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

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