A Ghazal for the Dead – a University of Alberta memorial for flight PS752

Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. For those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.

Rumi

A very sad occasion. The UofAlberta memorial to those who lost their lives in the deadly Tehran crash on January 8, 2020.

I have felt grief-stricken by the hate and cruelty, the loss of life. So I was glad to attend with my neighbour, friend, and colleague – a wonderful young woman Zohreh and her beautiful family. The afternoon was pushing forty below. The space overflowed with fellow mourners. Hundreds. Thousands. Almost 2500 in the Saville Centre at the University of Alberta Campus South. And six hundred were turned away. The event had been live-streamed to 14,000 viewers by the following morning. You can watch it here.

Accompanied in a traditional Persian song by a hammered dulcimer or santur, the singer began to weep. Beside me, my friend sang along softly as she stroked the hair of her young son cuddled on her lap.

Many of the testimonials by friends of the loved ones were heartbreaking. UofA President David Turpin, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (and even our unfortunately elected Premier Jason Kenney) gave moving speeches. More on this later.

A remarkable community settled here over the last decades from Iran. And it is the brilliant intellects, the loving community, the outstanding educational accomplishments and drive that was so characteristic of so many of those who died that fateful early morning near Tehran. An engineer, a gynecologist, a dentist, a doctor, a biologist, etc. etc. So many trained or in training to better our communities.

As we enter the memorial, long tables with white tables and white floral arrangements line the hall. In front of each photograph are plates of beautifully decorated foot and dates stuffed with walnuts.

The Canadian Iranian community tends to be secular. And apart from occasional invocations at the end of people’s testimonials, there was little religiosity in the proceedings. UofA President David Turpin spoke of our beautiful university community and beyond. Jason Kenney, a good Catholic, mentioned God. Mayor Don Iveson, a closet Unitarian, spoke about the interconnected web of life. (I won’t summarize their words here. It is worth spending time to listen to the entire memorial on line.)

Prime Minister Trudeau assured us Canada would be diligent in ensuring that the investigation into this catastrophe would continue – “”This tragedy should have never occurred, and I want to assure you that you have my full support during this extraordinarily difficult time … you give us purpose to pursue justice and accountability for you,” said Trudeau, who has demanded Canada take part in the crash probe.”

A friend pointed out how on point Trudeau has been through this whole awful ordeal. His own loss of his young brother so prematurely and the death of his beloved father have schooled him in the journey of grief. In fact, it was his moving eulogy for Pierre Trudeau that originally piqued the country’s interest in the young Justin as a potential politician and leader.

Pardon me, if I digress as Premier Kenney spoke of “this great university”, my university. Jason Kenney’s speech spoke eloquently about he effects of conflict, the value of pluralism and many virtues. It is hard to listen to that while remembering how he has curried favour with racists and bigots. His speechwriter gave us a suitably mythic bird’s eye view of the event as “an epic demonstration of human folly” – a comment fit for many occasions including his own political will to drive Alberta into a recession. (Since Kenney’s UCP election and his efforts to destroy the diversification of Alberta’s economy beyond fossil fuels, Edmonton’s unemployment rate has topped Canadian cities. And this will worsen. By 2023, he hopes to cut 7.7% of public service jobs in Alberta (many of them in Edmonton). And he will cut almost 25% of the University of Alberta budget over three years, an effort to crush the institution that educates over 40,000 students and is ranked in the top five in Canada – it has an estimated $12.3 billion annual impact on Alberta economy. Spoiler alert: Jason Kenney himself was thrown out of his Catholic university after his second year. He bears ill will to the educated.)

In conversation before the event, Zohreh and I spoke briefly about how awful the comments were in the digital newspaper articles about the downed airline. Some racist and xenophobic comments condemned these unfortunate travellers who were arriving in Canada for the first time or returning to Canada as citizens having visited family in Iran. The racists write about about immigrants as “welfare bums” etc. What ignorance they reveal in their contempt for the less fortunate who might temporarily need welfare when they establish themselves. Not to mention their stupidity about the nature of this highly educated and sophisticated community that migrates here from Iran. It is no small irony that while this memorial occurs at the University of Alberta, the new White Supremacist populist separatist oxymoronic (in every sense of the word) Wexit Canada Party egged on by Premier Jason Kenney has become a national fact.

On the way back to the house from dropping of Zohreh, I chatted with the taxi driver, a lovely man named Jean. Originally from Burundi, Jean completed his MA in public administration in Paris at the Sorbonne. He told me he disliked the ESL classes here because they were so boring and so much time was wasted. And I thought yes – surely they would be. He said he wants to study language through linguistics but can’t give up his driving as he has to support his family. And besides he gets to practice his English all day long in his van.

I was reminded about how lucky we are here in Canada to have such talented people arrive on our shores. But this is often how Canada greets strangers. With some promise. But with so very many challenges.

En route home, Jean and I spoke about the cause of the crash. It was Trump he said and I agreed. Earlier I spoke with an Iranian Canadian colleague who was adamant about Iran as the culprit and I agreed. Then Jean made a most sensible comment on the way home. The Iranians don’t value human life by letting guided missiles and domestic flights come and go intermittently. What does an accident mean under these circumstances? And what does an accident mean when a demented opportunistic U.S. President makes war to avoid his own political perils and impeachment?

And so it goes.

En route home, Jean and I spoke about the cause of the crash. It was Trump he said and I agreed. Earlier I spoke with an Iranian Canadian colleague who was adamant about Iran as the culprit and I agreed. Then Jean made a most sensible comment on the way home. The Iranians don’t value human life by letting guided missiles and domestic flights come and go intermittently. What does an accident mean under these circumstances? And what does an accident mean when a demented opportunistic U.S. President makes war to avoid his own political perils and impeachment?

And so it goes.

On the morning of the memorial, CBC reports the terrible indisputable facts thus far: “Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 crashed Wednesday, killing 176 passengers and crew on board, including 57 Canadians. The plane was struck by a missile or missiles launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And on the following day, Prime Minister Trudeau will make a pointed comment about the origins of this disastrous crash. He noted the protests of Iranians prompted by the knowledge Iran had targeted a plane carrying 80 Iranian citizens “should be heeded very carefully by the Iranian government.” This comment is his first to suggest causal relations. The story goes global and his comment is interpreted in a Nigerian report as “a point of view that appears not to spare US President Donald Trump”:

“If there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families,” said Trudeau.

“This is something that happens when you have conflict and war. Innocents bear the brunt of it and it is a reminder why all of us need to work so hard on de-escalation, moving forward to reduce tensions and find a pathway that doesn’t involve further conflict and killing.”

On her initial reading this blog post, Zohreh commented that at the UofA memorial “there were too many references to the victims as “entrepreneurs”. It just shows what our leaders value in humans. I don’t think any of the Edmonton victims was an entrepreneur, although I think one of the profs was try to commercialize his research.”

I agree. Part of the contemporary academy would like to translate every human thought into an entrepreneurial adventure. Monetize. Monetize. Monetize.

Two days ago, Minister Chrystia Freeland gave a powerfully affecting eulogy at the University of Toronto. Watch this moving oration for the dead.

Minister Freeland begins her wonderful eulogy with the story of one of the victims whom she had a few months earlier in Toronto. That seems a very personal story about this brilliant young man in medicine who also dedicated himself to entrepreneurship.

But perhaps this generalized emphasis on entrepreneurship in this memorial we attended is partly an unconscious response to the anti-immigration bigots who fallaciously harp on the cost of immigrants to Canada. This is no more than a myth as study after study points to the boon that immigration plays in Canada.

It does Canada good to be inclusive. The latest international studies on our public education system rank Canada at the top in many subjects. The explanation for our world top notch performance: we integrate new immigrants effectively in schools. And they perform very well indeed.

A note on grief

To some, my commentary here is too political and does not dwell adequately on the fact of sorrowing loss. But Iranian Canadians don’t have the luxury of a life outside of politics. And neither do we Canadians as a whole. As Trudeau says, ““If there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families.” This is no natural event or “accident.”

I didn’t write much about grief here. Too tender and painful. The attendants guiding you to your seat reappeared with boxes of Kleenex that people clutched as they listened. I cried. So did many around me. Voices of speakers broke into breathless cries shattered with their suffering. People sounded fatigued, strained. There was laughter in stories shared. Speakers descended from the podium and shook hands or hugged the mayor, the premier, the university president, the prime minister. In the hallway, visitors milled about searching the photographed faces of the dead. Or looking at the condolence books, writing or reading. Staring at each other. A look of kindness. There was comfort in this community. Quiet. Or an embrace. A walk towards the cold night air.

Remember the dead
A scholarship for the living

A new University of Alberta scholarship fundraising campaign in support of one or two Iranian students each year was announced. Any donations will be matched. The sanctions make it very difficult for Iranian students to study overseas so these scholarships will be transformative. You can donate here.


A modest critique

While the enormous event was organized wonderfully in general, the event was organized in a way that foregrounded the beloved couple of distinguished professors at the University of Alberta and their two young daughters. No regrets there as they were pivotal in the university. However the others who were lost were memorialized late in the program and relatively sparingly. Thirteen of the victims were from Edmonton. Ten of these were associated with the University of Alberta.

Other commentaries

[This text has been revised and expanded January 13, 2020]

4 thoughts on “A Ghazal for the Dead – a University of Alberta memorial for flight PS752”

    1. Thanks Alliston. I did link up the memorial in the body of the article to the UofA site. Thanks very much for helping me discover this.

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  1. Thank you for your kind words. Your exceptional writing is a model of dedication to justice and writerly integrity….

    Like

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