For these Iranian-Canadians, identity is a puzzle with a lot of missing pieces

Two half-Iranians confront the feeling that they're missing pieces of their identity, and the sense of shame that comes with it. Tapestry producer Arman Aghbali talks to journalist Sara King-Abadi about pork, names and alienation.
Sara King-Abadi's father, Ahmad, right, emigrated from Iran in the 1970s to Canada. King-Abadi is half-Iranian and grew up in Montreal. (Submitted by Sara King-Abadi)

By Arman Aghbali

The first time Sara King-Abadi tasted pork it was by accident. But no matter how good it tasted, it still felt like a betrayal. 

King-Abadi is half-Iranian, on her father's side, and she grew up culturally Muslim. Whether it was at a restaurant or in a friend's home, she made sure to avoid pork. And she'd done so until she was 24. Then, at a friend's birthday party in Old Montreal, she was offered some wild boar.

The meat crossed a line — though she didn't realize it in the moment. It took until later in the evening to realize what she'd done.

King-Abadi (right) with her sister Azra as children in Quebec. King-Abadi says people often made assumptions about her identity — assumptions she now fights as an adult. (Submitted by Sara King-Abadi)

"It was all so shocking that something that I'd held onto for so long just gave way so unceremoniously," said King-Abadi, who's a former CBC Montreal journalist. 

"And it's so strange because I'd spent so much of my life being careful about what I ate."

After that, King-Abadi said it felt like the dam broke. For her, there was no going back to the life before she ate pork, and with that, one of the ties to her father and her Muslim heritage. Currently working on a practicum at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, she wrote about the incident, and the complicated feelings that came out of it, in Maisonneuve.

I am another half-Iranian, and that story felt instantly familiar. While I'm not Muslim, I've also struggled to express a coherent identity.

A rarely questioned identity

For one, I never learned how to speak Persian. I could greet people (more memorization than comprehension) and I could tell you my favourite dish is ghorme sabzi. That was about it. 

With pale skin and growing up in a diverse neighbourhood in Mississauga, Ont., there were days when even I wouldn't notice that I'm Iranian. My identity was rarely questioned (until they saw my last name — Aghbali — a definite giveaway) and when it was, I brushed it aside with a canned line.  

It was a privilege to be allowed to fade into a hazy fog of "Canadian-ness" — into faux whiteness — for a time. That privilege was temporary, and by the time I left university, I felt isolated and culturally vacant. 

One trip to Iran when I was 24 made that clear for me. One night, several cousins and I were all sitting around the dinner table as one of them told what must have been a funny story. Everyone laughed at the end.

A mosque in Shush, Iran (also known as Susa), a small city in province of Khuzestan that was the site of the monarch's summer palace in ancient times. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

I smiled, but it was clear how little I understood. One cousin looked at me, and as if suddenly remembering I was with them, apologized. 

"We hoped you'd know more Farsi by now," she told me. And in that moment, I wished I could apologize a thousand times back. It felt like I'd let a limb atrophy and hadn't noticed until she'd pointed it out. 

At first glance, eating pork and never quite learning a language don't sound like similar problems. But our appearance and our traditions form this elaborate jigsaw puzzle that builds our identity.

When part of you is missing

For King-Abadi, losing her connection to pork not only affected her understanding of who she was, but who she was in relation to her Iranian father. 

Arman Aghbali visited the city of Isfahan on his first trip to Iran. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

When she revealed to him that she'd eaten pork, she said her father joked that it would eventually be out of her system — never thinking that she'd continue to eat it for the better part of a decade.

It's one of the reasons King-Abadi said she calls herself "half-Iranian." She described a fear of not having all the necessary cultural markers to signify she fully embodies the identity. But with that comes a familiar feeling of shame.  

"There's a sense of shame that will come up where … I wish I could participate in this more but I've let my background down," said King-Abadi. 

"[It] sounds insane when you say that, but there is that feeling that part of you is like missing, or hasn't been developed enough, that you want to have so badly."