‘A reminder of what it means to be Canadian’: Tehran crash a shock to our outdated ideas of identity

Good piece by Joseph Brean:

The meaning of disasters sometimes reveals itself in a spectacular instant. Planes exploding into Manhattan skyscrapers were obviously terrorism. A train of oil exploding in Lac-Mégantic was obviously an outrageous accident.

But sometimes the significance of mass casualty events must be discerned from more compelling falsehoods. Commonsensical intuitions can obscure as much as they reveal, and make it easier to dismiss faraway calamities that really ought to trouble the domestic Canadian soul.

This is how the crash of a Ukraine-bound plane outside Tehran that first looked obviously like military escalation in the standoff between the United States and Iran was revealed overnight as an especially Canadian aviation tragedy.

“This disaster is a reminder of what it means to be Canadian and to belong to this cosmopolitan nation,” said Payam Akhavan, a Tehran-born former United Nations war crimes prosecutor, now a professor of law at McGill University, who gave the 2017 CBC Massey lectures on the perils of “us versus them” politics.

“There is a certain fluidity of identity when you open your doors to the whole world,” Akhavan said, and this crash is a reminder of how outdated views of national identity can distance Canadians from their own tragedies.

The Canadians on board included professors of engineering at the University of Alberta in Edmonton; an expert in Iranian indigenous nomads pursuing a doctorate at the University of Guelph in Ontario; a staffer at an Ontario high school teachers union; students from schools across Canada; a nine-year old girl from Richmond Hill, Ont.; an eight-year-old girl from Toronto; a one-year-old girl on her first trip with her parents; and a young couple returning to their new house in Montreal after being married in their ancestral homeland.

Even the Iranians on board were largely young students coming or returning to Canada to study, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He said nearly everyone on board was bound for Toronto, transiting through Kyiv on a popular route. Trudeau said a plane arrived in Toronto from Kyiv on Wednesday with 138 empty seats, on which the victims were due to have travelled.

If the theory of an accidental crash holds up, this was a tragedy of dozens of Canadians and others killed through no fault of their own at high points in their lives. It involves a web of storylines that meander back from that field near Tehran’s airport through the Western prairies and Ontario university towns to the large urban communities in Edmonton and Toronto that grew throughout Iran’s post-revolutionary decline so much that they spawned good-natured nicknames used by the diaspora, like Tehranto.

As such, the crash is closer in kind to last year’s Ethiopian plane crash — which was also in a Boeing 737 that crashed soon after takeoff, with 18 Canadians among 157 passengers, second only to Kenyans — than to the Malaysian Airlines flight that was shot down in 2014 during a hot war between Ukraine and Russia, with one Canadian aboard.

But it initially seemed to be the other way round, given the rising tension between the U.S. and Iran, and the expectation of retaliation by Iran to the assassination of a top general. It seemed to be other people’s problems.

This search for meaning can be difficult for Canadians in the early days of a shocking new disaster, existing as Canada does on the periphery of so many global conflicts, without taking sides or bearing the burden of the fighting. Why should this plane crash not simply blur into the foreign news like the deaths of African migrants in the Mediterranean or the victims of an Asian typhoon?

A secondary tragedy of the 1985 Air India bombing, the worst-ever Canadian terrorist attack that killed all 329 passengers including 268 Canadians, was the common sense that this was a foreign outrage, an attack by Indians against Indians that just happened to occur after some of the victims and perpetrators had moved to Canada. Recognizing the racist folly of that view has been a civic challenge ever since, taken up by politicians, media, educators. It has invited reflection on definitional aspects of Canadian identity in an age of immigration and multiculturalism.

A generation later, in an age when dual citizenship is common and international travel accessible to the broad Canadian middle class, these sorts of things get especially confused. Canadians can long for distant homelands. They can leave home to go home without any contradiction.

The trouble with Iran is that, over the same period, it has seemed to get farther and farther away, such that for the average Canadian, travelling to Beijing or Mumbai can seem like simple tourism in the land of one’s ancestors, but travelling to Tehran just seems reckless.

Why would Iranian-Canadians go back, knowing dual citizens are regularly taken as hostages by the regime, such as Homa Hoodfar, and even killed, such as Zahra Kazemi?

“Exile is a longing to belong. It’s an emotional space that we confuse with a physical space,” said Akhavan, who fled Iran before the 1979 revolution and, as a member of the Baháʼí faith, could expect persecution, detention and worse if he ever tried to return. “There is this very strong identity which is based on historical continuity.”

Much of the Middle East was carved up in the 20th century by European opportunists out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, but not Iran. Although the culture is diverse, Iranians have this deep attachment to what Akhavan described as “a rich mystical culture that refuses to be eclipsed despite the wars and invasions of the centuries.”

He described meeting Armenian Christians who love to speak Persian, which endured despite the spread of Arabic, and Iranians in Tel Aviv who share this national pride not just in cuisine, which every culture more or less shares, but also in unique traditions of poetry, literature, architecture, and art that are scarcely matched anywhere else.

The Iranian community in Canada is likewise diverse. It includes exiles, wealthy economic migrants, skilled entrepreneurs, and people in the orbit of the Islamist regime who have invested in Canadian real estate. So it is a common thing for people to go back for lavish weddings, to see family who stayed behind, to leave home for home.

One photo from Tehran by journalist Borna Ghasemi showed a girl’s red party shoe lying upright on gravel, its bow slightly singed but otherwise shiny and new, as if it had just been worn for the first time, as if at a wedding or family reunion.

Source: ‘A reminder of what it means to be Canadian’: Tehran crash a shock to our outdated ideas of identity