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April 12, 2011

At least one hotdog vendor in Vancouver is a former Iranian teacher who escaped Khomeini's Revolutionary Guard in 1982.


Twenty-nine years ago in Fanuj in southern Iran, Mehrab Arbab, a high school teacher who today operates the Mr. Tube Steak hot dog stand at the Broadway SkyTrain station in Vancouver, escaped from the Revolutionary Guard of Ayatollah Khomeini, when they took twenty-six teachers from the school at which Mehrab Arbab taught English, history and geography, and killed them all. Mehrab Arbab and five of his colleagues were attending discussion groups in the nearby city of Iranshahr; when the killing squad came looking for them at the wrong house, they fled into the foothills of White Mountain and lay low for three months among the sympathetic ­Baluch ­population before crossing into Pakistan with the help of a professional smuggler. Since that day in 1982, Mehrab Arbab has never been back to Iran.

In early February 2011, while he prepared an All Beef Smokie for me, with fried onions and a little extra toasting on the bun, he pointed out that of the executions in Iran, which had been taking place at the rate of three a day since the beginning of the year, one-third of the victims were from his home territory of Baluchestan, where the oppression, which began under the regime of the shahs and intensifed under the Ayatollah, has never ceased. I went around to the other side of the stand to dress my Smokie with sauerkraut, relish, mustard, sliced peppers. Zahra Bahrami, the Dutch-Iranian woman who had returned to Iran after an exile of some twenty-two years, had just been hanged in Tehran after a farcical trial: she had been protesting the rigged elections of 2009. That is why I never go back, even after twenty-nine years, he said; they will kill me just like they killed her.

Mehrab Arbab has five children, some of them grown up with children of their own. The youngest is in grade 9; the eldest have graduated from university. He and his wife own a large house in Coquitlam, where three generations of their family live together. When he fled to Pakistan in 1982, he had to leave his wife and two children in Fanuj; eventually he was able to move them to Islamabad, Pakistan, and then he had to move on alone to Dubai to find work, and to begin saving money for foreign travel papers. He was twenty-seven years old. He had a younger brother of seventeen, who was picked up by “recruiters” during the Iran-Iraq war and put into uniform along with several other young men from his neighbourhood, transported into the mountains and shot to death at the side of the road; photographs of the corpses were exchanged for bounty money supplied by agents of Saddam Hussein. Mehrab Arbab’s eyes filled with tears as he told me this story. I searched several times on Google Earth for the city of Fanuj but failed to find it until I discovered the correct spelling, and even then I could never get down to Google Earth street view without the image breaking up into pancake-like fragments. Apparently there are no Google cameras working at street level in Baluchestan, which renders in Google Earth as an undulating sea of brown and grey mountains, ragged plateaus and what appear to be dry riverbeds. The web page IranTourOnline names several winds of Baluchestan, among them the seventh wind, the 120-day wind, the south wind and the north and west winds, and the humid wind from the Indian Ocean; there is very little water in Baluchestan, which seems from a distance to be a country scoured with wind and dust. Mehrab Arbab speaks warmly of the Fanuj of his youth and the nearby mountains: a very beautiful country, he says; he has never mentioned the wind. His attachment to his homeland is evident in his face whenever he speaks of it. His family and the extended Arbab clan had been farmers in Baluchestan, he says, for more than three generations, growers of dates, figs, pomegranates, melons, grapes, rice and vegetables.

Google Earth provides a hallu­cinatory rendering of the Broad­way SkyTrain station and the umbrella that marks the Mr. Tube Steak stand: a corona of red and white petals resembling a bull’s eye from the Google viewpoint in the sky; even the baseball cap worn by Mehrab Arbab can be seen clearly as you zoom down in Google Earth to street level, where the Mr. Tube Steak stand reappears face-on beneath its colourful umbrella. A small group are gathered before it and Mehrab Arbab can been seen tending the barbecue, but there are only a few passersby in the picture, no sign of the thousands of passengers moving through the system every hour at the SkyTrain station; the nearby eateries can also be seen from the middle of the street: McDonald’s, Quiznos, Fresh Slice Pizza, Megabite Pizza, Uncle Fatih’s Pizza, A&W—all conjoined by a few stretches of grey concrete and black asphalt.

Mehrab Arbab worked at odd jobs in Dubai for ten years to raise the $4,500 he needed for papers and passage to Sweden. When it was time for him to depart, complications led to the flight being cancelled; his ticket agent, or smuggler, had taken a liking to Mehrab Arbab, he says, and found him a replacement package for Canada—which normally would have cost $10,000—at no extra charge. The smuggler’s route took him to Sofia, Bulgaria, and then non-stop to Ottawa, where, in April 1992, Mehrab Arbab was awarded refugee status. Later that year he moved to Edmonton, where a friend from Fanuj, another exiled schoolteacher, ran the Mr. Turtle’s Pizza near Northlands Coliseum, where Mehrab Arbab found his first employment in Canada. In Edmonton, his sinuses deteriorated in the cold weather and a doctor recommended that he move west to Vancouver, which he did in 1994, twelve years after leaving his hometown of Fanuj, and on March 31 of that year, a day that he refers to as the happy day, he was reunited with his wife and children at Vancouver International Airport. They found an apartment on Broadway near Main Street, and then a house on Beatrice Street near Kingsway. Mehrab Arbab worked as a gas station attendant and then at Johnny’s Pizza on West 4th. Sixteen years ago he moved into the Mr. Tube Steak franchise and went hard to work, some would say relentlessly to work at the SkyTrain station. He can be found there today six days a week, rain or snow, a father, husband, grandfather, homeowner and entrepreneur.

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April 12, 2011