostage Crisis. Thousands of years back and forty years back—with nothing in between. But a hundred fifty years ago, when cowboys were the biggest draw in the States, my great grandfather and grandfather were studying with the masters of music in Russia so they could return to Iran with that knowledge and skill.”

Writing about family in the Iranian culture can be fraught. Our ethical codes still retain whispers of ancient systems of conduct that were designed to prevent us from revealing our intimate stories. In the West, however, people tend to let everything hang out (or to overstate their most shocking secrets). As Iranian-American writers, we juggle these different approaches, always aware of the freak-outs auntie or uncle or cousin so-and-so might have if they suspect we’ve exposed them in some way. A novel, by definition, is a made up story. The degree to which a novelist strays from fact to fiction is unique to that writer. Unlike me, Sepehr does not stray far from the truth. His characters were real people, but creating an interesting story requires detail and context. The historical novel is therefore a carefully balanced story of research and imagination which often gets closer to the truth of past events than a purely factual account. It’s also fun to read.

Asked if he would’ve written this novel had he not emigrated to the States, Sepehr says, “I think in Iran, this is a story that would’ve been told in the oral tradition and handed down by family members.” Central to it would’ve been the facts that his great grandfather and grandfather had studied under the famous composer Rimsky-Korsakov—best known for the symphonic suite Sheherazade—and that his great grandfather had written Iran’s first national anthem. The more provocative stories—particularly an affair with the mistress of Shiraz’s governor and gambling issues—would never have come to light if Sepehr hadn’t asked his uncle, who lived to be 100, to regale him with memories and stories he had been told. “The information I originally had about my grandfather in 1907 Shiraz filled a page and a half, but after spending hours on the phone with my uncle and researching the history, it turned into five chapters.” 

Sepehr had doubts about including these provocative details. His wife, who is half- American and half-British, edited the book, and she urged him to “let go” precisely because these were the kinds of stories that would be most fascinating to readers. Lucky for us.

Humans make sense of the world through storytelling, but many of us aren’t aware of this until we become a certain age. Before that, we’re too busy growing, studying, working, raising kids, and responding to our screens. Then suddenly, we realize that our relatives have grown old and all they have known and experienced will be lost to us once they’re gone. “At some point, my kids are going to want to know about their parents and grandparents and the world they lived in,” says Sepehr. “I wrote this book for them.” 

Sepehr had a love for music from a young age, and when a cousin from Germany gave him his first guitar, he began teaching himself Cat Stevens songs and never stopped playing. But in the 70s and 80s, whether in Iran or the United States, ‘musician’ was not considered a wise career choice; it was a hobby. And Sepehr’s father and role model was the Vice-Governor of Iran’s Federal Reserve (Bank-e-Markazi), a dignified position dedicated to government service. So Sepehr pursued a practical, if not long and arduous, education and wound up working for the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, DC. On weekends, he and Shahin played music together and eventually began performing across the country. It was a strange juxtaposition, on stage for an adoring audience one night and the next morning briefing colleagues on the effects of pesticide residue in food. 

Sepehr worked at the EPA for 27 years and says he’s proud of the work he did there. Those of us in the arts call this a day job—necessary because our society doesn’t value artistic pursuits as highly as it does business or professional ones. Most creatives are forced to rely on patronage—grants or donations or family support—to pursue what we consider an honorable vocation rather than a hobby. After stealing time for years to work on A Hundred Sweet Promises, he made the hard decision to take early retirement so he could finish the novel. His wife, who also worked at the EPA, shifted from part-time to full-time so he could pursue his dream.

Books such as A Hundred Sweet Promises allow readers the opportunity to step out of their cultural and historical bubbles to reach a clearer understanding of the world and of other peoples. The work of writers, musicians, and visual artists stimulate empathy, sympathy, and curiosity—all hallmarks of peaceful communities. “It’s wrong that we don’t value the arts more,” says Sepehr.

You can hear Sepehr Haddad read from his book in-person at the Berkeley Media Center on December 12, 3pm at an event hosted by the Center, Diaspora Arts Connection and the Persian Center. For more information, go to our Facebook event page: tinyurl.com/Sepehr21 or check out Sepehr’s website: sepehrhaddad.com.

Photos courtesy of Sepehr Haddad.

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