& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Friday Nights with Diaspora Dialogues

Last Friday, I attended Friday Nights with Diaspora Dialogues – the performance series that coincides with the Keep Toronto Reading month (April).

The performances were a combination of the eclectic and the exotic. 

Brenda MacIntyre’s stunningly original interpretation that water acquires emotional qualities, set the tone for the evening and served as an invocation.

Heather Hermant’s rendition of ribcage: this wide passage was riveting.

Monica RosasSalt Water and Cinnamon Skin fresh and appealing.

The reading from Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s Spin Alley was satirical and ironic (notable also for Isaac Thomas deadpan excellence).

I had heard Jaspreet Singh read a passage from his first novel Chef last year during the Asian Heritage Month at Toronto’s North York Central Library (Read that blog).

At Palmerston Library, where the Friday series is being held, Jaspreet enthralled the audience, despite clear signs of fatigue after an arduous cross-Atlantic trip from Italy.

The cavernous auditorium in the basement of the library was full; a diverse and appreciative audience enjoyed the evening, held together with wit and charm by Garvia Bailey.

Diaspora Dialogues does things in style.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

To love a Palestinian Woman

Beit Zatoun means House of Olives. It’s in Toronto’s Mirvish Village. A great meeting place for the exchange of ideas. Recently, it was the venue for Tsar Publication’s spring book launch of


Love a

Ehab Lotayef’s book of poems in English and Arabic.

Lotayef is a Canadian writer of Egyptian origin. Lotayef poems are political. He writes about injustice and he writes evocatively.

The volume includes his Arabic poems translated into English. Even in translations, they still manage to convey the sense of raw emotions.

Sheikh Imam’s Last Song

Truth is lost

Sold cheap

Lies in abundance

Values disappearing
No feelings

No conscience

Words become
like waves of mist
blurring visions

Another example...


a traditional colloquial poem

The first: a sigh

The second: a sigh
The third: a sigh

The first is Cairo

The second is Montreal
The third is Palestine

The first is Cairo: too liberal they said I was

The second is Montreal: conservative, they call me here
The third is Palestine: no one is free over there

The first is Cairo: too liberal they said I was, so I left

The second is Montreal: conservative they call me here,
           yet I stay
The third is Palestine: no one is free over there, still...
          they resist, and will prevail

The first is Cairo

The second is Montreal
The third is Palestine

The first: a sigh

The second: a sigh
The third: a cry

The highlight of the evening was Maryem and Ernie Tollar’s fluent attempt to put Lotayef’s poems to music.

Image:  http://farm1.static.flickr.com/152/431770744_6e02d27de9_o.jpg

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

10 reasons why India will not and must not become a superpower

During his animated one-hour lecture on ten reasons why India will not and must not become a superpower at Toronto’s Munk Centre, Dr. Ramachandra Guha lamented that in the present lower house of the Indian Parliament, not more than five members would have read a 1949 speech given by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s constitution, that advised the citizens of a yet-to-be-born republic to eschew three pitfalls.

• Abandon the bloody methods of revolution because that leads to anarchy
• Abandon Bhakti (devotion) in politics because that leads to dictatorship, and finally,
• Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy

For good measure, Dr. Guha added that not a single minister in Dr. Manmohan Singh’s cabinet would have read the speech.

In his seminal book, India after Gandhi, Dr. Guha quotes Ambedkar’s warning about India remaining a “mere political democracy”.

In the speech made to the Constituent Assembly in 1949 (that led to the formation of the Indian Republic in 1950) Ambedkar had cautioned, “In politics, we will have equality, and in social and economic life, we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognizing the principle of one man-one vote and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we shall do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

Given the vast territory he had set out to cover during his presentation, Dr. Guha didn’t have the luxury of time to get into the finer points or quote from his works. However, he did provide a panoramic view of the challenges India faces. Terming himself as a polemicist of the centrist kind, he set about explaining the ten reasons in an impassioned manner uncharacteristic of an academic, although quite characteristic of him.

According to Dr. Guha, the ten reasons that India will not and must not become a superpower are:

• Maoists extremism

• Right-wing fundamentalism
• Corruption
• Institutional degeneration
• Growing gap between the rich and the poor
• Environmental degradation
• Chimera of a socially conscious press
• Fragmentation of the polity
• Border disputes
• Disturbed neighbourhood

He explained that but for business magnets, editors of national newspaper chains and federal politicians, not many in India really share the grandiose vision of the nation becoming a superpower.

Dr. Guha concluded that India would have a more pronounced role in global affairs as a “bridging power” rather than a superpower.

Image: http://www.claysanskritlibrary.org/press/PankajMishra_on_CSL_files/ramachandra_guha_sketch_200.jpg

Friday, April 02, 2010

Bluebird A Memoir

In 1992, when Vesna Maric was 16, she had to leave her home and parents (Croat mother and Serb father), take a bus ride across Europe along with her sister, and other women and children to reach Britain.

She was told she would return within six months once the trouble at home was over; she remained in Britain for the next four years as a refugee.

Bluebird, A Memoir describes in an unsentimental manner Vesna’s journey to Britain and her life and growing up in a foreign land.

It’s the unsentimental part of the narrative that is refreshing about Vesna's memoir.

Generally speaking all tales of displacement tend to be maudlin and those by refugees more so, perhaps because a refugee experiences displacement more sharply than an immigrant does.

Unlike an immigrant, a refugee is an unwilling relocater. Unwilling to leave the baggage – both physical and emotional – behind at home and cheerfully attempt to resettle in a new land.

Vesna’s account of her relocation is humourous and realistic. She narrates her circumstances and the situations with dry wit. She tells the stories of her compatriots with empathy and without the hyperbole.

We are fascinated by a series of lovely and loving people – mostly women – who try to continue living their lives as normally as possible, despite having turned refugees. 

There's Gordona, a mother of two, who at 52 is pregnant again because as she confesses, “...you know, me and my man, we still have sex quite often. We fuck every which way, whenever we can.” Vesna describes her thus: “(Gordona) looked like Xena the Warrior Princess, with a tight dark plait snaking down her steely buttocks hugged by a pair of lilac leggings.”

There's Bakira, a woman of forty, who was to marry an Englishman named John. “One of the greatest mysteries of Bakira’s and John’s relationship was that Bakira spoke no English, and he understood very little Bosnian. Bakira was given to explicit conversations. She would complain loudly in Bosnian. “John, it’s not going to work like this. The sex is just not good enough – you come quickly and me – nothing! But you don’t care, do you? You have to spend more time, you hear?”

However, while describing these vignettes, Vesna never loses sight of the poignancy of their predicament, and by not getting too heavy handed, she succeeds in bringing to life the human tragedy of the Bosnian war. 

Thank you Yoko.

Granta published Bluebird in the UK in January 2009; Anansi Press (www.anansi.ca) is the distributor for Granta in Canada. The paperback edition is on sale in Canada from this month.  


Thursday, April 01, 2010

From behind the veil - A Hijabi's journey to happiness

Woman in Musim Dress (WMD) – that memorable new twist given by Sheema Khan to the acronym that led to the war on Iraq – is turning into a major issue following Québec’s Human Rights Commission ruling on some Muslim women's preference to cover their heads or faces or both. 
The Commission recently ruled against the niqab and in tolerated the hijab.

It concluded that religious beliefs cannot stand in the way of gender equality and didn’t accommodate the request of a woman wearing a niqab to be served by a woman when being photographed for the purpose of identification.

On the other hand, it disallowed an appeal made by a client of the provincial health board who objected to being served by a woman wearing a hijab. The commission clarified that wearing the hijab had no bearing on the delivery of services.

Following this, Québec tabled an unprecedented legislation requiring Muslim women to show their faces in all government locations, including schools, hospitals and daycares. The Globe and Mail commented, "The controversial move by the Charest government - which has said it is committed to secularism and gender equality - marks the first time it has chosen to craft laws to accommodate minorities."

Québec is following the lead of many European nations. In Europe, mass, officially-encouraged Islamophobia is becoming a norm in the name of democratic values, gender equality and human rights. The debate is unlikely to lead to legislations that protect the minority; which one would justifiably argue is of paramount importance in any democracy.

In the Canadian context, this development is particularly disconcerting because Canada has consciously tried to evolve into a society where no one is left behind. The issue is a major cause for concern not just for Muslim women but for all newcomers to Canada. At stake is the true meaning of multiculturalism – whether it is a mosaic or a melting pot.

Jason Kenny occasionally floats the idea of turning the Canadian multiculturalism on its head by insisting that it should resemble the New York-type melting pot. Fortunately, the larger Canadian establishment maintains agreeable ambiguity on the issue and quietly encourages the mosaic form of multiculturalism.

But let there be no doubt that the Québec ruling will pave the way for far-reaching changes in policy formulations across Canada and at all levels of government.

As in Europe, the lawgivers will see the issue not for what it is – a religious minority’s cultural assertiveness. Rather, the issue is more likely to be seen from the perspective of the state’s right to determine values and apply them universally to homogenise the Canadian society.

So, how do women who wear the hijab and the niqab feel about being the centre of suspicion? A slim but important book – From behind the veil – A Hijabi’s Journey to Happiness – by Farheen Khan narrates the trauma the author suffers after being assaulted by a stranger in a Toronto apartment building merely because she wears a hijab. Farheen suffers mentally and undergoes psychological and physiological changes alter her life and mind almost permanently.

She boldly describes her helpless spiralling into loneliness and her valiant efforts to pull herself together. Farheen’s eventual success is heart-warming not merely because she is able to come to terms with her assault but also overcome her food allergies.

Farheen is a hip-hop listening, coffee drinking, hijabi young woman that makes Canada what it is – a society that accommodates the other. That’s a precious heritage and shouldn’t be lost.

I got to know of the book from Kundan Joshi, the young entrepreneur whose Joshi Inc designed the cover of the book. Burman Books has published it. 

Image: http://www.burmanbooks.com/node/256