New Canadian Media

DEEPAK Sharma has become the first ever Indo-Canadian president of Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS). He was elected on March 25 and begins his term on May 1.

The SFSS is a student-led organization that represents and advocates for the interests of the 26,000-plus undergraduate students at SFU.

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Published in Education

by Melissa Shaw in Vancouver 

The latest instalment of the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Muslim Heritage Series aims to provide a deeper understanding of Shia Islam, the Muslim religion’s second-largest community. 

About 100 people gathered at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, B.C., for the launch of the series’ fourth volume, The Shi'i World: Pathways in Tradition and Modernity. 

Simon Fraser University (SFU) Department of History professor Derryl MacLean said the essay collection explores the memory of tradition, present influences, and implications for the future. 

Dr. Bashir Jiwani, honourary secretary for the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for Canada said the book helps fill a knowledge gap. 

“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed,” Jiwani said. 

Reinventing old traditions 

The Shi'i World's cover features a painting depicting a music lesson from a Persian book of philosophical ethics, the Akhlaq-i Nasiri. One of the book’s co-editors, Dr. Amyn B. Sajoo, said this image was chosen because religion and culture are entwined. 

Sajoo said the observance of Ashura, a day of mourning for the murder of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn during the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century, is an example of how culture can be linked to religious expression. 

“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed.”

Caribbean Muslims have a culture of celebration and observe Ashura through private recollection followed by a party involving Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and atheists. In parts of Europe and North America, Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom through a blood drive, he said. 

MacLean introduced Pomona College religious studies professor Zayn Kassam's essay, “Remembering Fatima and Zainab”, as an example of Shia identity linked to memory. 

Sajoo said after Saddam Hussein's repression in Iraq, Iraqi women in Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed mourning circles, similar to the ceremonies held during Muharram to remember the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a relative of two female figures in Islam, Fatima and Zainab. 

“They imagine what Zainab must have felt when she lost her family at Karbala,” said Maclean. “So you are now going to empathize with her and then you will mourn what you lost in your country because of the dictator in Iraq.” 

Challenging stereotypes 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni.”

In The Shi'i World, University of Edinburgh Persian and Film Studies professor Nacim Pak-Shiraz analyzes how religious themes challenge society through film. 

The 2001 film Baran tells the story of a girl who dresses as a boy to work on a construction site in Tehran. 

Pak-Shiraz argues that the scene where a boy accidentally sees the girl's long hair has the spiritual meaning of unveiling and accessing the individual behind the screen. Sajoo said the film is a comment on women's roles in Iranian society. 

He said another example is the 2004 Iranian film Marmoulak, which is a comedy about a prisoner pretending to be a priest who fools the guards into listening to his fabricated sermons. 

Sajoo said the film was banned in Iran a week after its release due to its “tough social commentary,” which contributed to its popularity amongst the Muslim diaspora. 

“[Globalization is] empowering the periphery. It doesn't work anymore to say the centre is Iran and Lebanon and so on, and everybody else is out there in the margins,” Sajoo said. 

According to a 2009 study from the Pew Research Centre, 10 to 15 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population are Shia Muslims, while 87 to 90 per cent are Sunni Muslims. Over 60 per cent of the global Muslim population lives in Asia and about 20 per cent live in the Middle East and North Africa. 

SFU student Shazia Nanjijuma said events like the book launch engage with the history of Islam, addressing the knowledge gap and challenging people's assumptions and stereotypes about the faith. 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni,” said Nanjijuma. “That makes it easy for us to kind of grapple with it, but the truth is there's so much more behind that.” 

Addressing centuries-old rifts 

Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.”

Sajoo's essay in the book discusses the creation of Aligarh Muslim University in India. He said the community criticized a Shia imam, Aga Khan III, for advocating and fundraising for the creation of a university instead of a Shia college. 

“He was arguing, ‘Why don't you make the case for respecting pluralist Muslim identity within Aligarh?’” Sajoo said, adding that the Aga Khan expressed similar thoughts during his speech to Canadian Parliament in 2014. 

“What he was saying is, you are not more or less Canadian if you are a Muslim or Shia. That your Shia identity essentially has to be part of your Canadian identity and vice-versa.” 

Sajoo adds that Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.” 

“It's a genuine acceptance of other people's ways, ethical ways, of looking at the world,” he said.

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the story as the previous one contained factual errors. NCM regrets these errors and apologizes for any inconvenience.


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

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 Deanna Cheng in Vancouver

During the 2015 election campaign, one issue remained imminent for many Canadians: how will the newly elected government improve the economy? But, a question less pondered, of interest to many immigrant communities is how will the government improve economic inequalities.

One economics professor from British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University recently pointed out which promises made by the major political parties in Canada made would lower inequality.

“Inequality is more about wealth than income,” professor Krishna Pendakur said during a public lecture in Burnaby earlier this month.

Wealth, he said, is money generated from stocks, bonds, etc., and income is based on labour.

Economic platforms

Pendakur said the Conservatives’ plan is vague when it comes to economic inequality  – more commonly referred to as the gap between the rich and the poor.

“They promise to grow the economy, to have a bigger pie, then a trickle-down effect,” he explained. “Whatever crumbles from this pie and falls down to the rest of the 99 per cent, that’s it.”

Pendakur said the Conservatives’ plan is vague when it comes to economic inequality.

Pendakur noted though that some trickle-down effect did happen with previous policies of low tax rates, low revenue and low public spending. “There was high skilled blue-collared incomes in Alberta while the party lasted.”

Looking to the Liberals and New Democrats, Pendakur said both parties promise to increase guaranteed income supplement, which is a good thing. The income supplement provides a monthly non-taxable benefit to Old Age Security recipients who have a low income and are living in Canada.

To get the supplement, the recipients must be legal residents in Canada and receiving the old age pension.

Addressing national inequality

Pendakur pointed out which policies each party promised would likely be most effective in addressing national inequality.

For the New Democratic Party (NDP), he said the two major ones are national subsidized childcare and national universal drug coverage. “Both are long term commitments and [Tom] Mulcair will need more than one election to see it through,” he commented.

"[F]or some, even if they’ve seen a doctor and the doctor has written the prescription, sometimes people can’t afford the treatment at the pharmacy. It’s the biggest cost to someone’s health.”

Pendakur said political parties are careful about what they can claim because there are certain jurisdictions which federal governments don’t have a lot of control over.

Health care is decided at the provincial level, so that is why the NDP chose pharmaceuticals, he said.

“It’s good because, for some, even if they’ve seen a doctor and the doctor has written the prescription, sometimes people can’t afford the treatment at the pharmacy. It’s the biggest cost to someone’s health.”

Minimal wage is also a provincial jurisdiction, Pendakur explained, which is why the NDP promised a minimum wage of $15 per hour for federal workers. “100,000 workers will be affected.”

Turning to the Liberals, he drew attention to the party’s promise to increase child benefits with lower implicit tax rates on them.

The party also said it would raise tax rates on personal income over $200,000 by four per cent and lower income tax rates for the middle class from 22 per cent to 20.5 per cent.

Privileging particular demographics

During the Q-and-A session, an audience member asked Pendakur what he thought about the Conservative party’s income-splitting tax plan.

“Income splitting is awful,” Pendakur replied.

[Pendakur] said [income splitting] values two-parent, two-income families and ignores every other demographic in the country.

He said the plan values two-parent, two-income families and ignores every other demographic in the country. “Why is this particular demographic worth more than others?”

University of Fraser Valley student Anoop Tatlay agreed with him.

“I couldn’t pinpoint what it was about the [income-splitting tax] proposal that bothered me, but once he said it, it clicked,” stated Tatlay, who is a single mother. “I’d thought the same thing.”

Pendakur presented complex information in an engaging manner, said Tatlay. The newfound knowledge she gained motivated her to look more closely at the federal budget and public spending and try to understand it better.

As a Canadian citizen, the 37-year-old resident of Mission, B.C. said she plans to vote on Oct. 19.

 

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 Economy

THIS summer Lower Mainland universities are hosting some of the brightest undergraduate students in the world.  Here for 12 weeks on Mitacs Globalink internships, 34 of India’s smartest, young talent are assisting professors at the three Simon Fraser University campuses and the University of British Columbia, to solve complex challenges found in their various research […]

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Published in Education

by Roshini Nair (@Roshini_C_Nair) in Vancouver, British Columbia

It’s just after midnight in Delhi, India when I reach Orijit Sen, a renowned graphic novelist and artist. As part of the annual Indian Summer Festival, Vancouverites can see his artwork in an unexpected location: wrapped around a city bus.

“I’m interested in bringing the mobile public art which we have in India and placing that in Vancouver,” he says, adding that the presence of the colourfully decorated bus on city streets reflects the, “multicultural, cosmopolitan nature of Vancouver.”

The bus is covered in graphics inspired by the South Asian tradition of truck art. Sen explains that in India and Pakistan, trucks are usually privately owned or operated by small entrepreneurs. Drivers end up spending many months of the year traveling in their trucks. “[The] sense of decorating it, making it beautiful and looking after it comes from the personal connection to the truck,” he says.

For the transit bus artwork, Sen drew inspiration from his visit to Vancouver last year. For example, the graphic of an auto rickshaw driver on the bus was inspired by walking in Vancouver late at night wishing, “there was an auto rickshaw that I could just hail on the street and it would take me home … which is something I’m so used to doing in Delhi.”

“A lot of arts festivals or ideas festivals might only take up one discipline like the performing arts or literature or theatre, but we are arguing for a festival that nourishes the mind, the taste buds, [and] the senses in every possible way.” - Sirish Rao

It’s this sense of colliding worlds that lies at the heart of the annual Indian Summer Festival, which takes place in Vancouver from July 9 to 18 this year. Sirish Rao, founder of Indian Summer, says the festival is not just about crossing geographic boundaries, but entire disciplines.

“A lot of arts festivals or ideas festivals might only take up one discipline like the performing arts or literature or theatre, but we are arguing for a festival that nourishes the mind, the taste buds, [and] the senses in every possible way.”

A multidisciplinary approach

One of the more ambitious and whimsical events this year is a collision between the arts and science called “Genes and Jazz”. Featuring geneticist and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold Varmus and the Jacob Varmus Quintet (Jacob is Harold's son), the performance will meld the mutations in cellular structures with improvised jazz chords.

This programming is supported by the festival’s partnership with Simon Fraser University (SFU) and Rao’s other role as an adjunct professor there.

“Stories from the Cab” presents the voices of taxi drivers, who work in one of the most racialized industries in Canada. It’s an event that challenges perceptions of place and immigration, and distinguishes the festival from other summer fare.

Vancouver blogger Salina Siu volunteered at a literary event for the festival as part of her coursework at SFU. Siu says she loved the opportunity of “being behind the scenes” and “working directly with the authors.”

This year, there’s a double-header literary event: “The Ever After” and “In the Driver’s Seat: Stories from the Cab”.

The first is a look at the loss and mourning that is rooted in the Air India bombing 30 years ago. At the time, the tragedy was considered India’s, even though most of the victims were Canadians of Indian origin. 

“Stories from the Cab” presents the voices of taxi drivers, who work in one of the most racialized industries in Canada. It’s an event that challenges perceptions of place and immigration, and distinguishes the festival from other summer fare. 

‘Engaging with contemporary ideas’

“Whereas a lot of cultural festivals, especially in the diaspora, tend to be nostalgic,” explains Rao, “we’re more interested in the contemporary. So it’s not about recreating a past, it’s about engaging with contemporary ideas.”

“Sometimes food is the first and easiest way to step across an unknown shore, and you might take the next step with music, and then you might come and hear someone speak. We see it as a long conversation.” - Sirish Rao

He points to a talk with prominent Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan as an example of how the festival features high-profile guest speakers beyond the traditional borders of South Asia. Aslan’s sold out lecture on July 16 will tackle subjects like ISIS, identity and how faith is affected by geography.

Amongst the ideas, however, there is still space for raucous celebration: Vancouver celebrity chef Vikram Vij catered the opening gala on July 9, and the closing party “Taj Mahal Foxtrot” on July 18 will feature the finest of the 1930s Bombay jazz scene and a touch of vintage Bollywood. It’s why first-time festivalgoer Panzy Sandhu is going. 

She’s excited for the “arts, music, and different cuisine” after hearing about the festival from friends. This is what Rao hopes for: “Sometimes food is the first and easiest way to step across an unknown shore, and you might take the next step with music, and then you might come and hear someone speak. We see it as a long conversation.”

 

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

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