McGill’s Iranians: dancing at the crossroads

Last month Canada expelled all Iranian diplomats and closed the embassy, leaving some of Canada’s 150 000 Iranians wondering where they stand. According to an email from the International Students Society, there are 262 Iranian students registered at McGill, many of which were at the Shatner building last week for a party put on by MISA, the McGill Iranian Students’ Association. I was at the party and decided to write about it to bring attention to an underrepresented facet of Canada’s relationship with the Iranian nation.

Shatner Building. Credit: McGill website

It may seem odd that I was at this semester’s Iranian back to school party, since I’m not Iranian, but attendance is open to all and my Iranian friends eventually talked me into going.

As I entered the party room on the top floor, one of a handful of non-Iranians in attendance. That being said, never once did I feel out of place (no small feat considering my terrible dancing), nor was I reminded in any way that I was the odd man out. In fact, efforts were made to switch from Persian to English whenever I was within earshot, even if the speaker wasn’t talking directly to me.

The DJ was playing a mix of modern Farsi pop music and Western billboard hits, and the crowd was loving both. The women were made up to the nines and looking their best in black or red evening dresses, the men wearing smart sport coats or pressed collared shirts.

The bar was doing a brisk business in keg beer and wine and the floor was alive with dancing. The dance moves were generally identical to what you see in a typical Montreal club, although admittedly accentuated with a few bonus flourishes, like those exotic hand gestures, the ones that make the dancers look like they’re casting spells on each other, or conducting some unseen orchestra.

Aside from most conversation being in Persian, this was essentially a regular student party.

It was sobering to recall what I’d been reading that afternoon; North American media outlets triumphantly remarking on how sanctions are ‘finally biting’ in Iran. In the last week the Iranian currency, the rial, has lost 50% of its value. Riots have erupted outside the banks as US and Israeli-led  embargos tighten, above it all the threat of military action looming large. For students at Canadian institutions who are abroad with a national bursary or local financial support, their funding has suddenly just lost half of its worth against the dollar.

To add to the difficulty, several banks have closed the accounts of some Iranian-Canadian clients, informing them curtly that they could no longer serve them due to Ottawa’s sanctions against Tehran. There was even a case where Apple refused to sell a laptop to a woman who was overheard by a clerk speaking Persian.

You would never know any of this from the scene at the ballroom. The women danced and sang, swinging their shiny black locks back and forth. The men laughed and teased them. Nothing could seem farther from the troubled and embattled theocracy which was the thread tying all these people together, a place where these kinds of gatherings are relegated to criminal underground events.

In Iran women must cover their hair in public, and are not generally permitted to sing or dance. Public transportation is gender-segregated. Alcohol is strictly forbidden, although certainly prevalent at their common secret parties.

As matters develop over the coming months, it’s worth keeping in mind that those who pay the real price of the current political disputes will not be the familiar aged and bearded leaders. It will be the majority of the Iranian population that are better represented by this group on the dance floor than by religious demagogues. Perhaps a measure of recognition of this would temper the eagerness of some to trumpet each dip of their economy with such relish.

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