On Slavery and Oppression

Last week, I went to Dakar in Senegal as part of a delegation of Canadian authors to meet Senegalese authors, establish contact with them and share our mutual experiences. We also met readers and many high schools students during out visit.
From many places and people I saw, one visit marked me and left a painful taste in my soul.
We visited Gorée Island. It is about 4 km from Dakar shores. That morning, we went to the Dakar Harbour, paid our tickets and took a small boat to the island. Gorée Island, has a painful and violent past. It was initially taken over by the Portuguese around 1482 and became a “shipment” counter of slaves to the Americas. It is a tiny island but an island that changed the face of the world we live in forever. This island ended up being taken over by the French in 1800s until the Independence of Senegal in 1960.
The first thing you see in the island while still in the boat is a round shaped prison and then you see nice colourful buildings in the colonial style. There are coffee shops and restaurants and souvenir boutiques everywhere. Amid all this , arrives the worst thing: “la Maison des esclaves” or the “House of slaves”. We entered there with our guide and I was about to cry at every corner of this house.
There are rooms for “men”, rooms for “women” and rooms for “children”. When I say room it is a tiny room, about 2 by 2 meters,  with a small opening as a window. There is even a room for “weighing”. Men were weighed before being shipped to the Americas ( Caribbean Island, South America, US). Black people, kidnapped or taken away by force stayed there about three months and whoever gets sick is thrown away in the ocean as food for sharks. The slaves have shackles that weigh 10 kg, always attached to their ankles. So whoever is tempted by jumping into the sea,  would quickly die by drowning. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the cries, the screaming, the moaning of these men, women and children in this house and I simply couldn’t. I couldn’t and I will never be able to imagine a single ounce of their suffering. People were treated less than animals and that happened not once or twice but lasted for over 300 hundred years.
Women were selected according to their virginity. The shape and firmness of their breasts. Whereas men were selected according to their weighs: the strongest and the fittest. The one who were small, fragile or tiny were forced fed to gain weigh so they can be shipped as slave to the Americas. There is even a small and dark place under the stairs named: the room of the recalcitrants. A sort of “torture chamber” where the ones who are not obeying the orders are kept until…
The ones who were not selected were left to work as local slaves. The place that marked me the most in this house was ” La porte de non retour” ( The gate of non return) it is a door at the end of the house that opens on the ocean and where all you can see is the water touching the horizon, blending to form a thin far away line.  This is where usually a ship will stand and wait for the slaves to be piled in the low compartment to begin their journey unrooted from their parents, siblings, children, religion, language and land of ancestors.
The slaves had their original names removed and were given just a number, tattooed or burnt on their bodies. Later, once in Americas, they were forced to adopt the name of their owners. This is how multiple and successive generations of European merchants made their fortunes. This is by how sugar plantations were maintained in the America, flourished and brought wealth to their American owners.
This house has two storeys. The one I described above is where the “business” was taken place. On the second one, the merchants used to live, undisturbed by the hell happening under their feet.
One of the Canadian author with us in the delegation, told us that there is a street on Gorée Island named after his last name. So for curiosity, he was looking for this particular street. I asked him the day before, jokingly, in case his ancestor turned to be a colonial figure, would he apologize or do his mea culpa and in all seriousness he declared: “this is not my fault, I would never apologize for anything I am not responsible for it, I can only educate myself about it”. Of course, his reply was fine but I immediately compared this reaction to the one Muslims are always asked to adopt whenever there is a violent incident  committed by a Muslim.  The onus is always on us to distance ourselves from violent acts, regardless of our religiosity, culture, background, ideologies…
Yes slavery has officially stopped. Yes, there has been decolonization, independence and civil rights mouvement…But, the hardest thing to get rid of is this colonized mentality, this feeling of inferiority, this attitude of alienation that stuck forever and can hardly be erased.

In an age of celebrities, intellectual honesty is a scare commodity

Recently, I followed through social media two controversies about two individuals: one from Canada and the from the US.

The first is a famous novelist and short stories writer, Joseph Boyden, who describes his bloodline including Indigenous ancestry. For Joseph Boyden, this association with the Native people and First Native groups, wasn’t only a matter of cultural pride or reclaiming his roots, he, de facto, became one of the most popular representative of the Indigenous affairs, when it comes to media, culture and politics.

This connection, whether genuine or not, became a sort of a “branding” that the author used, rightly or wrongly, to build his media persona. And I think, here is where Native groups had all the right to dispute this “fake representativity” or to be frustrated with his celebrity becoming a silencing tool for them. I am not sure, if we can still use the expression of “native informant” here as Joseph Boyden is somehow sympathetic to the Indigenous issues, but he played the perfect role of the “successful native” who  silenced the rest of the Native voices, their diversity, their multiple issues and specially their visibility.

It is fascinating to see how, a respected investigative journalist Jorge Barrera, looked into the aboriginal ancestry claims of Joseph Boyden and found more questions than answers. What Jorge Barrera did is a perfect exercise that many journalists would do for celebrities and public figures to try to answer questions but mainly to dig further down into the motives of these celebrities.

Recently, a Canadian journalist, broke off the story that Mariam Moncef, a newly elected Liberal MP and Minister of Political Reform, wasn’t born in Afghanistan but rather in Iran. Even though, I personally found the story irrelevant and borderline “anti-refugee fishing expedition”, it got a lot of media attention and Minister Moncef was put under the spotlight to explain her other birth narrative. At the opposite, for Joseph Boyden, many journalists from the establishment are trying to save his credibility and insinuating that those questions about Boyden’s origins are futile and unnecessary. Moreover, Joseph Boyden, did not take the time to refute the allegations against him. His statement was very confusing to not say useless.

For me, this controversy is the sign that Indigenous people are rising up quickly to the challenges and that imposed voices or “appropriated voices” won’t be imposed on them anymore. This is a sign that a community is fighting for its rights to be heard and to decide who can be one theirs or not. Being an Indigenous isn’t a brand that one can sell and make profit out of it.

The Muslim community in Canada has been facing similar challenges in the last years. Where some self appointed “Muslims” would speak on behalf of the whole community and would be automatically considered as media darlings. As a community, we have a lot to learn from Indigenous struggles and their ways of refusing to be infantilized or silenced. When some people with Islamic sounding names or with some ancestry link to Islamic countries, are used by the media as the “enlightened” ones, we should be courageous to question these people and questions the media complicity in making them icons.

The other controversy that I followed is the one dealing with Hamza Yusuf. A prominent US Muslim scholar when asked at the “Revival Islamic Spirit” RIS 2016, a conference held every year in Canada, about the Black Lives Matters, answered the following:

“The United States is, in term of its laws, one of the least racist societies in the world. We have some of the best anti-discriminatory laws on the planet… We have between 15-18,000 homicides a year, 50 per cent are black on black crime… There are twice as many whites that have been shot by police but nobody ever shows those videos. It’s the assumption that the police are racist and it’s not always the case…

“I think it’s very dangerous to just broadstroke any police that shoots a black as immediately being considered a racist, sometimes these are African American police officers. The police aren’t all racist.”

I am glad that I stopped going to this event years ago. After few years attending, I noticed that this is becoming a sort of “religious entertainment” event where some scholars are there mainly for building their celebrity status rather then denouncing injustice, or intellectually challenging the youth and the audience. Political questions are most of the times non discussed or if it is discussed it is done in an apologetic way that would make the Muslim individuals feel and behave not as full citizens but rather as “grateful” immigrants or refugees who should behave themselves.

The last year I attended RIS, I heard Hamza Yusuf, denouncing the moral depravity of America and denouncing people watching “Minions” movie, as for him, the one-eyed devilish creatures are a sort of a worship of the “Anti-Christ”. I found these comments so shallow and so dangerous that immediately after, I took the decision not to attend the event anymore.

It is insulting to our intellectuals to hear how Hamza Yusuf would worry about the spiritual wellbeing of Muslim youth watching “Minions” and meanwhile having doubts and reservations about a social justice groups like Black Lives Matters. This attitude turns Islam into a religion of stupid details, whereas Islam is a religion of big ideas and standing with the right issues.


Canadian Politicians Need To Stand Up Against Growing Xenophobia

The world is changing rapidly. We have witnessed the success of the Brexit campaign in the UK, and the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. There is a growing and frightening divide between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, the educated and the less educated, journalists and the media. Amid this social and political turmoil, some political groups and social movements are emerging to exploit this climate of tension and fear and make political and financial gains out of it.

Canada has not been immune of this. During the 2015 federal election, Stephen Harper used the niqab ban issue to make political gains. Moreover, he used the Syrian refugees file to create a fear mongering rhetoric insinuating that behind every refugee hides a terrorist and vocabulary as “old-stock Canadians” and “barbaric cultural practices” were employed by Harper to appeal to some voters.

As despicable and opportunistic his campaign was, his party came second, 5.6 million Canadians voted for the Conservative party. It is not a negligible number if compared to the 6.9 millions who voted for the Liberal party of Prime Minister Trudeau.

After the election of Donald Trump in the U.S, I heard many people on social media and around me saying with relief that we are so lucky to be living in Canada. That is a fine statement but we should not take things for granted.

Few days ago, Chris Alexander — a former minister of immigration and citizenship in the Harper government and a candidate in the Conservative leadership race — was in a rally criticizing the carbon tax to be introduced in January by Rachel Notley, the premier of Alberta and the crowd started chanting “lock her up” in reference to the infamous saying of Donald Trump regarding his political adversary Hillary Clinton. Alexander was seen smiling along with the chant and didn’t even try to distance himself from the chanting by stopping them or leaving the event. If this is not a copycat from the U.S. politics of populism and misogyny, what else could it?

His colleague Kellie Leitch, another former cabinet minister in the Harper government, who introduced the barbaric practice hotline during the summer 2015 and briefly expressed some regrets before announcing her candidacy for the Conservative party leadership race, has since been surfing on the “Trump wave” by including an “Anti-Canadian value” as a screening for immigrants in a survey questionto her supporters. If this is not xenophobic, what else could it be?

In Quebec, tactics of xenophobia and Islamophobia have been used by some politicians and media outlets with total impunity and very little denunciation by political leaders and the main stream media. The mere impression to appear complacent with terrorism or with anything related to Islam seems to have paralyzed many of them.

François Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, in a distorted attempt to distance himself from his political opponents published a political ad with the picture of woman wearing a chador (Islamic garment to cover all the body worn in Iran and Afghanistan by some women) and declaring that only his party wouldn’t allow teachers to wear a chador in schools. The ad is misleading, as there are no teachers wearing chador in Quebec.

Nevertheless, this ad is intended to appeal to the fear that some voters have regarding those religious symbols that invaded the popular culture (movies and books) after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and remained stuck in people’s imaginations even if today there is not a single request for a teacher to wear the chador in Quebec or Canada.

Recently, we learned from CBC that a xenophobic group, has been gaining membership and funds based on their fear of what they call “Islamic fundamentalism.”

This group attracts members who are concerned to see the province being invaded by sharia followers or Halal products consumers. It originated in some small village in Quebec, where most likely there are no Muslim immigration presence. The founders of this groups said that they are inspired by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, a right-wing party in France.

Despite, the historical and socio-economical differences and origins of the immigration in France and Quebec, the fear seem to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean to find fertile ground in Quebec. How come these groups are not considered to be fuelling and propagating hate? When we have politicians hurrying to legislate and invest millions of dollars to combat terrorism and radicalization, and then, on the other side, silent or shy when it comes combating xenophobia and Islamophobia, there is clearly a double standard.

Politicians at the federal and provincial levels should be more courageous and bring legislation that would condemn these groups and actions. Otherwise, it will be too late and the “Trump wave” will sweep us here in Canada as well.

This article has been initially published at the Huffington Post Canada

What to do with Economic Inequalities

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Studying economic inequalities seems to be the new “fashion” in the last couple of years among academics and researchers. It is undoubtedly that “Occupy Wall Street movement” and its European counterpart “le mouvements des Indignés” have something to do with it. Those social movements, to their credit, brought to the public space, new concepts like the “90%” versus the “10%” or even the “99%” versus the “1%”. They became the slogan of these movements.

Unfortunately, rare are of those studies or books that would call for a total rethinking and reshaping of the capitalist and neoliberal system. Instead, these studies on the inequalities would most of the time justify them and portray them as “inevitable” or even defend the “1%” by claiming that they are the one pushing the economy forward.

Of course, “The Capital in the Twenty First Century” by Thomas Picketty, in an unprecedented and thorough study about the rise of the economic inequalities in Western Europe and the US, rightly pointed to the cause of these inequalities: the accumulation of wealth with a tiny proportion within the society and hence he proposed a special tax on wealth, to better distribute the incomes.The principal message of Picketty is that the wealth in western countries reached high level that surpassed the growth rate of their economies and that cannot be justified by real productivity or growth (thus, the danger of financial crises). Despite this, the critics of Picketty quickly dismissed his crucial message and instead jumped to accuse him of being a “modern Karl Marx” in reference of the “Capital” book by Karl Marx. Some of these virulent critics went even to consider the work of Picketty as ideologically motivated and not at all based on economic assumptions.

Angus Deaton, a prominent economist from Princeton who received the Nobel Prize of Economics in 2015, published a book in 2013, named “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequalities.”

Contrary to Picketty, Deaton’s intentions are not to identify the inequalities as one of the “main culprits” behind the poverty and lack of development of some countries. Rather, he blames the spread of diseases and health issues as the main reasons behind people economic fallout. He believes that the world populations were able to achieve some level of development because of the improvement of their medical accessibility: hospitals, medications, research…He refers to this as the “Great Escape”, the escape from diseases, from poverty, and thus from inequalities. Another factor that Deaton believes has improved people’s lives around the world is “globalization”.

For this, he gives the examples of countries like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand and Botswana, who had an economic growth rate higher than 4% per year in the period between 1960 and 2010.

However this economic growth didn’t translate automatically into economic equalities between the countries and inside the same country.

Hence, in China a country with a high growth rate, and with an economy that would soon surpass the American’s, the average income in China remains 20% of the American’s.

Despite those flagrant inequalities, Deaton, thinks that it is the ingenuity and intelligence of people that would make them advance and lead them to win over poverty. Even if this progress will be met with increasing inequalities at some point.

Contrary to the book of Picketty, Deaton’s was well received by the neoliberal reviews. Even when Deaton exposed the financial debacles of Wall Street and how the government bailed out the financial institutions using the usual refrain of “Too big to fail”, he didn’t go anywhere further to put in question, the “accepted” and “justified” institutionalized greed underlying today’s neoliberalism.

Deaton continues to believe in globalization as an engine of development and explains the inequalities between countries and within countries as “mismanaged globalization”. But he doesn’t tell us how these inequalities can be kept in control without falling in social unrest. He doesn’t provide us with any concrete actions on how the health conditions of poor countries can break out of the circle of poverty specially knowing that inside those same countries government, corruption and lack of democratic institutions are all linked together.

Picketty book’s introduced a classical tool to defy inequalities: taxes. But, this was immediately, considered as a socialist measure. Deaton candidly admits in his book that “Equality policy required by democracy is still threatened by economic inequality”. Nevertheless, he remains mum on how to achieve and implement that much need “equality policy”.




Where is Home?

Great population movements have always marked humanity. Religious traditions are full of stories of people fleeing persecution, escaping diseases, running away from natural disasters. The biblical story of “Noah’s Ark” is probably one the first stories of both human and animal migration fleeing natural disaster, something we would call today the climate change consequences. Exodus, another biblical reference, tells us about the ancient migration of Jewish people fleeing political and racial persecution by the Egyptian Pharaoh to look for freedom in the land of Canaan.

Mohamed, Prophet of Islam, established the first Islamic city in Medina, far from his beloved native city: Mecca that persecuted him and his fellowers. The date of that migration marks the “hegire” calendar or Migration calendar also called the Islamic calendar.

In Canada, we live in a land of animal migration. In and out. From here to there. From there to here. Just think of the Monarchs, those beautiful majestic butterflies flying thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico, laying their eggs along their southern routes and later returning to their homeland. But in reality where is their homeland: Canada or Mexico? The species can’t survive without both. So home is a little bit “here” and a little bit “there” and vice versa…

Think also about the annual salmon run going against the current from the Pacific Ocean to spawn and later die in the rivers of the interior lands. Their offspring take the opposite route from the rivers to the cold and open water of the Pacific Ocean where they will grow and strive.

And how about Caribou migration where every year many thousand of animals migrate from the tree-line to the calving grounds of the remote Artic Tundra and then back again to the summer and autumn. These animal migration are today strong symbols of who we are as a country but why do we forget them when it comes to human beings?

These animal migration cycles came to be seen as natural phenomenon and part of the natural balance of our ecosystem. Many animals die in the process but the general population survive and get stronger and healthier because of it.

So why, when it comes to human migration, barriers are established, walls are built and military check points are strongly defined and enforced?

In the last years, the Mediterranean Sea has become to represent a hecatomb, a multifaith and multi racial graveyard of people dreaming of a better life. People fleeing wars, persecution, and poverty. People looking for a better future for their children: decent lives, a good education and most importantly peace.

But this is not what we are hearing in the media or by some populist politicians. These refugees, are depicted as economical, cultural, and identity threats. Very few countries had the political courage to accept them and let them integrate in their societies and help them fulfill their dreams. Instead the majority of European countries for instance, refused to accept more refugees. They purposely changed their laws to stop these big numbers of people arriving from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, African countries, at their shores. Not only this, but the refugees are today tracked through drones, their biometrics data taken and shared with police and government agencies. They became to be represented as a homogenous entity; they are portrayed as looking the same, eating the same, behaving the same. As if refugees is a sub human groups with less humanity and more problematic behaviours. This narrative is dangerous; it perfectly fit the narrative of division between “us” and” them”. It makes the “us” feel better in their own bubbles and it makes the refugees and newcomers look like the “barbaric herds” that can never be trusted to be part of the “us”.

But once again, who is “us” and who is the “them”? Aren’t we both “us” and “them”? Isn’t there a fluidity and resilience in our common humanity that makes us simultaneously the same and different? It is exactly this human characteristic that is being attempted to “erase” or overlooked within the refugees and that is after all despite all odds always present and that would finally brings us together.

This essay was first published at Six Degrees Citizen Space 2016 http://www.6degreesto.com/article/where-is-home/

Reflections from Hajj

kaaba_2016Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca is the fifth pillar of Islam. It seems to be the least known pillar of Islam or the least talked about among Muslims. This year was my first experience to be blessed by the call of Allah to visit this sacred place and perform the rituals of Hajj. I just came to realize that Hajj is undoubtedly one of the hardest and physically enduring pillar but also I came to understood how equally important as praying, fasting or giving charity Hajj should be for the life a believer.

During Hajj, the physical hardship and the spiritual fulfilment are intimately interwoven. Both meet in a place of harmony and serenity. They go hand in hand. You go back and forth between physical demands and spiritual enjoyments. You easily skip between the present and the past. Between Prophet Ibrahim, Peace Be Upon Him, the one who named us Muslims, and Prophet Mohammed Peace Be Upon Him, the one who showed us how to live like Muslims. In Hajj, both the brain and the body are at work. Feelings and body muscles come so close to each other in a subliminal marriage.

Meditation follows actions and actions follow meditation. Hajj is an amazing pillar. I felt in love with it. By accomplishing Hajj, a Muslim feels that she is part of the whole humanity, not a progeny of your mother and father, not only related to your family, not only part of your little microcosm of friends and community, not just a citizen of a country, but rather connected to the whole humanity. A particle in the Cosmos but still a particle that exists. You literally feel that you are a small particle in the whole universe, turning around the One and the Unique, circumambulating around his House. Praying to him, the only One, adorning Him, connecting with Him. Your voice, your heart, your soul, your sight, your voice, everything in you turns around and praise the only One. Your turn and call on Him. You are with the One. You aim to blend with the One. The atoms turns around the Nucleus. The atoms get closer and closer to the One. Round after round, you don’t wish to stop. You finish one round and start another. The communion is forever. The Black Stone, that stone that symbolically marks the corner from which one starts her turns is a “magical” entity. I don’t mean it gives any magical powers but its presence is so intriguing. The Black Stone is at the same time an entry point and an exit point. The start line and the finish line. Life and death meet there. The beginning and the end. A huge symbolic point to our lives.

Looking at the Kaaba, the austere cubic structure, the Old House built Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismael, Peace be Upon Them, is another “magical” sight. My eyes can’t get off it. They keep looking, and following the movement. Feeling as if your heart is flying in the air meeting the One, connecting with the One.

I love circumambulating around the Kaaba. It is a beautiful prayer, not any prayer. Not standing up and prostrating and standing up again like in any other prayer but something even deeper and stronger. A physical movement full of love that brings you closer to the One. You don’t want to stop the movement you don’t want to stop the prayer, you don’t want the encounter with the One to disappear. Once again the start and the finish meet together in an incredible journey.

Circumambulating around the Kabaa or turning around the Kaaba reminded me of the salmon run. A story of migration. Not any migration. The trip of life, love and death. We leave home to find home. We leave our family to find other friends and families. We leave comfortable lives to face death, but discover another sort of life, a spiritual life, the beginning of an eternal life, a true life.

The Challenge of Words

For me, words exist to tell stories. Simple stories and complex ones. Sad stories and happy ones. Beautiful stories and ugly ones.

Many times, people ask me: in which language do you think? And each time I have the same surprised reaction. Each time, I promise myself to pay more attention to the language I am thinking in and each time I forget or may be my mind plays tricks on me and makes me unconsciously forget.

Words are confusing exactly like identities. When I go out in the public, do I really think of who am I? A Canadian? A Muslim? A woman with a scarf or hijab? A mother? A wife of a torture survivor? An immigrant? How to live with all these identities at the same time? Emphasizing one, dropping another, keeping a low profile one, boasting about another or amalgamating and juggling all together and try to be at peace?

I grew up in a Tunisia. So when I tell to people around me I am African, people frown at me with dismay thinking of a bad joke… So why am I not black? And then I quickly add I am North African and that slightly makes it more credible but nevertheless confusing. But even being a North African is problematic today. Especially in France. But that is another story.

My mother tongue is Arabic but my family name is Berber. The Amazigh are one of the indigenous tribes of North Africa. So when I meet North African with Berber origins, their first question to me is: do you speak Amazigh? When I sheepishly respond no, I am immediately considered as a false indigenous. A traitor. A culture failure. An assimilated one, someone with just a name but not the strong beating heart of a Berber. Something like the Islamness or blackness of Barak Obama…

But even for Arab speaking people, I can barely pass the test. I am Tunisian and the Arabic dialect I speak is filled with French words. So for the purist Arab Middle Eastners like my in-laws, I speak French, and for the purist French people, I speak Arabic.

As you can see, I can never win. I am a linguistic bastard…

Arriving in Quebec, as an immigrant didn’t make my life easier as I didn’t have the Quebecois accent and that was considered a problem for my integration.

Not only my accent was problematic but my appearance with a hijab is considered as a sign of women oppression and alienation. Apparently, I have some para normal powers: wherever I go my hijab shatters years of women struggle. No matter how hard I worked to prove the opposite and join the “us”, I kept always considered to be the “others”.

So finally, I moved to Ontario and discovered the genius of multiculturalism as introduced by the father of our “cool” Prime Minister. I thought that my multiple identity crises would be buried forever. Unfortunately for me and for the world, 9/11 attacks happened and since I have been judged and looked upon through the deforming lenses of terrorism.

Fortunately, words saved me. They saved from oppression, they saved me from depression, they saved me from victimhood. In a world, where it became so easy to loose one’s own sanity, words are my saviours. I attack with words and I defend with words. Dictators and extremists are certainly scared of arms but no wonder they are even more scared by ideas and words.

Today, I write to better understand the world and myself. I write in English, a language I started learning in high schools while listening to Madonna. You can understand that even Shakespeare would distance himself from me. I write in French, not the one my in-laws think I am speaking, but the real French. Well, hopefully! And I keep reading a lot in Arabic and guess what: I still don’t know in what language I think of…

I wrote this text and read it in a panel at Stratford Festival, Ontario, organized by CBC Ideas program.