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Singer comes to grips with Iranian roots

Haroon Siddiqui

JIAN GHOMESHI, the intellectually effervescent singer-songwriter of the eclectic quartet Moxy Fruvous, has reason to be pleased.

The satirical folk group that burst on to the Toronto music scene in the early 1990s has since developed a loyal following in Europe and, especially, the United States where it has had recent write-ups in the New York Times, the Washington Post and People magazine, most quoting Ghomeshi.

Professionally, he's living and enjoying the Canadian paradox that its most talented citizens are sometimes more appreciated abroad than at home. But personally, the 31-year-old Canadian of Iranian heritage is going through another quintessentially Canadian experience - struggling for identity.

Born in England, he grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood in North York and graduated from York University where he was a leftist president of the students' union who had the moxie to publicly oppose the 1991 Gulf War.

If English-French duality has been the dominating theme of our history, and a source of endless conflict, there have also been parallel, more private, struggles of identity by various waves of immigrants. Some were more prone to passing on their heritage to their children than others who opted for varying degrees of assimilation.

Ghomeshi's father and, more so, his mother, chose the latter, much to Jian's chagrin.

In a self-reflective mood over lunch, he reveals that the Ghomeshi household has had its arguments over the issue - once they got past their differences over his career.

The parents were disappointed when he turned down a chance to do graduate work at Stanford University in order to pursue music. ``For them, it was totally illogical. But now they are much more supportive. Once the family doctor started asking for tickets to our concerts, and our neighbour started saying he had seen us on TV, it was fine, especially with mom.''

But family debates continue over his proud proclamations, sometimes from the stage, of his Persian heritage and her lifelong tendency to dilute it.

``I mean no disrespect. I love her dearly. But so much of what has driven her in those last 20 years is a desire to be like everyone else.

``She's a great Iranian cook but she serves lasagna. Her morals, ethics and mother tongue are Persian but she doesn't want to identify with Iran. Recently, I was home for dinner, and in the backyard my father started speaking in Farsi, and mom said, `Shshsh.' And I said, `Mom, who are you afraid of?' Our neighbours are German on one side and Jewish on the other.''

He attributes her unease in part to a ``typical first-generation experience of a group that is so maligned in society.''

Iranians and Arabs must be the most defamed, he says. ``It's easier to joke about them than anybody else. Iranians are seen either as s... disturbers or fundamentalists.''

People in those communities have withdrawn into themselves, stunting their political consciousness. They would be upset by some American action against Iran ``but the last thing they would do is to go and protest in front of the American embassy . . . It's a fear of not being accepted.''

It also may be a function of time, he says, telling how he himself used to hide his Iranian roots. ``As a kid throughout my school years, if someone asked me, `Is Jian French?' I wouldn't answer, hoping they would think it is.''

But after a journey of self-discovery, he now knows ``I'm different. I can play in a band, English can be my mother tongue, and I can be superficially completely integrated but I will never be, I'll never feel like, I mean, I will always be different.

``While I am culturally very Western, my morals, my notions of family, and my personal habits are Eastern. Emotionally, I am far less reserved and more expressive and passionate than the other members of the band, who now have a greater understanding than simply that `Jian is a bit brown.' They, too, have grown with me.''

Mediating between two cultures can be most difficult in personal relationships. ``When I am with a person of non-Iranian heritage, my family members think I'm going out with a Khariji (outsider), but that eventually I will return to the fold.'' As for Iranian women, he feels ``different around them; I don't know the protocol and am deathly afraid that I'll make a mistake.''

Jian Ghomeshi - emerging Canadian celebrity. Jian Ghomeshi - just another youngster in post-modern polyglot Canada.

Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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