Opinion

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

Reaction in Canada to the tragedy in Iran shows the astonishing light of the human spirit, writes Payam Akhavan.

Canada's mourning shows the astonishing light of the human spirit, writes Payam Akhavan

People attend a vigil in Toronto on Jan. 9 for those on Flight PS752, which crashed soon after taking off from Tehran the day before killing all aboard. The victims include 57 Canadians and another 81 who were connecting to destinations in Canada. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University, a former UN prosecutor at The Hague, and the 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer. He was born in Tehran and left Iran in his childhood, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1980 at the outset of the Islamic revolution and violent persecution of the Baha'i religious minority to which he belonged. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

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.

A child's shoe amidst the wreckage of the Ukrainian airliner that crashed shortly after take-off near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran on Jan 8. (Borna Ghassemi/ISNA/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

The flag at Montreal's McGill University flies at half-mast, in memory of those killed on Flight PS752. (McGill University)

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."


About the Author

Payam Akhavan is a professor of International Law at McGill University, a former UN prosecutor at The Hague, and the 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer. He was born in Tehran and left Iran in his childhood, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1980 at the outset of the Islamic revolution and violent persecution of the Baha'i religious minority to which he belonged.

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