There are more than 100,000 Iranians in the greater Vancouver area, with most of them concentrated on the city’s North Shore. This city, with its proximity to the mountains, sea and lush greenery, first become a magnet for Iranians during the 1980s. It reminded them of both the sought-after neighbourhood of Evin in North Tehran and the resort area near the Caspian Sea.
A small Persian community existed in Vancouver as early as the 1950s, with a post-revolution influx in 1979, but it has really only been since the late 1980s that Iranians have settled here in significant numbers, many of them fleeing post-revolution economic hardship and restrictions on personal freedoms. Today, while not as populous as LA’s Tehrangeles neighbourhoods, post 9/11 and Trumpian restrictions on emigration have seen Vancouver become increasingly popular as a milder climate, West Coast alternative to the East.
In fact, a ten-block strip of an area called Lonsdale, in North Vancouver, feels a bit like a portal into Tehran. Once home to Glaswegians, who arrived during the mid-century to work in the ship-building industry, the area is full of Farsi signage and a plethora of Persian shops, cafés and restaurants.
Eateries with names such as Zeitoun (olive), Yaas, Casbah and Rumi House offer mouth-watering kebabs and Persian delicacies such as cherry beef and fesenjoon (chicken with walnut sauce) beckon hungry shoppers.
A fast-food stand with the bilingual name Grab and Go/Begirobaba feeds those in a hurry. Persian grocers sell food imported from the motherland, from crushed pomegranate seeds to thick yoghurts, cherry juice and pistachios, while speciality butchers and bakers provide fresh meat and sweets. Within three city blocks, the epicentre of Vancouver’s Iranian scene, there’s everything one needs to create a New World Persian feast.
‘I get more sabohers than “good mornings”,’ says Alex Morabi, who runs a dollar store on the strip. ‘I’ve been here for 17 years and the numbers just keep growing. We feel this is like a home away from home.’ It’s not just the lure of the mountains, the sea and the greenery, which recall the Caspian Sea or northern Tehran, he says, but also a sense of security.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Renowned Iranian architect and Bahá’í, 79-year-old Hossein Amanat, known for his design of Tehran’s iconic Shahyad Tower (renamed ‘Azadi’ in 1979), has made his home here since 1980. Many prominent members of Iran’s government have also sought refuge here, or have at least bought up houses in the area’s heated real estate market. Such residences offer safe escape options should things go south politically, as they are apt to do in Iran.
Far from his native Tehran in bucolic West Vancouver, Parviz Tanavoli, the 84-year-old ‘father of modern Iranian sculpture’, contemplates the fate of his homeland. ‘My heart breaks when I see what is happening in Iran now,’ says the renowned artist, who divides his time between a life of relative obscurity on Canada’s Pacific coast, and Tehran, where he’s referred to simply as ‘Master Tanavoli’. His career has spanned the fall of empires and the dawn of revolutions, patronage by Empress Farah Diba, and the mentoring of hundreds of students, as well as decades of journeys between the Middle East and the West. ‘But this is the worst time I remember,’ he relates, ‘worse than the eight-year war with Iraq.’
Iran has been devastated, he says, by the twin terrors of Covid-19 and Western sanctions, combined with the dramatic decline in the price of oil. ‘People have lost their jobs,’ he explains. ‘They have no work, no income, and the US sanctions [reimposed by Donald Trump and not yet lifted by Joe Biden] make it worse.’ The government, he says, crippled by endemic corruption, simply doesn’t have the resources to help its citizens.
But as the Iranian people are once again caught in the crossfire of realpolitik and still beleaguered by the pandemic, Tanavoli has found a unique way to assist them through his artwork. Impressed by the stoicism of Iranian health care workers in the face of adversity and moved by the plight of hospitals that lacked equipment to fight the coronavirus, last year Tanavoli designed a limited-edition series of medallions, measuring just over two inches by two inches, in silver and bronze. A way to draw attention to both the sanctions-plagued public healthcare system, which was once robust but has ‘suffered from two years of the worst sanctions under Trump’, and Iranian culture, the medallions sold out in less than a week. Snapped up primarily by members of the Iranian diaspora, they raised more than US$90,000 for medical aid in Iran.
Tanavoli, one of the pioneers of Iran’s mid-century neotraditional Saqqakhaneh art movement, which fuses folkloric tradition with contemporary idioms, and famous for his emblematic work around the concept of heech – or ‘nothingness’ – has also left his mark in his adopted homeland. In 2005, his Heech in a Cage became a symbol of protest against the incarceration of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. In 2016, a 15-foot version in steel was installed at the entrance to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Last spring, an even larger version, at 18 feet high, was installed in the plaza of a new residential tower in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. Commissioned by the prominent Iranian Malekyazdi family, once the biggest developers in Iran but who now run the Millennium Development company in Vancouver, this sculpture is now part of the city of Burnaby’s permanent art collection. Not without some irony, considering its name, its unveiling was delayed by the pandemic. It stands alone now in an empty plaza, contemplating beingness and nothingness in a fusion of Sufism and Sartre.
For Tanavoli, whose work has been exhibited at Tate Modern and the British Museum, his anonymity in Vancouver provides a happy balance with the intensity of his life in Tehran. ‘I have a good studio in Tehran,’ he recounts, ‘with many assistants – which I don’t have here. But the peace I have here is impossible in Iran, where life is exciting but turbulent.’
In fact, Master Tanavoli, after having his home in Tehran ransacked and his art stolen under the rule of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and being detained by Iranian authorities during a 2016 visit due to a dispute over the sale of one his sculptures, was subsequently honoured in the summer of 2017, after the election of Hassan Rouhani, with an exhibition of his work at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. At age 84, it’s easy to see why he might prefer the relative calm of his home by the sea, an updated classic by Vancouver’s renowned architect Arthur Erickson.
I experienced this turbulence for myself during a visit to Iran in 1997 to attend the Fajr Film Festival, where, thanks to genes inherited from my Syrian Christian great-grandparents, who fled Ottoman-era oppression for Canada in 1906, I passed for an Iranian. This proved advantageous when it came to getting invited for tea by ladies I met while swimming at a pool in Evin, but not so great when it came to casual flouting of strict Rafsanjani-era hijab regulations. When I was invited for dinner by the head of the Tehran Cinematheque, he asked me to babysit his children at the entrance of the local supermarket while he went to buy some rice and vegetables. As they played contentedly on one of the coin-operated horse rides, a grandmotherly type took it upon herself to come over and scold me. Even with my limited Farsi, her wagging finger and accusatory pointing at the hair slipping out from under my headscarf and then at the children playing on the horses, spoke volumes. I wasn’t only immodest but also a bad mother! I could only reply with a shoulder shrug, a hand to my heart and the words ‘Canada, Canada!’ repeated like some salvatory mantra, until she backed off, shaking her head in disdain.
Back then, it was something of a relief to return home to the laissez-faire West Coast. But soon, the freedom of being able to expose one’s mane of hair and fleshy bits in public was undermined by the total indifference of passersby and the unsmiling patrons at Starbucks who refused to share communal newspapers, guarding them as if they were state secrets. After a week of this, I almost felt nostalgic for the religious police (then called pasdaran, now called the ‘guidance patrol’) who at the very least actually cared about what I wore and where I went.
In reality, however, it wasn’t the morality squads I longed for, but the indomitable Persian spirit and culture that defied all kinds of odds. Back in the antiseptic safety of Vancouver, I remembered all the ways in which Iran was good. In spite of the excesses of its regime, the people I’d met were kindhearted, generous and fun loving. Even the bearded heavies at the Fajr festival who hassled me about my clumsy hijab had taken it upon themselves to present me with a birthday cake lit with candles. Since it was okay for men to sing in public, they had even enthusiastically, and rather surreally, sung happy birthday to me.
Luckily, that was when I discovered a brave new Persian world in Vancouver. With childhood memories of bullying and racist slurs at the hands of pale, freckle-faced field hockey players at my elementary school (mainly monochromatic during the 1970s) still haunting me, I decided one day to go for a walk on the West Vancouver sea wall. Amazingly, instead of little old ladies in Burberry scowling disapprovingly, I was met with friendly salams by gorgeous young Iranians. Talk about a sea change.
SCULPTURE AND MUSIC
Today, Iranians are part of the civic fabric, although Vancouver is certainly not immune to Iranian political fallout. One of the biggest political thorns in Canada’s side resulted from the 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei, in Vancouver, at the request of US authorities, for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran. Her arrest has led to the direct tit-for-tat imprisonment of two Canadian nationals in China.
And of course, ongoing sanctions and political turmoil continue to affect the lives of many in Vancouver’s Iranian community. There are still protests and vigils concerning the downing by Revolutionary Guards of the passenger jet full of Iranian-Canadians in January 2020 as it took off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport – some five days after the US assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani – killing all 176 on board. Inevitably and poignantly, these protests happen in the same three-block nexus of Upper Lonsdale, where all of the restaurants and grocers serve up food that tastes like home.
But Iranian resilience is legendary, stemming largely from the richness of Persian culture. It’s not only visual artists who are enhancing the local scene. While LA is home to a still-thriving Iranian pop industry that churns out digital versions of once-forbidden cassettes, Vancouver has become a hub for Persian classical music. Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, the late, great master of Persian classical singing and outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, whose melodious performances of poems by Hafez and Rumi filled theatres with enraptured fans for decades before his passing last year, had a house here, and his youngest son was born in Vancouver in 1997. Hossein Behroozinia, Iran’s most famous player of the barbat or Persian lute, set up a music school here called Nava Arts Centre, where Iranian and Canadian students can study traditional music, singing and even calligraphy. Amir Koushkani, who also teaches at the school, has composed works for the tar and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, bringing together East and West.
Visual representations of this confluence of cultures abound in the city. Consider the latest installation by young Iranian-Canadian sculptor Kambiz Sharif – who owns a local foundry where Tanavoli has cast many of his works – called Need. Commissioned for the 2020 Vancouver Biennale, the sculpture explores the theme of the immigrant experience and draws connections between different cultures. Weighing 1.2 tonnes and measuring five metres tall, the work is made of 48 cast pieces. Situated at a key downtown site, it sits across from a former First Nations village and in front of seminal Canadian architect Arthur Erickson’s Evergreen Building, a 1975 concrete office tower (and a sculpture in its own right), with cascading green ivy pouring over balconies. Sharif says his work is a ‘re-imaging [of] the untold and unknown desires of myself and other immigrants’. Need (on view until 2022) is the first public work in Vancouver for Sharif, who moved here in 2009.
Need consists of a luminous globe with sharply angled tentacles reaching out for a sense of belonging, of connection, of home. Sharif chose bronze because, as he explains, ‘it is a hard object with a soft, mirror-like appearance that can – for a moment – register and then turn back into its environment. Anybody, depending on one’s point of view, may experience the reflection of self in their surrounding environment.’
That reflection of self in Vancouver’s environment is growing. Sharif’s wife, Shahrzad Khatami, is now the lead architect for the proposed new 12-storey Biennale Centre in the city’s Olympic Village, and last year, the Vancouver Biennale invited Iranian artist Mamali Shafahi to create a virtual reality work in Vancouver.
I thought about the meaning of Need the other day as I drove by it en route to an osteopathy appointment in Lonsdale, administered by a young Scottish-Canadian practitioner, in an office building owned by an Iranian family in which a Canadian flag fluttered across the street from a kebab shop.
Afterwards, I stopped at a nearby supermarket to buy a huge pot of mint. As I stood in the queue, I noticed the man behind me smiling and speaking to me in a familiar language – a mix of Farsi and Kurdish. In spite of social distancing protocols, he kept walking towards me, smiling and extending his hand. I almost wanted to shout ‘Canada, Canada!’ as I had that night so long ago in Tehran. But then I looked down at my post-treatment outfit: baggy white tunic and linen trousers, topped by a black beret and kefiyyah from Erbil. Who was I trying to kid? Even after I told him in English that I wasn’t Kurdish or Iranian, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Finally, I just gave up and surrendered to the moment. I put my hand to my heart and said, ‘Salam, my friend, salam’.