Brian Appleton —
Sepehr Haddad was born in Washington DC in 1957. His family returned to Iran, where he completed his schooling in Bahar-e-No (Miss Mary) Elementary school, then to Iranzamin (Tehran International School). Upon graduation in 1975, he returned to the United States for college. He ended up at the University of California at Davis and graduated with a master’s degree in International Agricultural Development. He and his old school friend Shahin Shahida met up and formed their band, “Shahin & Sepehr,” in 1994. All six of the band’s albums with Universal Music Group (UMG), formerly Virgin/EMI, have been on the Top 20 Billboard charts. Their debut album “One Thousand and One Nights” made it to the # 6 spot on Billboard, and their sophomore album “e” was nominated for the “Best New Age” album in 1995.
Coincidentally with his success as a musician, Sepehr also had a 27-year-long career with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington D.C., helping to protect the U.S. food supply from harmful pesticides. In 2015, he took early retirement and spent the next six years researching and writing his first novel, “A Hundred Sweet Promises” (Appleyard & Sons Publishing), released in March 2021. The book has recently become the #1 Best Seller on the Amazon charts in the Russian Historical Fiction and Middle Eastern Historical Fiction categories. Additionally the novel has also received the following literary awards thus far: 1) 1st Place Winner of the 2022 Bookfest Awards for Historical Fiction. 2) Shortlisted for the 2022 Hawthorne Awards for Historical Fiction. 3) 2021 Winner American Writing Awards for Historical Fiction. 4) 2021 Gold Medal Historical Fiction/ Historical Fiction Press Awards
Thank you, Mr. Haddad, for agreeing to this interview. You were interviewed as a musician for this same publication 26 years ago and now as a novelist. Your beautiful book deeply moved me. I respect the amount of historical accuracy and the six years of research you put into writing it. How come it took six years?
Thank you to Persian Heritage for the opportunity to speak with you. Yes, it was an honor to be interviewed as part of the musical duo of “Shahin & Sepehr” and to be featured on the cover of Persian Heritage Magazine in the late 1990s. Regarding writing, I think the six years it took to finish the novel was due to my being a first-time novelist. I wasn’t familiar with how to author a book, so I took my time, especially with the most challenging parts, creating the fictional dialogue between the characters in the novel. The actual sitting down and writing took about a year. The bulk of the time, which was also the most fun, was spent conducting the research. The research was the most challenging part of the writing process because I wanted to be historically accurate, considering the periods I wrote about in Persia (Iran) and Russia in the early 20th century. I had to learn to write the way people spoke back then with a certain level of formality. However, as my writing progressed, I became more comfortable with that aspect of writing. The most enjoyable part was writing about the budding romance between my grandfather and the Romanov princess, always keeping in mind how my grandmother had told me the story.
I believe your wife Moana deserves a medal for allowing you to retire to write this book while she has continued working. You are a lucky man!
Yes, I truly feel blessed. Moana also edited the novel and deserves a lot of credit for helping me write it.
Before we talk specifically about the book, I would like to mention that we have several things in common besides writing. I arrived in Iran in 1975, where I worked for four years just as you were leaving. I witnessed the revolution and stayed five months after the revolution, so the opening chapter of your book struck home. I spent seven years in Washington DC and now live in Northern California, not far from your mother. I only mention this because of your grandfather and great grandfather spending time in St Petersburg and their involvement with the Tzar Nicholas and his relatives. My ancestors left Russia to escape the Tzar’s draft. Ironically, I was knighted into the Sovereign Orthodox Order of the Knights of Saint John Hospitaller of Jerusalem by the Romanov Prince Obolensky in NYC in 2008.
With your background, I would characterize you as a renaissance man. You have such a wide and varied range of interests and abilities. How did you develop an interest in international agricultural development when you come from a family of musicians, military men, and bankers?
Thank you. Upon graduation from Tehran International School in 1975, I came to the United States for college. All of my friends were studying to become engineers. I decided to go a different route and study agriculture, especially with plans to go back to Iran, where my family was. So, upon the advice of a good family friend and then Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Ahmadi, I ended up at the University of California at Davis and graduated with a master’s degree in International Agricultural Development. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran derailed my plans to return, and in 1988 I moved from California to Washington DC and began working for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). During that time, I was fortunate enough to reconnect with my talented guitarist schoolmate from Iran, Shahin Shahida, and we formed the band “Shahin & Sepehr.”
It seems that music is in the DNA of your family. Your great grandfather studied under Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov and your grandfather was a fellow student at the conservatory of music in St. Petersburg with Igor Stravinsky. Your great grandfather’s passion was for military marches, while your grandfather preferred classical symphonies, and his instrument of choice was the piano. How is it that you were attracted to Cat Steven and jazz guitar?
When I was in the 10th grade, I visited my cousin in Geneva, and she gifted me a guitar on which I learned how to play. My favorite artist at the time was Cat Stevens. I liked his music so much that when Shahin & I formed our band, I even insisted we rearrange the hit “Wild World” for instrumental guitar, and Shahin did a masterful job of playing the lead guitar. The S&S version turned out to be one of our most popular productions. I never studied music, so classical music was never in the cards for me, especially as a teenager in high school – playing guitar and singing pop tunes were more interesting to me.
Tell our readers about the positions that your great grandfather and grandfather attained in Iran and their most significant musical accomplishments.
The Minbashians (my mother’s side of the family) were undoubtedly an influential family in music history, especially music education in Iran. In 1898, when Nasrollah, my grandfather was just thirteen, his father, Gholam-Reza Minbashian, known as Salar Moazaz, had brought him along to Russia to study music at the famed St. Petersburg Conservatory. (The honorary title of Salar Moazaz was given to Gholam-Reza Minbashian by royal decree for his contributions in the field of music.)
Salar Moazaz himself was a pupil of the Russian composer Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, studying composition and orchestration under his tutelage. Father and son were together for five years studying music in St. Petersburg until, in 1903, Salar Moazaz left Russia and traveled back to Persia. His return was to answer the king’s call to create the new music department at the Dar al-Funun (the Tehran Polytechnic), Persia’s first modern school. Nasser Al-Din Shah, a great patron of music, foundrd the Cossack Brigade Military Band, several years before his assassination. This orchestra was conducted by Nasrollah’s own father, Salar Moazaz.
Salar Moazaz was an extraordinarily talented and creative man. He played and taught the piano and various wind and brass instruments and was considered an expert at playing the Persian tar. In 1898, he had the foresight to leave Persia and take his young son to study music at one of the most prestigious schools in the world. This move was quite unique since Persian attitudes toward music were ambivalent, with many disapproving of music as a career choice. In Persia, music-making, including teaching, was mostly a private affair, with individual classes held at a master’s house. Therefore, the concept of general music education was a totally foreign idea.
Salar Moazaz was eager to set up a similar system of music education as in Russia in his own country, Persia. He was a pioneer who intended to transform the Persian music scene from traditional instruments and religious hymns to what he considered “new music.” Salar Moazaz was also the first person to introduce the Western notation system to his country.
The new music Salar Moazaz envisioned would be based on Western-oriented symphonies and orchestras, with complementing instruments such as pianos, clarinets, violins, and woodwinds. In this quest, he needed the assistance of other classically trained musicians, of which there were only a few in Persia.
In 1909, upon the liberation of Tehran from the hands of the Russian Colonel Liakhov, Salar Moazaz was inspired and wrote the first-ever Persian National Anthem. This is also the first time the Persian/Iranian national anthem was performed outside of Iran when Ahmad Shah Qajar went on a state visit to England in 1919.
After Salar Moazaz’s passing, his son (my grandfather) Nasrollah, who was later given the title of “Nasrosoltan” became the director of the Iranian Conservatory. After Nasrosoltan left that position, his younger brother Gholam-Hossein Minbashian took over the directorship of the conservatory and also instituted the Tehran Symphony Orchestra in 1933, which today still plays works of Iranian and western composers.
OK, now on to the book. I could feel the influence of music composition in the book’s structure, like the four movements of a symphony. I love the recurring themes that appear early on and find closure later, including the very end, such as the story of Schubert and its parallel to the story of the two main protagonists, the insertions of Hafez and Rumi, the mute fortune teller. There was a resolution, and some things left unresolved, which tantalized if not tortured the poor reader. You made me cry twice. I do not intend to give any spoilers. You were remarkably effective in capturing the nuances of Iranian traditional family relations, the subtle talent certain Persian women of the upper class have for flirtation and manipulation, the vulnerability of youth towards romantic love, and the jadedness of the elders.
You also totally captured the elitist Camelot atmosphere of pre-revolutionary royalty and aristocracy right on the eave of their downfall to a populist rebellion. The ponderous formalities and honorifics of the royal protocol are so out of touch with the peasants and workers and their struggles, and you do all this without directly mentioning it in subtle non-didactic ways without diatribe or politics.
Your novel is a love story between your grandfather and the Tzar’s niece. Still, it is also packed with historical information from an exciting era in Russo-Iranian history, including the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the details of which every Iranian should know.
Regarding romantic love in your story, the struggle of the two young lovers, their fear of their feelings, and their first-time sensations of attachment. To discover, find, and confirm their love for one another, the periods of doubt, self-deprecation, confidence, and overconfidence. I believe that your being a musician gave you the sensitivity to portray falling in love with all its nuances accurately. It’s right on, and something almost every young person has experienced.
What inspired you to author this novel? I understand entirely the greater appeal of making it fiction based upon a true story rather than writing a dry documentary. But I know I was left wondering which parts were authentic and which parts were fiction which made it even more intriguing. So many of your characters, like Rustam, reminded me of people I know and knew in Iran. You nailed it.
My grandmother revealed this secret about my grandfather’s life to me in 1978, right before the revolution in Iran. Soon after that, I left to go to college in California and forgot what my grandmother had told me. Thirty-five years later, in 2010, I decided to take my American wife and American-born sons to Iran on a visit. We passed by my grandmother’s apartment building in Ferdowsi Square, and I suddenly remembered what she had told me. When I told my wife the story, she suggested that I write a book about it. I wrote the book because I wanted to leave behind a document for my children and their children about their Persian side of the family’s achievements in music education in Persia/Iran. But I did not want to write a biography that they might have found dry, or like college classwork. So, to tell the story but make it more palatable to them, and with the general interested public, I decided to write it in novel form. I also tried to intertwine Persian history, poetry, and fables with a historically accurate portrayal of their ancestors’ lives.
Both my sons Kian and Riyan are extremely interested in music and are writing songs together. I wanted them to know about their great-great-grandfather, Salar Moazaz Minbashian, who wrote Iran’s first national anthem in 1909. And, how their great grandfather Nasrosoltan Minbashian studied with the masters of classical music in Russia and later went on to become the Director of the Iranian Conservatory (Tehran Conservatory of Music).
When I took them to Iran in 2010 to see the country’s beauty, culture, historical sites, food, people, they loved it as I knew they would. I wanted their understanding of this great culture to be first-hand rather than from the media, which often does not portray Iran’s true beauty and glory.
This is not an original question about art and love but worth re-asking: do you think that great works of art and music always require great suffering? Even George Sand ( Aurora Dudevant) and Chopin’s famous love ended badly and his broken heart led to his demise. Is great love always unrequited?
Sepehr Haddad: That is an interesting question. I do not believe that love and suffering are intertwined so that you must have one to have the other. However, love can lead to suffering as it did in my novel in Schubert’s and my grandfather’s case. I think the only antidote to broken promises, betrayals, and brokenness is to surrender to love as opposed to escaping it. But we must risk to love, because we must. We must keep taking chances on love.
I am confident that your book will continue to receive awards and become a New York Times Best Seller, and you should submit it to the Pulitzer Prize annual contest in the literary category. Taroff nemikonam. Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers before closing this interview?
Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate the response the novel has received from the public and the literary community. I have heard it is being translated into Persian so hopefully the audience will continue to grow.
Again, thank you for subjecting yourself to my interview. It has been a pleasure working with you and getting to know you a little bit, and I can hardly wait to read your next novel. Can you tell us yet what the novel’s subject will be or the title?
Thank you, it was an honor. I am currently researching and writing my next novel, which will take place in occupied Iran around the time of WWII.
Wow! That is also a very fascinating period in Iranian modern history. I wanted to add a note here that I just found out that Touss Sepehr, my first Iranian friend whom I have known since age 11 just informed me that his great great grandfather was Iran’s ambassador to Saint Petersburg at the time that Salar Moazaz was there and that they were best of friends.