Long thin beans on slender stems,
fresh, smooth velvet
as she did
the signs of fading youth.
Softened each one gently from ends,
Prepared, diced into tiny circles,
pearls in a sea of green
like rows of embossed dupattas
ready to be worn.
There was but one, like none other,
could not be cut… staring instead,
eyes in fixed resolve,
seeing her knife as nothing more
than a clean slate to write on.
The sound of heavy feet
echoed through the empty house.
And a piercing cry broke the silence: “Where are you? Why don’t you respond?”
The string bean fell from her hands.
It had not yet been softened or cut.
It might have been too small,
leaving her to wonder what went wrong.
The sound drowned her half-spoken thoughts. “There is still one left to chop… How can I respond?
What have I to say?
Familiar footsteps approached
and cried in rage why there seemed
to be no one at home,
no one to answer questions any more.
“This one is not yet ripe,” she said, “Not ready to be eaten.”
The footsteps, unaccustomed to having to wait,
scattered her green pearls everywhere.
She saw her work lying on the floor…
except the one that remained,
the smallest, sweetest of them all.
She held it softly in her hand and said: “You are the only one… uncut, unripe… Where shall I keep you? What shall I do with you? How shall I water you? I have no more tears left for you, my little pearl!”
Revolutions of the Heart: Literary, Cultural, & Spiritual
By Yahia Lababidi (Wipf & Stock, 2020)
Egyptian-American Yahia Lababidi is the author of seven books: Signposts to Elsewhere, a compilation of aphorisms selected as Book of the Year (2008) by The Independent (UK), Where Epics Fail, Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015), Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, Fever Dreams, and Barely There. In addition to these, he co-authored with Alex Stein The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi and has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. His writing has been translated into numerous languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Slovak, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Swedish. Lababidi was chosen as a juror for the 2012 Neustadt International Prize for Literature – a biennial award widely considered to be the most prestigious international literary prize after the Nobel Prize in Literature. For a more detailed summary of his writing career, see Poets&Writers.
Yahia Lababidi’s new book, Revolutions of the Heart, is a moving collage of essays, conversations, aphorisms, poems, interviews and reflections, bearing witness to an impressive lifelong study and practice of philosophy, literature and creativity. The book reaches out to the reader, builds “eye contact: how souls catch fire,” brings hope during periods of desperation, inspires writers in their art, speaks eloquently from the heart, and stays long after it is read and placed back on the bookshelf.
As I pondered over my electronic copy of Revolutions, I wondered how much better it would have been with a hard copy of the book in hand, allowing me to feel and mark the words on pages turned. My screen felt distant, very much like everything else during these pandemic days. Yet in going through the book, I found myself experiencing and enjoying the ambiguity in the nearness of this very “distance,” and sharing some of the longing for transformation to which Lababidi has dedicated his book.
Revolutions starts with the author’s journey as a writer, thinker and poet, “living through” Rilke, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Wilde, Dostoevsky – philosophers and writers who first shaped his thought and who continue to accompany him – before turning to Eastern mysticism and transcendence in the teachings of the Tao te Ching, Rumi, Al-Ghazali, Mahmoud Darwish, Khaled Mattawa, Ibn Ata Illah, Kahlil Gibran, and many others.
To me as a reader and reviewer, it seems as though that journey is always beginning, with creative biographers sounding their own truths while “donning masks [of their] great dead friends,” and poets becoming the poem – “one agonizing line, or liberating verse, at a time.” [“Every Subject Chooses Its Author”]
The essay “Poetry and Journalism of the Future” resonates with first-generation immigrants who, like Lababidi, feel helpless and frustrated seeing their “world unraveling continents and oceans away.” His powerful words connect the reader with this desperation while also “cultivating a certain distance” and a depth of vision that “provides more insight than mere sight.” Poetry, thus, “at its finest,” restores our sight, speaks our silences and makes sense of our pain.
In “Radical Love: Mysticism in Islam,” Lababidi describes the “painful reality” of Islamophobia. “It’s tiresome to be continually on the defensive,” he writes, underscoring the irony that even during “this historical moment of Islamophobic panic,” the 13th-century Sufi mystic, Rumi, “is not only a best-selling poet but the most popular poet in the US!” In the West, however, the appreciation of Rumi’s art comes at “the expense of erasure of Islam from his work – as though this beloved, mystical poet is only palatable to the masses if entirely dissociated from the seeming stain of Islam.”
One cannot write of Lababidi without mentioning his aphorisms – “wisdom literature,” a “soul’s dialogue with itself” – born of his “obsessive reading” that taught him how to write. This all changed on his return to Egypt, when he says he lost his silences… and lost his voice. Aphorisms lay beyond reach. It was not until ten years later that, “spurred by the terse wisdom of the Tao te Ching and Sufi teachers,” he returned to “these brief arts.” [“Reverence for the Visible and Invisible Worlds”]
Lababidi speaks poignantly of the 2011 people’s uprising in Egypt – the Arab Spring. “Over time,” he writes, “I’ve come to regard my beloved Cairo as a joyous child whose confidence has, profoundly, been shaken by repeated scolding and attempts at molding. We’re not quite ourselves at the moment, I tell myself, and are battling for our souls.”
Our unfortunate present moment does not define us; we’re better than this unbecoming fear and loathing. The lengthening shadow that we are witnessing—in the Middle East, in Europe, in the Divided States of America—is just a hiccup in time, viewed in the context of humanity’s long illustrious history. When my spirits sag, I am buoyed up by the noble Arabic slogan that circulated following our Egyptian Revolution: ‘Despair is betrayal, and Hope a responsibility.’ [“Reborn in the USA: An Immigrant & Poet’s Story (who also happens to be Muslim)”]
He fondly brings to mind his recollections of Yusuf Idris, Louis Awad, Ahmed Ragab, Farouk Goudah, Abdul Rahman Al Abnoudi, Alaa-Al-Aswany, Yusuf Rakha, Son’allah Ibrahim, Nawal El Saadawi, Ahdaf Soueif and Radwa Ashour.
As an editor, I read with some trepidation the chapter “Can an Editor Get Too Creative: A Writer’s Quandary.” Editing always involves walking a fine line, and as Lababidi points out, taking on “a tough (sometimes, thankless) task.” I was personally amused to read the account of an “intrepid editor” who had taken some of Lababidi’s “stand-alone aphorisms” and “woven them into a ‘poem’!” So changed was this version that the author could no longer recognize it as his own, even though the words were his. Writing is no doubt “an intimate matter and rearranging the words of another is akin to shuffling their thoughts and emotions.”
There is a memorable chapter on Frankenstein that made me rethink some of the critical pieces I had written in university. “It is very telling, and a scathing commentary on the superficiality of society,” writes Lababidi, “that the only civilized audience the creature is granted is with one who does not have the prejudice of vision to discriminate, nor the brutality of youth to intimidate: Delacey, an old blind man.” His incisive critique left me pondering, unsettled. Even today, we are continuing to create our “monsters,” our fears, born of culture and the “vision” of our prejudices. [“Frankenstein: Society-Spawned Humane Monsters and Monstrous Humans”]
I began this review by mentioning Lababidi’s dedication to transformation. Revolutions is an important book. In our divided world today, it seeks our transformation as people first, then as citizens of one planet earth, envisioned beyond the divisions of political boundaries… with elements that, like pandemics, do not differentiate one from another. We are “in the deep end, [where] every stroke counts.” We will either swim or sink. Together. And we will find ourselves not in words, but in our wounds, our silences.
I end with two brief lines that Lababidi says first drew him into writing: “Heidegger’s definition of Longing: ‘the agony of the nearness of the distant’ as well as Rumi’s ‘What you are seeking is also seeking you.’” [“The Aphorist in Conversation with Sholeh Johnston”]
In the past couple of years, we have all discussed and dissected, with intensity, the man-made climatological changes that have hit our earth. It has become frustratingly clear that it is not enough to debate the science, the predictions and the impact on our future lives on earth, as our only channel of activism. Climate change is not simply a result of bad habits and poor science, but a systemic overpowering of peoples’ choices through the erosion of the strength of the commons and the right to assemble freely and converge together for a more cooperative and sharing society.
“… the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit. […] Commons can be also defined as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates.” (Wikipedia)
Vast segments of the country are part of the commons, places where public jurisdiction or public access is not something that can be constrained. Parks, forests, river areas, wetlands, falaises, the migratory pathways (in the skies and on the ground) of birds and animals immediately spring to mind. But the commons also includes parts of a city – the urban landscape, the parks and plazas outside subway stations. These are areas where the poor can congregate to afford themselves some pleasure… the public version of the backyards of folks in gated communities.
The commons is where people meet and have a right to congregate. It has to do with human rights and individual freedoms, where access to essentials like water, food and shelter are controlled by local populations and not by private interests.
Political decision-making in the shadows
There is a nebulous political structure that decides how many school playgrounds a borough will have. In local government, who decides where social issues can be resolved? Who decides to cut trees to build a soccer field – and how many trees to cut? How is the process of implementing public welfare decisions constructed (such as decisions on social housing, growing trees, forming cooperatives, etc.), and by whom? The whole cooperative decision-making process and cooperative living style – community living style – is not really in the cards, even though heroic movements have fought for it for decades, right here in Montréal.
All this is being discussed in various forums, but there is not enough impetus for preserving the public wetlands, forest areas, parks, mountains – everything that surrounds the city and everything in the city that could be defined as the commons.
Many of us are deeply concerned and worried about what is going to happen, not just for the next five years but for the next twenty. Where do we stand with all this? It seems to us that the climate movement has waged a fairly decisive battle in making sure that this man-made crisis is clearly identified for what it is. However, the same climate movement has very limited controls over any decisions that governments may have arrived at as a result of signing on to certain targets.
Very simply put: large, polluting, fossil-fuel-using nations routinely renege on targets or opt out of programs. Canada is one of them. We have decided to deliberately miss our 2030 targets by 15%. There are limited political watchdog surveillance systems that monitor the provincial and federal governments’ actual performance in curbing our ever-increasing capacity to exploit our natural resources.
There is something else looming large that is not being discussed enough: a shadowy image in our minds of an ever-growing political structure that is preparing subtly to oppose environmental measures through a variety of sustainability-friendly measures that are combined with coercive policies in non-sustainable areas. The forces of privatization and the fossil fuel industry are surreptitiously rebranding their claims. The climatological battle cannot be won unless we curb privatization and fight for the public commons.
The environmental movement in Canada has parked itself outside the obvious areas where jurisdictional decisions are taken. Having a Green Party or an NDP with a competitive green policy is patently inadequate unless these parties are part of a political movement that operates in the commons. And the movement for the commons has to integrally respect Indigenous land rights and cultural heritage.
In this issue
Our issue features a photo essay on the Wixárika people’s opposition to a Vancouver mining company’s operations in Mexico. Photographs by José Luis Aranda and commentary by Serai editor Claudia Itzkowich highlight these Indigenous activists and the sacred land of Wirikuta that they are committed to protect.
Freelance journalist Patrick Barnard makes the climate crisis personal in “First Person Climate Change.” Reflecting on science and the weather and key figures shaping his consciousness over his life time, from CBC’s Bob Carty to Moby-Dick, Patrick implores us to halt the “mad narcissism… the driving force of the world as it is organized today.”
Blossom Thom, poetry co-editor of Jonah Magazine, speaks in her poems of yearning, love, and oceans shouting to the shore, sleep collected in remnants, gold dust coating our throats. In “The Garden of Dutiful Women […] whirling, we step on the edges of blades.”
Rae Marie Taylor, author of The Land: Our Gift and Wild Hope,” ponders the distance separating humans from the natural world since the Industrial Revolution, and the need to reclaim our wildness and preserve the commons. In “The Root of It,” she writes: “We need each other and the land that speaks to us of life other than our own. We need the tides and the shores of our planet […] the forest and the hills, the plains and the rain, the elk […] We are necessary to their survival. They are as necessary to ours.”
Better known for directing plays and films, Guy Sprung reflects and muses in his poem, “Dusk on Loukes Lake:” “I float | downside-up | in a darkening world…”
In her poem entitled “Dhrupad of Destruction,” Savitri Sawhney evokes the eternal dancer of creation, conservation and destruction in Hindu mythology, Nataraja, dancing “to the sound of crushing ice, melting glaciers and rising seas.”
Vrajesh Hanspal’s dark poetic prose piece, “Forest Floor,” plumbs our more sinister imaginings of the forest and its carpet of organic detritus teeming with the crawling, ticking and cooing creatures that respected no boundaries…
Two incisive poems by Paris Elizabeth Sea tear into our theme without mincing words, in Moment, arriving.
Maya Khankhoje reviews a highly original novel by Brenda J. Wilson entitled TAKEWING a.m., which centres on the yearly migration of the monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico and back.
And this editorial features a drawing by Canadian cartoonist Oleg Dergachov, commenting on human obliviousness as we fly too close to the sun.
We hope our issue boosts your spirits and stirs your creative juices as we spin new filaments of community in this uneasy time of Corona.
Québec has just passed Bill 21, which bans many Québecers from holding positions of authority in the public service ostensibly to extend the appearance of ‘neutrality’ of the state. There has been a loud cry of praise for protecting secular values without understanding that the wearing of a turban, for example, is as much a part of identity as one’s religion. It was fine for Sikh soldiers to wear their turbans with pride while fighting in the trenches of the two world wars, but as Québecers today, they cannot wear these while teaching in schools or serving in the government. When the state asks for such choices to be made, smaller voices are lost in the euphoric din. My editorial is dedicated to voices that no one hears because they are not prominent enough, not loud enough. Unnamed voices that fill us with rage, force change, and cross boundaries to touch both the heights and depths of our collective selves.
This issue of Serai speaks through art, music, fiction and biographical documents. It features David Groulx’s poem, “A Breaking Open of the Belly,” an Anishnabe voice that refuses to be silent: “They cut the soul,” he writes, “from the spirit/from the body from the spirit of the earth.”
Jooneed Khan’s review of William Ging Wee Dere’s encyclopedic book Being Chinese in Canada: The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging describes Chinese life in Montréal starting from 1909 when Dere’s grandfather, and later his father, immigrated to Canada. The book is an important reference to the political events that shaped the author’s life, education and career right from Loyola High School and McGill University, to Canada’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1970, Québec’s Marxist-Leninist movements following the general strike in 1972, and the ensuing disappointment and disillusionment after the “defeat of the ‘Yes’ camp in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association.”
Himmat Shinhat in his review of Cyril Dabydeen’s collection of short stories, My Undiscovered Country, focuses on multiculturalism and how the words and voices of writers like Dabydeen have helped the shift from a focus on origins and essentialism to “a more dynamic understanding of multiculturalism” that allows for complex identities, “fluid and adaptive to the realities of a culturally and racially diverse society.”
In a multimedia piece that explores finding her true voice, Marie-Josée Tremblay focuses on pure voice and sound and how they work in music, liberation, confidence, conscience, and in the collective spirit of murdered and missing Indigenous women. “Prendre Position” is to find Loretta Saunders’ voice that continues to ask, “Did you see me?”
Sharon Bourke in her review of Louise Carson’s book, In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy, reminds us of the tradition of the picaresque novel. She describes how the book takes us back 300 years to the southwestern seascape of Scotland, and to Deasil Widdy, unsure of himself and his surroundings, looking for distance to escape from dark memories, for “some tranquil land he has not yet found,” while feeling throughout, Scotland’s hanging sense of “danger and suspense.
Musician, writer and educator Paul Serralheiro interviews Andy Williams and Lewis Braden, two brilliant Montréal deejays who are committed to bringing multigenerational voices of jazz and the African diaspora “to the masses,” in his article entitled “Jazz Amnesty Sound System: voices from the past speaking today’s language.”
“Bodhyobumi” (Killing Field) is a photo montage with commentary created by Keya Dasgupta, Subhendu Dasgupta and Tilak Seth. The broken murtis – mangled and discarded mannequins, stripped, dismembered and flung out in an open pit in a dump yard next to a shopping arcade in south Kolkata – inspired poems in Bengali (translated into English by Nilanjan Dutta)… voices that spoke for the redesigned, discarded, dissected bodies of “writers, artists, journalists and all those / who lived to protest and resist.”
Ilona Martonfi, in her poems, “Seven Mountains,” “La Folle,” “Bleaching” and “Terezin,” speaks of the abandoned, the orphaned, the “silence back to silence,” a “plum moon / half-remembered fables,” telling stories of “a word such as children / or hunger.”
Catherine Watson in “Nelly’s Diary” goes back to 1909, the year her grandmother Nelly got married to Arthur and gave birth to Catherine’s father. Behind the veil of an unwanted pregnancy, the near impossible access to safe abortions, and the collective scorn for unmarried mothers from families and husbands “incapable of considering anyone’s feelings but [their] own,” Nelly survives in a “run-down terrace house on a forgotten street in West Croydon, the poorest part of town.” The piece is particularly relevant today when a number of states in the US are looking at the “heartbeat” bill to restrict or ban abortions.
Ami Sands Brodoff’s short story, “Will the World Pause for me?” is the soft and turbulent voice behind the faultlines of normalcy. Someone – Collier – “sweeps his arm around you and their touch is different from anyone else’s.” It calms. It is tender. It soothes. The water is cold. Collier gives you a hand. Brings you back “to the quiet of before.” The voices are gone.
Maya Khankhoje in her review of Drew Heyden Taylor’s collection of essays, Me Artsy, describes the essays, in the editor/compiler’s own words as “an exploration and deconstruction of the Aboriginal artistic spirit.” The essays range from Zacharias Kunuk, producer, director, auteur of Atanarjuat; Monique Mojicais, an Indigenous woman artist; Marianne Nicolson, an installation artist; Steve Teekens from the drum group, Red Spirit Singers; Richard van Camp, storyteller and writer; and many others. The book is “about art in general” and “performance in particular.” It is about change. Performance as Change is the theme for the next issue of Serai. Send in your submissions!
Maru and the Maple Leaf by Uma Parameswaran, Larkuma Publishing, 2016 (367 pages)
Uma Parameswaran, a retired professor of English (University of Winnipeg) and well known author with a special interest in women’s literature and South Asian culture, has cleverly crafted her recent novel around the writings and experiences of Maru, an Indo-Canadian woman from Winnipeg. A work of fiction, the book includes many of the author’s earlier excerpts from essays and stories. The name “Maru” can be seen as a short form for “Uma Parameswaran,” the nom de plume that Maru uses in her writings (sometimes spelled as “Uta” Parameswaran). Fact and fiction are thus entwined with motifs of familiar and unfamiliar names woven around the incidents and characters that shape this book.
The narrator, Priti Moghe, is a resident physician in obstetrics. She is very busy with her hospital shifts and with her boyfriend, Stephen Woodhouse, a fellow resident in general surgery. Priti’s lifestyle is suddenly interrupted by the death of her dear Aunty Maru who has left her a legacy of cardboard boxes filled with journals, letters, essays and stories. Priti is baffled by all these typed or handwritten foolscap sheets. Some have dates, others don’t. Some are fragments or incomplete anecdotes. The stories capture the mind of the reader, but the journey that Priti takes us through is confusing. Do these sketches reflect Maru’s life? Are they instead about the women she met? Some of them seem to have been based on women that Priti had come to know through Maru. Have these stories been embellished? Are they fact or fiction? The questions are there as teasers as both Priti and the reader begin to realize that the spirit behind Maru’s writings lies elsewhere.
The novel takes us into different time zones: the present with Priti, Stephen and Uncle Siv (Maru’s husband), and the disparate and confusing time zones in Maru’s own past. Characters and incidents from India combine with speeches delivered at writers’ organizations and minority women’s groups in Canada. The maple leaf and the Assiniboine and Red rivers thus become as powerful as the Kaveri, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Ganga, and somehow, sifting through all this vast range of rich imagery, Maru seems to draw strength from experiences, real or imagined. On the other hand, she does not fail to observe how there is no escape from class-consciousness:
“When one leaves a class-conscious homeland, one usually assumes it is behind for good. But oh no, it is alive and well in Canada, and let no one say otherwise; and when anyone talks about class and gender oppression in other countries, I hope you’ll have the courage to show them around our own city.”
We meet the mysterious Chikkamma, “born about the turn” of the “last century.” She earns a graduate degree to become a school principal. At the age of 28, she falls in love with a married man, marries him, and has a son. Bigamy in those days was not a crime, nor was it common for women to graduate from universities and hold jobs. Chikkamma remains a significant figure in the book. She appears as a strong woman, ready to take on the world and ready to offer her advice or support even if it is for unclogging a toilet bowl blocked with bread-bagging plastic. “Women of Maitreyi Nivas never walk out on a job,” she says.
There is also another motif from India’s ancient past, built around complex traditions and incidents from the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Maru narrates the story of Panchali’s swayamvara, where Panchali chooses Arjuna for a husband instead of the glorious Karna, the charioteer’s son, whom she seemed to love more. Panchali’s story, like many others in the book, reflects our choices in life, the consequences that follow, the connections, and the learning that takes place from the experience.
Parameswaran is very skilled in exploring centuries of relationships and bringing them together to a place in time that transcends a linear, chronological sequence of events. What happens or will happen depends upon who we are and what has shaped us: our history, ancestors, language, culture, the people we meet and even those we do not meet. Our stories speak to us and to those who come after us, very much like Maru’s poem “Apsara Love,” where she longs to go “Far from here where all ever is.”
Maru and the Maple Leaf explores a vast canvas covering the span of many lifetimes. Maru’s struggle in Canada in the 1960s is not unlike Chikkamma’s struggles in the early 19th century, or Priti’s struggles with premature babies in maternity wards. If we could, like Maru, write about our lives and leave behind words and experiences to be picked up by others, we could continue to travel forever on unbeaten paths. I will conclude with Maru’s words of wisdom:
“Mortals are supposed to honour their forebears – that is what life is all about, that is what civilization is all about, to give continuum to all that is worth preserving. And the spirits have to depend on us humans. And I have failed Chikkamma.
Find out the details, dig around, that is what biographers are supposed to do, she said. But I am not a biographer, just one who wants to tell stories, women’s stories, so we can know ourselves through others.”
Parameswaran has written a well-crafted, intriguing novel about re-discovering one’s roots, connecting with the past, and shaping the present through a wealth of new experiences.
 Kaveri, Godavari and Krishna are names of rivers in Southern India.
 The story of Panchali, also known as Draupadi, is from the Mahabharata. Swayamvara is an ancient practice where a young woman of marriageable age chooses a husband from among many suitors. Karna and Arjuna were two suitors at Panchali’s swayamvara.
Radius Islamicus by Julian Samuel, Guernica Editions, 2018
“The radius islamicus is the farthest distance a camel part is thrown from the blast centre.”
The narrator of Julian Samuel’s second novel is a “stateless” leader who supposedly spent more years of his life around airports than in any one country. An intellectual, he is now in his eighth decade, living close to former teammates who, under his direction, had conducted multiple projects including “the flash and bang in London” where the calculated radius of damage stretched to several metres. He was the “organizational brains behind it all,” and whereas his teammates from “various cellular backgrounds had been given an understanding of Islam,” he their leader, had helped them understand “a white fist in the face.”
Then, all of a sudden, they grew old and landed at the same residence in Pierrefonds. Perhaps it had been designed that way so that he could keep an eye on them and prevent them from making “death bed confessions,” either due to regrettable feelings of guilt or through the ubiquitous dementia.
Some of us, when we get older, feel bad about what we did and want to talk about it. I’m here to die as well as to make sure that there is no flow-out.
Who are these people? What are their names? What countries are they from? Where have they lived except at airports? Anver or Imran, Dr. Joseph Mcleod (as the narrator almost always calls himself), Gorgana or Usha, Tatjana and Nurse Linda with her five o’clock pills flow back and forth on Joseph’s memory screen, as do the lists of satire-filled names such as Fazool Samundur, Ms. Lal Chout, Imran Zindagee Ultaa, Kala Bazee, Safade Makudma and others. Descriptions of past and present life happenings are confused renderings of the failing mind of one reading from his diary, the “Radius Islamicus.” He relies heavily on pills to stabilize his memory, and describes himself as “decaying in Montreal” with “a fatal disease called old age:”
I’m a terrorist – non-convicted, thus innocent, thus a free citizen, thus a near-free citizen swaddled in the white cloth of occidental tyranny. Who these days isn’t a terrorist? One man’s terrorist is another man’s old folks home friend; one man’s terrorist is another’s transit lounge passenger.
Characters racked by sagging skin, limp penises, vascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, cognitive impairment and a past buried under lost memories speak lines that flow like poetry:
I pull her into my arms. I notice that she has had a partial mastectomy…. Also, I see a small scar that a lumbar puncture has left. She is flesh, and she’s warm. She likes me. The tips of my fingers find the healed scars. We fall into a coma.
There is reference to Eliot’s Wasteland as “Muharram in Québec is the cruelest month.” Indeed, I myself have often thought how near impossible it might be to grasp the cruelty of the month from the plains of Sialkot. There is poetry in greying colours and wrinkles:
The magazines of nude young women have a beauty as well, but age produces a body with a different set of late wrinkle harmonics, a different sexual aggression antagonized by a flesh that yields, or not at all. We’ve developed together. Her toes, painted, shyly shine through the suds on the floor of the bathtub. Her bowl-shaped hips, now near-translucent folds of flesh, fall everywhere; her buttocks hang down in triplicate, white, creamy terraces seen only on faraway planets.
At one point, Joseph offers a deal to alter metro station names for “better cultural integration:”
I am sure not even a cheap copycat knapper would knapsack stops with Moslem names. Imagine Javid Chambers or Anver Ahmad knapping a metro stop with a name such as Hussain Hussaine. The current Prime Minister is thinking of changing Russell Square to Mohammad Ali Jinnah just for this reason. It is the only choice he has.
Finally, who writes our history? Is there a “view of the River Ravi from Pierrefonds?” Should there be one? Islamic culture in duffle bags? There is an ironic sting to it:
Islamic intellectuals translated the Greeks for Europe. Europe wouldn’t have TGVs or particle accelerators if the Arabs hadn’t translated Socrates for them. From Iberia, the Islamic scholars carried these old translations to the British Library in duffle bags.
Julian Samuel’s speculative novel shocks the reader while making her laugh and cry all at once. It is irreverent, sardonic and brutal, with body parts being blown to unrecognizable pieces. Nothing is sacred anymore. There are no gods except made-up ones for terrorists. Whatever smiles are there are the smiles of the near dead. It does not matter who falls as long as the donkeys are intact. All is fair as long as there is no disclosure during the “whimper” at the end – the one last blast before the final take off.
I would recommend this unusual novel to readers. I found it always clever, sometimes brilliant, beautiful and musical in parts.
Montréal Serai editor Nilambri Ghai had the opportunity to interview Serena Sial about her recent experiences in Russia.
M.S. Serena, you have achieved a lot within a short period of time: a degree in Engineering from Concordia University, a degree in environmental studies from York University, a degree in law, admission to the bar in 2010, and a promising career in the Department of Justice up by Parliament Hill!
But you gave all this up to travel, to teach English online to adults, and to explore new horizons. Recently you have been in Russia, and are going back in March. What is it that inspires you to make the kind of choices you make? What is it that attracts you to Russia? I am asking because there is little today that you read about Russia that is positive, from the doping scandal in the Olympics to the carnage in Ghouta, where Russia is fighting with Syria and Iran not far from a coalition force led by the US! It is an international crisis waiting to explode into “chaos” – a word bandied about dangerously by the world’s most powerful. Tied to this are multiple investigations into Russian collusion, hacking, leaking of documents, and propaganda – a world gone mad over the race for “impenetrable” nuclear weapons.
It would be difficult to imagine a more “holier than thou” approach demonizing one side as being all “bad,” while idolizing the other as being all “good.” And no attempt is being made to identify any shared needs, locating a meeting point that brings us back to our essentials as human beings. I am looking forward to hearing about your love for Russia, and your interaction with its people.
S.S.: I’m a curious person. I enjoy exploring what is unknown to me or confronting something unexpected. A certain element of uncertainty and adventure motivates me. My appreciation for Russia and Russian culture came about this way. Through my work, I began to teach English online to several students in Russia. I realized how little I knew about their culture, and how few Russian people I had really ever met. I was immediately struck by the warmth, humour and sincerity of my students. I realized that, but somehow, I hadn’t expected that. They were also curious about me – wanting to know about my Canadian and Indian backgrounds. Many of these relationships developed into genuine friendships, and I think it was their kindness and energy that inspired me to visit Russia.
Despite the portrayals of Russia in mainstream Western media, I think most of us are well aware of, and have been exposed to the beauty and power of Russian culture – for example, literature greats like Dostoevsky and Chekhov, or the deeply moving music of Dmitri Shostakovich. I also find the Russian language to be very beautiful; it has an inherent poetic rhythm. Russian culture is full of soul, and I think that in the midst of the messages we hear today about Russia, it is easy for these impressions to become overshadowed. A friend and former student, Sergey K. from St. Petersburg, had this to say about the portrayal of Russia in the Western media (paraphrased):
“It’s not a gentle portrayal of Russia in Western media. I read about a study conducted where they calculated that [a well-known Western media news source] made 400 mentions of Russia and 399 were negative. Of course, you hope people can understand that no place can be completely bad, that this is just a slant. That’s the reality of propaganda: it’s not always about telling lies but about telling facts from just one side. We have the same situation in Russia. To have the possibility of challenging these opinions, you need to educate yourself, you need to have access to information. I can read in English, so it’s possible for me, but of course not everyone has this privilege.”
M.S.: I am reminded of something I read a while ago: “The first step towards becoming more informed is to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising ‘foreign’ governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.” [The Guardian, August 2, 2016]
S.S.: I think Sergey’s comments relate well to this. When I stayed in Russia, I was amazed by the diversity within Russia. It’s such an enormous country with borders touching so many others. The extent of diversity seems endless to me. There is beautiful throat-singing music that comes from the regions of Russia that border Mongolia (for example, the musical group, Huun-Huur-Tur). I have a dream to travel to the eastern-most parts of Russia, cities like Vladivostok, where you can take a cruise boat to Korea or Japan.
Once I saw a young woman at my school in Saint Petersburg whom I immediately took as being from India. When I asked her where in India she was from, she responded in Russian that she was from Ufa, Russia. It was a learning experience for me!
I also learned about Georgia while there – a beautiful, small country bordering Russia to the south, where I later lived for 8 months. I was prompted to go to Georgia by Russian friends who described it as an oasis in Eastern Europe, full of green mountains, friendly people and delicious food. I would add that Tbilisi, the capital, is an artistic and fashionable city and the Georgian language is completely original – unlike any language you hear anywhere else in the world. Although both Russia and Georgia are part of the former USSR, I was impressed how completely distinct are the cultures, landscapes and languages of the two countries.
Another student, Irina K. from Yekaterinburg, wanted to share this story about Russia (paraphrased):
My grandmother and grandfather lived in the North Caucasus. We lived in Ural. From September to May we studied in school, and when the summer started, we would go to our grandparents. They lived in their own house with big fruit trees and with a lake behind the garden.
We took sunbaths, we ate a lot fruits and fresh vegetables and berries, [and] we helped our grandparents, of course. We looked after animals like ducks, pigs, cows, chickens. That was an interesting experience for us because we lived close to nature, we became healthy and happier, and my grandparents taught us so much.
In my opinion, most of the people from Russia think like me. We are friendly people, we want to have good friendships with all people, from all over the world. We are not politicians. We have a big culture and a great heritage from our ancestors that is so important for our country. Our nation is strong, and all the cultures [within Russia] support each other. We have a large territory with many natural resources – we are proud of this land.
M.S.: What about life in a big city? Were you ever scared since you placed yourself in a new country, a new culture, a new language?
S.S.: Life in Saint Petersburg, where I lived for 3 months, is not unlike life in any big city in the world. I lived downtown in one of the central areas of Saint Petersburg. It was a busy neighbourhood with great cafes, restaurants and shopping, all within walking distance. Saint Petersburg is a city of canals and bridges, lovely to stroll through. My apartment was renovated – cozy and comfortable by any standard. During those days, I was studying Russian at a local university. The university has a great language program for foreigners, where I met interesting people from all over the world. My classmates were from Greece, Poland, Colombia, Mexico, and I also often bumped into students from different parts of Africa and the Middle East. I quite loved the curious reality of all of us trying to converse with each other in Russian.
I travelled to school each day by metro. The metro systems I encountered in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are amongst the most efficient I’ve ever used. In all my time there, I never waited more than a few minutes for a train. Moscow is known for having some of the most beautiful metro stations in the world, though I never got to visit them myself. On my days off, I enjoyed excursions to the symphony, ballet, or just walking through city parks. One of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg is the Russian Museum where I could wander for hours. The city is full of culture and charm and very liveable for a foreigner. People are kind and helpful. I felt as safe there as anywhere.
While in Russia, a friend from Japan came to visit me. We travelled together to Novosibirsk to visit a student of mine, Alex K., who, until that time I had only ‘met’ online for our lessons. Alex invited me to his home with so much sincerity and expectation. I was honoured to make the trip from Saint Petersburg across more than 3,000 kilometers and 4 time zones to meet him and his loving family: his wife, Lyudmila, and their two-year-old daughter, Rita. Being invited into their home was really special for me. When we had dinner together, I remember a moment where I was overcome by how natural it was, how safe I felt, the feeling of family that they shared with me, and the almost surreal fact that this was occurring in Siberia, in the middle of Russia! In the span of two days, Rita was calling my Japanese friend ‘uncle,’ and we had solidified a bond that I will cherish always.
Sergey K, another student, has also become a valued friend of mine. It turns out that Sergey, a Russian man from a small town in Siberia, and I, from the suburbs of Montréal, have much in common, including our desire to travel, our musical interests and our love for each others’ languages. Sergey responded to my visit to Russia by organizing a visit of his own to Canada. Shortly after I returned to Montréal from St. Petersburg, I was touring with Sergey and his friend Dimitri through the streets of Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto. The awe and curiosity I had felt in Russia, they were able to experience as they explored Canada for the first time. That’s the power of human connection; our bonds inspire us to learn about and understand each other beyond the stories in the media.
M.S.: Tell me about your upcoming project in March.
S.S.: It’s a dream project. A few months ago, I knew I wanted to return to Russia ideally to volunteer. After randomly sending out queries to almost a dozen organizations, the first one that responded was for a teaching opportunity in a rural community outside Moscow. The main concept of the community is to provide orphans in Russia a holistic, safe and community-driven environment where they can develop. Orphans are invited to reside in the home of one of several foster families that live in the community. As a volunteer, I’ll live in a home with one of these families and teach English at the local school. It’s also asked that I assist in sustaining the community: working in the kitchen, helping in the garden or with other odd jobs. I’ll have the opportunity to spend time with the children, to learn about foster parenting, and to practice my Russian language skills. It all sounds wonderful to me – I’m so thankful for this opportunity.
M.S.: Some final words?
S.S.: The people I know in Russia are very dear to me. Through them, I have come to feel sentiments of love for their land and heritage. I wish for them to have opportunities in Russia to realize their dreams and prosper, just as I know they wish that for me in Canada.
Land for Fatimah by Veena Gokhale, Guernica Editions (Canada), 2018
Veena Gokhale’s second book but first novel is a bridge spanning cultures and languages across South Asia, Africa and Canada. It is about the separation of vulnerable populations from their ancestral land through bureaucratic systems set up to work against Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The ubiquitous forms, documents and multifarious “schemes” add a legal veneer over the rights of those who belong “to their land, not the other way around,” and for whom the buying or selling of land is an incomprehensible “abstraction.”
Regardless of whether it is a small slum in Andheri (Bombay) or Fatimah’s village of Ferun – the Aanke people’s family farmland in the fictional country of Kamorga (Africa) – the decisions made by Bombay’s district municipality or Kamorga’s central government are irrevocable. Shanty huts are bulldozed to build colonies, and ancestral land is taken over for cocoa production. Promises for compensation are made and broken as a matter of course. Hopes are built and shattered, filling generations with powerlessness: “When land is abundant . . . communal rights can exist more easily. But as it becomes more scarce, individual rights advance.”
And flowing stealthily beneath is the deep animosity of the Kakwa against the minority Aanke people displaced from their land into the settlement of Madafi. Originally from West Africa, the Aanke do not belong, not in Kamorga, one of the many countries “collapsed into AFRICA.” Among all Kamorgans, there is an unspoken code: “support your own people against a foreigner.”
Working to relieve some of the stress within this environment are well-intentioned multinational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as HELP (Health, Education and Livelihood Skills Partnership). These organizations are tightly bound by complex protocols that clearly identify the “regulars” with identity cards who can be served, and the “irregulars” who are supposed to be turned away. Although exceptions are made for IDPs, HELP offices in Toronto and Kamorga can never agree upon recognizing the Aanke people as IDPs since they are believed to have received compensation for their land. HELP staff therefore do their best to serve the “irregulars” who show up “the day after and the day after . . . lining up on the verandah, spilling up into the sun-roasted compound, waiting patiently for hours and days on end.”
The list of names at the beginning of the book helps the reader in keeping track of the slew of characters. To name a few: Anjali Bhave Bhagat, acting Executive Director of HELP’s African regional office, who provides a central perspective to the novel; hard-working Mary Iwu (Anjali’s maid) and her son, Gabriel; Elizabeth, Anjali’s loyal assistant; Fatimah Ditta and her immediate and extended family of Aanke farmers; Grace Madaki, the iron-fisted chairperson of HELP; and Hassan, the charming and unforgettable contractor hired by HELP. The fictional language they speak is Morga, Kamorga’s national language.
Whereas on the one hand, Land for Fatimah is about the poor and the dispossessed, it is also about the plight of foreign or local NGOs: “Community Based Organizations, Charities – linked to religious groups or otherwise, organizations spun from trusts, organizations linked to universities and other institutions” that do not amount to more than “drops in an ocean of need.” Forced to categorize people, they end up helping some while ignoring others. Although a few of these organizations become corrupt, “some wrong-headed, others merely inefficient,” almost all of them are “well intentioned.” In actual terms, there is not much that they can change, but it is difficult to imagine life without them.
Land of Fatimah provides a rare insight into the day-to-day challenges faced by these organizations. Set against the backdrop of busy city streets with swarming Matatas (privately-owned mini-vans) and the all-consuming dust of African countryside, this novel makes a great read.
In couplets written in the 15th century, the mystic and humanist poet, Kabir, describes how his heart cries out when he sees temple priests worshipping stone images of gods while turning away from living beings made by the very same gods; and when he finds the muezzin inviting believers to prayers while shunning kaffirs (a derogatory term for non-Muslims) who are, after all, creations from the same soil of the one earth and descendants of Adam, our common Biblical first father.
Kabir is said to have been born of a Brahmin woman and brought up by a couple of poor Muslim weavers. Barred from entering a mosque or a Hindu temple, he remained an anomaly, an exclusion, caste-less, an outsider. Even after his death, after he was accepted and idolized as a great saint, with his verses sung at satsangs or religious gatherings, there were passionate disputes on whether to bury him as a Mussalman or cremate him as a Hindu. There is his oft-quoted verse from the Guru Grantha (religious scripture of the Sikhs):
“We have all imbibed light from the one Allah
And are all created alike from the same universal Nature.
So why do we call some good and others bad?”
Other philosophers, poets and writers have echoed Kabir’s thoughts. Nazeer Akbarabadi (Wali Muhamad), 18th-century poet, writes for the masses. “Wild, inconsistent, huge like nature itself, at times crude, impure, filthy like the slums of the wretched” – these are the terms he chooses when he sings alike of “the Hindu and Muslim festivals.” His caste is of joy, “his religion a universal sympathy.” Shams Tabrez, 13th-century spiritual instructor of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi from Persia, sings:
“I know not my name nor caste nor colour nor creed.
Tell, me, O Mussalmans, tell me! Who am I?
I know not who I am.”
In more modern times, Mohammad Iqbal’s verses reflect the grandeur of Moslem simplicity of faith and character while he bows before the mazars (mausoleums) of saints like Chisti, Tabrez and Juned:”
“I will un-Moslemize ye by my song, O Moslems! If ye think your neighbour is other than yourself.”
And Yone Noguchi in early 20th century Japan is delighted that Japanese poetry embodying Buddhist thought is not “tormented by religion:”
Although today these beautiful words, folk rhythms and repetitions sound pleasing to the ears, and the simple questions they raise are disturbing enough to make people stop and think, “Sufi” (pertaining to Sufism, the inner or mystical aspect of Islam) has become a popular genre of music. This is clear from Bollywood, India’s massive Hindi film industry that churns out one song “in Sufi style” after another: versions of Amir Khusro’s Mast Kalandar or Bulleh Shah’s Dance of the Kamli: 
Regardless of this mesmerizing enchantment with music and verse, things have not changed. Even today, after 700 years, Kabir’s kaffirs and the dalidars (soiled ones) are never quite accepted, although lip service is constantly being paid to his words and those who sing them. Why is this so? Why is it that while almost all religious texts honour human values of inclusion, empathy, kindness and compassion, the practice of the official interpreters of these religions proves otherwise? Since the very beginning, leaders have used religion as an easy and effective tool to control masses, instill fear, hatred, vengefulness, communalism and violence, and build powerful alliances with the “unholy.”
For example, Yogi Adityanath, current Chief Minister of the most highly-populated state of India, head priest of the Gorakhnath Hindu Temple, leader of youth vigilante anti-minority groups, links himself with Kabir and Buddha. The Temple itself is known for its militancy and religious dominance. Its former head priest, Digvijay Nath, was arrested for “exhorting Hindu militants to kill Mahatma Gandhi days before he was shot. His successor, Mahant Avaidyanath, urged Hindu mobs in 1992 to tear down a 16th-century mosque and build a temple there, setting off some of the bloodiest religious riots in India’s recent history.” And Adityanath is now spearheading the cause of a national Hindu state.
Here in Québec, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old student from Laval University, is suspected of having attacked and shot six victims at the mosque in Sainte Foy. Mosques in Calgary, Montréal and Ottawa have been targeted and vandalized. On an average in the US, nine mosques per month have been attacked so far in 2017, and efforts have been made to deny zoning permits for the construction of religious facilities.
In Europe, populations are seething. According to the 2017 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, “while the EU is facing a range of terrorist threats and attacks of a violent jihadist nature, from both networked groups and lone actors,” there have been more than “400 anti-Muslim hate crimes reported representing a 223 per cent increase.” In Germany, the number of racially motivated attacks has been higher than any year since the end of World War II. People aligning themselves with religious ideologies play a major role in fuelling this rage, while the principles of charity, love, social good, prayer, kindness and forgiveness are sacrificed before the altars of greed and hatred.
When it comes to sexuality, the practice of most religions has been to take a negative view outside the parameters of the growth of the family. Havva or Eve, the first woman, is blamed for having coaxed Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, resulting in man’s fall from grace. Woman, with her femininity and seductive powers, is stereotyped across world religions and cultures as the eternal temptress, the manipulative Delilah, Salome, Jezebel, Kaikeye, able to throw the powerful off guard and come through triumphant in an unholy alliance with eternal damnation. Preoccupation with carnal thoughts has been considered a dangerous distraction for rishis (sages) such as Vishwamitra, whose power of deep meditation, seen as a threat by Lord Indra, was disrupted by the appearance of the beautiful apasara (heavenly maiden), Menaka, skilled enough to successfully lure Vishmamitra away from his divine focus.
Although Hindu scriptures pay high tribute to the ever-sacrificing mother figure, Devi (the goddess in her many forms, including that of Shakti, representing strength), socio-cultural norms bolster religious leaders in demanding more from the woman, and placing greater pressure on her to abstain, nurture, accept and preserve moral values. Hindus argue that their ancient texts grant Kama or sensual desire as one of the four principal objectives in life, a kind of offering, meditation or enlightenment, but it is far from what is practiced. This reluctance to accept sensual desire, and the promotion of celibacy for orders of monks and priests, often lead to aberrations and secret exploitation of those placed in their trust.
Alliances that encourage exploitation, fear and violence
Men and women of God take a pledge of poverty, chastity and obedience, and live in an environment of gender segregation to maintain chastity and prevent transgression. In the process however, this life of repression has the opposite effect, and the very segregation intended to be conducive to chastity ends up leading to secrecy, exploitation and an unspeakable breach of trust. In the early part of the 19th century, thousands of Indigenous children in Canada were sent to Residential Schools run by Christian orders of priests and nuns. It has now been confirmed that many of these children faced sexual abuse of the worst kind. Phil Fontaine, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, claims that “In my grade three class, if there were 20 boys, every single one of them would have experienced what I experienced. They would have experienced some aspect of sexual abuse.”
In Ireland, over 4,000 priests and deacons in active ministry between 1950 and 2002 have been plausibly accused of the sexual abuse of a youth under the age of 18. In one report, “four Dublin archbishops were found to have effectively turned a blind eye to cases of abuse from 1975-2004.”
Official apologies have ensued. In 2008, the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, announced that “the treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools” run as “joint ventures” with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United Churches, “is a sad chapter in our history.”
In 2015, Pope Francis met with victims, and expressed his profound sorrow for the suffering of those who were abused by Catholic priests. Earlier, in 2014 he had condemned the Church’s handling of abuse, saying that the failure to respond to reports of abuse by pedophile priests had caused “even greater suffering” to victims. Our fear to expose what is considered holy and pure is the primary reason why it has taken over 100 years to acknowledge the shameful past of our government-led religious and educational institutions.
The above statistics are hard to believe, but this is thanks to an international network of schools and institutions set up by Christian missionaries, making it easier to scrutinize, especially after exposure of the first such scandal. We do not have the same kind of statistics for godmen from other religions, but this does not mean that they do not exist or that things are any different. In India, for example, there have been many accusations. Some have resulted in convictions, but many are never brought before the courts. Asaram Bapu, also known as Bapuji, is one such godman. With a large following and a list of 400 ashrams (religious sanctuaries) both in India and abroad, he was arrested in 2013 for allegedly raping a 15-year-old girl who lived close to one of his ashrams. In the same year, Mahendra Giri, or Tunnu Baba, was arrested for confining and raping a young woman over a period of four months. Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a godman-cum- actor, director and musician who is said to have turned 60 million souls toward “God Realization,” was charged in 2007 and convicted in 2017 for rape and criminal intimidation.
“Never again” is what we often say, but the mesmerizing power of the “sublime” becomes difficult to resist even when its lure is aligned with the depths of evil. In 1978, Jim Jones, the self-acclaimed apostle of the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ (religious sect formed in 1955), was able to convince 909 people to kill their children and themselves by ingesting Kool-Aid laced with drugs, including Valium and cyanide. “It’s not worth living like this,” he says in the last audio recording before the massacre. “We win when we go down…. I cannot separate myself from the pain of the people…. I like to choose my own kind of death…. I’m the best friend you’ll ever have…. I have always taken your pains on my shoulders….We all crave for peace…. I practically died to give you peace….We are done in as far as any other alternative…You’ll regret it if you don’t die…. We are born before our times…. We are not committing suicide. It is a revolutionary act… We lay down our lives in protest of what’s being done!”
“Let’s make it a beautiful day!” says one from the congregation. “We are all ready to go!”
We seek comfort by convincing ourselves that we are none of these. We are the rational and sensible ones with access to almost every piece of information over the Internet. We are intelligent, sentient beings. But even today, as I listen to the Jonestown “Death Tape,” I am disturbed to find myself beginning to understand how someone like Jim Jones could wield such magical thrall. There is the fire and fury we seek to reach, passionate heights or depths of destruction, unimaginable, unprecedented! We can still be moved to place our senses and reasoning in the hands of one or a few, and we can still find support for rallies against non-white, non-Christian populations, leading a death march the likes of which the world has never seen before.
I turn to Bulleh Shah’s simple verses, and it feels good to see how they have grown to become a part of the nation’s cultural fabric. Yet once the concerts are over and the microphones and headsets are turned off, mobs go back to pursuing, harassing, and at times, lynching those who feed on the sacred Hindu cow.
“Why do you fight with the devil outside
Without ever wrestling with the devil within?”
“Go ahead and bring down all places of worship,
The Temple and the Masjid!
Go ahead and break down all that can be broken!
But spare the hearts of people,
For that is where God lives.”
The Spirit of Oriental Poetry by Puran Singh, London: Routledge, 1926
 Amir Khusro was a 13th-century poet, and Bulleh Shah, a 17th-century Muslim Sufi poet from Punjab.
Heer (and Ranjha), a romantic Punjabi legend immortalized by the 18th century poet, Waris Shah, in which the search for love is portrayed as an ultimate sacrifice (fana) of one’s body and soul.
Montréal Serai editor, Nilambri Ghai, interviewed Jeevan Bhagwat, a young Toronto-based poet, co-founder of the Scarborough Poetry Club, author of The Weight of Dreams and winner of the Monica Ladell Prize for Poetry (2003 and 2005) and the Conscience Canada Art/New Media contest (2011). Jeevan is currently working on a novel, and is also featured on a City of Toronto Map highlighting verses written by poets from the community. The interview follows his poems: “Lone Gull” and “The Land of Plenty.”
No one knew you
not even your name,
no one seemed to care
that, day after day
you would sit outside
in the unforgiving cold,
hand extended in a pleading gesture
asking for alms
The suits passed you by
your disheveled hair
casting shadows on your face
to their sightless eyes.
When the ambulance came
that December day
and took your frozen body
the street corner seemed
a space with no face
to remember you by,
a lone gull
tired of hovering
our collective conscience.
The Land of Plenty
In the land of plenty
to symphonies of want
outside the food banks
that cannot wean
on hope alone.
Politicians play saviours
and smile for the cameras,
make campaign promises
they cannot keep,
then vote themselves
a wage increase
on the backs of the
In the land of plenty
single mothers swim
in rivers of debt,
watch their children struggle
to stay afloat
on welfare cheques
that cannot buy
a sail to hoist their dreams.
In the land of plenty
the poor slip through
a conscience cracked,
to the fortunate few,
become the faces of me
M.S. What has been your experience as a founding member of the local poetry club? What kind of support have you received from the community?
J.B. The Scarborough Poetry Club was founded in October 2015 by Anna Nieminen and myself. The experience of bringing together poets of diverse cultural backgrounds and different voices to share, learn and grow in a welcoming and supportive atmosphere has been wonderful. The Club meets regularly on the first Friday of every month between 6:30 to 8:00 pm at the Toronto Public Library’s Agincourt Library branch in Scarborough. Due to some extensive renovations at the branch last year, we were temporarily displaced and had to find a more suitable location to hold our meetings. Fortunately, one of the Club’s members, Sheila White, generously offered to host the meetings at her mother’s house and so we had the challenge of accommodating everyone’s schedule. Although some members could not participate as usual, we had a strong turnout and the poetry kept on waxing.
Both Anna and I firmly believe that Scarborough’s poets and artists have long been under-represented in the mainstream arts community, and we wanted to change that. The Club allows poets to have a place from where they can get their voices heard and network with other writers. Scarborough is blessed with a myriad of cultures, and we wanted to hear what they have to say and learn about how they can contribute to their community.
The response to the Club has been amazing! We have over 25 affiliated members, and the membership seems to be growing. We are also generously supported by the Agincourt Library branch and often promoted by Scarborough Arts through their media channels. The feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive, which speaks to the need to provide such an outlet for Scarborough poets.
I have lived in Scarborough almost all my life. My love for poetry started when I was in grade 4 and attending Danforth Gardens Public School. I was always in the library reading as many poetry books as I could find, and the librarian, Mrs. Earnshaw, encouraged me to write poems, which she would then display on the walls. Since those humble beginnings, I have been published in many literary journals/websites across Canada, the U.S. and internationally. My poetry book, The Weight of Dreams, was published by IN Publications in 2012.
M.S. What kind of future do you think is there for young poets?
J.B. I think it’s a great time to be a young poet. Toronto and the GTA are blessed with many venues where poetry readings are being held, poetry slams are going on, and poetry workshops are happening. Technology has also impacted the way poetry is being shared and digested. Even in our public schools, poetry is making a comeback and many aspiring young poets are getting the chance to express themselves in the classroom.
M.S. Tell us about the poets you know and have met: the unheard voices.
J.B. As a co-founder of the Club, I have been fortunate to meet many poets at different stages of their writing careers. Many of our members are serious about their craft and work diligently to polish their poems. Teresa Hall is a poet whose lyricism and insight culminates in her wonderful nature poetry. Sheila Bello, another Club member, is a courageous poet who is not afraid to tackle difficult issues such as racism and inequality. Reginald Rego, the senior member of our Club, astounds me with his deeply religious poetry.
M.S. Tell us about the poets and authors who have influenced your writing.
J.B. I have always been inspired by the poetry of John Keats and Pablo Neruda. But I am equally drawn to Canadian poets such as Patrick Lane and Roo Borson. I tend to gravitate to poets who exhibit a love of nature and beauty in all their myriad manifestations. With respect to authors, I love the expressive quality of Anne Michaels’ books and the penetrating insights inherent in Alice Munro’s works.
M.S. The three poems that you have submitted reflect urban life and Toronto streets and parks. What are some other topics of interest to you?
J.B. When it comes to poetry I don’t subscribe to any particular aesthetic. I believe that poets have a moral responsibility to speak up for those whose own voices have been suppressed or altogether silenced. Poets need to hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions or inaction. Social issues like homelessness, racism, inequality need to be addressed in poetry. But there is also beauty in the world, and poets need to communicate that too. I am particularly interested in how human beings interact with and understand the environment and each other. There is much insight to be gleaned from this.
M.S. You are working on a novel. Tell us about it. Do you have a publisher? When do you expect it to be published?
J.B. Yes, I have just recently finished writing my first novel. It is a coming of age story about a young woman who loses her mother in childhood and carries the weight of that loss for many years. A large part of the novel takes place in Scarborough and addresses issues such as the environment, death, grief and love. I’m in the revision stage now, so I haven’t sent it out to any publisher yet. Hopefully, I’ll get it published by next year.
M.S. What do you think about the poetry map of Toronto? We couldn’t find your poem on Agincourt from the map, since it did not have a search link. How often is the map updated? Are there poems written in other languages as well?
J.B. The Poetry Map is a great idea first put forward by the then Toronto Poet Laureate George Elliot Clarke. It allows visitors to the site to click on various “spots” to see which part of the city inspired or played a big part in the writing of the presented poem. I’m not sure how often the Map is updated, or if there are poems in other languages on it. My poem “Autumn Descends” is located over the Agincourt area on the Map.
M.S. Thank you, Jeevan. Good luck with your poems and the new novel.
Thirty years ago, in November 1986, we launched our very first issue of Montréal Serai. While commemorating this important milestone, we are proud to announce that Serai’s contribution to the promotion of literary arts has been recognized through the Quebec Writers’ Federation Judy Mappin Community Award (2016) presented recently to Rana Bose, a founding member of Serai.
In these past 30 years, we have moved from a print-based community magazine to a digital quarterly showcasing fiction, poetry, critical essays, interviews, reviews and media arts from Québec, Canada, and the international community. Starting from this issue, our website has a new look to enhance its visual appeal and showcase its contributors’ photos and artwork more effectively. We are also continuing to take a more dynamic approach to uploading new articles at staggered intervals. We look forward to your feedback and suggestions. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In keeping with our vision of bringing the margins to the centre, we are planning to engage young, student writers through a new section that will be introduced in our next issue (March 2017). More information on this will be posted early in the New Year.
The theme of this issue is drawn from a quote from Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes. Runes are the thousand-year-old letters forming runic alphabets – the first system of writing developed and used by Germanic peoples before the adoption of the Latin alphabet.[i] Individual runes were associated with symbolic properties or powers, which could be invoked by writing them. The word rune meant both letter and secret or mystery. According to one source, its original meaning might have been a “simple (hushed) message.” [ii]
Blum’s quote reflects on what we can learn from constraint, hardship and other causes of human sorrow, pain and limitation:
“When something within us is disowned, that which is disowned wreaks havoc. A cleansing is required here; in undertaking it you fund a will and strengthen character.” [iii]
The disownment or casting away of what was once one’s own is heart-wrenching – but equally brutal can be the task of owning it back. We have, in this issue, an extraordinary range of articles covering indigenous and migrant stories, our lost rights to human dignity, a sudden end to childhood, and the powerful means of taking back the disowned through murals, poems, storytelling and performing arts.
Claudia Itzkowich Schñadower, in her interview with Mexican filmmakers Luis Ernesto Nava and Keisdo Shimabukuro, writes about the stories on walls sketched by migrants escaping from poverty and violence. Joyce Valbuena and Giuliana Fumagalli recount the experiences of Inti Naxhiellii Barrios – a storyteller, performance artist and artistic advisor of Le bloc d’artistes of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montréal – who travelled to the Philippines in 2016 as part of the Solidarity in Performance Art (SIPA) project. Marie Thérèse Blanc reflects on Leonard Cohen, the author and songwriter who “disowned nothing,” and who, through being “unaffectedly honest about his warts and failings,” revealed “rare, gentle grace and elegance that defeated ego or pretence.” Louise Carson offers up a blistering end-of-love poem in “Burning.” Tamara Nazywalskyj, in her story “Fourteen Days of God’s Speech,” looks for the elusive peace and happiness arising from her conversations with God. Astha Agarwal, in her poem “Durga,” tries to ‘re-own’ her childhood.
Featured book reviews probe the hidden depths, from Laurie D. Graham’s Settler Education, Liam Durcan’s The Measure of Darkness, Mayank Bhatt’s Belief, and Donald F. Mulcahy’s A Second Coming, Canadian Migration Fiction, to Louise Carson’s book of poetry, A Clearing.
Films reviewed here explore other “unowned territory”: Lia Tarachansky’s On the Side of the Road, and Paolo Zaffaina’s Article 4, a short film from Italy about the never-addressed-or-upheld legal and constitutional citizen right to a decent wage.
Look for more articles in the coming weeks as we edge our way through the season of the longest nights.
En route to Europe and Asia, I find graffiti everywhere on streets and train stations in Copenhagen. Many words on the graffiti look for peace in an unstable world. Others look for a world without borders or simply a place to live in. One cannot miss the loud messages in Danish, English and Arabic, etched in bold colours, lighting up dark steely walls, shocking us out of our stupor, forcing us to watch, making sure that there are similar images waiting on the other side for the eye that happens to look away. It is out there: a clear expression of the outrage of those not within European borders. I can almost touch the palpable fury pouring out from hearts behind the hands of those spraying paint, desperately looking for homes for their loved ones, carving out words on Denmark’s heartline: “THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAK MUST WRITE!”
Seven thousand kilometres away, in Northern India, old wounds are opening up once again, and the smouldering embers of communal divisions are being raked to light fires that consume populations. “Not within our borders!” is the cry. Return home (Ghar Wapsi) to Hindustan’s fundamental Hindu roots (Hindutava) is the silent slogan rising from the hearts of people on the street. Religion is being used for partisan party politics to provoke people into taking sides, and leaders are trying to win the hearts of voters by evoking the memory of communal riots. In protest, writers, artists and intellectuals are returning their prestigious national awards (Award Wapsi), but hidden beneath this rage is the impoverished condition of farmers in the Punjab – a state that once relied for its strength, self-sufficiency and economy on its fertile land. Farmers have few alternatives other than to sell their land to developers looking for prime property around newly constructed international airports that will soon be vying for flights from Montreal and Toronto. The environment is carcinogenic resulting in the vicious spread of malignant tumours that now require a special cancer train to transport patients to urban centres for treatment from the highly affected districts around Malwa – a region close to the River Sutlej.
I seem to have lost my mind along with my train of thought around the theme of this issue: The Heart has its reasons…. All that comes to mind are words from a verse by the poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz where he writes to his beloved: “Do not expect from me the kind of love I once felt for you…/when the beauty of your eyes meant everything to me…/I cannot turn myself away now from the spent bodies of those lying in the dust…/and those who can no longer rise from centuries of neglect.” (liberally translated)
This used to be my country, I said to myself. It is no longer so. New borders are being carved where there were meant to be none. Breathless, I return to Canada and look for a faqir’s crazy songs among the first soft snowflakes of the season. I look back at how, 28 years ago, we launched Montréal Seraias a forum for unheard voices. We defined a new centre to express what was close to our hearts – an expression of the rare, unusual, and the unsaid. Today we continue to expand this centre – to redefine Canadian experience, and to bring the margins of the world a little closer to ourselves and our country.
This issue of Montréal Serai includes images, poems, stories, articles, interviews and reviews that delve deep beneath surfaces and peel layers to expose hidden feelings and sensitivities. Marc Krupa, a Montreal-based actor, writer and filmmaker, interviews Nabil Mehchi, co-creator of Interrupt This Program, a new five-part CBC documentary series. Each episode profiles three or four young artists in cities such as Beirut, Kiev, Port-au-Prince, Athens – cities that have seen recent turmoil – where history is being made even during the filming of the series.
The featured artist for this issue is Andréanne Bouchard, a member of the Atelier Graff in Montréal since 2007. As an artist, she looks consistently for a fragile balance in her installations, and thus creates a subtle universe both chaotic and frivolous.
Roberto Perezdiaz’s story “Monday Morning Madera Municipal Court” is a humorous and poignant description of the kind of treatment meted out to Mexican agricultural workers in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley of California. Jaspreet Singh, author of Chef and Helium, reveals in his poem (“The Emperor’s Clothes) the heart-wrenching silence of the ‘Saffron Man’ following the ‘Savage lynching in Dadri.’
Catherine Watson, a sociologist and member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning, recalls what Paris meant to Jean Rhys, author of the underworld and Wide Sargasso Sea: “Paris, you said, is life itself/it was your life/you peeled back the skin.” Louise Carson in her poems waits for spring to “take the cold wind from the storm,” while Jody Freeman traces father-daughter relationships in Ellipse: “I am the chaos of my father’s order,” she writes.
Neilesh Bose, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Victoria and author of Defying the Perpetual Exception: Culture and Power in South Asian Islam, reviews the portrayal of Muslim characters within plays such as Dion Boucicault’s Jessie Brown and Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. Sam Boskey, lawyer, educator, writer, community organizer and jazz player, introduces the new English-language edition of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ award-winning book, Tenir tête, based on the recent student movement in Québec.
On behalf of everyone here at Montréal Serai, I would like to wish our readers and supporters a very pleasant and safe holiday season. As always, we welcome your comments and feedback. Please contact us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
“She is a liar and a cheat. She is an elephant. She is my wife.”
And it was the end of an almost perfect day.
She thought of her beautiful daughters and her grandchildren. She counted on her fingers the number of times she had lied in the last few days. It was for the sake of small things that she had bought with cash carefully saved from a monthly allowance. Small luxuries she bought as gifts to give to her daughters and their husbands and their husbands’ families. They would come in handy when at a short notice she would be asked to produce something special to take with her to mark one of many ceremonies and religious events.
She thought hard and for long, but she could not come up with anything that she had bought for herself with those bills.
The big ticket items for which she had told most of her lies were the L’Oreal lipsticks. She had spent less than what she had said she had spent from her allowance, and had spent more than what she had claimed to have spent on those gorgeous lip-colours sealed within the gilded cases that she had impulsively bought for her daughters.
She had put on weight over the years. That was her own fault and she had no excuse for it. Nothing to show for it – nothing like what she had stashed away under her clothes, well hidden inside the deep wooden shelves of her almirah. She could always predict when the word ‘elephant’ would hit her with stinging humiliation. At times, the ‘elephant’ would be replaced by ‘buffalo,’ but it never missed its target, never failed to strike where it hurt most.
Then there were these three women murdered by a man whom they had loved at some point in their lives. “The media folks are quick to blame the man,” he had said,
“What about the women and their responsibility? Like that teenaged girl who had committed suicide. Why was she found naked at a drunk party? What was she doing there? Why did her parents not stop her from going there? Why did she not listen to them? It is easy always to blame the man, never the woman!”
She went back to counting the number of lies she had told and asked herself:
“Why do I lie? I know it is wrong and I keep fooling myself that it is not a lie, but
I would have nothing left to give to my daughters if I told no lies.
“My daughters are beautiful. They live for my happiness and I for theirs. One of them needs to be careful because she is seldom alone, surrounded by her parents-in-law, brother-in-law, his wife…..the other one is bolder and speaks her mind. They cannot work outside the home. Husbands don’t want them to or perhaps it is their families. It doesn’t matter. They are happy to be away from this nightmare of an existence.
“Another daughter was born to my older daughter. Had it been a boy, she would have been able to rest for 40 days. I am not sure now. It is another girl. It is not the same. There will be a celebration, but it will be a muted one. There will be no distribution of traditional sweetmeats, and preparations will begin for when she will have to leave for another home.
“Yes, I am the ‘elephant’ or the ‘buffalo’ that carries on my back the weight of the sons I never had. I am the ‘elephant’ with the wisdom to hold peace at home. I am a woman with a name and two beautiful daughters with equally beautiful daughters of their own.
“So where was I? I have lost count of the numbers – the number of lies. One lie compels you to lie again, and the numbers begin to add up. Initially, I had meant to stop at the first one. Who would have thought I would end up with so many? They are, after all, mere lies.”