Mr. Tubesteak and the School Teacher

Mehrab Arbab

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.

Absent from the Google Earth view of the Mr. Tube Steak stand at the SkyTrain sta­tion are the street peo­ple to be found in great abun­dance on a sunny day such as the day in May depicted in Google Earth street view, who along with the usual stream of com­muters seem to have been removed or air­brushed out of the pic­ture: the pan­han­dlers and side­walk sit­ters with their large sleepy dogs; silent Jehovah’s Witnesses hold­ing up copies of the Watchtower, elderly anti-abortionists with their plac­ards and hand­outs, evan­ge­lists hold­ing out their tiny brochures, the ven­dor of used books in plas­tic bags set out against the wall of the Bank of Montreal; the Aboriginal artist who dis­plays his cards and paint­ings against the wall of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the skinny guy pac­ing up and down, rif­fling two or pos­si­bly three pack­ages of cig­a­rettes through the fin­gers of one hand as if they were play­ing cards, inton­ing with­out empha­sis: smokes five bucks a pack, smokes five bucks a pack. Some days a tall man strides through the crowd with a pigeon on his head; one after­noon I observed him break off a piece of a hot dog pur­chased from the Mr. Tube Steak stand and pass it up to the pigeon.

Mehrab Arbab is often vis­ited at the Mr. Tube Steak stand by fel­low Baluch, dig­ni­fied men who shake hands when intro­duced; Mehrab Arbab keeps a stack of All Beef Smokies at the back of the grill for his Muslim clients, who like them well done, he says. In 2009, dur­ing the street demon­stra­tions in Iran, he told me that he thinks of him­self as Iranian as much as he might be Baluch. Persian is my sec­ond lan­guage, he said. But I like to speak Baluchi. What will you have, dear, he says to all who approach the stand, and here you go, dear, he says when he hands over the Tube Steak in its bun and paper wrap­per, with a nap­kin. He sug­gested that I look into the life and death of Daad Shah, a promi­nent Baluch rebel who had opposed the Shah of Iran in the 1950s. Mehrab Arbab’s nec­es­sar­ily frag­mented accounts of the his­tory of his coun­try, which I obtained dur­ing many brief con­ver­sa­tions inter­rupted by cus­tomers buy­ing Smokies, Tube Steaks, soft drinks and fruit juice, or passersby ask­ing direc­tions, implied that the CIA had fig­ured in the fall of Daad Shah, whose death was ordered by the Shah after the assas­si­na­tion of a CIA agent. Daad Shah was killed in 1957 in a bat­tle between Baluch fac­tions strug­gling for posi­tion under the regime installed by he CIA in 1953, dur­ing Operation Ajax, when Mehrab Arbab was one year old. Operation Ajax was a botched inter­ven­tion that should have failed; its acci­den­tal suc­cess led the CIA on to fur­ther inter­ven­tions, as Mehrab Arbab put it, in Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador and the more recent fias­cos that punc­tu­ate U.S. for­eign pol­icy. All of that began in Iran, he said. Mehrab Arbab was kin to the wife of Daad Shah, her­self a heroic fig­ure of resis­tance who lived into old age; one of Mehrab Arbab’s brothers-in-law was nephew to a leader of the oppos­ing fac­tion, who was killed in the open­ing salvo in the fac­tional bat­tle of 1957.

A his­tory of the CIA in Iran writ­ten by James Risen and pub­lished in 2000 in the New York Times con­firms the frag­men­tary account that Mehrab Arbab pro­vided me dur­ing my vis­its to the Mr. Tube Steak stand over the course of a year. The skep­ti­cism that Mehrab Arbab and his friends felt toward the like­li­hood of democ­racy ever emerg­ing in Iran were founded in recent his­tory: the CIA, the Mossad, the agen­cies that invented the tor­ture squads and the secret police under the Shah of Iran, would never allow democ­racy, he said; they want their own strong man. The oppres­sion in Iran today is as bad as or worse than ever; the only hope that Mehrab Arbab feels for his home­land these days is in the Iranian proverb “There is fire beneath the ashes” — the power is still with the peo­ple, he says, and he points to the bar­be­cue. Under the layer of ash, the fire waits to break out.

Mehrab Arbab dri­ves into the city every morn­ing in his Nissan van, haul­ing the Mr. Tube Steak trailer, which con­tains the bar­be­cue, side burner, propane tank and dis­tinc­tive red and white umbrella; a few days a week he stops at Costco to renew sup­plies of condi­ments, buns and hot dogs; the other sausages he picks up as needed from spe­cialty sup­pli­ers. He unhitches the trailer and pulls it into posi­tion in the shade of the SkyTrain tracks at about ten and raises the umbrella; by ten-thirty or eleven the battery-powered refrig­er­a­tor and the cooler filled with pop and dry ice are in posi­tion beside the trailer; the condi­ments are set out: ketchup, hot sauce, three kinds of mus­tard, chopped onion, rel­ish, sauer­kraut, mixed sliced pep­pers. He switches on the bar­be­cue, lays out sausages on the grill, spreads onions in the fry­ing pan. He plugs his iPod into a fur-covered speaker designed to look like ET. The iPod is loaded with pop music selected by his old­est son, who refreshes the selec­tion every cou­ple of months. Mehrab Arbab will still be there under the SkyTrain sta­tion at seven or eight in the evening, as long as the demand lasts. When he gets back to the house in Coquitlam he puts in a final hour clean­ing the equip­ment and the uten­sils. Then he is ready, he says, for another day.

Partisans of the Mr. Tube Steak style of hot dog can be found on the I Love You Mr. Tube Steak Facebook page, which lists three “offi­cers” in Vancouver and one in New York City, and a “cre­ator” in Victoria. Many are devoted to the Smokie filled with cheese and jalapenos: “the great­est jalapeno and cheese sausage hot dog on the street,” writes one fan; another says, “Oh I love you Mr. Tube Steak.”

Mehrab Arbab takes his own lunch to work every day: veg­eta­bles, cheese, flat­bread made at home on the stove. But he too is a par­ti­san of the jalapeno cheese dog; every two weeks he allows him­self one Spicy Smokie smoth­ered in fried onions, sauer­kraut and pep­per slices. In February this year he watched a Persian-language doc­u­men­tary of an Iranian engi­neer who fled from the Revo­lutionary Guard and landed in Germany, where he is now a ven­dor of hot dogs on the street. Mehrab Arbab was pleased to report that the title of the doc­u­men­tary is The Engineer and the Hot Dog Man.

—also published on geist.com

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2 Comments

  1. Peter Thompson
    Posted 4 November 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    hi I never see my friend Rob at Broadway anymore would like to know if your okay let me know your friend Peter

  2. jso
    Posted 11 November 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Rob is in Iran for a short visit, back some time soon, I understand.
    –s