Belonging and grief: What the Iran air disaster reveals about the inextricable ties that bind us together

Good commentary by  Payam Akhavan:

On the outskirts of Tehran, the fragments of what was once a journey of many dreams lie scattered against a bleak landscape.

Amidst the twisted metal and clothing littering the scorched earth, there is a single red shoe of a child. It has a pretty bow, slightly singed by the flames that engulfed Flight PS752 in its last moments before it crashed from the sky in a great ball of fire, bringing to a sudden end so many stories yet to be told, so many joys yet to be discovered.

The little shoe made me think of one-year old Kurdia, whose parents Evin and Hiva had taken her halfway across the world, from Canada to Iran, to celebrate a wedding.

Persian weddings, we jokingly say, need a football stadium to accommodate the guests. How many adoring grandparents and elders, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends must have smothered little Kurdia with affectionate kisses, seeing her for the first time, not knowing that it would also be the last.

It seems to be the fate of people in the Middle East to suffer.

Some weeks earlier, hundreds of Iranian youths were shot on the streets of Tehran for protesting corruption, crying for freedom, and their loved ones were arrested for mourning their loss. Mothers and fathers have been killed by barrel bombs in Idlib and Aleppo, standing in a bread line to appease the unbearable pain of hunger. And it is only a matter of time before we witness, yet again, those desperate to flee such horrors, drowning in the depths of the Mediterranean while trying to cross the forbidding sea in rubber dinghies, in search of a better world.

And now, the grim sight of a long succession of body bags amidst the wreckage of the aircraft that carried so many on their way home to Canada, the country that opened its doors to them, answering their dream of a better future.

One tries to be philosophical at times like this. “Death is our wedding with eternity,” the great mystic Rumi wrote. It is difficult to reconcile that wisdom with the horrors the hapless passengers must have experienced in their final moments.

Yet, just as weddings are a communal experience that teach us what it means to belong, so too communal grief and mourning shows us, in the hour of darkness, the astonishing light of the human spirit; the inextricable ties that bind us together.

This isn’t just another horrible thing happening “out there,” in that other world of suffering that momentarily intrudes on our lives of privilege, trivialized by a tweet or fleeting Facebook post, soon to be forgotten.– Payam Akhavan

In “Tehranto” and Montreal, Windsor and Guelph, Edmonton and Vancouver, Halifax and London, across this vast space we call Canada, people have lost family and friends, neighbours and colleagues, teachers and students.

This isn’t just another horrible thing happening “out there,” in that other world of suffering that momentarily intrudes on our lives of privilege, trivialized by a tweet or fleeting Facebook post, soon to be forgotten.

Now it is happening to “us,” we who call ourselves Canadians, who imagine belonging as something that is beyond the bonds of blood and soil; a transcendent connection built on a shared humanity.

The flag flies at half-mast at my university in Montreal, as it does across other campuses through the country. Many on that ill-fated flight were professors, researchers, and students, part of Iran’s massive brain drain as accomplished and ambitious youth settle here in our midst to start new lives.

On my mobile phone, there are numerous e-mails and text messages from fellow Canadians, expressing sympathy and concern, mourning the loss that has become ours for the simple reason that we have come to live in the same place – a wonderful and precious place where, amidst grief and suffering, compassion reigns supreme.

Just as joyous celebrations define who we are, communal bereavement — healing together, whether it is with our Indigenous brothers and sisters who were here before us or with the recent immigrant returning home from a previous home — teaches us what it means to be human.

What it means to be Canadian.

It unites us at the core, gives us a deeper identity, emancipates us from the superficial divisions and distractions that we confuse with true meaning.

“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes,” Rumi wrote, “because for those who love with their heart and soul, there is no separation.”

Source: Belonging and grief: What the Iran air disaster reveals about the inextricable ties that bind us together

‘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

Cultural genocide: When we debate words, we delay healing – Payam Akhavan

Akhavan on the history and meaning of cultural genocide (reprinted in entirety):

What is “cultural genocide” and why does it matter? This powerful label was first adopted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) last June. It was meant to describe a colonial assimilationist policy, aimed at extinguishing Canada’s indigenous peoples “as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities.”

The long-suffering survivors of the residential schools celebrated this declaration with rapturous applause. But what followed was a storm of controversy on whether “genocide” was an appropriate term for this purpose; a controversy that has distracted us from confronting the reality facing Canada’s indigenous peoples.

As a former United Nations prosecutor at The Hague, I am well aware of the legal definition of this crime. What disturbs me is how this polemical debate disregards the deeper meaning of words; the importance of recognition for healing wounds. The TRC process was not a criminal trial. It was an opportunity for some 6,750 survivors to break the silence, to tell their heartbreaking stories to fellow Canadians.

Whether “cultural genocide” is a proper legal label is less important than its reality as a mourning metaphor; and abstract disputations about precise terminology are even less important than the urgency of national reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous people.

The history of the UN Genocide Convention sheds some light on this controversy. It was adopted in 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust, following months of negotiations, after delegates agreed to include “physical” and “biological,” but to exclude “cultural” genocide from an earlier proposed draft. This was motivated by two reasons: On the one hand, some believed that the Nazi exterminations in gas chambers was a different crime than the destruction of historic monuments and minority languages; on the other hand, most non-European nations were still under colonial domination so their devastating experience with “civilizing missions” was not reflected in the debates.

Although “cultural genocide” had a short life, it was seriously considered as a legal concept. It is best described today as the ghost of proposed crimes past. What is most relevant for the residential school policy is that the “forcible transfer of children” – initially qualified as a form of “cultural genocide” – was retained in the formal definition as one of the acts by which genocide could be committed.

The postwar trial of Nazis had included prosecutions for the kidnapping of thousands of “racially valuable” children from occupied Poland. More recently, the International Court of Justice has interpreted the permanent transfer of children as “biological” genocide because, like forced sterilization, it destroys a group’s reproductive capacity. Whether the temporary removal of children for the purpose of destroying a group’s culture also qualifies is a matter of legitimate debate. At the very least, if accurate legal labels are that important, to the extent that residential school policy constitutes persecution of a group because of its identity, then it qualifies as the equally serious category of crimes against humanity. So why the storm of controversy about the TRC’s declaration?

As the legislative history demonstrates, even as a legal concept, “cultural genocide” is not as far-fetched as some may imagine. But the TRC used it reasonably as a non-legal descriptive term, and what is even more important, the survivors see it as a recognition of their intense grief and anguish. We should not underestimate the power of words in redeeming the humanity of victims. It could even be said that “cultural genocide” is more important as a mourning metaphor rather than a legal label, because the moral imperative facing us as a country is healing and transformation, and not sterile debates on taxonomy.

Moving forward, the challenge is ensuring that Canada respects the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples so that we can make the legacy of colonialism a thing of the past. The reality today is that among indigenous Canadians, 40 per cent of children go to bed hungry, and the infant mortality rate is 2.5 times, the homicide rate six times and the incarceration rate 10 times the national average. Whether we call the past “cultural genocide” or something else, this shameful situation is obviously connected with a history of forced displacement and ethnic demonization.

How can we champion human rights at the UN if we cannot clean up our own backyard? Why don’t we replicate the outpouring of compassion towards Syrian refugees for our indigenous brothers and sisters? Moving from historical truth to national reconciliation – the challenge the TRC has put before us – is a litmus test of our self-conception as Canadians. There are hopeful signs of political progress. But in responding to this urgent call, we must also consider how each of us can contribute, as individuals and communities, to building a just future.

Perhaps in this way, instead of debates on “cultural genocide,” the next generation will dwell on cultural jubilation, as we celebrate the redemption of our shared humanity.

Source: Cultural genocide: When we debate words, we delay healing – The Globe and Mail