Category: Tehranto

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.