For it is by self-forgetting that one finds Stephanie Kervin

Leaving the El Mocambo following what will surely go down as one of the most interesting interviews in this editor’s life, I clutched a little statue of Mary in one hand (a gift from the subject), and a business card inscribed with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi in the other. “For it is by self-forgetting that one finds,” read one of the final lines of the prayer.

In the case of Abbas Jahangiri, or Mr. Abbas, this is especially true. The self-proclaimed former “capitalist” turned philanthropist shed his old life of financial success and luxury, and took on the arduous task of dedicating his life to those less fortunate.

In 2001, Mr. Abbas acquired ownership of the Toronto music landmark, the El Mocambo, in a controversial bid that has been rumoured to have been in the one million dollar range. Largely seen by the Toronto music scene as an outsider and polarizing figure, Mr. Abbas originally planned to move a dance studio onto the premises, something he claims he received death threats over.

The curious story of Mr. Abbas’ acquisition of the legendary music venue is not the most intriguing factor in this story of loss and gain. In a moment of prayer, Mr. Abbas’ life changed forever.

“It was 2003, and I had to make some really serious decisions. Everything I wanted, I had achieved it. I had this calling inside me, and I kept wanting to do charity...I was in my office, thinking to myself, “I achieved everything I wanted: lots of buildings, lots of staff, lots of companies. So what’s next? And then I said, ‘Make money to give to the poor.’” It was then that Mr. Abbas started his organization, Serving Charity, which now boasts more than one hundred volunteers, and delivers food and coffee to Toronto’s homeless 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Like his personal heroes, Mother Teresa and John Paul II, Mr. Abbas left behind all the trappings of his well-to-do lifestyle, took a vow of poverty, choosing to live above the El Mo. “I got rid of my things, I sleep on the couch, I have no pay, for eight years now. Every single dollar goes to the poor.”

Mr. Abbas also made an interesting business move involving his ownership of the El Mocambo. He explains, “All the profit margin from the El Mocambo goes to Serving Charity, 100%. The staff gets paid, but all the profit margin goes there.”

Having lost all the worldly comforts that most people find indispensable, Mr. Abbas gained more time to devote to his many projects involved in Serving Charity. Along with the whole-hearted devotion to helping anyone in need, Mr. Abbas also developed a much stronger, and quite striking, relationship with God.

In talking to the man, it does not take long to come to the topic of spirituality. Himself raised Muslim, Mr. Abbas practices a passionate amalgam of religion in his everyday life, often referring to his idol, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. His face simply beams with reverence as he speaks of the woman who helped inspire him to leave his life of financial comfort and instead pledge himself to the poor.

“Between all the religions, she understood the meaning of God, and it was among the poorest of the poor.” Mr. Abbas peppers his speech not only with words of holy praise for saintly figures like Mother Teresa, but for pretty much any other topic. It can be slightly unsettling at first, but as time goes on, the regular religious references in conversation become familiar and welcome.

When asked about the relationship between his work for Serving Charity and the El Mocambo, the answers are decidedly less passionate. Mr. Abbas talks about the involvement of the arts in raising money for Serving Charity as one would about a former significant other. “I used to have that incredible love for the arts. I used to be a dancer, and I had two black belts. It was business then, business after business. But with the project now, I was lost, but now I’m found. I was blind, now I see.” Just as Mr. Abbas sacrificed and lost major worldly possessions in his major life change, he seems to also have lost some of the love for the arts that many of his dissenters consider necessary for running such a famed musical establishment.

Yet, despite all that is and has been said and observed about Mr. Abbas, his utter devotion to helping those who are most in need is unquestionable. The impression that one takes away from a conversation with the man is that he might not please everybody, but he sure is trying to help everybody.

Even the opposing forces he has faced through his involvement with the El Mocambo are subject to his philosophy of always giving to charity. “I try to lead them [the artists] to charity.” For those who do not want to abide by his life principles, Mr. Abbas sees them as simply not being able to understand.

Paraphrasing the famous Mother Teresa, Mr. Abbas says, “A lot of people do great things, but there’s not that many people who do small things.” What can be achieved by one small sacrifice is for you to see. Mr. Abbas, however, has already had quite the glimpse.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: The owner of the El Mocambo reveals what is truly to be gained from losing it all
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