Arts & Culture

Friday, 22 February 2013 01:47

The solitudes of Canada

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By Pamela George for New Canadian Media

OTTAWA - I used to be part of an all-women’s book club in Ottawa a few years ago. In 2008, I remember recommending to the group that we read the newly-released book, Cockroach by Montreal-based, Lebanese-Canadian writer, Rawi Hage. The book club consisted of mostly highly educated, liberal, middle-aged women, all white Canadians with the sole exception of myself - an Indo-Canadian, new immigrant.

            A few pages into Cockroach, I fell head over heels in love with the book. To me, here was the first book in Canadian literature, written by an immigrant, seemingly capturing the essence of what it means to be an immigrant in Canada. The reaction from the other book club members was a lot less enthusiastic: “It’s so dark,” “I couldn’t read it,” “hard to keep going,” etc. I remember thinking to myself, here is perhaps the great divide – these two solitudes of “new Canada” and “old Canada” separated by this wide chasm.  And this divide is what Hage distills in his books, which he calls, “a celebration of the permanence of flux”.

            CanLit is enriched by the literary contributions of several well-known immigrant writers. Names like Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, Shauna Singh Baldwin, etc., are top of mind. They situate their fiction in far-off countries, and the social problems their fiction evokes are wonderful book club discussion material.

It is fashionable to discuss poverty in Bombay (Mumbai) or about female foeticide in Punjab. What about social issues faced by immigrants in Canada? Hmmm … they should be grateful that they have been allowed into Canada. “Be grateful and shut up,” is the unspoken message by mainstream Canada, remarks Hage, when I met him at the first annual Arab Canadian Studies Research Group (ACANS) conference held at the University of Ottawa on February 15 and 16, 2013. 

             In contrast to the themes that occupy the vast majority of immigrant writers, Hage’s protagonists are first generation immigrants condemned to living in ghettos in Montreal and doing jobs that Canadians do not want. Their existence in the First World is such a reproach to the otherwise egalitarian societies that these countries claim to be, that Hage calls them insects – roaches (in Cockroach), flies and spiders (in Carnival, his latest novel). They never occupy centre stage – like cockroaches, immigrants in Canada live a peripheral existence and likewise proliferate because, “no one can barricade against the powerful, fleeting semen of the hungry and the oppressed.” Hage captures the cold heart of Montreal where the immigrant is left wondering, “Not even a nod in this cold place, not even a timid wave, not a smile from below red, sniffing, blowing noses ... Where am I? And what am I doing here? How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with wet cotton falling on me all the time?”

             While Hage is a master at outlining the hopeless, grey, dreary existence of the Canadian immigrant, he does not fail to poke fun at mainstream Canada. With tongue-in-cheek humour, he writes, “The Québécois with their extremely low birth rate, think they can increase their own breed by attracting the Parisians, or at least for a while balance the numbers of their own kind against the herd of brownies and darkies coming from every old French colony on the run from dictators and crumbling cities. But what is the use, really? Those Frenchies come here, and like the Québécois they do not give birth. They abstain, or they block every Fallopian tube and catch every sperm before the egg sizzles into canard à l'orange.”

              Good literature is always political. Hage, who was born in Lebanon and worked as a cab driver in Montreal for a while, sees the novelist as an “interpreter” or even an “actor,” who assumes certain roles. His writings display an undercurrent of political criticism.  This rumination from the Cockroach highlights the point:“These countries we live in talk about democracy, but they do not want democracy. They want only dictators. It is easier for them to deal with dictators than to have democracy in the countries we come from ... Do you think if the mullahs go away there will be democracy in my country? No! They will put back somebody else who is a dictator.”  Hage does not hold out hope in the political changes happening in several Arab countries. He warned the assembled congregation of Arab academics at the ACANS conference that the current revolution spreading across Arabia, popularly dubbed the “Arab Spring”, has once again left liberal minds marooned.

            Hage who attended the ACANS conference with his girlfriend, another celebrated immigrant writer, Madeleine Thein, was the big draw at the conference. For a writer celebrated for his prose, I found Hage tongue-tied when it comes to speaking in public. 

            I asked, are his books based on his own life? For every writer, the “experiential is essential” expounded Hage, without elaborating how autobiographical his books are.  He spoke briefly about Carnival, in which the protagonist is a cabbie in an unnamed city that at times appears to be a lurid version of Montreal, and then preferred to listen to other speakers who were dissecting his work. The reticent writer had this to say by way of explanation, once a book is published, “the work of the artist is to distance yourself from your work.” - New Canadian Media

Sunday, 27 January 2013 20:57

Shafia case: a complex immigrant scenario

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Honour on Trial: The Shafia Murders and the Culture of Honour Killings – by Paul Schliesmann, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012, 207 pages

Without Honour: The True Story of the Shafia Family and the Kingston Canal Murders – by Rob Tripp, HarperCollins, 2012, 348 pages

It’s been a year since the Shafia trial concluded in Kingston, sending an immigrant father, mother and their eldest son to prison for killings in the name of “family honour”. They were found guilty of the murders of three girls from the family and another woman who turned out to be the patriarch’s second wife.

This was a trial that riveted the attention of Canadians, who were caught up with this immigrant soap opera: A successful businessman from Afghanistan, his two wives, chic daughters, a domineering brother, and a value system that seemed to emphasize honour above life. Two award-winning journalists who covered the trial, Rob Tripp and Paul Schliesmann, have captured the story in very different books.

Tripp offers the far more textured and graphic story, focusing less on the crime itself and devoting his research and interviewing skills to situating the lives of Zainab (19), Sahar (17), Geeti (13) and their father’s first wife, Rona (50). The fact that the girls had a difficult transition to high school life in Canada is beyond doubt: they had an overbearing brother in Hamed; their largely-absent father Mohammad was given to fits of rage and cursing in Dari; and their mother Tooba came across more as a bystander than a parent in the family.

Schliesmann’s is the more reportorial endeavour, the straight story told with essential detail, and based largely on court proceedings. It is hence a quicker read, and very helpfully, has a section on other honour killings in Canada and a chapter titled “The lessons…” about how institutions in Montreal (where the Shafias lived) were ill-equipped to deal with the extremely raucous household in their midst. Had they acted, these deaths could have been avoided.

Here is just a sampling of the kind of situations this Afghan immigrant family faced during the two years they were together in Canada (before June 2009): school authorities informing the parents that the kids were late to school, performing poorly or routinely absent; the children running away from home and seeking shelter elsewhere; the kids calling in child protection service officers and then recanting their stories of physical abuse and intimidation in the presence of their parents; and finally, a girl deciding to get married and then changing her mind right after and pronouncing “talaq” (the Arabic word for divorce) in front of the very same Muslim cleric. Amid this maelstrom of immigrant life, the two elder girls – Zainab and Sahar – had blooming love relationships, sometimes texting naughty nothings to two boyfriends simultaneously.

At one level, this was a highly successful immigrant family. They were already millionaires and were building a 6,000 sq. ft. home in the exclusive Montreal suburb of Brossard at the time of the horrific deaths in the Rideau Canal. The kids had been schooled in English and French. Despite their erratic attendance and lacklustre grades at school, one has to only read transcripts of the testimony of one of the four surviving Shafia children who was 15 at the time of the deaths (Tripp calls him “Zafar,” although they cannot be identified given their age) to see how they could come across as well-adjusted and confident. [It is logical to ask, then, why they did not squeal on their parents.]

To wit, this young man, 17 at the time of his testimony, had this exchange with a prosecutor, as reported by Schliesmann –

Prosecutor: “Where do you draw the line on manipulating people and telling lies?”

Zafar: “When it goes too far, I guess.”

This response and several other similar smart-aleck retorts earned this observation from the lead prosecutor: “Where your memory has improved, it’s all to the benefit of your mom and dad and Hamed. Where your memory hasn’t improved are [the] things that aren’t helpful to your parents.”

The two books make clear that the convictions were won on the basis of compelling circumstantial evidence, conflicting statements to the police and testimony by the accused and the theory that the Shafia household believed in “honour killings” to redeem their family reputation. The notion of “honour killings” was central and it is therefore no coincidence that both the authors use the word Honour in their titles – it is the convenient label that intrigues Canadians, a concept so alien and so loathsome that most Canadians would agree with the verdict of the 12-member jury.

Yet, like all short hand, it is simplistic. There are nuances one can glean from the books that make the Shafia family dynamic a highly complex immigrant situation, one that defies easy characterization. Here are some of them –

·        Their cultural mores were not driven by their Muslim faith. They did not attend mosque and had trouble finding a priest to conduct their daughter’s hastily-arranged wedding.

·        Although they had relatives in Montreal, the Afghan community there is divided over whether these were indeed honour killings. Essential to the notion of honour is the need to “save face” from the community. They weren’t really connected to the small Afghan community there given that the father was away most of the year.

·        Tooba, the mother of all the children, did not wear a hijab (veil).

·        Canada was home-country number five, after Afghanistan, Pakistan, Dubai (U.A.E.) and Australia. Shafia’s business was based in Dubai, so why did he choose to have his family in a liberal country like Canada, and more specifically, the laissez-faire province of Quebec?

·        It does not look like the parents were against dating. Even before they arrived in Canada, the parents had told the children that they were not allowed to date or marry until they finished school. It is unclear whether that meant high school or university.

·        From all accounts, Shafia appeared to be an indulgent father. He was away most of the time and his son Hamed took charge of things while he was away. This, despite the constant conflict in the household.  

·        He and his wife couldn’t have been unaware that his girls wore figure-hugging and revealing clothes and were attending co-ed schools. In Dubai, the elder kids had attended an English-medium American school, hardly the most conservative option available there. (According to the Tripp book, Zainab, Sahar and Geeti attended the Al Sadiq Islamic English School in Dubai.)

·        Shafia himself claimed he did not believe in “honour killings” and several of his family members said in court that they had never heard of the practice until the Kingston deaths. In his own defence, Shafia said during testimony at the trial: “For me, anyone who kills a child or daughter, that person really becomes shameless… I don’t call that honour.”

Both Tripp and Schliesmann do a commendable job laying out all the evidence, describing the tensions within the Shafia household and providing the backdrop for this self-incriminating nugget from the family patriarch during a family coversation: “There is nothing more valuable than honour. I am telling you now and I was telling you before that whoever play[s] with my honour, my [answer is] the same … There is no value of life without honour.”

We don’t know what Shafia really believes, but surely, we have not heard the last from him or his wife or his son.  We still don’t know how exactly the murders were committed. As the Shafias appeal their 25-year life sentences, we can expect Schliesmann and Tripp to follow the case and continue informing us about the cautionary tale that this family engenders for Canadian immigration.  

Vivek Wadhwa has become something of a media darling in the United States for championing immigration reform in this very political season.

He uses every opportunity he gets to warn Americans that they are making their economic downturn worse by failing to fix the visa mess and driving away immigrants who have historically been the entrepreneurs, engineers and technology mavens who have made their country the ideas factory and entrepreneurial superpower of the world. As an immigrant student and successful entrepreneur himself, Wadhwa offers a sometimes first-hand, often second-hand view of the travails that immigrants have faced since the appetite for foreign techies died in the years after 9-11. Interestingly, in his view, the best days for the people he focuses on – traditionally referred to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) graduates – were in the year leading up to the global scare that was Y2K. Geeks from all over the world, mainly Chinese and Indian, headed to America to fix Y2K (when it was feared that computer systems would crash in the rollover to a new millennium).

Most of this talent ended up in what came to be called Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area, where the term IC came to refer to “Indian and Chinese” rather than the “integrated circuit” on which most computer technology was built. The author cites recent studies to show how this immigrant influx resulted in highly successful startups, a software bonanza, patents and scientific breakthroughs. These studies have shown that immigrants are “more than twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a business.”

In perhaps the most dramatic anecdotal evidence he cites, a 2011 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy showed that first-generation immigrants or their children had founding roles in over 40 per cent of Fortune 500 companies, with total revenues of over $4.2 trillion and 10 million employees worldwide.

In Wadhwa’s telling, several factors have contributed to the perfect storm now facing the U.S.: a broken visa system that humiliates and insults immigrants, booming economies in countries like China and India that are proving to be counter-magnets to their own nationals who had emigrated, and, increasingly, countries like Canada who are attracting science and technology students who would normally have preferred to go to the U.S. for their graduate studies. In essence, Wadhwa says, America needs these immigrants more than they need America.

On a side note, Canada generally earns high praise from Wadhwa for its nimble immigration policy that enables it to target specific skill sets for newcomers based on economic need. He also notes that Canada has seen a significant uptick in the number of undergraduate and graduate students entering its science and engineering streams.

In the final chapter of this very business-like, no-frills book, the lecturer on entrepreneurship and public policy at such eminent institutions as Duke, Stanford and Emory Universities, offers seven specific recommendations to stem the tide of immigrants fleeing America. Most of these have to do with changes to the H1-B visa that has traditionally been used by STEM immigrants to enter the U.S.

However, he holds out little hope: Wadhwa calls immigration reform a “third-rail issue” in American politics, taking a backseat to bank bailouts and dubious wars.

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