New Canadian Media

by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver 

Near the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, at Al Rasheed Street, there is a meandering alley named after the Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi,” read Shawk Alani, the organizer of the ninth Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” reading in Vancouver. 

The reading, quoting Phillip Robertson’s 2005 report, “The death of Al Mutanabbi Street,” was the first of many during an evening in commemoration of Iraqi literature. 

On Mar. 5, 2007, a car bomb devastated the famous bookselling street. Since 2007, writers, activists and artists have marked the anniversary of the attack with literary readings as part of a project called “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.” Spearheaded locally by the Pandora’s Collective at the invitation of founder Beau Beausoleil,  the annual event has  included readings from Vancouver writers like Bonnie Nish and Hadani Ditmars.

This year, readings were held in over 20 cities across North America, Europe and the Middle East. 

“I think the idea of Al-Mutanabbi Street ‘starting here,’ is to put context to history, and to say that these issues are not just issues that are local,” said Shawk, who prefers to be referred to using her first name. “These politics cross borders, there is relationships between what happens here and what happens in Iraq.” 

During Saddam Hussein’s reign, writers and intellectuals were servants of the state who produced literature praising the regime, for which they were rewarded.

Recreating Al-Mutanabbi 

The evening at Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus was an immersive experience, where guests were greeted with a classical Iraqi playlist as they entered and offered cardamom tea. 

Alani introduced the historical and political significance of the event, reminding the crowd of the pitfalls of the literary culture that was being celebrated. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, writers and intellectuals were servants of the state who produced literature praising the regime, for which they were rewarded. 

The readings included the original and translated works of the 10th century poet, Al-Mutanabbi, read by Wadood Hamad, adjunct professor in chemistry at the University of British Columbia. 

Hamad also read the poetry of one of Iraq’s most famous and influential poets of the 20th century, Muzaffar Al-Nawab, who wrote on the themes of love, politics, philosophy and existentialism. 

Iraqi writer Dima Yassine and Palestinian filmmaker and songwriter Sobhi Al-Zobaidi performed original works that reflected on their lived experiences and memories of their homes. 

“Art is an outlet; it is a place where we put our pain."

Sara McIntyre read an excerpt from Inaam Kachachi’s American Granddaughter, a novel about a young Iraqi-American who serves as a translator during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the passage, the protagonist must stage a raid of her own grandmother’s house, as it’s the only way she is allowed to see her. 

Alani issued a trigger warning prior to reading from journalist Anthony Shadid’s book Night Draws Near. 

The excerpt, titled “A boy who was ‘like a flower’” dealt with the funeral of two teenaged boys who were victims of an unattributed attack. The scene addressed a raw, intimate moment of sorrow, anger and frustration that was all too common during the Iraq War.           

In addition to the readings, Shawk showcased a short film by Iraqi creative director Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie, featuring the rebuilt Al-Mutanabbi street today, and played Walid Gholmieh’s Symphony No.2, “Al-Mutanabbi” B. Flat Major. 

Shawk’s grandfather collaborated with the Lebanese composer to produce the piece, which was meant to provide listeners with an auditory experience similar to that of reading Al-Mutanabbi’s poetry. 

Readings provide healing 

“I think it’s important to make spaces that are critical, events that are a bit more involved, bringing more critical thought into people’s consciousness,” said Shawk of her involvement in the initiative. 

She said that bringing the story of Al-Mutanabbi Street into consciousness and awareness was the first step, but she also felt the need to give people an opportunity to act upon this knowledge. 

“Doing readings by other people is kind of like sharing that thing that has been externalized, and realizing that actually there are so many ways in which we have the same experiences.”

To inspire action, Shawk screened a video clip featuring Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal: 168:01, an art installation in Windsor, Ont. that includes a 12-metre bookcase filled with 20,000 blank books. Bilal hopes to swap each of the blank books for a real book that will be donated to the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts. 

Shawk said the significance of hosting this reading is about saying, “I’m here, I’m a part of this city now, and I want to bring to people’s awareness things that are happening in the other place where I also belong.” 

She indicated that for members of the Iraqi and Arab diaspora, the event also represented an opportunity for “dealing with the emotions, the crisis, the trauma, all in a way that’s productive.” 

Shawk noted that the Iraqi diaspora is quite diverse and unique in that there have been multiple conflicts over the past 50 years during which large populations emigrated, either as refugees or by choice. 

“Art is an outlet; it is a place where we put our pain. You take the pain, you externalize it in a piece of art, and then you can step back and look at it and deal with it in a different way, and you can share it with other people,” said Shawk. 

“Doing readings by other people is kind of like sharing that thing that has been externalized, and realizing that actually there are so many ways in which we have the same experiences.” 

Shawk added that “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here,” enables Iraqis — a group that has been historically victimized and portrayed as weak, unhappy and constantly being killed — to partake in creating an alternate history for themselves. 

Reflecting on her own birth in Baghdad in the wake of the first Gulf War, Shawk explained, “You can create a space in literature where you can celebrate life, resistance, and existence.”

Publisher's Note: This report has been updated to correct the history of this initiative: this was the ninth – not the first – edition of the reading. We regret the error. 


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books
Saturday, 20 February 2016 15:39

Robert Lepage’s 887 Transcends 1960s Quebec

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver 

When a last minute e-mail alerted me to a change in curtain time for the opening night of Robert Lepage’s 887, I grabbed my iPhone and called a taxi. 

The immigrant cabbie who arrived spoke little English and hadn’t heard of SFU (Simon Fraser University) downtown. In my mild panic, I recalled scenes from other Lepage productions like Far Side of the Moon, where a flustered protagonist rushes to get to a talk on time. 

Unbeknownst to me, the scene in the taxi was a fitting prelude to 887. 

Soon I was to enter into the world of Lepage’s childhood in Quebec City, at a time when driving a cab was still a white man’s job and his French-Canadian father worked long hours to make ends meet.  

The next 90 minutes took the audience on a sentimental journey through 1960s Quebec that encompassed the quiet revolution, class struggle and pop culture, and explored the connection between personal and collective memory. 

The play, like the poem, speaks to larger universalities of oppressors and oppressed.

Speak white

The plot – if one can even use that term for the rambling poetic narrative of 887 – centres around Lepage’s struggle to memorize the 1967 famous Quebecois poem "Speak White" by Michèle Lalonde for a public performance. 

The poem’s title was inspired by the racist insult ‘speak white’ – originally used by plantation bosses to stop Creoles and other slaves from speaking a language their masters could not understand, and later adopted as a slur by English Canadians against francophones in general. 

The poem is a key element in Lepage’s 887 – and he recites it in French at the climax to great effect. But the play, like the poem, speaks to larger universalities of oppressors and oppressed. 

A powerful appeal 

In an effort to remember the lines of "Speak White", Lepage uses an old mnemonic technique called a “memory palace” – and so his nostalgic journey begins. 

His “palace” is his old childhood home – the walk-up at 887 Rue Murray located between Parc des Braves and the Plains d’Abraham – two historically important sites. It was here that the Lepages and several other working class families lived their lives, as political dramas – from Charles de Gaulle’s 1967 vive le Quebec libre visit to the War Measures Act – unfolded around them. 

[887 is] a powerful cri de coeur for some of the revolutionary values of Lepage’s youth.

Employing an inventive set that pivoted and transformed from a doll house replica of his childhood home to the inside of his father’s taxi to a 1960s diner to a diagram of the left and right side of the brain, Lepage uses the latest video and iPhone technology while still communicating a very human-scale poignancy. 

In many ways the play is a love letter to his father, a working class war hero whose lack of education meant a life of late night taxi driving, hoping for tips from rich American tourists to support his family. But it’s also a powerful cri de coeur (passionate appeal) for some of the revolutionary values of Lepage’s youth. 

While the play documents the violent excesses of the October Crisis without condoning them, Lepage offers rich ironies. 

He speaks of “old hippies” arriving late to the theatre because they couldn’t find parking spaces for their SUVs; of a theatre professor telling him matter-of-factly that, unlike in his youth, there were far fewer working class kids in theatre school today because they couldn’t afford the fees; and of former Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) members driving to work every day across a bridge named after Pierre Laporte (the minister of labour murdered by the FLQ). 

There is much reflective humour on how time treats heroes and artists. Lepage notes that famed Quebec sovereigntist, activist and singer Pauline Julien ended up having a cul de sac in Rosemont named after her and obsesses about how his own legacy will be remembered when he’s gone. 

Universal, unforgettable scenes 

887 offers some unforgettable scenes. In one poignant tableau, Lepage illustrates a childhood memory via the dollhouse model of his apartment: a young Lepage leans over his balcony and waves at his father sitting in his taxi and about to leave for another fare, yearning for his company. 

The scene made me think about similar scenarios in Quebec’s immigrant community today, where brown men have replaced the old working class Quebecois in their quest to make ends meet driving cabs. 

It’s easy to imagine a whole new generation of angry, young men in similar situations all over the world.

In another scene, the death of Lepage’s grandmother and the kidnapping of Laporte compete for his family’s attention. Lepage then plays his own father mourning alone in his taxi, seemingly for both a lost dream and a lost mother. 

But the scene that carries the most universal resonance is a powerful one in which Lepage recalls having a solider point a gun at him during the October Crisis, while he was on his paper route. 

"I hold my tongue, but want to scream out, 'Idiot! The bombs aren't in my bag. They're in my head,'" he says, anger and frustration seething from every pore. 

It’s easy to imagine a whole new generation of angry, young men in similar situations all over the world, not just in War Measures era Quebec. 

Ultimately 887 is a reminder of the power of theatre – as man’s earliest form of storytelling and as a forum for expressing the relationship between the powerful and the weak. Lepage deftly fuses the personal and political as well as the specificity of 1960s Quebec with a universal cri de coeur. 

887 plays in Vancouver through Feb. 21. It will play in Ottawa Apr. 12 to 16 at the National Arts Centre and Montreal Apr. 26 to May 21 at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. 

Editor's Note: This report has been updated from an earlier published version with the correct quote from Lepage starting with "I hold my tongue..." 


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician.  

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Arts & Culture

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

As the Palm Springs International Film Festival wraps up and Thursday’s Oscar nominations loom, I remember the words of my old friend Paolo Consigilio.

The expert Italian mask maker fused his commedia del arte style craft with a Pasolini like cinematic sensibility and spent time in both Canada and his homeland.

When I asked him once to define the difference between the two places he said, “In Italy, everyone wants to be the protagonist in the movie.”

In Canada, he said, we are content to be on the sidelines.

I contemplate this from Vancouver’s Hollywood North where every other person seems to be connected to the film industry and after a week spent at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, where Canadian cinema is a star attraction.

While Palm Springs is more known for its population of aging Republicans and its modernist architecture, the festival, now in its 27th year, has quietly become a hub for world cinema. This year all nine of the films shortlisted for the Foreign Language Oscar and their directors were present at the festival.

Canadian presence

99 and a half miles from Los Angeles’ Paramount Studios, Palm Springs has always lived in Hollywood’s shadow. Once a getaway for Hollywood stars (who under contract could not go farther than 100 miles from the studios) 10% of its population is now Canadian.

Key film festival administrators are Canadian, and Telefilm is a big film festival partner. With its incongruous mix of Hollywood glamour and earnest world cinema ranging from a first weekend gala celebrating stars in the mainstream firmament to the opening night Finnish film The Fencer about the Cold War in Estonia the festival also provides an interesting lens on Canadian culture.  Indeed, the eight films from the true north strong and free this year provided much food for thought.

Maxime Giroux’s Felix and Meira - Canada’s Foreign Language Film Oscar submission for 2016  (which sadly didn’t make the shortlist)  tells the story of the romance between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a bohemian French Canadian artist in Montreal. 

Ryan McKenna’s Sabali is about a French Canadian woman who receives a heart transplant from a Malian immigrant woman and then befriends her son.

Phillippe Falardeau’s My Internship in Canada is a satirical look at the relationship between a Quebecois politician and his Haitian intern, while Adam Garnet Jones’ Fire Song concerns a “two-spirited” First Nations man living on an Anishnabe reservation in Northern Ontario who must navigate between his cultural and sexual identities.

Versions of multiculturalism

Program in hand, I contemplated the differences between Canadian and American versions of multiculturalism as I settled into my room at the Palm Mountain Resort. My immediate neighbours, an inter-racial lesbian couple from nearby San Bernardino, where the recent shootings unfolded like a bad Hollywood movie, chatted excitedly about the Lily Tomlin film Grandma. But when the subject changed to current events, the blonde half of the couple mentioned that her son attended the same shooting range as one of the shooters, Tashfeen Malik. She blamed U.S. President Barack Obama and his “open-door visa policy” for “letting those people in.”

My old friend Paolo’s words rang in my head at the opening weekend gala, where a red carpet full of paparazzi greeted stars like Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett, who were honoured by the festival.

I tried hanging out with fellow journalists waiting for 10-second sound bites and rapid-fire photos of Hollywood’s finest, but it felt weird. Later, inside the gala dinner, I wondered if it were my Canadian sensibility that stopped me from lining up for photographs with Johnny Depp. As enthusiastic fans stepped up, I watched from the sidelines.

I chatted with some young Czech filmmakers who didn’t have tickets to get in, from the vantage point of the cosier hotel lobby and fireplace. I was briefly reminded of the Hollywood comedy A Night at the Roxbury and the “inside-outside” nightclub, where the real party happens on the edges of the club.

Dividing screens

Later, in an interview with young Anglo-Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar, whose first feature the Oscar shortlisted Theeb was about the Arab Revolt of 1916 seen through Bedouin eyes, I thought more about invisible dividing screens.

Theeb is the first Arab film shot in the Bedouin dialect, and one that steers clear of stereotypes common in mainstream Arab cinema (not unlike, said the director, “old Hollywood cowboy and Indian films”) as well as Western colonial narratives like Lawrence of Arabia.

The cast were all first time Bedouin actors some of whom were unfamiliar with the whole concept of cinema. At a local screening in the desert, one of the young nieces of a lead actor who meets an untimely death on screen proved inconsolable, until her very much alive uncle was brought forward. She had to be shown the edges of the screen before she was entirely convinced.

In a world where the most interesting stories unfold at the edges, sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what’s real and what is celluloid.

And in a world where mainstream narratives – often more fantasy than reality – still dominate, I think I may be content to remain on the sidelines. At least until a fresh set of protagonists emerge to pierce the screen and show us new horizons.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Arts & Culture
Sunday, 20 December 2015 19:15

Winter Solstice Rituals Break New Ground

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

As a Vancouverite, I have always been particularly obsessed with winter solstice. I blame this on Seasonal Affective Disorder and the fact that, in addition to our incredibly short winter days (we are at a higher latitude than Toronto), we also suffer from a profound lack of sunshine this time of year.

It often requires Herculean efforts to just get out of bed in December, and its a time of year when I feel a profound kinship with the black bears of British Columbia, who, unlike working humans, have long surrendered to winter hibernation, dreaming of spring time berries.

I have witnessed solstice rituals around the world. My favourite was in IrelandNewgrange (the seat of the Fairy Kingdom) where every year on the solstice, a shaft of light illuminates an underground chamber with unfailing accuracy.

Happily, it seems that locally there is a new movement afoot to reinterpret rituals about the coming of the light, from many different cultural communities. While some  like the Goh Ballet’s Nutcracker or Early Music Vancouvers recreation of 17th Century German Yuletide  celebrate established traditions, others are breaking new ground.

Deep listening

My first encounter was with Music on Mains concert, entitled Music for the Winter Solstice. While firmly based in a Western contemporary classical music tradition featuring culturally Christian composers, the evening was a secular exploration of the meaning of Solstice.

The emphasis was on a sense of meditative stillness and contemplation – something that came quite naturally to the event where a group of music lovers forsook shopping mall chaos to sit together in an intimate space and practice the art of deep listening. Composer in residence, Caroline Shaw, even offered a simple carol for the assembled audience to sing together.

Poetry by the late Robin Blaser as well as Colin Browne was offset by seven compositions ranging from Schubert to Alfredo Santa Ana (whose A Short Song for the Longest Night of the Year was a highlight).  Couloir Duo Ariel Barnes (on cello) and Heidi Krutzen (on harp) playing (with pre-programmed electroacoustics) James Maxwells Serere offered a compelling musical exploration of seasonal sentiment that took listeners on a contemplative journey from darkness to light and back again.

If the concert celebrated the sacred art of slowing down, the serenity of the evening prepared me well for the sparkle of an inter-faith Hanukkah party two days later.

Organized by local Reform Rabbi David Mivasair, it was held at a Palestinian restaurant called Tamams, whose owner hails from Jerusalem, but has been battling Israeli courts to keep her residency. The party was partly a fundraiser for her legal costs, but was mainly a lovely celebration of the Hanukkah traditions of miraculous light in the midst of darkness, not to mention Canadian multiculturalism.

Inter-faith connections

I arrived to find a packed restaurant of celebrants  including Palestinian Christians, Pakistani Muslims and Israelis – listening to Rabbi Mivasair sing Hanukkah songs, illuminated by dozens of candles and menorahs in the window of Tamams.

I found some space at a table and sat down to a Palestinian feast that included a delicious kind of Arabized latke. My dining companions included a South Asian Sufi professor of classical Arabic and a Jewish musician, who as it turned out, were both from Chicago.

The whole event had an appropriate air of Levantine cosmopolitanism, as befits a region where separation walls are an historical anomaly, and where a mercantile culture meant many interfaith social connections.

I remembered stories from my great-grandparents village in the Bekkah Valley of how holiday rituals were shared by Muslims and Christians alike  from midnight mass to Eid-il-Fitr. I remembered, too, stories from Palestine of friends in Gaza with Jewish grandmothers, of pre-1948 inter-marriage and of current movements like the Jerusalem Peacemakers who pray and celebrate holidays together.

...how wonderful it was that this kind of gathering was so effortless and so possible in Canada – a place with no checkpoints or occupying soldiers or religion stamped into ones passport.

When I lived in Jerusalems old city in 1994, writing for the first post Oslo accord joint Israeli/Palestinian monthly magazine (the New Middle East), I always took a three-day weekend, listening to the hypnotic Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque, accepting offers of Shabbat dinners, and going to mass on Sundays.  With a mixed faith, mixed race background, Ive never liked to limit my options. So this Hanukkah party was perfect.

Small rituals

Before I had a chance to count my blessings and to consider how wonderful it was that this kind of gathering was so effortless and so possible in Canada – a place with no checkpoints or occupying soldiers or religion stamped into ones passport  I was swept up in the celebration.

I sang some songs with the Jewish musician from Chicago –  La Vie En Rose  pour la francophonie  Besame Mucho  just because  and eventually lead the room in a rousing rendition of Hava Nagila. Next on the program was a little group belly dancing to the music of Marcel Khalife.

In a slightly surreal moment, I ended up doing Arabic arabesques with a gay Israeli/English couple (Shai and Nigel) who entertained me with stories of a recent trip to Tokyo for a square dancing convention (yes, it is big in Japan!)

The evening ended with a traditional game of dreidel (which Tamam won!)

I was lucky to receive a special Hanukkah blessing from Rabbi Mivasair  a prayer in Hebrew and one in English – keep your light going strong, even when darkness surrounds you.

It is comforting to know that in these dark days of winter, and even darker days of global violence, there are small rituals we can enact together that still have the power to illuminate from within.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, was a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from Africa and the Middle East for two decades. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Arts & Culture
Thursday, 17 December 2015 09:04

Our Huge Cultural Blindspot

Commentary by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

Donald Trump is the bogeyman. I get it. He’s also the Grinch, Darth Vader and Hitler.

In fact, he was once on an episode of the Simpsons as an imagined future president in a dystopian America.

But in a world of bogeymen, he may just be the most televisual and carnivalesque, not to mention social media friendly.  I wonder what Hitler would have done with all the social and other media currently at demagogues' disposal? Somehow, I think, he wouldn't have been as slick and televisual as Trump — likely more awkward and sweaty like U.S. President Richard Nixon was.

Trump is the id of the American people; the comments section come to life.  He says things openly that other politicians think but dare not speak. He epitomizes the American tradition of waves of immigrants arriving only to demonize the next wave.

In the same way that ISIS (Islamic State) is a very modern horror (as opposed to a recreation of historical Islam), Trump is also the perfect conflation of American obsessions with wealth, race and "security"— and a simplistic worldview. His is a fascism writ large for the Internet age where opinions are formed by memes, sound bites and hysteria rather than historical precedent and analysis. And, he finds fertile ground in America’s growing underclass of the disaffected, uneducated and underemployed, for whom the American dream will never be a reality.

[H]e finds fertile ground in America’s growing underclass of the disaffected, uneducated and underemployed, for whom the American dream will never be a reality.

Banning Muslims

And yet, mainstream Republicans are quick to distance themselves from him. A Rasmussen Reports survey says that 66 per cent of Republicans favour Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from America.  And his ideas about walling off Mexico and racially profiling Muslims, are mere knock offs of American ally Israel’s own policies. Hearing the likes of Dick Cheney and Benjamin Netanyahu call Trump a racist were rather unconvincing exercises in the kettle calling the pot black. Perhaps they are afraid Trump — or one of his outrageous outbursts — will give away the game.

While Trump may be somewhat confused about the actual way the internet functions, his Republican colleagues seem to have a limited grasp of the concept of international law and what constitutes a war crime.  Besides, Trump’s recent suggestion about shutting down ISIS by blocking its internet access would be right at home in many Middle Eastern police states (and U.S. allies) who have tried — with limited success — to stop various groups from disseminating information via social media.

And Trump is certainly not the first politician to favour showmanship over substance (he is, after all, channeling the ghost of Ronald Regan with his populist, Hollywood ways).

Our Canadian blindspot

And even though we Canadians love to point a collective finger at our neighbours to the South as being the exclusive purveyors of racism, the fact that we have a “mosaic” while they have a “melting pot” is no excuse for a huge cultural blindspot. We just express it “differently’, like say, via forced sterilization of native women in Saskatchewan, or ongoing incarceration of refugee claimants.

There are many different ways of “banning” people from entering a country. Canada has a proud history of doing just that — from anti-Asian exclusion laws, to turning away boatloads of Sikh migrants, Jewish refugees in WW2 or more recently criminalization of Tamil “terrorists.”

Were past Conservative Minister’s like Jason Kenney and John Baird really that different than Trump?

[T]he fact that we have a “mosaic” while they [America] have a “melting pot” is no excuse for a huge cultural blindspot.

While their rhetoric may have differed, their intention was the same. They manifested their Islamophobic policies that mirrored the most right-wing of Israeli policies in a variety of ways.

The previous government’s unprecedented support for Israel began as soon as Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected but swelled when the government cut funding to KAIROS — a well regarded NGO deemed too “pro-Palestinian” —in 2009, and reached a peak in 2012 when, alone among G8 leaders, Harper refused to embrace Obama’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan based on pre-1967 borders.

Canada’s vote against a Palestinian bid for statehood later that year (contrary to the wishes of a majority of Canadians, according to polls) further damaged its status at the UN and its international reputation.

Indeed many Canadians are still shocked and embarrassed by Canada’s loss of the UN Security council seat in 2010, which was widely attributed to its pro-Israel Middle East policy — and was often held up by the Harper government as a badge of honour.

Refugee policy

Harper’s policies on refugees were criticized by everyone from Amnesty International, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and No One is Illegal. Just because we have a new photogenic Prime Minister who is bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees does not mean that endemic issues with Canada’s refugee and immigration system will magically disappear, along with all the racist trolls who grace the comments sections of our national dailies.

This Christmas, let’s look beyond the pantomime villains we love to boo and hiss at and unmask the ones hiding behind masks of “respectability.” And let us remember that every pantomime fool reveals uncomfortable truths, even if they arrive via outright lies and outrageous statements.

In a way Trump’s opera buffo shines light onto some rather darker stories we’d rather not dwell on — ones we ignore at our peril. In our zeal to demonize him, let’s not forget that what he reveals — the de facto complicity of more “mainstream” politicos and the deep racism inherent in North American history — may be more important than what he says.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, was a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from Africa and the Middle East for two decades.Hadani is also a musician who believes that world music can be a powerful vehicle for peace.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 22 September 2015 09:34

Saving Vancouver from Silo Culture

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

A woman moves her hand in a delicate arabesque, as a Spanish guitar plays distinctive chords that can only be flamenco. A husky voiced alto sings heartfelt, serpentine melodies that express the very soul of Andalucía.
 
Where is this, you might ask? A church in Granada perhaps? A café in Seville? No, actually, it’s the opening night of the 25th Anniversary of the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival at the Playhouse Theatre. The legendary Andres Pena and Pilar Ogalla Company has come all the way from Spain to lend the Pacific city some duende.
 
Duende is that indefinable, spiritual essence that enters into one's being and comes out as impassioned dance, a flurry of fingers or a deep cante jondo. In his Theory and Play of the Duende, Garcia Lorca (whose right-wing, civil war-era assassins and burial place were recently revealed -- a fitting time to invoke his spirit) explains,
 
"The duende works on the dancer's body like wind on sand. It changes a girl, by magic power, into a lunar paralytic, or covers the cheeks of a broken old man, begging for alms in the wine-shops, with adolescent blushes: gives a woman's hair the odour of a midnight sea-port: and at every instant works the arms with gestures that are the mothers of the dances of all the ages."
 
Lorca speaks of the duende as "A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.”
 
Our civic malaise
As the rainy season begins in a city the Economist  recently called “mind-numbingly boring”, I could use a little duende – and God knows Vancouver could. Like Garcia Lorca, the apparent soullessness of this city often has me asking, The duende... Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters... in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child's saliva, crushed grass, and Medusa's veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.
 
I pondered this as the impassioned performance gave way to another bland, rainy night where everything shuts down early, as if narcolepsy were our civic malaise.
 
The spirit of flamenco was born after all from the unique fusion of cultures in Andalucía: gypsy, Jewish, Muslim, Christian traditions blended together harmoniously under Moorish rule, creating a unique musical, linguistic and architectural style and a society where scientists, poets and dancers set standards still admired centuries later.
 
While Vancouver sounds good on paper and would seem to have all the right ingredients to create our own unique brand of duende -- city by the sea, warmest place in Canada, huge Iranian, Chinese and Indian diasporas, rich First Nations tradition -- in reality it’s one of the most racially segregated cities in North America.
 
With a few notable exceptions – like say the two block stretch West of Davie on Denman that boasts the Iraqi Babylon Café next to a Persian kebab shop with a killer view of English Bay and palm trees that make it possible to pretend for a moment you’ve been transported to Beirut, or say, the area around 15th and Lonsdale in North Vancouver where the Yaas Café sells saffron rice across from Loblaws and newly arrived Iranians mingle with blond descendants of Glaswegians who arrived post-war to work in the shipyards -- much of Vancouver consists of ethnic solitudes.
 
Cliquey enclaves
While planners blame this on the suburban legacy of the CPR railway subdivisions that shaped the city, I think it has a lot to do with our colonial heritage.  In a weird way, my birth city reminds me of Nairobi in the 30’s – cliquey enclaves that never rub shoulders, and ghettoized suburbs where multiculturalism is more about criminal gangs than folk dancing (see Deepa Mehta’s Surrey inspired Beeba Boys).
 
While Toronto has atoned for its Presbyterian past with lively, multi-lingual neighbourhoods like King Street West, that make it one of the most multicultural cities in the world (according to the UN) and Montreal has always been, well, Montreal, Canada’s third largest city seems increasingly to be channeling silo culture.
 
Long before the damning description by the Economist, the Vancouver Foundation’s 2012 study showed that a sense of isolation was one of Vancouverites biggest complaints. Some of this mono-cultural, isolationist tendency can be blamed on the high cost of housing, but it’s deeper than that.
 
Social apartheid
Oddly for a city whose arts scene champions cultural mélange (the flamenco festival, for example, was founded by  Mexican-Lebanese dancer Rosario Ancer whose company features Japanese-Canadian performer Nanako Aramaki; the Vancouver International Film Festival offers impressive programs of Iranian and South African cinema, UBC’s Chan Centre is presenting the Buena Vista Social Club and Youssou N’Dour) Vancouver maintains a de facto social apartheid.
 
Audiences for “world music” festivals remain predominantly white; Iranian virtuosos play to mainly Farsi speaking crowds on the North Shore, and Asian film stars come to town, virtually unnoticed by half the city.
 
I haven’t given up on my birth city entirely. After all there’s so much potential here and perhaps it’s only a matter of time and critical cultural mass before it awakens from its silo-like sleepiness and embraces the genuine and organic cultural exchange that makes for truly “world-class” cities.
 
In the meantime, you can find me on that stretch of Denman Street, drinking Turkish coffee at the Babylon Café, and desperately chanting flamenco incantations in the hope that a little more duende will come to town.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 10 September 2015 19:18

Syrian Sea Change in Election Campaign

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia
 
As I walked along a Vancouver beach near my home this morning, I reflected on the extraordinary sea change in the Canadian election campaign.
 
From the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the blue Pacific waters of Vancouver, the tragedy of the migrant crisis has linked Canada to Syria in a visceral way.
 
Who would have thought a terrible, exploited image of a single Syrian child, washed up on a Turkish shore, would have so influenced the course of Canadian politics? That it would potentially de-throne an incumbent Prime Minister and have rival political parties and mayors of major cities suddenly competing over the numbers of refugees they promised to bring in once elected.
 
Certainly not my great-great grandmother Sara, who came to these shores over a century ago, from her troubled Syrian homeland, with her son Solomon and my great-grandparents Najib and Massadi Mussallem. They were Christians fleeing Ottoman era persecution in what was then called Greater Syria, part of an empire that was carved up after WW1. They were from a village in the Bekka Valley, not far from what is now the occupied Golan Heights, in an area that became part of Lebanon in the 1920s.
 
As empires shift and nations emerge, one thing remains a constant: Greater Syria is still reeling from the legacy of 1918, when the Sykes Picot agreement carved up the Ottoman Empire. And now, in a weird gestalt, it may change the political course of a far-flung corner of the former British Empire.
 
As empires shift and nations emerge, one thing remains a constant: Greater Syria is still reeling from the legacy of 1918
 
Make-or-break issue
I wonder what my great-great grandmother Sara, who refused to learn English on the grounds that it was not the language of the future and that its empire would soon pass, would have said about the refugee crisis from her country so affecting her adopted homeland?
 
What strange confluence of serendipity, luck, timing, happenstance  or was it fate?- conspired to make Syrian refugees an election breaking/making issue in Canada?
 
Everyone knows that election campaigns, like Mediterranean crossings in less than seaworthy vessels, are volatile journeys.  Sara would have known this. She and her daughter waited at night on a freighter in Egypts Port Said, as their menfolk rowed out to meet them.
 
As they climbed up the ships ladder, a Turkish gunboat went by and only the top two men made it on board. Later they got stuck in Marseilles for three months due to a shipping strike, finally making it through Ellis Island, then a terrible winter in Montreal and Winnipeg, before arriving on Canadas West Coast.
 
Epic journey
I think of their epic journey as I watch images of other refugee families dodge Hungarian police with exhausted, hungry children. Thousands of other Canadians must have also thought of their ancestors as they watched the nightly news. Who would have guessed that Harpers campaign would have been capsized by a giant wave of compassion and concern on the part of Canadian voters?
 
Harpers stubborn insistence on blocking the floodgates in the name of security concerns about people from terrorist war zonesreminds me of the interviews I did with elders in the community a few decades ago. One man, Syrian-Canadian Habib Saloum, told me a story about his first day at school in Canada. He returned crying to his mother that the kids beat me up and called me a dirty black Syrian.
 
His mother told him to have courage and to tell the other children that he was proud of his heritage and that Jesus was a dirty black Syrian too.  (Many Christian communities in the region still speak Aramaic and can trace their ancestry back a millennium) Habib returned the next day and told his classmates about Jesus. He still got beat up, he told me, but he felt comforted by his mothers story.
 
And now, refugees fleeing ISIS and Syrian government barrel bombs are conflated with the very terrorism they are fleeing.
 
Canadian compassion
But the outpouring of Canadian compassion and concern for the refugees has crossed party lines, with even former Conservative cabinet ministers like Barbara McDougall calling for more open refugee policies.
 
This is the first time that refugee policy has become an election issue, and although one wonders why, say the shiploads of Tamil refugees fleeing the horrors of civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009 and 2010 did not spark a similar debate, its a good thing that Harperbroken refugee policy has finally been condemned. One can only hope that the rights of refugees will stay on our national post-election agenda.
 
This is the first time that refugee policy has become an election issue
 
As for my ancestress Sara, who arrived here with her family (whose travel documents were stamped by officials with the term Asiatic) just before pan North American anti-Asian exclusion policies would have made it almost impossible, I think she would be pleased with the prevailing election currents.  She lived out her life in a culturally isolated suburb of Vancouver devoid of Middle Easterners- but now, with thousands of Syrians on their way, she would have friends to share ahwheh (strong Syrian coffee) and make svihah (Syrian meatpies) with.
 
And her son Solomons belief that Canada was a country where the rule of law was respected (including international conventions on refugees) would be vindicated.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. 
 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 27 August 2015 14:02

A Modest Proposal for Europe's Migrants

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in Vancouver, British Columbia

What would Jonathan Swift, author of Gullivers Travels, make of the current migrant crisis?

Might I suggest my own modest proposal in light of a suggestion by François Crépeau of McGill (and special UN rapporteur for refugees) that Europe should open official channels and their labour markets to migrants.
 
Daily news reports show migrants trapped at borders, desperately seeking asylum in Europe; Syrian children caught between Macedonian police shields and crowds of refugees, or migrants washed up on Mediterranean shores after harrowing sea journeys that only the lucky survive -- only to absolutely ruin the vacations of beach going tourists from England -- are all most distressing.
 
Economic opportunities from military interventions
 
Whereas the crises in Libya, Iraq and Syria, to name a few countries, have contributed to the displacement of millions of people, and whereas the thousands of unwashed hordes arriving at the EUs doorstep threaten to de-stabilize Fortress Europe, not to mention distract television viewers from more pressing stories about Kardashians and lions in safari parks, and whereas said hordes have the nerve to try to invade sovereign countries in a manner most illegal, I propose a solution.
 
Namely that a humanitarian corridor be opened for refugee families fleeing war torn countries, one that would insure both gainful employment for the miserable migrants, (who obviously lack the work ethic necessary to survive war zones and in the case of Syrians and Iraqis, seem to actually enjoy flitting back and forth to each others countries, depending on which situation is the most dire) as well as contributing to the global economy.
 
Whereas the U.S. and the U.K. remain the top arms exporters globally, and whereas Syria, Iraq. Libya and the Horn of Africa are all emerging markets for the weapons trade (with Israel creating its largest naval base outside the country in Eritrea, where it also dumps nuclear waste and turns a blind eye, along with the UN, the U.S. and the EU, to rather brutal human trafficking rings that lure victims with promises of jobs in Tel Aviv -- and where Russia arms both Ethiopia and Eritrea).
 
Whereas so many refugees remain deeply ungrateful for the economic opportunities allowed to them by frequent military interventions by foreign powers in their homelands, here is the solution I propose.
 
Munitions factories
 
Why not open special areas in economically disadvantaged regions (Bradford, perhaps? Or sites of derelict munitions factories in the U.K.? Perhaps Detroit in the U.S.?) where migrants can get special working visas as employees in new arms factories. With 51.2 million people displaced by conflict in the world, Im frankly surprised that no one has thought of this before. Top arms exporters in the U.S. and U.K. could lead the way, but theres no reason competitors in Russia and China shouldnt also follow suit. Even Saudi Arabia and Qatar could contribute to such a program.
 
With war and conflict zones being such obvious make-work opportunities for international arms manufacturers, aid agencies, venture capitalists, and anti-terror legislators, and with so many migrants seemingly oblivious to the abundant economic opportunities afforded to them by their privileged positions as actual residents of war zones, and with their deeply held entitlement mentalities  (the belief, for instance, that they have the right to live free from aerial bombardment, or say foreign funded mercenaries destabilizing their nations) they should be relocated to said areas, and employed in the manufacturing of armaments. Thus, they would be contributing  giving back as it were  to the very agents of their new economic opportunities.
 
Age should be no barrier to employment, and indeed whole families  from children to grandparents -- could benefit from such work. Should the migrants have any free time after daily 12-hour shifts in arms factories, they could be educated in neo-liberal theory about the new opportunities available for cross-border trade.
 
Opportunity of sorts
 
They might also benefit from lectures on the war on terror and learn about cases like  Bherlin Gildo, the Swedish man living in London who was accused of terrorism in Syria. That is until his case fell apart when it turned out that British intelligence had armed the same groups he was charged with supporting.
 
Or they might also enjoy learning about how M16 and the CIA collaborated on a rat line” of arms transfers to the Syrian rebels from Libya, after Gaddafifall (or rather his bayoneting in the streets of Sirte by rebels after a NATO bombardment -- or humanitarian intervention which in turn lead to many economic opportunities for new armed-to-the-teeth militias.)
 
And they might even enjoy reading back issues of Vogue magazine, like the one that featured a glowing profile of Madame Asma al-Assad, as the chic wife of a dictator, whose role as a villain seems to depend on whether we were farming out torture to his prisons or arming his adversaries. (Fashion can be so fickle!)
 
So my friends, a solution is at hand to the current migrant crisis (really an opportunity of sorts). And if all goes to plan, soon distressing scenes of unwashed migrants rushing policemen will be banished from our television screens and we can all go back to worrying about the possible alien origins of Donald Trumps hairpiece.
 
Call me a dreamer if you like, but please, consider my modest proposal.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. 
 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 
Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 21 July 2015 16:30

Folk Fest Magic: An Eid to Remember

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in Vancouver, British Columbia

A special three-day ritual unfolds every year in my hometown.

It’s called the Vancouver Folk Music Festival or, as it’s lovingly referred to by regulars and locals, Folk Fest.

Now in its 38th year, the festival has grown from an earnest hippie-inspired gathering to a world music lollapalooza.

Every year, Jericho Beach Park is transformed into a utopian folkie Disneyland – a magic kingdom where anything is possible and cultures collide in informal but marvelous ways.  Think “It’s a Small World After All”meets Woodstock and you’re halfway there.

But like any worthy cultural happening, Folk Fest is much more than the sum of its parts. At its best, it’s a kind of weltseele gestalt – a Romantic musical adventure that breaks down barriers with a strong dose of tie-dye and patchouli oil.

The next day, the Folk Fest, with its steaming porta-potties, extreme heat and dust, and thousands of exhausted folkfesters, began to resemble more of a refugee camp than a festival, albeit a peaceful one with a beer garden located in one of the most expensive real-estate enclaves in North America.

But in one of the most racially segregated cities in North America, and in a world where 60 million people are displaced by war, conflict or persecution, it provides a needed respite from the harsh realities of the world as it is, and points the way to more peaceful possibilities.

Marking Eid

This year, the festival coincided with Eid al-Fitr– the three-day ritual of feasting and forgiveness that marks the end of 28 days of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. With my own mixed-faith background and years spent working in the Middle East, I was very aware of the timing and wondered what spending three days of Eid – kind of like a Muslim Christmas celebrated by a billion people around the world – at the Folk Fest would be like.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and met Musqueam storyteller Henry Charles, fresh from a ceremony on the main stage where he welcomed everyone to his ancestral land. I introduced him to my friend Rabbi David Mivasair, who would soon be leading the Shabbat prayer – a Folk Fest tradition for many years – in a circle under a tree, just north of the main stage.

I confessed to David that I was feeling a bit like an “Eid orphan” and hoped to somehow mark the holiday while being at the festival. We decided that, after the traditional prayers in Hebrew, I would say the al-Fatihah (the Muslim equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer) in the spirit of peace and reconciliation embodied by Eid al-Fitr.

As sunset neared, we gathered together and, in spite of a strong wind, David lit the Shabbat candles. After the traditional Hebrew prayers were recited, David explained to everyone that it was the first day of Eid, and introduced me.

I began to chant the al-Fatihah just as a rather loud Irish band started to play, but somehow it all worked; a nice Canadian interfaith Eid/Shabbat. Many people thanked me for saying the prayer and wished there could be more similar opportunities. Afterwards, some of us sat and chatted, eating challah and sipping kosher wine. Later, I took the leftover challah in my pocket and distributed it to friends as I danced to the Melbourne Ska Orchestra.

Friends across cultures

The next day, I received an email out of the blue from a New York–based Palestinian couple who had connected with me online after reading an Al Jazeera article I wrote on Iraqi women. Ahmed, originally from Hebron, was in Vancouver accompanying his wife Nabila (originally from Jaffa – a fact that would make their marriage illegal in Israel today), a professor of public health at Columbia, who was in town for an AIDS conference. They decided to surprise me and show up at the festival.

I noticed that the wire fence surrounding the festival seemed less of a barrier than it had at the beginning. Friends and family were chatting, holding hands and even hoisting patio chairs over its edges.

Over lamb donairs served by smiling blondes, we met and exchanged ancestral stories. When Rabbi David rang, I told him I had some friends he’d like to meet and before long, David and Nabila were chatting about Jaffa like old chums. And as Montreal’s Cécile Doo-Kingué played African-inspired blues, Ahmed invited me to his cousin’s wedding in Hebron.

As we all walked through the crowd of thousands toward the main stage to listen to South Africa’s Bongezwie Mabandla, Israeli guitarist Itamar Erez – who plays with American-Turkish Sufi musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek and who had just returned to Vancouver after a decade – came to greet me with some Israeli friends. I introduced them to Ahmed and Nabila, who were beginning to wonder why I seemed to know so many Israelis. After hailing a cab at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, I assured them I was not a Mossad agent.

“Differences can bring us together”

The next day, the Folk Fest, with its steaming porta-potties, extreme heat and dust, and thousands of exhausted folkfesters, began to resemble more of a refugee camp than a festival, albeit a peaceful one with a beer garden located in one of the most expensive real-estate enclaves in North America.

But as I took in a band from Mali, a psychedelic trio from Venezuela and a group from Nunavut who mixed alt-country with reggae and Inuit throat singing, I noticed that the wire fence surrounding the festival seemed less of a barrier than it had at the beginning. Friends and family were chatting, holding hands and even hoisting patio chairs over its edges.

As I listened to Angelique Kidjo, the formidable closing act and UNICEF ambassador, sing “Malaika,” the Swahili love song made famous by South African anti-apartheid activist and singing star Miriam Makeba, I ran into Cape Town–born Themba Tana. He reminded me that Makeba sang the song of thwarted love when she was married to Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, a union that resulted in the cancellation of her American tours and record deals – and that discrimination against Africans from neighbouring countries was alive and well in his homeland.

Still, we all danced to the diva, and Angelique’s hopeful words about how “our differences can bring us together” rang into the night. And they stayed with me the next day, after the Folk Fest had disappeared like Brigadoon.

Happily, it will return again next July for three very special days. Eid Mubarak, indeed.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, was a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from Africa and the Middle East for two decades. Hadani is also a musician who believes that world music can be a powerful vehicle for peace.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Arts & Culture

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in Vancouver, British Columbia

It’s a long way from Lebanon to Vancouver.

I contemplate this as I wait to meet the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, here on a flying visit to Canada to meet with the country’s substantial diaspora.

The weeklong trip that has seen Bassil and an entourage from the foreign ministry visit Halifax, Montreal, and Edmonton, includes a meeting with the Canadian foreign affairs minister to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis and Islamic State.

But connecting with the Lebanese-Canadian community is also a key part of the visit.

The first high-level Lebanese government delegation to visit Vancouver in more than 50 years has caused much community excitement.

Visits have been arranged to the statue of Khalil Gibran, a famous Lebanese poet, and a memorial to Lebanese immigrants installed next to a giant cedar at Queen Elizabeth Park. A chartered yacht to Indian Arm, an island near Deep Cove, has also been organized for him.

Unfortunately, in all the excitement, the organizer has forgotten to give me the details of the cruise departure and sent me an incorrect contact number.

In vain, I call some old friends of my grandmother’s, whose parents emigrated to Canada over a century ago from Lebanon’s Bekkah Valley, old-timers who used to be regulars at the annual ‘Lebanese picnic’ in Vancouver’s Maple Grove park. Here, the language was lost, but not the kibbee and the dancing of dubke – the folkloric circle dance.

But my grandmother’s friends are not on close terms with the relative newcomers. They are from the first wave of emigrants – mainly Christians fleeing war, famine and the Ottomans before World War I. Now, new crises claw at tiny, beautiful Lebanon.

By the time I track down the organizer’s actual number, he is just about to sail off with Bassil and the assorted entourage.

“The sea is not a barrier to terror,” Bassil has remarked in recent media interviews. I remember this now as I think of all the crises Lebanon has weathered, long before there even was a Lebanon.

I grab a taxi to Coal Harbour, a former First Nations village turned upscale condo neighbourhood, so I can be there when they arrive back.

Still in a slightly surreal jet lagged stupor from a London flight, I stand at the dock and think of the harbour where my ancestors waited at night – in Port Said, Egypt – over a century ago. The women and children were already on board a freighter, while the men came out in the wee hours on a rowboat to evade Turkish authorities.

A gunboat spotted them as they were climbing up a rope ladder and fired. Only the top two men made it on board.

“The sea is not a barrier to terror,” Bassil has remarked in recent media interviews. I remember this now as I think of all the crises Lebanon has weathered, long before there even was a Lebanon.

Early Days in Canada

My great grandfather Najib Mussallem’s passport was stamped “Asiatic” when he and his family arrived in Canada in 1908 (pictured to the right), via a long sea route from Port Said to Marseille (where they waited during a long three-month shipping strike and visited Lourdes) through Ellis Island, before travelling to Vancouver’s “Chinatown”, finally settling in a place called Prince Rupert – about as far away from the Bekkah Valley as one could imagine.

The tiny port town near the Queen Charlotte Islands was supposed to become the port of call for the Grand Trunk Railway, and transport silk from China to garment factories in Montreal. But when the English Jewish financier, Charles Hayes, died on the Titanic (along with many Lebanese immigrants fleeing the chaos of their homeland) Prince Rupert was bypassed, left to dream of future greatness.

My grandmother’s brother was adopted by Haida chief William Matthews – in an outlawed clandestine ceremony in the back of the store. When I went there to meet elders in 1997, the chief’s granddaughter told me that I was part of the ‘eagle clan’.

It was home to Scottish immigrants, Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga’a and one lone Arab family who opened a store. Lacking the same cultural baggage as other immigrants, they were the only merchants that did not have First Nations people followed by a store detective.

They kept the Nass Valley alive by extending credit for groceries during the Depression, the late Nisga’a elder Rod Robinson told me. He related a childhood memory of shopping at the Mussallem family store with his father.

Having just watched a silent movie the night before about the British army fighting ‘evil Arabs’, he burst into tears when he first saw my great grandfather – who resembled the cinematic villain. But he was soon consoled by the ice cream and gentle smiles he was offered.

My grandmother’s brother was adopted by Haida chief William Matthews – in an outlawed clandestine ceremony in the back of the store. When I went there to meet elders in 1997, the chief’s granddaughter told me that I was part of the ‘eagle clan’.

Second-Class Citizens? Never.

Now, in tony Coal Harbour, an eagle flies overhead just as the yacht bearing the foreign minister arrives.

There is no time for an interview, as they must be off to the airport, I am told. I manage a quick question about the second-class citizenship law Bill C24, which Bassil seems unaware of. “The Lebanese will never be second-class citizens,” he vows, citing their entrepreneurial spirit.

“Lebanon, with its 18 different [officially recognized] sects, could be a model of diversity for the world.” - Gebran Bassil's adviser

Later, his adviser tells me that, “Lebanon, with its 18 different [officially recognized] sects, could be a model of diversity for the world.” Canadian dreams have promised similar things, of course. But cultural harmony is a fragile creature, and Lebanon is also a reminder of how quickly things can turn the other way.

But the young adviser speaks of a new plan for “homeland hubs” – a way of uniting the diverse Lebanese diasporas – from Denmark to Dakar. 

Soon after arriving at the airport, disguised as a Musqueam theme park, everyone gathers to say goodbye and take photos – a great Lebanese tradition in itself.

I embrace strangers with whom I share a bloodline, and say a prayer for the land of my ancestors and the one they fled to. I think of second-class citizens and boats and terror and grandparents’ stories as I say masalameh – and for a moment, I have a vision of a grove of cedar trees, and an eagle flying over them.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. She spent nine months in Lebanon in 1992/93 doing an Ontario Arts Council funded interactive theatre/video project with children of war in Beirut, and visited her ancestral village, Karoun.

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

 

Published in Commentary
Page 1 of 2

Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

Featured Quote

The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit

Zo2 Framework Settings

Select one of sample color schemes

Google Font

Menu Font
Body Font
Heading Font

Body

Background Color
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Top Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Header Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Mainmenu Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Slider Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Scroller Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Mainframe Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Scroller Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Breadcrumb Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Menu Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image
Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image