Being Iranian means being together

Photo by Rosewood Photography

Photo by Rosewood Photography

In May, Canada’s official Asian Heritage Month, the explorASIAN festival will celebrate art and culture from all parts of Asia with many different events. Vancouver’s Iranian community will mark the occasion with events featuring Persian art, poetry and more. Yet, for Iranian Vancouverites, maintaining their cultural identity is a year-round effort. There are, however, also critical voices.

25-year-old Mehdi Naseri says he has not felt homesick once since he came to Canada two years ago, thanks to Vancouver’s big Iranian community. For many young Iranian Canadians in Vancouver preserving their heritage
is crucial: both UBC and SFU have clubs aimed at keeping Iranian culture alive.

Naseri, a graduate student at SFU, is vice-president of the SFU Iranian Club, which he says is one of the university’s most active clubs.

“Being Iranian means being together. And our club is the place where people get together,” says Naseri.

High engagement at universities

Despite the large Iranian community here, Yasaman Khoshnoudian missed Iranian culture a lot when she first moved to Canada four years ago with her family. The 19-year-old studies at UBC and is a member of UBC’s Persian Club.

“We plan events that are relevant to Persian culture. I missed our culture at the beginning but the club made it better,” she says.

At both UBC and SFU, activities focus on Persian music, poetry, and movie get-togethers. Every last Wednesday of the month, for instance, the SFU Iranian Club participates in the “docunight,” a movie screening event that takes place on the same day in six cities across North America – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, New York, Toronto and Vancouver. The event features documentaries about Iran or by Iranian directors.

According to Naseri, it is easier to maintain a cultural program in Vancouver than in Iran.

“There are no limitations here,” he says.

The “Vancouver Iranians” meetup group also regularly organizes social and cultural events, both in regard to Iranian traditions and local activities, such as hiking or bowling.

“We also watch soccer matches together, for example, of the Iranian national team, but we also attended a Whitecaps game,” says Mehran Shirazi, one of the group’s organizers.

The meetup group occasionally also attracts international participants, for instance from Russia, India or Mexico.

Besides the social activities, all three groups concentrate on events essential to Iranian culture, such as Yalda Night, the longest and darkest night of the year, which takes place in late December.

“We get together and make the night feel like a day,” says Naseri.

The last Yalda Night was organized by the SFU Iranian Club together with the UBC Persian Club.

“Even our parents participated,” says Khoshnoudian.

At UBC, the celebration of Iranian New Year in March – Nowruz – attracted attention from non-Iranians as well.

“When we celebrated Nowruz, random people came to us and asked questions about our culture,” says Khoshnoudian.

The centrality of family

Zohreh Bayatrizi and husband Derek visiting the ruins of Persepolis

Zohreh Bayatrizi and husband Derek visiting the ruins of Persepolis

Shirazi is a 32-year-old PhD student at SFU, who came to Canada in 2009 to study. He notes that occasionally preserving Iranian traditions can cause problems. In his opinion, Iranian culture has many good aspects, such as Iranians’ ambition in terms of education, but also ones that he considers problematic.

“Too much love towards family members, for instance,” he says.

In his opinion, parents often interfere in all aspects of their children’s lives, even when they are adults. Also, young Iranians often give priority to their parents and siblings instead of their spouses.

“This ruins many marriages,” Shirazi adds.

Being married to a non-Iranian, Zohreh Bayatrizi, associate professor at the University of Alberta and a UBC graduate, faces different problems. For her, maintaining Iranian traditions is not always easy since she does not have Iranian family members in Canada.

“I try to celebrate Nowruz. However, I don’t have any Iranian family or a lot of Iranian friends, so it’s tough to celebrate alone,” she says.

Despite the distance, Bayatrizi still maintains close ties to her family in Iran and visits her home country once a year with her children. While they don’t speak Farsi, Bayatrizi insists on passing Iranian hospitality and the importance of family on to them.

“They pick up on that when they are in Iran and they love it,” she says.

After the Iranian embassy was established in Canada in 1961, lots of Iranians came to Canada to study. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, many immigrated to Canada for better economic opportunities and political refuge. The majority of Iranian Vancouverites live in North and West Vancouver.

Bayatrizi points out that nowadays the Iranian community is defined primarily by people who immigrate as skilled workers.

“I see a lot more Iranians in the downtown peninsula nowadays. There are many people who are coming with a lot of education and skills and a cosmopolitan outlook and they’re attracted to downtown living for these cultural and economic reasons,” says Bayatrizi.

To learn more about the explorASIAN fesival, visit