what it is and how it happened

Writing has been a passion for me ever since I started reading the short stories that I found in my father’s library in our basement. At that time I was supposed to put in everything in my disposal towards landing on one of the sought after seats of one of the “Ivy League” universities in Tehran. With a maximum of four universities on the roster, each admitting a few thousand fresh students and about a million students competing for the prize, this was not a task to be taken lightly. That is how it started: I would read and reread my high school books for hour after hour. In between that activity I would indulge myself in our garden or spend some time with a book.

I had been sent to a room in the basement so that I was safe from the daily deluge of the main floor, where my smaller sisters would be living their usual lives that included the TV and other sources of distraction. In the silence of the basement I did take the mission seriously, and yet, at the same time, I developed a love affair with the written word. Coincidentally, the room that I was dispatched to also contained my father’s collection of leftist books and contemporary short stories in Farsi.

The plan worked. I got admitted to a top engineering school in Iran and I packed up and returned to the surface. The books, too, followed me. And they stayed with me until I left Iran thirteen years ago.

Passion towards the act of writing is a curious business for an immigrant, whose communication skills are one of the first casualties in the new home.  How could I write when the mechanism for writing was alien to me? I did insists, though. First, writing in Farsi for a long while at Persian Kamangir. That effort was interjected by attempts at writing in English, a project that reincarnated itself a number of times before landing here, at English Kamangir. I also did a sizeable amount of “serious” writing, on matters related to data clustering and signal processing and also on Iran’s lively quest for democracy and freedom. Those were both pleasurable experiences, and yet, neither was sustainable. My work on mathematics and machine learning was soon cordoned off from the public through subsequent non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that were a basic requirement for my paycheque.  Around the same time, I started to have misgivings regarding the subliminal function of the Internet in closed societies. Books such as The Net Delusion were a major contributor to the fact that I started to have serious concerns about “The Dark Side of Internet Freedom”. Was the Internet a means of colonialism in the digital age, disguised under the innocuous facade of cute cats and hashtag activism?

There was only one way to know. I had to retreat to the basement and work on it. I enjoyed and cherished working on mathematical problems during the day and writing about them for employers and receiving a properly sized cheque in return. That activity, therefore, was going to persist. I was, on the other hand, going to quit writing about democracy and human right until I had a better understanding of the dynamics of the digital world and its relation with the power dynamics of late capitalism.

The closure of my breathing channels garnered the ideal environment that after a few experiments resulted in, as its name implies, is a script written in Python and although I used the Anaconda platform, the story of shares nothing with the tale of the large snake in the Amazonian wilderness. Since parting ways with the dying alternative Matlab, I had been using Python on a daily basis, in order to experiment with mathematical concepts and to build machine learning models, amongst other tasks. A sizeable portion of these usages occured in Jupyter Notebook, which is a browser-based platform for combining code that is executed with text that may be read by a flesh machine. Breathing day in and day out in this environment, it is no wonder that I started to write my short pseudo-novel on Jupyter and in Python. is the story of a Python script that starts its execution on the eve of the departure of its author. The script has access to half a million dollars in cash, that it uses to throw parties every year on the same day. The script spends the rest of its time assessing and analyzing the activities of the list of 256 people who have acquired its copies on the social media. At the end of that excruciating period, a subset of the 256 people are considered to be intellectually alive and are invited to the festivity. The details of the implementation of that allow it to shoulder this task constitute the bulk of the human-friendly text of the script. The rest of it is the actual implementation of those ideas. is also responsible for maintaining itself. It creates a backup copy of itself every time that it is modified and it publishes its 256 copies. And that is a unique feature to that script; there can only exist 256 copies of and these copies are all created by the script itself. Practically speaking, after the script executed, I was left with 256 html files that I had to print on an Epson LX-350 impact printer that I had acquired for the purpose of printing the copies of the script. I had also sourced continuous paper, that I purchased as heavy boxes, each of which provided the material for about 70 copies. I also purchased black printer ribbons that I could use for printing 20 copies until the ink faded. I would then roll the copies and send them to the individuals who acquired them on the social media or through Amazon. Here is a snapshot of the list of files that were created.

Each one of these unique files contains an engraved ID and looks like below. Click on the image to enlarge.

At the time of writing of this text, 91 copies of have been acquired. From these, 59 copies have been shipped and 52 copies have been delivered. Except for Africa, has arrived in every other continent, in total to 12 countries. Click on the image to enlarge or visit the flattened map here.

A lot more could be said about Some of it is documented in the @Kamangir channel on Telegram. Instead of dwelling on this completed work, however, I will be spending my time on a second project that is still in its infancy. wish.mp3 will be a larger text, to be printed both in the conventional book format as well as the limited script style. It contains 1+11+1 chapters with the middle chapters acting as semi-independent narratives. The book utilizes an elevated regime of automation, with a separate Python script providing the back-end. While resided on a linear scale of 0..256, wish.mp3 takes the readers to a three-dimensional space that utilizes encryption in order to protect the script IDs.

I will be posting additional information on wish.mp3 on its tracker and also in @Kamangir.

The Lure of the Ordinary

My parents are visiting me. This is the third time that they have travelled to Canada, from Iran, and, therefore, we have gotten used to the drill: don’t get into too many details, don’t discuss too many controversial issues too frequently, and, most importantly, focus on commonalities. Hence, Doug Ford’s reversal of sex education developments is to be touched lightly and Bruce McArthur is only a passing interest. The geographical distance has ushered us into intellectual differences and this by itself is an interesting topic for a conversation over some beer and sweet potato fries. The fact that people think more similarly when they are situated in similar circumstances is, to my understanding, a very good piece of evidence for questioning one’s authority over one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. In other words, if A and B’s geometrical proximity is a good predictor of their shared beliefs, then one should ask how much authority either A or B has over how “they” think. But this is not the reason that I rushed to my laptop as soon as my parents left the apartment in order to attend to finding a couch for me, a presumably innocuous task that, I hope, will give them a sense of purpose and thus result in a more enjoyable stay for them. This is not about that, however. This is about 158 and this is about 168, both incrementing as I am typing this piece and as you are reading it.

I have been a resident of the different social media for what started with Orkut and then continued with Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and a few other online services. I can safely say that not one week has passed without me posting some content on at least one social media service. I have also written about the social media and the dynamics present in them as blog posts as well as more “serious” pieces for online magazines and media outlets. I can state, therefore, albeit cautiously, that I have casually investigated the dynamics of the social media and that I have attempted my share of experimentation hereto. From using the multiple-image feature in Instagram in order to capture motion in a scene, to attaching an image to a tweet in order to be able to surpass the 140 (and now 280) character limit, I have tried to both take use of this young phenomenon that has now engulfed a measurable portion of the humanity as well as to understand it. The social media, however, never ceases to amaze me. And this is about the latest incident as such.

I marked July 29th a few weeks ago on my calendar, as the day my parents would arrive from Iran. This was a Sunday, and, therefore, I spent the rest of the week until Friday evening as I would do otherwise. On Friday night I had a few friends get together for a potluck barbecue that, due to the pouring rain, and because another group had contemplated taking refuge in the gazebo in my building’s backyard sooner, digressed into a stay-in lower-key party with wine flowing and shots of St-Germain delighting everyone’s mood. That kept me up until late into the night, and, therefore, Saturday was the day to clean up the entire apartment. A great friend of mine also stayed behind in order to help me and the clean-up project took up until late into the evening. That was when we retreated back to St-Germain and the night collapsed. The next morning, I woke up at 7:30 and tied up the loose ends.  When at about 4pm I stepped back to look at the results, I was wholesomely satisfied, and I was accompanied in this delight by Sion, my seven-year-old cat. His posture was too cute for me to let go of, however. Therefore, I took three pictures of him and posted the results on Instagram (link). In the first and the third pictures he is seated on a high chair. In the second one, he is yawning, as if tired of doing some magnificent work, that he never attends to in reality.

The Persian title of the Instagram post reads “After three days of cleaning up, in which he had no role.” The Instagram post is 19 hours old and it has received 160 likes. Let’s call them “nods of approval”. When I started writing this piece, the Instagram post had received 158 nods. The people who have given me jolts of pleasure for the trio constitute a curious group among whom stands, boldly and unapologetically, the second love of my life. The Instagram post is not the end of the story, however,

A few hours later, after I drove my parents back home and after we had had dinner in an Iranian restaurant in downtown Richmond Hill, I posted a second picture, this time in Facebook. In the picture my parents are standing, each with a red rose, and are smiling at the camera. I took the picture primarily for my sisters to know of our parents well being, and ended up posting it on Facebook anyways. The title of the Facebook post reads “Mother and father are here. I will be a family person for a month.” You need to be intimately familiar with the delicacies of the Persian language in order to absorb the deeper layers of this seemingly benign sentence. But that is not necessary. What is important is that 174 people have given me the nod of approval for that post. When I started writing this piece that number was 168.

There is nothing criminal about people approving each others’ actions when what is in question relates to welcoming a parent, going out with them, and, for what it takes, having a family life. These are actions that we enjoy, albeit the sought after vicinity of the same individuals becomes a suffocating leash as the number of the days grows. Why bother to discuss this matter then? People share their lives on the social media and people, the same people, give each other nods of approval. There are complications, of course. One example is the case of the 13-year-old Calgary boy who is suing his parents for “a decade of humiliation” exemplified by silly pictures of the claimant having been posted by his parents o the social media and thus “ruining my reputation”.

Ignoring rarities, what is wrong with sharing information about one’s ordinary life and receiving approval from one’s peers? The problem, I believe, is concentrated in the word “ordinary”.

I have not done any thorough research on the topic of what people share on the social media and what receives the most attention (I did look at Facebook IQ). Based on anecdotes and non-scientific personal observations, however,  my understanding is that eating at a restaurant, getting on a cruise ship, sunbathing, driving in Mexico, winning some award, getting married, and other topics of similar nature constitute the biggest share of the pie of the total attention paid to everything that is posted on the social media. My picture of the yawning Sion as well as the airport picture of my parents’ arrival sits well in this vaguely defined group. Notwithstanding, in terms of the aftermath, they indeed are an exception in the size of the reaction that I commonly receive on the social media. What I am used to is 80 likes on Instagram and 30 likes on Facebook, and, more importantly, these rewards are what I receive for a painstakingly taken shot, on Instagram, and a multiple-line blurb about the book that I am reading, on Facebook. Given that situation, it is no doubt an exception when I receive a reward many times larger for a piece of “content” that I have practically spent no time on. Speak of return on investment! No doubt the ordinary is significantly more economic when it comes to others’ reactions. And, I believe that’s how the full circle is completed. I explain.

I find it safe to assume that around me, i.e. in Canada, if not in the rest of the “developed” world, a sizable portion of human activity is driven, and more importantly is regulated, by considerations of return on investment. I would even step further and suggest that such considerations are so prevalent that the mere suggestion of their existence is alien to many people. This condition opens up the space for the provider of the return, which in this case is the crowd that “like”s what gets posted on the social media, to exert its defining power. Henceforth, and this is where the ordinary is cherished and rewarded, what people like in the social media is what people share in the social media. Therefore, if people allot more reward to “I just ate sushi” compared to “I just read a book”, then more people are going to share “I just ate sushi” compared to the number of people who would share “I just read a book”. This situation, I am speculating, subsequently develops further into not only sharing “I just ate sushi” more frequently, but also, and more importantly, in fact practicing the act of “I just ate sushi” more commonly compared to committing one’s time to “I just read a book”. One needs to merely consider the investment and the return associated with these two activities in order to realize that eating sushi is more affordable than reading a book whilst it also derives more return.

I am not going to draw any further conclusions in addition to what I have already stated. People celebrate the ordinary on the social media, therefore people discuss the ordinary more prevalently on the social media, therefore the same people steer their lives more prominently towards the ordinary. And that’s how the lure of the ordinary conquers our lives.

High Correlation: Or why you should not pay for marijuana using your credit card

You have spent the past 15 minutes in the back room of Café 66 on Fort York Boulevard in Toronto in utter fascination, staring at jar after jar of the green substance ever so beautifully packaged and presented on the shop shelves. You are now informed by the hip, young man behind the counter that “the seventh gram is on the house.” Indeed, this shop, at least on the surface, does not appear categorically different from any other shop wherein goods are exchanged for money. And that is how you might treat the upscale marijuana dispensary south of Toronto—like any other establishment. If you pay for your weed using your credit card, however, you have committed the most dreadful carelessness of the age of Machine Learning: you have provided the machine with a “link.”

A very good friend of mine took me on a tour of the “café”, and as she spoke at length with the shopkeepers about the properties of the high caused by different strains of weed, I tried to grasp the true nature of the place I was in. The roof was covered with closed-circuit cameras. Above the only door to the room with the product was a monitor showing the video feed of the camera installed just outside the room. Soon I also noticed the weak sound of a buzzer and realized why we had to ring in and wait for the mechanical click of the door lock.

My friend received a pitch–black, childproof bag, inside which individual pitch–black, childproof bags contained the different strains that she had purchased. She then reached for her purse and paid in cash. I had seen her use her credit card in shadier places. As we left, I could not stop myself from asking her if she was really concerned, for example, that news of her purchase might reach her insurance company. “There are strict privacy laws in this land, you know!” I said. “I would like to believe that you are right,” she replied. “However, that is only the most obvious way that this purchase can cost me dearly.” She then continued, under her breath, “and probably the most benign.”

Imagine a list of a few hundred million people, and imagine that linkage has been made between the credit card purchases of everyone on the list and the “unfortunate events” that have afflicted those individuals. An “unfortunate event,” in this context, can refer to anything from being involved in a car accident, to declaring bankruptcy, to getting a divorce. Now, imagine that privacy measures have been taken into account and that purchases are anonymized. In other words, given any individual of interest, one can only know that this individual spends her money on products and services offered by businesses A, B, and C; one does not know what line of business these establishments are in. For example, A might correspond to Café 66, B might correspond to Istanbul Café, and C might correspond to the gas station at the corner of Dundas and Church. So, any customer of Café 66 who has used her credit card in that premises would be linked with business A; however, no one knows what business A actually represents. Can this situation be considered “hazardous”?

Let’s assume that marijuana usage is correlated with risk-taking. If that is, in fact, the case, it is possible to imagine that the rate of occurrence of “unfortunate events” is significantly higher within the customer base of Café 66. This is where the link between Jane Doe and A becomes valuable to the machine for deriving an inference: because “unfortunate events” are assumed to be more likely between individuals linked with A, and although every other piece of information indicates that Jane Doe is a good driver, a careful spender, and in a happy relationship, for example, Jane’s link with A points to a heightened probability of future trouble. Therefore, Jane Doe is to be handled cautiously. When she applies for a mortgage, she is considered a higher-risk individual, and her insurance premium may rise ever so slightly.

The scenario depicted above is not the worst case, however. The situation becomes more concerning when the more cautious of the risk-takers start taking notice of the activities of the silent silicon surveyors and change their payment method in Café 66 and similar establishments. Such an imaginable and, frankly, optimal strategy will then strengthen the significance of a link with A. In other words, those linked with A are the ultimate risk-takers; they are the ones who take more brazen risks. And so increases the penalty of the mistake of paying at Café 66 with your credit card.

During his stay in Zion, Neo went on a midnight stroll with Councillor Hamann. While observing the marvelous machinery of the Engineering Level, Hamann queried Neo on his understanding of the concept of “control.” Hamann had trouble accepting the fact that life in Zion was only possible because machines tended to the needs of the occupants of the last human city on planet Earth. To him, it was only ironic that other machines were digging in in order to destroy the underground covenant. In response, Neo opined that one controls an entity only as long as one can turn that entity off.

The time for turning Machine Learning off has long passed, and the justification for doing so is even more distant. The situation is, in fact, even more ironic than Matrix Reloaded. One may argue that, today, one needs to start thinking the way the machine does in order to survive. And this, ironically, completes the circle. Humankind aspired to replicate its own cognitive abilities in order to delegate menial tasks to its creation. It now appears, however, that man is forced to adopt the machine’s way of “thinking” in order to survive the reign of its own creation.

Acknowledgment: This text has been proofread by A. I wish to thank her.

The Missing Iranians at the Israeli-Iranian Initiative at the Agha Khan Museum

Saturday night, at the Agha Khan Museum in Toronto, Israeli and Iranian musicians joined hands in order to play pieces of music from two cultures that have been in antagonistic face-off at least since the 1978 Iranian revolution.

One in fact might be seduced to adopt the heartwarming assumption that the sore relationship between the two people is strictly and explicitly a matter between the two corresponding governments. As such, one would then possibly posit that it suffices to crack open the strangling fists of the Iranian establishment off the neck of the great nation taken hostage by it, and then watch a flourishing relationship between the said nation and the rest of the world. Given that theory, an Israeli-Iranian joint venture of the shape and content that unveiled in that beautiful glowing building on Eglinton East must have attracted a larger Iranian audience. The only difficulty is that it didn’t.

The program consisted of two sections, each lasting 45 minutes. While the first section did include a few Iranian pieces as well, the second section was composed exclusively of pieces of Iranian music. The out-of-this-world combination of Iranian and Israeli music, presented by a group of Israeli and Iranian musicians, reached a surreal apex, however, when the last piece in the roster was announced. Submerged in applauds of gratitude and shouts of excitement coming from the audience, the leader of the band stated that the group will play Morq-e Sahar. The highly political Iranian piece of music, which is based upon a poem by the “King of Poets” Mohammad-Taqi Bahar, is a “summary of hopes and fears” of the Persian Constitutional Revolution. More recently, Morq-e Sahar has become a signature piece of resistance music in Iran, and it’s no surprise that Iranians would relate with lines such as “The brutality of the oppressor, the cruelty of the hunter has destroyed my nest” (full text).

The announcement that Morq-e Sahar is to be played next, stirred a roar form the audience. More particularly, islands in the theatre erupted in mixtures of applaud and joy. Aside from feeling joyous, and even somewhat proud, I was also taken aback by the fact that it appeared as if the Iranian presence in the venue might be more limited that I had assumed.

“Where on earth can you listen to a group of Iranians and Israelis playing Arabic music?” This was the rhetorical question that a prominent Jewish-Iranian acquaintance asked when a small group of the Iranian attendees got together during the intermission. This exhilarating suggestion, however, was followed by a bitter questions about the absence of the Iranians in the concert. That was when I added that Abjeez did not find a large audience last night either. The duo sisters’ pop band plays music while voicing lyrics that are intimately charged with social and political messages, and although their performance was scheduled on a Friday night and at a club, the audience seemed to be limited to less than 200 people. I asked the group at the Agha Khan concert, whether there is a connection between the two events. Could it be possible that the Iranian diaspora has developed its taste away from content and closer to “Dumbool”, as a person in the group suggested? Dumbool in Iranian slang for music that lacks content and is a good excuse for shaking one’d body without the hazard of stumbling upon any hurdle that might involve one’s cranial content.

Left out with more questions than answers, I took to the social media in order to discover the reason(s) behind the Iranian absence from “All Rivers at Once”, as the event was titled.

A number of responders stated that one needs to focus on the presenter of the program, and not its content, in order to decipher the situation. As suggested, Agha Khan’s outreach program, the fact that it is an Islamic center, the location of the venue, and other aspects related to the Agha Khan Museum, function as prohibiting factors and limit its Iranian audience. I don’t think I can relate with that argument, because I have witnessed larger Iranian presence at other times in the center.

Another suggestion was the ticket price and the availability of other cultural events that coincide with any particular one. It definitely is a “concern”, albeit a first world one, that I have had to choose between different cultural events that occur at the same time and at the two ends of the city. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any other concert, play, or film screening that covered the same period as the Agha Khan concert. The issue with the price ticket, on the other hand, does hold some water. One can argue that $40 is a substantial amount of money for a recent emigrant or an Iranian refugee. Notwithstanding, I find it hard to accept that only less than fifty Iranians could afford to pay $40 for a performance that is categorically novel.

Moreover, I would argue, that affordability is a relative concept. I remember when I complained to a fellow Iranian theatre actress that $60 is too expensive a price for the cheapest ticket to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Her, rather irritated, response was that a person in my financial standing would pay $60 on a night out with friends, a pair of jeans, or a new gadget that I practically don’t need. Hence, she continued, it is not that “you cannot afford to pay for the ticket”, but that “you value this play inferior to your other options”. I went to that play, and having read the play, and having watched a video recording of the play beforehand, I found the experience the most exhilarating.

One must not succumb to the simplistic assumption that the financial affluence of the inhabitants of Yonge Street in Toronto is also prevalent on Jane and Finch. Nevertheless, Toronto contains too many Iranian home-owners with hefty mortgages and top of the line cars and shiny iphones and brand-name clothes to not be able to produce a hundred concert goers who can ditch out $40 per person.

The final suggestion came from a friend who is active in the Iranian music industry in Toronto.  He made a rather sarcastic comment that might in fact be the best theory that explains the absence of the Iranian delegation on Saturday night. “On the other hand, Hamed Homayoun is fully sold out and a second performance has been scheduled as well!!!” he wrote (the triple exclamation points are used by the original author of the comment). The referenced singer of “The Wet Umbrella”, “And I am in Love”, and “Love again”, seems to be faced with no difficulty in filling up the 3191 seats of Sony Center, some of which are sold for $165.

After the Saturday concert finished, and after the standing ovation for the musicians, I spent a short while discussing the event with a few Iranian and non-Iranian participants and headed to a friend’s place to finish off the night at the presence of a lovely group of friends, wherein we listened to and danced with Dumbool music, including a few pieces by Hamed Homayoun as well. On my mind, however, the question lingered: Why was the Iranians diaspora absent from the night?

I woke up Sunday morning with the same question on my mind an ended up going to the fascinating Istanbul Café to clarify my thoughts. On the way back, I stepped into the north branch of BMV bookstore to look for the next book that I will potentially read. A few seconds in the bookstore and I realized that I am listening to pieces of Iranian music dating before the revolution. Checking up the cashier, I had no doubt that this white man cannot in any way understand the lyrics and grasp the cultural context. Finally I had to ask, and received a most convincing answer. Apparently, the shopkeeper stumbles upon an Iranian CD at a record store and follows the trace of similar pieces of music and finds some so interesting that he indulges in playing them aloud at his hip bookstore on the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton on this chilly night.

The Iranian diaspora in Toronto is a curious case in cultural relationship, and sometimes lack thereof. In one direction, the non-Iranian community has taken notice of the Iranian presence on the land and mixed cultural events and collaborations have sprung up. As such, not only Zuze recreates Iranian folk pieces for a non-Iranian audience, but also, and more importantly, it recruits non-Iranian musicians and musical instruments for the task. At a more subtle level, the Circle Band uses non-Iranian musicians and pieces of Iranian music are played during the Canada 150 celebrations at the Nathan Philips Square.

While the highway of cultural interactions seems to be growing and vibrant from the outside towards the depths of the Iranian culture, the other pathway does not appear to be as animated. One must not limit the scope of the alleged lack of interest to non-Farsi plays and musical performances. In fact, many Farsi-speaking plays in Toronto have to accept that they will not run for more than a few times and that at none of those occasions they will enjoy a sell-out. And that is the big dilemma.

The Iranian establishment is no doubt a massive hurdle on the way of Iranian involvement with rich non-Iranian cultural activities. Outside the geographical borders of Iran, however, the same people seems to be following virtually the same forced habits. In essence, there is no doubt that an Iranian-Israeli musical collaboration inside Iran is out of the question, but why would Iranians not attend one that is happening in their city out of the evil reach of the “cruel hunter” that “oppresses” them, as Morq-e Sahar’s lyrics suggest?

One is left with the question, whether the apparent outside oppressor is merely a mirage and that some more thorough soul-searching is needed in order to identify the actual culprit. On the same note, is “The Regime” an entity that is confined within the borders of the geographical entity known as Iran, or is it possible that there exists a more deeply rooted phenomenon that Iranians transport with them, even after they pass a continent and an ocean and land in a foreign land?

Picture: (c) Agha Khan Museum

The Missing Millions of Tomans; Observations from the CineIran 2017 Festival

I have watched five Iranian films in the past thirty hours. And these are strictly Iranian films, as in not films in which an outsider narrates what “could have happened” in Iran. I have spent about eight hours, between 7pm Friday and right before midnight Saturday, watching films that are made in Iran. The five films in reference not only tell a story about Iran, but also, and more importantly, the films that I watched are exactly what is screened in Iran in cinemas, and they make sense to the average Iranian and are in fact produced to address them. In other words, “Ferrari” is not another “The Stoning of Soraya M”, and “Blockage” is categorically different from “Tehran Taboo”. And that makes the line-up of CineIran 2017 Festival even more valuable.

In addition to “Ferrari” and “Blockage”, I also watched “Boarding Pass”, “Yellow”, and “Sara and Darya”. In short, the word “Million Tomans” appears to be a key component in every contemporary Iranian story. That is of course if “Billion Tomans” is not occupying the spotlight.

The girl in “Ferrari” has travelled from a village in the North to Tehran in search of a Ferrari that is owned by the rich and exuberant Sajjad. While she seems to be fascinated by the beauty of the Red Ferrari, she in fact repeatedly insists that the car is worth eight billion Tomans. The viewer is of course reminded that her subject of affection may in fact materialize in Sajjad, whom may actually be the physical manifestation of an intersubjective reality that is determined by the size of one’s bank account.

In “Blockage” affection is towards the truck that the protagonist of the film is trying to obtain. Having had a history of drunk driving and while he does not even have the appropriate driver’s license for the truck, he has an earful for anyone slightly interested that the truck will provide for him and the love of his life an stable income that they have lacked during a decade of marriage. In his push towards getting his hands on the protection of metal against the brutality of life, the main character in “Blockage” risks everything and the viewer is left with the hope that he is salvaged through cashing in on someone else’s property. The sad part is that the spectator in fact sympathizes with the necessity of stealing from the invisible other in order to protect what is within one’s perimeter in contemporary Iran.

“Boarding Pass” is an explicit dive into the core of desperation, wherein the female character of the film is turning paler by the minute as small packages in her stomach leak cocaine. She is accompanied in her trip to death in the streets of Tehran by her male co-conspirator, where the duo watch videos of each other’s children and share personal stories. The protagonist of “Boarding Pass” dies on the seat of a modern bus during the dawn of a gray sun over cleanly washed streets of Tehran.

If the female character of “Boarding Pass” had in fact chosen, under distress and with no other viable option, to utilize her body as her boarding pass to a better life in Turkey, the fate of the male character in “Yellow” is dictated by his liver, and of his bank account. After a severe complication, the man is dying in the hospital and the only available liver belongs to a brain-dead man whose son demands a hundred million Tomans for signing the papers that allow the transplantation. The money is eventually collected, for four million Tomans of which it is implied that the man’s wife provides sexual favors to a peeping neighbour, and for six million Tomans of which she calls on a rival lover of her husband and pretends to be his sister. Nevertheless, the transfer of the money does not result in the transfer of the liver. It turns out that the collector of the fortune cannot in fact legally authorize the extraction of the liver and the man in distress dies on his bed with a trace of his wife’s lipstick on his right cheek.

Having watched four films, all of which in one way or another magnified the role of financial affluence, or in fact lack thereof, in the life of the average Iranian, it was not a surprise for me that “Sara and Darya” concerned debt accumulated by a son, who has since escaped the country, and his sister’s attempts to save herself and her mother from the creditors.

Why is there so much sorrow in these five films? Why is everyone missing a few hundreds of millions of Tomans? Why is everyone under so much stress that when the film ends I am left with the guilty, yet happy, thought that I am in fact luckier and happier than a large number of Iranians in Iran? And maybe that is in fact the main point?

One can trace the chaotic and abusive situation of contemporary Iran to either “The Mullahs” or western and foreign hostility and the sanctions. To my understanding, either argument holds a good amount of water. Independent of the culprit, or culprits, however, I am left with the thought that the current situation in Iran in fact conditions the inhabitants of that land with feelings of insecurity and a heightened sense of being in danger. This might in fact explain the Iranian psyche, not only within the geographical borders of Iran, but also at the diaspora, and more particularly in Toronto.

Within this line of thinking, there should be no surprise that a first step for the Iranian petit bourgeois in Toronto is to obtain a heavy mortgage and to land on a house in the farthest outskirts of the GTA. The observation that the average Iranian is a real estate agent, unless she is not, is no inexplicable matter either. The average Iranian in Canada has experienced financial difficulty in the homeland and seeks some sense of security in a foreign land. In fact, her primary reason for taking upon herself the cumbersome path of immigrating to the other side of the planet might have been more economical than else. As a bookseller slash physician in “Boarding Pass” suggests in passing, one needs to have a functioning economy in order to elevate societal norms. Whether or not this statement is correct, many Iranian expats may have taken it at face value and might have made the most important decision in their life based on it.

Tehran Taboo: The Taboo of Speaking about Tehran in Toronto

The drama surrounding Tehran Taboo started for me even before it was screened in the International Diaspora Film Festival (IDFF) in Toronto on Thursday.

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Montreal, in order to let my brain ease off some of the stress that it had endured recently due to work and other engagements. There, while drinking great wine on my friend’s balcony, in the presence of old friends and newly found friends, all of whom were Iranian, I heard of a film named Tehran Taboo that had stirred some controversy. Some individuals in the audience had watched the film before and were, albeit cautiously, referring to it as a “must-see film”.

The trip concluded with a last minute visit to the SAQ, in order to obtain multiple bottles of a rare, yet not overly priced, $18-a-bottle California wine that LCBO does not carry and I practically forgot Tehran Taboo until I purchased the pass to IDFF and noticed that the first film on the row is Tehran Taboo.

On Thursday, a small group of us convened at the amazingly old-smelling Carlton cinema on Carlton street in Toronto. The cinema has become, in recent years, a meeting place for the section of the Iranian diaspora in Toronto that is interested in Iranian affairs. For one, IDFF has been held in that cinema in the past few years. Additionally, the same group of people gathers up, as if driven by an inaudible, yet bold, call, every first Wednesday of the month, in order to watch the latest installment of the Docunight series. On this particular night, however, we had a special guest, and I assume that her presence, at a symbolic level, manifested a big portion of “what is wrong” with Tehran Taboo.

At seven thirty we were seated in the small theater. To my right was a long-term Iranian friend, who has gone through rounds of immigration and diasporic experiences. A new arrival in Canada, he has endured the many gates, and holding centers, that taking refuge in Europe involves passing through and staying in. To my left, however, sat a person who had experienced Iran only a few weeks before. This individual, having been born into a non-Iranian family in the prairies, had, most probably, the weakest connecting bonds with Iran, and yet, she had spent two weeks touring Iran and visiting a few Bazaars and a Zoorkhaneh, where she was wondering if one should clap to the rhythm of the “music”. Further to my left, and in front of me, and behind me, were the members of the Iranian diaspora in Toronto.

No one was expecting this film, and very much so this festival, to be a fun-ride in some imaginary version of Iran in which “everything is calm, and I wonder why so lucky I am”, as a cheesy Persian pop song suggests. Nevertheless, when the film ended, one could clearly hear the grumbles coming from around the cinema. To my right, my great friend, who is most critical of not only the Iranian political establishment, but also the Iranian culture and psyche, was turning around in fury in his seat. “This is nonsense, a compilation of everything that is wrong with that society, condensed to the extreme, and beyond, so that the director can sell tickets.”

As we stepped out of the cinema and into the main lobby, groups of Iranians had gathered in circles, and you could hear, and even notice from the postures, that the film had divided people into two camps. The majority had found at least one thing that was totally wrong with the film, assuming that they did not call it the most irrelevant rubbish, as I heard one person say. One friend compared the film to the 1991 torments of Betty Mahmoody and her eventual escape from Iran in Not Without My Daughter. Another compared it to Zack Snyder’s 300. Both films are regarded as anti-Iran cheap propaganda in many Iranian circles.

A few nights later, at a great friend’s party, the seismic waves that Tehran Taboo had created were still evident. In between chatting and drinking wine and devouring exquisite Persian dishes, we found time to discuss the film, and the general opinion was that the film is rubbish, although rubbish that is worth spending and hour and half on.

Whether or not many of the members of the audience liked the film, or even if they hated it all the way through, Tehran Taboo is an opportunity for the diasporic community to go through a journey of self-reflection. That’s why we seized the moment and scheduled an event, in a local bar in Tehranto, to discuss the film. “The unlikeable Tehran Taboo”, as it is called, is scheduled for the Thursday after the next, and going through the list of participants on the Facebook page of the event, one can guarantee that the discussion will be lively and multi-faceted.

This post will have a sequel.