Canadian passport should carry clout

July 31, 2003

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Let’s hope someone, somewhere learns something from the murky death of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist whose brains somehow got bashed in while she was in police custody for photographing student protesters outside a Tehran jail.

“If you mess with Canadians, face the consequences” seems a suitable lesson for Iran, a fossilized Islamic state that’s like a tired Mick Jagger routine.

Entertaining in a strange way, intriguing for its longevity, but, like short-legged lies, able to run only so long.

Unfortunately, we know that without basic reform, Iran won’t learn much today. By the way, in my other home, Yemen, a poorer but more progressive Islamic state, you can scoop a “get-out-of-jail-free” pass if connected with the right tribe.

For example, a few months ago, 10 jailbirds, including a couple of key suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, reportedly dug through a rock-hard washroom floor in Aden with, yes, their bare hands.

Three confused guards were suspended, and the Yemeni government offered $10,000 US for the recapture of the motley crew. Meanwhile, reports abound of plenty of other Yemenis jailed over questionable circumstances, without charges.

And Yemen’s local precinct houses aren’t the Hilton. Want food? Ask your family. Your bed? Try the floor. Sorry, no sheets. Yes, you’re crammed with dozens into a space the size of an average Canadian living room. You need the toilet? Pay the guard. It’s all enough to make you cry.

But back to telling lies. It’s human nature. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. The serpent blamed God. Nobody likes to ‘fess up. Yet in the Middle East, denial can be a fine art. If on the receiving end, don’t take it personally. It’s just a tradition practised to preserve honour.

Remember how westerners laughed at Mohammed Saeed Sahaf, the outrageously comical Misinformation Minister of Iraq who insisted Iraqis were routing coalition troops, when Iraqi troops were in fact running away, at times literally in their underwear? Arabs didn’t laugh. But most didn’t believe Sahaf either. They knew he was simply trying to save Iraqi face.

In fact, in my experience, Arabs will take westerners at face value, but they’ll look to the subtle meanings behind the words of fellow Arabs. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Iran initially claimed Kazemi died of a stroke, then threw in a red herring, blasting Canada for the police killing of a young machete-wielding Iranian in Vancouver, self-defence or not. It’s classic deflection.

Ottawa needs to recognize such cultural nuances while holding Iran’s feet to the fire. In doing so, Ottawa can also learn its own lesson, namely that it needs to take seriously Canadians overseas, particularly those in volatile areas.

For example, Nova Scotian William Sampson, a businessperson in Saudi Arabia, waits in jail there facing execution over questionable charges more than two years after arrest. Gar Knutson (L — Elgin-Middlesex-London), Canada’s secretary of state for Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, tells me Ottawa can try to put diplomatic pressure on rogue countries mistreating Canadians. “But at the end of the day, we don’t have any great power. Every country is sovereign and people have to play by the rules of that country.”

Fair enough. Those who travel to unstable areas know the risks. But if a passport from a world-class nation such as Canada is essentially useless when it really counts, why not just travel with a hockey card in your back pocket? Surely Canadian citizenship offers more. My physician wife and I believe it does. And since our desire is to see people live healthfully and free, things rather Canadian, we work in Yemen.

In the fall we return there, now with our infant daughter. It’s called giving to others some of what you’ve been blessed with yourself.

I suggest Kazemi had similar thoughts. That’s why she was in Iran.

Her death should leave behind more than a trail of deceit and political justification. It should shine the light on, if nothing else, the need to protect the many other Canadians now living abroad.

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July 31, 2003 • Posted in ,
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