& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, June 08, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 31

With Mahrukh at
The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD)
May 2017

I return to A Decade in Toronto after a long gap. 

The story of my decade has reached the ninth year - 2017 - and life in Canada became predictable, routine, mundane.

The publication of my debut novel in 2016 was a turning point. I was invited to many readings and the one that I enjoyed the most was chatting with Saima Hussain at the Mississauga Central Library. Saima edited a collection of personal stories by Muslim women The Muslimah who fell to earth, which Mawenzi House published in 2016, along with Belief.

I bought table space at the Word on the Street in the hope that I’d be able to sell my book, but – unsurprisingly – didn’t sell enough copies to justify the steep price I paid. Undeterred, I also took a table space at Brampton Book Bash (organised by FOLD) and sold nearly two dozen copies.

In 2017 spring, after I was featured at the Festival of Literary Diversity, my friend Gavin Barrett – who came to nearly all my readings, and who couldn’t make it to FOLD – wrote to me about an idea he had of organizing a reading series. Without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed.  

Gavin named it the Tartan Turban Secret Reading Series (Tartan Turban is the logo of the advertising agency Barrett & Welsh – where Gavin is the co-founder, partner and creative head) and we started in May 2017 (18 May 2017).

Gavin had obviously put a lot of thought into what he wanted the series to be and evolve into. In his own words, “The Tartan Turban Secret Readings celebrate and support writing by multicultural/visible minority Canadian writers with a special focus on those who self-identify as black, indigenous or people of colour, who have few such platforms.

“At the same time, all writers who want to celebrate Canada’s multiculturalism, diversity and indigenous heritage, and have talent to share are warmly welcomed. Please feel free to bring any of your friends of every minority whether "visible" or otherwise - non-minorities are warmly welcomed too.”

When we launched the series, we planned to do a few readings during the summer of 2017 and then when the season changed, to bring down the curtain. However, the series caught on with the literary community and there was no way we could just stop.

Two years later, it continues to grow. I believe the main reason for its popularity is that Gavin invites an author/poet to curate the series, and then she invites six other authors/poets to read. This brings variety to the series.

I must shamefacedly admit that I share the credit for an immensely impactful, relevant, and popular program for which my only occasional contribution is to suggest names of authors who may be invited to read or curate.

Gavin does everything – including arranging for wine and samosas – and all I do is just show up for the readings.

Our lives are strange in many ways and the strangest is the way we make friends. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, someone becomes a friend and even when one doesn’t meet or interact with this person for long periods of time, or even consistently, s/he remains a friend that one thinks of first on a special occasion or when something important happens in one’s life.

Gavin Barrett is that friend. I have written extensively about him here and if you are interested, you may read all about Gavin on GAB here:


2017 was an important year because it was the seventieth year of India’s independence. It was the centenary year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; also, the centenary of Indira Gandhi (To read the post, click here: She knew India’s heartbeat).

It was 50 years since Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia (and 20 years since his remains were discovered); also, 50 years of India’s Maoist Naxalbari movement.

Many who contributed to our culture passed away into history. Among them were actors Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, and Om Puri. All great actors and stars. Shashi Kapoor was a bit more special to me than the others and I couldn’t help but blog about him (To read the post, click here: Shashi Kapoor).  

Musicians Girija Devi (Hindustani classical vocalist), Gord Downie; journalists Gauri Lankesh (murdered by Hindutva terrorists) and Piroj Wadia (a dear friend. To read the post, click here: Piroj Wadia). Poet Eunice de Souza, who I had the privilege of knowing briefly when I worked at the Indian Post with Veena Gokhale, among others, and Eunice was the editor of the literary page.

We also lost authors Robert Pirsig and Bharati Mukherjee. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (To read the post, click here: Zen) is an important book that I read two times – first when I was in my late teens and then in my late twenties – and it was only upon the second reading that I understood it.

Winter morning in Brampton 

In 2017, I gifted the book to my then colleague, who in jest told me she needed Zen more than Yoga.

I want to briefly segue into an issue that is misinterpreted often deliberately by newcomers to Canada. Nearly all newcomers to Canada feel that their qualifications and experience are ignored because they lack what is euphemistically termed as “Canadian experience”.  

Now let me narrate the experience of my former colleague’s husband (the colleague to whom I gifted Pirsig’s book). He is a Caucasian Canadian, born and raised in Canada, studied to become an engineer, and served in the Canadian Armed Forces in the Balkans and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One would imagine than upon his return to civilian life, he would be welcomed by our people and would easily get a job matched his engineering qualification and incredible experience of having served the nation.

However, that is not what happened. Neither does his present job reflect his qualifications, nor his abilities and experience.

If our system cannot take care of our veterans, there will be many who will legitimately ask, “Why should then Canada give favoured treatment to refugees and immigrants?”

Until we don’t have a satisfactory and logical answer to this question, the issue of immigration will continue to be polarising and it will always turn ugly and emotive.

During my days as a journalist, I’ve seen exclusivist political formulations demand protection of the rights of the native people (sons of the soil). In today’s context, the forces that oppose immigration globally represent the same values.

However, unless there is a real solution to securing economic opportunities for the native people, the ire against immigrants and refugees will rise, not dissipate.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Narendra Modi wins India

Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India is comprehensive. In the heat of the campaigning, some of us who didn’t want him to win, believed (actually, fervently wished) that he’d form a minority government. In retrospect, it may appear that the Modi baiters were willfully ignoring signs that he would sweep the elections.

In January 2019, I was in New Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bombay and nearly everyone who I spoke to – the cab driver, the hotel manager, the official at the chamber of commerce, the director of a think tank, an academic, a former diplomat, a serving diplomat, journalists, nearly everyone in India, when asked for an unbiased viewpoint, confessed that Modi would return.

In many post-election analysis, the following arguments are being made:

1. The victory margin would’ve surprised even the most ardent Modi acolytes.

The massive mandate in favour of Modi shows that the Hindutva juggernaut – led by Modi and Amit Shah, two battle-hardened veterans – was working to a clear plan: unprecedented victory, and a pan-India sweep.

2. Modi appealed to the Hindu identity and focused on religion rather than the not-entirely-dubious record of his government.

The indisputable fact is that the appeal of Hindu identity cut across all traditional electoral barriers everywhere (except the south) and gave Modi the result that he knew he’d get.

Modi’s strategy – which he has perfected since his ascendency from 2002 onward – is three pronged.

  • Coalesce the Hindu identity by the simple act of identifying an external enemy (terrorism abating Pakistan) and an internal enemy (beef-eating Muslims). 

  • Then, attribute the perceived marginalisation of the Hindus to the secular policies that the previous governments followed, which led to the appeasement of the minorities (both religious and caste-based).

So, when Muslims were being lynched in some parts of India and the urban elite took to the streets with #NotInMyName banners, the Modi supporter derisively dismissed their concerns as hyperbolic and exaggerated; and defiantly indulge in whataboutery – “Why the silence over the massacre of jawans in Pulwama?”

The India that voted for Modi is the one that has seethed with rage at the urban elite’s control over the levers of power in the post-independence era. According to the Modi voter, this urban elite – educated in English language – asphyxiated the aspirations of hundreds of millions of Indians struggling to survive. Worse, they – the elite – let a corrupt political class emerge and let it run rampage for 70+ years, milking India dry.

Post-2019 victory, the Modi supporters are openly saying that India is a Hindu civilisation, just as most western democracies are all a part of Christian civilisation. These countries, while democratic, keep their Christian identity. And that the BJP is a Hindu version of the Christian democratic parties that flourished in these democracies.

The corollary is there is nothing wrong for India to promote its Hindu character while broadly adhering to democratic norms. Democracy by this logic is tantamount to nothing more than majoritarianism.

Taking a leaf from the Indira Gandhi style of mass politics (Garibi Hatao, 1971), Modi projected himself as the only leader who mattered, who could deliver and the only saviour of all Hindus. It paid rich dividends because people of India voted for Modi, without looking at the local representative.

So, what does the Modi victory mean for India? The idea of India will be transformed and will acquire a distinct saffron hue. India will happily say goodbye to secularism during the next five years, just as India bade farewell to socialism in 1992.

And as had happened with socialism, when India firmly took to a free market economic model, the leaders continued to profess undying adherence to socialist values; Indian leaders will continue to profess their adherence to secular values, even as they India into a Hindu Rashtra.

While there’s absolutely nothing secularists can do about this transformation, one hopes that Modi would now have the gumption to bring about fundamental changes in improving the quality of life of rural Indians.

The World Poverty Clock (https://worldpoverty.io) estimates that “the number of Indians living on less than $1.90 (considered “extreme poor” by the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda) has fallen from 306 million in 2011 to some 70 million in 2018.”

By early 2021, it forecast that the number of Indians living in extreme poverty will fall below 3% of the population, a benchmark which some development economists consider a watershed moment in a country’s efforts to eradicate extreme poverty.” (source: https://worldpoverty.io/blog/index.php?r=14)

In 2017, when I went to India (my third trip to India since my immigration), I met a cross-section of Indians to understand Modi’s India. I wrote a four-part series,

Modi’s India 2: The angry Hindu

Modi’s India 3: Controlling the mind-space

Modi’s India 4: Hail Hindutva

and upon re-reading the series, what strikes me is that even then, into the third year of Modi regime, there were obvious signs that his sway over India and Indians was complete, unassailable, and unlikely to diminish for a long time.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Arab Voices

Guest post by 

Abdulrahman Matar

 In April 2019, the Syrian Mediterranean Cultural Forum organized a new poetry evening, ‘Arab Voices,’ at the public library in Aurora (Ontario, Canada) as a part of its annual program.

Many Arab writers and artists living in Canada participated in the program and included poets Rula Kahil (Lebanon) Naeim Helene (Syria) Suzan Sami Jamil (Iraq) Younes Al-Atari (Palestine) Abdulrahman Matar (Syria), Jacqueline Hanna Salam (Syria).

The Syrian artist Ismael Abu Fakher also played the Bezek (solo, accompanied by poetry readings). A short film ‘The 11th Commandment’ was presented by Mowafaq Katt (Syria).

In addition, Abdul Rahman Matar and Mowafaq Katt created a calligraphy of Arabic characters and dedicated it to the people of Aurora.

The readings were conducted in both Arabic and English, with the technical assistance of the library team which included the projection of texts on a large screen at the Aurora Public Library.

In attendance were a number of distinguished individuals from the Canadian public life including the Mayor of Aurora, the local Member of Parliament, Members of PEN Canada.
Arab Voices is a cultural project aimed at introducing the Canadian public to the contemporary cultural of Arab creators living in Canada.


The Syrian Mediterranean Cultural Forum has held cultural evenings in Istanbul and Toronto since February 2014.

The founder of the forum is Syrian writer, poet and novelist Abdulrahman Matar, who has lived in Canada for the last four years, having come here as a refugee.

Syrian Mediterranean Cultural Forum is a Syrian cultural forum, NGO, Non-profit, currently located in Toronto – Canada. The purpose of the Forum is to enable a cultural expression of Arabic culture especially in literature and the arts. 

Specifically, through hosting a variety of activities, which bring out, and express the general cultural sides of life.

The forum aims to open up to different cultures, and to share ideas and activities, and it sees the important diversity behind that. It also aims to be a stage of cultural fertilization and debates. Also to form a support for the Syrian refugees who are merging with the new societies that are receiving them.

This forum was founded in, March 2013, in Istanbul. It emerged from the Mediterranean studies center (which was founded in Damascus, 2012) where it also continued its activities in 2013, in Istanbul, where it’s officially registered. It had organized many cultural events, like poetry and musical events. 

Many of the Syrian poets, writers, and novelists, had attended and been part of.

The Forum's Vision
  • To spread the culture of debate, civil work, peace, and tolerance.

The goals of the forum

  • To express the different sides of the Syrian, Arab, and global literature, and the art.
  • To be a bridge of cultural connection between the motherland and the residents in other foreign countries.
  • Contributing to the process of merging people within new societies.
  • To connect and exchange with other cultures, through expressing the importance of diversity, while defining, and recognizing it.
  • Support and encourage young talents.

  • Horizon from perfume Soul: poetry and music - Istanbul / Feb 24, 2014.
  • Poetry readings with music: Istanbul / Jan 25, 2015
  • Poet Nuri Al-Jarrah: Poetry readings and book signing / Istanbul, April 11, 2015
  • A solidarity stand with the Syrian detainees: Toronto Sep 08, 2018.
  • Arabic Voices in Toronto: Poetry Reading / Heart House – U OF T- Toronto Nov 03, 2018
  • Arabic Voices:  Poetry - Music - Movie - Arabic Calligraphy Sketch / Aurora Public Library Apr 06, 2019


About Abdulrahman Matar

Writer and journalist from Syria, resident in Canada since 2015, poet and novelist. He worked in the culture field and media in Syria and Libya. He is a researcher in Euro-Mediterranean relations, human rights, and terrorism issues, and he is an activist on freedoms and civil society issues. Founder and Director of the Mediterranean Studies Center & Syrian-Mediterranean Cultural Forum - SEEGULL.

He continues to publish the research and articles in the Arabic press.

He has published five books: Blood is not red (common stories 1983), Rain leaves - Poetry 1999 , The evening Rose - Poetry 2000, Mediterranean Studies 2001,Wild Mirage - Novel 2015,and a some manuscripts.

His books have been well received, and dozens of articles have been written about them in various Arab media.

He was arrested five times and spent nearly ten years in prison as a result of his writings, freedom of expression, and his positions on issues of freedom and human rights.

His novel "Wild Mirage" deals with his experiences in political imprisonment, torture, deprivation, abuse and the oppression. Matar is a Membership of Syrian writers' Association, and the Association of Journalists.

Membership of "Writer in Exile" / PEN Canada.

Membership of Writers’ Union of Canada.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict

From L to R: Manjushree Thapa, Josh Scheinert,  Eva Salinas
Uzma Jalaluddin and Sharon Bala
at a discussion on
'The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict
at the Festival of Literary Diversity  

The Festival of Literary Diversity’s fourth edition was held recently in Brampton. The festival has grown steadily in participation and popularity over the years, attracting the best literary talent that Canada offers.

In 2016, just prior to the launch of the first festival, I interviewed Jael Richardson, the founder and artistic director of the festival, for TAG TV (see the interview here: https://youtu.be/vDklJugI6Xg). Jael said the idea of the festival came to her in 2014 when she participated in a book conference in New York and was stunned at the lack of diversity in the lineup of the authors. Dalton Higgins, author and events organiser, pointed out to Jael that the situation wasn’t too different in Canada.

Jael and a group of people who shared her interests got together and decided to launch a Festival that would celebrate diversity in all its forms – race, faith, sexual orientation, abilities (physical and mental). The purpose was to create space in the world of literature that would reflect the Canadian reality of multiculturalism. Earlier this year, the Writers’ Union of Canada recognised Jael and FOLD with the 2019 Freedom to Read Award.

Since its start in 2016, I have attended all the four festivals in Brampton. In 2017, I was privileged to be invited as an author. And every year, the festival has featured many authors who congregate in the first week of May to talk about themselves, their books, their readers, other authors, Canada, diversity, multiculturalism, and have fun.

This year, the festival’s main venue was the landmark Rose Theatre in Brampton. Spring had finally arrived, and the longish commute from Toronto didn’t seem too arduous, especially because the session that I’d chosen to attend – ‘The The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict’ – had fine authors, all of whom had their debut novels published in Canada recently.

The panel included

Sharon Bala (The Boat People which was a finalist for Canada Reads 2018 and was awarded the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award);

Uzma Jalaluddin (Ayesha At Last, a revamped Pride and Prejudice that is soon to be made into a film);

Josh Scheinert (The Order of Nature, set in Gambia, portraying the struggles and fears of being gay in West Africa) and

Manjushree Thapa (All of Us in Our Own Lives is her first novel to be published in Canada).

Eva Salinas, managing editor of foreign affairs news site OpenCanada.org and a freelance journalist, moderated the discussion.

Sharon’s and Uzma’s novels are about their protagonists coming to Canada, and Josh’s and Manjushree’s novels are about their protagonists leaving Canada. In all four novels, the borders between home and away get blurred, and lives are transformed because of physical and emotional dislocation.

Eva asked the panelist about the different kinds of borders in their stories, and how their characters and they as writers respond to these borders.

Sharon, whose novel is about Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, landing off the coast of British Columbia, says that more than personal, physical, and geographical borders, her characters navigate the liminal spaces of silences and secrets. 

In Uzma’s Ayesha At Last, the boundaries are purely personal. A character in the novel, Khalid, knows he appears weird to the world because of in-your-face refusal to abandon his ethnicity and cultural rootedness; but he doesn’t worry overtly about this because he contends that he is who he is because of his belief; the reader is not expected to like him rather spend time with him to understand him.

“People cross borders often without having a choice,” Josh says. In his novel, which explores the relationship between an American (Andrew) and a Gambian (Thomas), the protagonists cross the continental borders, and the borders of control drawn by the society and families. In Manjushree’s All of Us in Our In Our Own Lives, Ava Berriden goes from Toronto to Nepal to find meaning in her life, but realises that she is unwanted despite her power.

The discussion dealt with issues that are common to Canadian milieu – issues such as acceptance, belonging, identity and home. “What gives us our identity, and how much of it is related to race?” asked Eva, whose careful choice of questions accentuated the inherently Canadian character of these authors.