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’.

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