How Author Harma Hartouni Overcame Abuse, Anti-Gay Bullying and Near-Fatal Car Crash to Exceed His Dreams
The entrepreneur discusses his long journey to happiness and his acclaimed memoir Getting Back Up.
When he was young, Harma Hartouni felt wrapped in despair. "There were many times that I was like, 'I'm going to give up,'" he says. Hartouni's father ruled his Armenian household with an iron fist, often times abusive toward both his wife and his son. Hartouni says, "He believed, 'I'm an Iranian man. My wife has no rights. I make all the decisions, and because I pay for everything, you need to stay quiet.' And, if he cheats on you or beats you, he's entitled to forgiveness."
Hartouni, who is one of Southern California's most successful real estate magnates, writes of surviving a painful past that included childhood abuse, bullying, a near-death experience, and immigrating to the Unite States in his memoir Getting Back Up: A Story of Resilience, Self-Acceptance and Success, on sale now.
Hartouni, 40, is happily married to Asad Ayaz, 43, President of Marketing for Walt Disney Studios, and the two have three children: an 8-year-old son and twin daughters, 7. So has he fulfilled his dreams? "That and a lot more," he says.
It's a life he couldn't envision while growing up in a Armenian Orthodox Christian family in Iran. In his strict household, his father expected his son to be exactly as he was. "He was disappointed by me because I was not the guy that plays soccer, that had his back and told Mom off," says Hartouni. "I always thought something was wrong with me. 'Why am I feminine?' In Iran, men cannot be feminine, and I thought I had to be fixed. That's one of the reasons I saw a doctor to get injections, to get taller, to get hairier, to be more manly. I wanted to run away."
He was also targeted by other boys and bullied, though he tried to blend as much as possible. "For me it was like, as long as I can keep myself [as subtle as possible], I am going to be less bullied. They're not going to question me, or they're going to tell the government that I'm gay."
Despite living in constant fear, he never gave in to his despair. He says, "I thought, 'If I don't live here anymore in the sense of my life, how would that impact my mom? If I'm not there, who's going to hide the knives? Who's going to just protect her?' And that gave me the strength to just continue."
At the age of 18, Hartouni was caught in a horrific car crash that claimed one victim and left him unable to walk for over a year. While driving on a mountainside, Hartouni's car began to slide off the side, when he compensated, he hit a bus going the opposite direction. Remarkably, he escaped that, but a third car came from behind and crashed into him and two other men, killing one of them. hitting a bus ""It happened so fast," he recalls. "The sky was turning purple-blue, weird color. I just had this weird feeling. I saw the guy behind me, he was on the ground. My neck was getting wet. I realized it's not rain, it's his blood. I was like, 'Oh my God, get up before something else happens to you,' and when I put my hands on to get up, I realized my legs were completely broken. They put me in a mini-bus, and it was two- and-a-half hours back to Tehran, and they could not turn the sirens on because it was a religious day and they were praying."
His parents met him at the hospital. His father demanded they take Hartouni to the private hospital, where a top surgeon would operate on him. "I think that was the first time I was like, 'Oh my God, I think he loves me.'"
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The accident turned out to be a turning point in his life. "I lost my school, my friends, the path that I was supposed to follow (dance)," he says. After spending year-and-a-half bedridden, he decided to move to the United States.
At 21, after hiding his feelings all of his life, he came out to his mother's cousin, who was also living in the U.S. He initially feared her reaction, but, he says, "She was like, 'Whatever.' She was so supportive. She loved me, and I was at her house all the time. She just didn't judge me." Soon after he brought his sister to Los Angeles, where he was living, "and when I told her, and she put her hand on her mouth and she said, 'Oh my God, that will kill mom.'"
But Hartouni was beginning to believe in himself. And one night, while grabbing a slice of pizza after a few drinks in West Hollywood, he met the love of his life. "I saw Asad and he looked at me, and then I went to him and I said, 'Where are you from?' And he said, 'For you, I can be Armenian, or wherever you're from.' And I was like, 'Iran,' and then I was like, 'Great line.' I put my phone number in his phone and I told him, 'Call me tomorrow at 10 am.' He called me at 6 PM the next day. And when he called me, I started screaming 'I can't believe you didn't call me at 10 am. Who do you think you are? Do you know how many people asked for my number?'"
Ayaz responded, "'I don't even know who you are. I was just so drunk. How did you put your phone number in mine?' And I said, 'Well, we're going to meet at 7 pm, and we can talk about it.' We moved in together 47 days later, and it's been 18 years together."
During that time, Hartouni has gone from an assistant to a realtor to the owner of Harma Real Estate, one of the largest brokers in southern California. Though his company sold over $1 billion in properties in 2020, Hartouni says, "I'm redoing my goals. I want to build something bigger."
That something bigger will include his family—the focus of his life. After overcoming so much in his life to build what he has now, Hartouni wants to instill that same grit and confidence in his kids. "When they are out there on their own, and they hear 'no,' or they fail, I don't want them to get discouraged immediately. Some people might say, 'It's okay. Take six months off and evaluate.' I don't want them to have that choice. I want them to live through disappointment now when they're young, so that when they're ready to fly, they're strong. They're built to fight back for challenges that life will give them."
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