Is there such a “thing” called a Muslim Writer?

This question kept swirling in my head after I attended the Festival of Literary Diversity, FOLD, organized in Brampton, Ontario, between May 4 and May 7.

First of all, the festival was super well organized. Jael Richardson, its director, and her team were welcoming, smiling, funny and making sure that the authors guests were taken care of, picked up from the airport, driven to their hotel and arriving on time to their panels. During the time I was there, I met and listened to many emerging writers, poets, spoken word artists who belonged diverse communities: Indigenous, Metis, Black, LGBTQ, South Asian and many others groups and subgroups. Within these communities, cross-sectional identities were also represented and celebrated. I participated in two panels. The first one was around the theme of immigrant women from racialized communities. I was one of the editors and contributors to an anthology named: “Resilience and Triumph: immigrants women tell their stories”. In my contribution, entitled: “Random Thoughts about Feminism”, I wrote about my upbringing in Tunisia and my distaste that I developed through he years to the “State Sponsored Feminism” that became another political propaganda used to “sell” the country abroad specially within institutions like International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Gradually, I came to associate feminism with privilege, elitism and one-party politics. Later, this repulsion shaped my political and even religious opinions until I left my hometown for Canada.

 

The second panel was about writing fiction and we were four Canadian authors with different ethnic backgrounds. Many times, as a Muslim woman writing novels, I asked myself whether my Muslim identity can be dissociated from the topics I write about. The fact that I am a practising Muslim woman, does it confine me in one identity that I can’t exist outside it? Are there any specific “Islamic” topics I should be writing about? And if yes, how can I tackle them in an “Islamic way”?

 

I remember some years ago while discussing book titles in a book club (where the members were Muslim), I suggested to read “The Yacoubian Building”. I defended the book for its literary merits but also for bringing very “controversial” topics to be discussed in predominantly Muslim society. One member of the book club demolished all my arguments and told me that these sorts of books encourage depravity and bad morals. I was shocked by her strong reaction as I considered myself as a “good Muslim” with some sense of morality. However, this incident made me realize that I crossed a red line, at least for some.

 

When I wrote my first novel, I really wanted to create stories about Muslim women, but not in any way similar to the ones of “Pulp Fiction” as described by Lila Abu Lughod in her book “Do Muslim Women Need Saving” where Muslim women are usually portrayed as victims of their religion, husbands or fathers and end up finally being rescued by the “West”. I wanted stories that describe the lives of women I see around me. Muslim women who struggle within their faith, within their workplace, within their families but also women who love their faith, cultures and studies. Muslim women who look for love and find it or perhaps do not. While doing so, did I have to explain the rituals of Islam? Did I have to be decent? Not always unless needed by the story or its context. Did I have to convey in my writing any sense of morality specific to Muslim or Islam? Not as far as I am aware of. Do I have to avoid describing “depravity” or bringing it forward? Not necessarily. As a writer, my ultimate objective was to be able to bring stories as I imagine them as close to reality as possible.

 

My second novel was about revolutions, women, and political awakening. The protagonists are Muslim women and their relationship to their faith isn’t taking any prominent place in their lives. This choice isn’t deliberate, it is rather natural. This is what I feel around me and this is how I was able to capture in the stories.

I consider writers as the photographers of the communities they belong to. They take multiple shots of the lives of people they meet, talk to, befriend, hate or simply interact with. These shots are not done with a particular intention of voyeurism and judgement but with the objective of artistic sharing. Sensitivity, subtlety, emotions are my guide. I try to follow this approach in my writing without preaching, without proselytizing without any “Muslim agenda” with one objective in mind: humanizing Muslim women as much as possible.

But the stories I bring to the readers are not the ones that makes the best selling titles, are not the ones that would be picked by Heather Reisman of Chapters. They are not the ones that would be chosen by the mainstream media, as they are nuanced, and most importantly defiant of the cliché about Muslim women.

Today in a world where even “hijabi” Muslim women are objectified, sexualized and made into another class of consumers, the writing of a “Muslim women” has become another category to create additional barriers to limit its widespread accessibility and restrict it to another confined space.

 

 

 

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Omar Khadr’s Case A Black Stamp On Canada’s Human Rights Record

Canada is in celebratory mood this year, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Confederation. The Canadian government has been funding cultural initiatives here and there to promote the diverse communities living together and to bring the multicultural aspect of Canada.

Internationally, Canada is portraying itself as an open country, accepting refugees from war ravaged countries like Syria. A sort of the antithesis of the American policies recently announced by U.S. President Trump to ban refugees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes himself as a feminist, taking selfies with young Muslim girls in hijab. A sharp contrast with the previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, whodefunded the Ministry of Status of Women and dehumanized Muslim women by fomenting the niqab debate.

However, amidst this festive and open atmosphere, there is a dark cloud that keeps the rays of the sun from reaching everyone. The case of Omar Khadr is a black stamp on Canada’s human rights record.

Omar Khadr was a child when he was imprisoned by the Americans in the military base of Bagram and later airlifted to Guantanamo Camp, where he was forcibly kept for over a decade. He was subject to physical and psychological abuses. He was betrayed by successive Canadian governments: Liberal and Conservative alike wanted him to stay in jail, far away from the public eye and TV cameras. No other western country dealt with its citizens detained in Guantanamo like Canada shamefully did.

Along these years, some prominent Canadian voices rose up to denounce the treatment of Omar Khadr, but they were not enough to deter the Paul Martin government, and later the Harper government, in refusing to call for the repatriation of Omar Khadr. In fact, then-prime minister Harper and his cabinet ministers kept justifying Omar Khadr’s incarceration by the fact that he was convicted in the killing of a U.S. paramedic. Needless to say, this conviction came as the result of a plea bargain Omar Khadr had made with his American jailors to gain his transfer out of the Guantanamo prison.

Even when Omar Khadr was returned to Canada after the insistence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he was immediately imprisoned and kept there for three more years.

These days, the case of Omar Khadr has slipped under the radar. Even some human rights activists think that the return of Omar Khadr back home would mark the end of his tragic story. But it wouldn’t. Omar Khadr never received any apology for the treatment he was subjected to in Guantanamo.

For instance, in 2008, Canadians officials flew to Guantanamo specifically to interrogate him and were never interested in his well-being. They offered to buy him a burger and some treats to get information out of him. When he understood that they were there for their own professional interests and not for helping him, Omar Khadr, became uncooperative with them. The Canadian officials pushed him to say what he clearly didn’t know. This behaviour is reprehensible and should be denounced. Unfortunately, Canada never distanced itself from the actions of its officials despite the reprimand of the Supreme Court ruling declaring that Omar Khadr’s rights were violated under the Charter of Rights.

Dennis Edney, the Canadian legal counsel for Omar Khadr, has been a hero in defending his client. Not only did he defend Omar Khadr under difficult circumstances, but he also accepted him in his home and protected him as one of his own children. Recognizing the work accomplished by Dennis Edney on behalf of Omar Khadr should be celebrated by all Canadians and not fought or hidden.

Recently, Omar Khadr had to undertake a 19-hour-long surgery on his shoulder as a result of bullet wounds he suffered when he was shot in the back by the U.S. military. This serious surgery will undeniably delay Omar Khadr’s efforts to progress in his studies and life.

Omar Khadr was stripped of his rights as a child, as a teenager and later as an adult. Today, he is trying hard to put his life back on track and get the education that was denied to him all these past years. As long as Omar Khadr file is still lingering, Canada won’t be able to hide its dark face and celebrate its record on the world scene. It is time for the Canadian government to act swiftly and let the sun shine on Omar Khadr’s life.

This article was published on the Huffingtonpost: 

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/monia-mazigh/omar-khadr-canada_b_15948786.html

Lettre à un écrivain emprisonné

Que la paix soit sur vous cher Zuhair Kutbi.

Que la paix soit sur votre esprit et votre corps. Cet esprit et ce corps que la prison, le harcèlement, l’intimidation et l’acharnement tentent chaque jour et chaque instant de faire taire, de faire courber, d’effriter et de détruire. Cet esprit et ce corps qui résistent à l’injustice et à l’arbitraire.

Cher Zuhair Kutbi, vous ne me connaissez pas et je ne vous connais pas. Nous ne nous sommes jamais rencontrés, mais en lisant sur vous, j’ai eu l’impression de lire une histoire que je connais tellement bien. Une histoire avec laquelle j’ai grandie et que j’ai maintes fois entendue dire et redire. Une histoire ou peut-être même une berceuse qu’on chante aux petits mais qui fait peur aux grands. Ceux qui oublient qu’ils étaient un jour petits. C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui réfléchit, un homme qui pense, un homme qui lutte pour un monde meilleur pour les siens et pour les autres. Un homme qui se veut une voix de raison dans un monde déboussolé. Un homme qui a choisit l’écriture comme arme contre l’obscurité, contre la corruption, contre l’oppression.

Un homme qui n’utilise pas des bombes ou des grenades pour tuer, pour mutiler ou pour décimer ses ennemis mais un homme qui choisit des mots, de la prose et des phrases pour convaincre, partager, illuminer et rêver. Un homme qui a été injustement arrêté et emprisonné. Un homme soustrait à sa famille et éloigné de ses amis. Pourquoi? Parce que vous avez osé réfléchir dans un monde où on ne réfléchit plus. Parce que vous avez osé critiquer dans un monde où on ne critique plus. Parce que vous avez simplement aimé votre peuple dans un monde où on n’aime plus.

Cher Zuhair, je vous admire pour votre courage et pour votre témérité. Je vous admire pour avoir parlé alors que des milliers comme vous ont choisi de se taire et plutôt plaire. Je vous admire parce que vous aurez pu avoir la vie facile et devenir un « écrivain perroquet ». Oui, un écrivain qui répète ce que les Maitre veulent entendre, un écrivain qui avant même de rédiger une phrase, pense au préalable au bonbon qui lui serait offert par les Maitres. Voilà tout simplement ce que c’est un « écrivain perroquet ». Ce genre si répandu et qui ne pense qu’au bonbon qui est le plus souvent enrobé de sucre mais dans lequel se trouve un poison dangereux. Un poison qui tue à petit feu, un poison qui nous efface la voix graduellement et nous confisque la raison. Un poison qui après un certain temps, nous rend aveugle, sourd et muet. Un poison qui nous fait perdre notre capacité de discernement.

Cher Zuhair, merci de résister. Ne vous sentez pas seul dans votre prison. Il y a des écrivains comme vous qui chaque jour, pensent à vous et vous parlent de loin. Il suffit de tendre l’oreille vers le loin. Loin, du pays des ours polaire et des phoques, du pays de la foret boréal et de la toundra. Pour ces écrivains, vous donnez le courage, pour ces écrivains vous redonner l’espoir, pour ces écrivains vous offrez un des plus beaux cadeaux. Le cadeau qui consiste à trouver un but pour son écriture, un but à l’amour, un but à la vie!

Chez Zuhair, votre lutte et votre résistance nous aide aussi dans nos propres luttes. Surtout ne vous sentez pas seul. Nous pensons à vous, nous nous inspirons de vous, vous êtes un « écrivain phare ». Celui qui nous éclaire le chemin, celui qui se tient fort et debout, celui qui ne baisse pas l’échine pendant la tempête, celui par qui le changement arriverait.

Ce changement dont vous rêvez et dont on rêve tous, viendra un jour, j’en suis sure. Ma certitude, je la puise de notre humanité commune, de nos luttes communes et de nos espoirs communs. Il y a quelques années, un homme que je n’ai pas connu, mais qui a vécu dans le même pays que le mien. Un homme qui comme vous vient du désert. Le désert qui créé des hommes forts et résilients. Ce désert chaud le jour et froid le soir, c’est le lieu des rencontres, c’est le lieu des contraste, c’est le lieu de la vie et de la mort. Cet homme là, dont je vous parle a lui aussi été un incompris, un homme avant son temps, un homme de mots, un homme de rêve. Il avait dit :

Lorsqu’un jour le peuple veut vivre,
Force est pour le Destin, de répondre,
Force est pour les ténèbres de se dissiper,
Force est pour les chaînes de se briser.
Avec fracas, le vent souffle dans les ravins,
au sommet des montagnes et sous les arbres
disant :
“Lorsque je tends vers un but,
je me fais porter par l’espoir
et oublie toute prudence ;
Je n’évite pas les chemins escarpés
et n’appréhende pas la chute
dans un feu brûlant.
Qui n’aime pas gravir la montagne,
vivra éternellement au fond des vallées”.

Je sens bouillonner dans mon cœur
Le sang de la jeunesse
Des vents nouveaux se lèvent en moi
Je me mets à écouter leur chant
A écouter le tonnerre qui gronde
La pluie qui tombe et la symphonie des vents.
Et lorsque je demande à la Terre :
“Mère, détestes-tu les hommes ?”
Elle me répond :
“Je bénis les ambitieux
et ceux qui aiment affronter les dangers.
Je maudis ceux qui ne s’adaptent pas
aux aléas du temps et se contentent de mener
une vie morne, comme les pierres.
Le monde est vivant.
Il aime la vie et méprise les morts,
aussi fameux qu’ils soient.
Le ciel ne garde pas, en son sein,
Les oiseaux morts
et les abeilles ne butinent pas
les fleurs fanées.
N’eût été ma tendresse maternelle,
les tombeaux n’auraient pas gardé leurs morts”.

Aboulkacem Chebbi

Et c’est par ces mots que j’aimerai terminer ma lettre à vous cher Zuhair. Je vous laisse sur ces notes qui vous connaissez certainement mais que j’ai tellement voulu partager avec vous. Pour vous expliquer la raison de mon espoir et pour ouvrir une brèche dans votre cellule et laisser pénétrer la lumière. Cette lumière que malheureusement vos geôliers ne sauraient voir mais que seulement, vous, moi et tous pleins d’autres pourrions distinguer. C’est cette lumière qui éclairera nos chemins vers la liberté.

Que la paix soit sur vous.

Dr. Zuhair Kutbi est emprisonné, interdit d’écriture, en Arabie Saoudite pour avoir critiqué le régime et suggéré qu’il devrait y avoir une monarchie constitutionnelle. Cette lettre a été lu lors d’un évènement au Salon du livre de Trois-Rivières, Livre Comme l’Air, en collaboration avec Amnistie Internationale.

Islamophobia: an entire system and not few isolated acts

It is sad that it took a tragic event to gather to denounce what has been normalized in the last long 15 years.

It took the killing of six good fathers, hard working men, to start talking about what has described the lives of Muslims communities across Canada.

Today, some people are saying that this happened in Quebec because it is a closed society or because they have trash radios that incite all day to hate and racism. These are simplistic explanations; they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Racism, xenophobia, discrimination has been rampant in the past years in Canada and specifically after 9/11. They have been normalized by some media and some politicians and legislation.

It is a general problem. It is not only specific to Quebec City or the province of Quebec; it has been growing in many cities across Canada:

Remember the two Muslim girls who were threatened last fall in Edmonton by a man who was singing the national anthem and showing them a noose. Today this man has not been charged.

Remember the Muslim woman wearing a scarf who has been attacked in the supermarket in London Ontario by a screaming and violent woman. Last June 2016

Remember PEGIDA, this xenophobic anti-Muslim group that was able to hold a protest in Toronto last June 2016.

Remember the Mosque of Peterborough that has been burned last November 2015.

Remember the Muslim woman here in Ottawa who found an offensive and racist note telling her to go back home also in November 2015

But most of all remember what Canada has done since 2001:

The introduction of Bill C-36 the first antiterrorism legislation that took many of our rights away and most of all demonized Muslims as if they are a threat to the security of Canada.

Remember all the security certificates cases that targeted Arab Muslim men: Mahjoub, Jabalah, Almari, Charkaoui, Harkat. Whose wife, Sophie was speaking at teh begining of the rally and who is until today still threatened by imprisonment and torture if deported? If the treatment of these men is not the culmination of Islamophobia to its ugliest form, how else can we justify their imprisonment without due process, the spying on them, their harassment, the stigmatization of their children and their families forever?

We shouldn’t forget the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015.

It was introduced by Harper with the blessing of Trudeau and the liberals. What was described as a lone wolf attack was followed by the most invasive, the most discriminatory and most likely unconstitutional piece of legislation that targeted Muslims, First Nations, environmentalists groups and many other activists.

But that was not the only islamophobic shameful legacy left by Harper and his government:

Remember The Barbaric cultural practices act, The Niqab ban at the citizenship ceremony, the use of the word mosque as an example where terrorist plots are being plotted and what Harper called “Islamicism” as the biggest threat to Canada.

My friends, this is what we are fighting today. Not some isolated acts. Not few bad apples. But a system. A whole system that dehumanized entire communities, a system that created two classes of citizens and two sorts of laws. One for the criminals and one for terrorists aka Muslims. One for citizens and one for refugees. One for the strong and wealthy one for the poor and the vulnerable.

Our solidarity today is needed more than any time before. Working hand in hand with groups and communities will be our path to victory. Today more than any time before, we need to talk to each other, get to know each other and support each other.

And please remember that all is not dark and depressing. There are people around us who are not filled with hate. There are people around us who do not believe the fake news and won’t accept the dehumanization of the Others. The won’t accept there is us and them. There is only US together. Those people are here today and we will not give up until things will be better and until injustice stops.

This is my speech given at the rally held in Ottawa against the Islamophobia and for the refugees on February 4, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

Quand les mots tuent

Hier le Centre Islamique de Québec a été le théâtre d’un acte terroriste. Peu importe les motifs et l’origine des terroristes, ils sont entrés dans un lieu de culte et ont tué des gens qui priaient. Les lieux de culte partout dans le monde sont considérés comme des sanctuaires. Un endroit pour méditer, réfléchir, se protéger des maux extérieurs de la société, oublier, s’oublier. Apparemment, ce n’est plus le cas au Canada, du moins depuis hier. Une mosquée est devenue une cible sanglante. Une cible pour des attaques haineuses qui ont été nourries depuis des années par les radios poubelles du Québec qui vomissent leur venin enrobé de liberté d’expression dans les oreilles des populations. Nourries aussi par la cupidité sans borne de certains politiciens qui veulent se faire une carrière politique sur le dos des plus vulnérables. Voici, où nous en sommes arrivés. Au bord du gouffre, sinon, en plein dedans.

Jusqu’à aujourd’hui, le mot islamophobie n’est que rarement utilisé par les médias du Québec soit-disant de peur de jouer la carte des islamistes et d’exagérer un phénomène qui n’existe même pas. Alors que des islamophobes comme Djemila Benhabib, Mathieu Bock-Côté, pour ne citer que ceux-la, se cachent derrière des airs sophistiqués de laïcité à géométrie variable pour ne pas dire carrément asymétrique sont toujours les bienvenus sur les scènes publiques. Plus que ça, ce sont les chouchous de certains médias, les fous du roi. Comme quoi, le soucis d’objectivité est tellement important à préserver. Une objectivité pour certains sujets, uniquement.

Je suis venue au Canada au début des années 90 pour fuire l’intolérance et l’asphyxie que la politique française a léguée en Tunisie: la pseudo-laïcité. Une laïcité qui sous prétexte d’empêcher la religion de s’emparer du pouvoir, est devenue le test ultime de la citoyenneté. Tu fais partie de la Cité si tu rejettes la religion ( surtout une en particulier). Ainsi, si tu pries, tu es un islamiste. Si tu portes le voile, tu es une opprimée ou un dangeureuse soldate qui veut influencer toutes les femmes du monde à le porter, si tu as des opinions politiques qui s’opposent au régime autocratique, alors tu es un islamiste et dois aller en prison. La liberté ne se mesure plus par l’illumination de l’esprit mais par les centimètres de peaux dévoilées ou par la couleur des cheveux et leur beauté. Voilà ce que j’ai fui.

Je me suis établie au Québec pour deux simples raisons: la langue et la quête de liberté.
Malheureusement, au fil des années, j’ai compris que les choses n’étaient pas aussi simple que je les entrevoyais. Ma langue française ne semble plus suffire alors que tout le débat identitaire depuis la révolution tranquille au Québec a principalement porté sur l’importance de la langue française. Ma langue était prise pour acquise, il fallait montrer une autre patte blanche: mon amour de la laïcité. Une certaine laïcité. Evidemment, le fait que j’ai décidé de porter un foulard à l’âge de vingt ans pour des motifs spirituels et religieux, ont fait de moi la candidate de l’oppression par excellence. Le Québec n’était pas aussi libre que je le pensais, le Québec voulait retrouver sa liberté et les personnes qui montraient un signe religieux contribuaient à son oppression: du moins c’est ce qui était dit et répété sur toutes les tribunes depuis les vingt dernières années. Le vote ethnique dérange. Le voile islamique dérange. Les centres islamiques dérangent. Le stationnement des musulmans dans les quartiers devant leur lieux des prière dérangent. Les musulmans qui mangent halal dérangent. Les musulmans qui ne mangent pas les fèves au lard dans les cabanes à sucre dérangent. Le niqab dérange. Les femmes d’origine maghrébines qui sont bardées de diplômes et qui travaillent dans des garderies parce qu’elles n’ont pas trouvé d’autres emplois plus qualifiés sont folles: elles dérangent.

Je me suis toujours retrouvée en train de me défendre: défendre mon choix vestimentaire, défendre ma religion, défendre mes idées, défendre mon intelligence. Et cela n’est pas venu dans un vase clos. Il y eu les attaques terroristes du 11 septembre 2001 aux Etats-Unis. L’invasion de l’Irak, puis l’Afghanistan, le printemps arabe, l’émergence de l’état islamique et la liste est longue. A chaque fois, il faut faire la démonstration que je suis loyale et à chaque fois ma loyauté est mise en doute. Car même si je dis la vérité, ce n’est pas la vérité qu’on veut entendre. Et après tout, un musulman ne dit pas la vérité: ça fait partie de sa foi.

A chaque fois qu’il y a un incident violent qui surgit dans le monde ou une attaque terroriste dans lesquels des musulmans sont impliqués: le débat devient: la violence de l’Islam ou de l’idéologie islamiste. Les pseudo- experts sont invités dans les médias non pas pour expliquer la complexité des politiques au Moyen-Orient mais plutôt pour créer plus de confusion et surtout pour brouiller les cartes. Les débats sur les accommodements raisonnables est devenue une plateforme légitime pour que les gens affichent leur ignorance mélangée à la peur exagérée des étrangers. Rares sont les politiciens et les journalistes qui ont résisté à la tentation d’y gagner des cotes d’écoute ou des votes. C’était la curée: chacun voulait sa part.

Malheureusement: on y a tout laissé une part de notre humanité.
La grande farce qu’on a appelé la charte des valeurs québécoises a rajouté à cet état des lieux: une xénophobie assumée, une peur de l’islam, une ignorance qui réconforte, un opportunisme et un calcul politique plus que machiavélique.

Jusqu’à dernièrement, cet été, le débat importé fraîchement de Fance sur le burkini a encore une fois attise les peurs des gens et personne ne s’est demandé combien de femmes vont porter des habits pareils dans les piscines québécoises. Peu importe les faits. On n’est plus dans le rationnel, on est dans le feu de l’action.

Entre-temps, des groupes racistes d’extrême droite, comme la Meute trouve le terrain propice pour augmenter et racoller des adhérents. Des blogues, qui étaient considérés comme marginaux, en l’occurence Point de bascule, continuent en toute impunité à déverser leurs mensonges dans la population et même chez certains politiciens. De l’obscurité vers la lumière. De la marginalisation vers la normalisation. Voilà ce qui a été fait pendant les dernières années. La déshumanisation des musulmans: ce ne sont pas des personnes qui méritent des droits. Leur Dieu est Allah, ce n’est même pas notre Dieu. Leur femmes sont opprimées alors pourquoi on leur donnerait plus de droit chez nous. Vous n’avez pas de droit chez vous, alors pourquoi vous voulez qu’on vous en donne ici. Ces répliques sont aujourd’hui normales, elles peuplent les médias sociaux.

La tragédie d’hier soir doit être un moment de ressaisissement. Un moment de la dernière chance pour ne pas sombrer dans la violence et dans la haine. Les six personnes qui ont été tuées hier soir et celles qui ont été blessées ont perdu leur vie ou luttent pour leur vie parce que d’autres personnes quelques part derriere un écran d’ordinateur, ou dans un centre de tir, ou dans un jeu vidéo ont jugé qu’elles n’avaient pas le droit de vivre parce qu’elles étaient musulmanes. Les politiciens Canadiens et Québécois n’ont rien fait de concret pour dire haut et fort que nous sommes tous des Canadiens et des Québécois. Que les noms Mohamed, Oussama et Ahmed sont des noms Canadiens et Québécois, que les filles qui portent un foulard sont aussi des filles Québécoises. Cela ne suffit pas d’être tolérés. Il faut aussi savoir accepter. Dans la différence mais accepter.

On Slavery and Oppression

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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.