Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Growing up with The Jeffersons, Middle Eastern Style

“He obviously wasn’t having a good day.”


The host of the CBC Radio One’s wildly popular show Q, Jian Ghomeshi kept the overflowing Ottawa crowd rapt at attention with his unfailing humour and quintessential Canadian politeness, even whenasked about the bizarre interview with a belligerent Billy Bob Thornton back in 2009.


But Billy Bob Thornton wasn’t what the audience of young and old had come to hear about. 1982 tells the story of a transformative year in the then 14-year old Ghomeshi’s life, dealing with the grip of the old country of his family’s Iranian heritage and his awkward efforts to fit in at the all-white high schoolin Thornhill, Ontario, that he attended, all the while paying tribute to his idol David Bowie. Early in the evening, Ghomeshi endeared himself to his adoring fans, by apologizing for his fast growing facial hair (“I’m Iranian”) and recounting the story of an admirer who had mistaken him for Ian Hanomansing (“You can’t keep track of only five brown guys on television?”)


Those who had endeared long lineups to get into the reflective temple of the Knox Presbyterian Church were rewarded with not just one, but two lengthy excerpts from his book, which debuted at the top of the Canadian bestselling books list. Ghomeshi recalled his twin obsession with rocker David Bowie and his older love interest Wendy (“She reminded me of Bowie”), against the uneasy backdrop ofthe Iranian Revolution.


Local CBC celebrity Lucy van Oldenbarneveld elicited further humourous talesfrom Ghomeshi about growing up “in the Middle Eastern version of The Jeffersons,” ranging from his teenage experiment wearing purple eyeliner (“Don’t deny you’re wearing eyeliner when, in fact, you’re wearing eyeliner”), his finger wagging father (“Why aren’t you studying like your cousin to become an engineer?”), the vagaries of recording top hits on cassette decks (“There’s a whole generation of people who don’t know the words to the first ten seconds of songs”), and his humiliating struggle to sing as “Ivory” in a school production of Paul McCartney’s and Michael Jackson’s unlikely hit Ebony & Ivory.


But prodded on by a question from the floor, Ghomeshi paused his light manner with a moment ofsharp political commentary. Even as he praised Ben Affleck’s Argo , a fictionalized account of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Ghomeshi seemed exasperated with the lack of even a single positive portrayal of ordinary Iranians in the film, calling it “not just irresponsible, but dangerous” to loud applause, as the United States and Iran move closer and closer to conflict.

Ghomeshi also commented on his family’s struggles of being the only “ethnic” family in their Thornhill neighbourhood. With memories of the Iranian hostage crisis still fresh, a young Ghomeshi had deniedto his school aged friends his Iranian background, which he now embraces with its values of family,deference, and kindness grounded in a rich history of literature, dance, and music.

As the long line-up to the mic forced van Oldenbarneveld to extend the question-and-answer period, Ghomeshi explained that one of his main motivations for writing 1982 was to tell readers that “it’s okay to be unique and weird.” The experience of denying his ethnic background in the tense years after the Iranian Revolution had pushed him to both at once try to blend into his high school, and to explore new wave music, new hair styles, and his sexual orientation.

The prologue is that Ghomeshi, a once awkward teenager at the fringes of his 14-year old world inThornhill, is now a celebrated writer, broadcaster, and producer. Just don’t tell that to his father, who asks him, “How many books have you sold?”