By Amira Elghawaby
Aminata Diallo, the fictional protagonist in Lawrence Hill’s bestselling novel The Book of Negroes, realizes early on that she had better cling to the details of her bondage so that she can later recount what she endures. “See, and remember,” she tells herself as her painful journey into slavery begins.
Years later, she fulfills her vision, becoming a djeji, or storyteller, sharing details of her life with people of myriad backgrounds and persuasions. Her story humanizes her to those who would otherwise view her as either a threat or a victim.
Though fictional, the book is one more testament to the critical importance storytelling plays in bridging psychological distances. This is how outsiders become insiders: by retelling their history, reminding other citizens of their shared experiences and offering their own perspectives.
It’s something Canadian Muslims need to do more of.
“ We can produce press releases and absorb widely reported religious rulings, but what about poetry, song, art or literature?”
As Black History Month activities cluster in cities across the continent, one realizes that a rich tradition of art and storytelling has helped the wider society understand the black community’s struggles.
Muslims have yet to explore, share or appreciate their own experiences on the same level. We can produce press releases and absorb widely reported religious rulings, but what about poetry, song, art or literature? There are lots of books on Islam, but not many books written about everyday life, fictional or otherwise, that are based on Muslim themes or perspectives.
The problem is that far too few Muslims themselves pay attention to storytelling. For example, The Book of Negroes is relevant to the Muslim experience in Canada – the main character was born into Islam – but where are the book clubs to acknowledge it?
In fact, there is not a single, well-known national Muslim community newspaper, magazine or website in Canada. There are a few local ones, mainly run by volunteers, in a handful of cities. In Ottawa, one of only two weekly radio programs was cancelled a few years ago.
And unless Muslim writers are commenting on the overemphasized angles of the community’s experiences (security, terrorism, women’s rights and/or foreign politics) or railing against the faith, few of them will ever be widely read.
Besides, there are not that many trained writers to begin with. A journalism bursary for Muslim students at Carleton University sits unclaimed. Where are those who will tell our stories?
Yet there are hopeful threads in this narrative.
For the past two years, an eclectic group of Muslim women – retired teachers, engineers, PhD holders, artists, singers and scientists – have been gathering in Ottawa for a night of poetry, music, theatre and art. This year, Monia Mazigh, the wife of Maher Arar, launched the evening by reading an excerpt from her powerful memoir, Hope and Despair.
Rukhsana Khan, an award-winning children’s author, continues to bridge cultural and religious divides with a growing collection of books that speak to and validate the multiple identities and experiences of Muslims.
Her stories and novels are in demand in schools and libraries across North America and as far away as New Zealand. Ironically, she is probably better appreciated among non-Muslims than within the Muslim community itself, which is slow to recognize achievements that are beyond the purview of engineering or science.
Thankfully, the fixation on career success that permeates the community has not prevented young Muslims from exploring their artistic sides.
In Mississauga, spoken-word artists, writers, singers and musicians converge annually for MuslimFest. It is a rare display of the community’s under-promoted talent and attracts thousands of people to the Living Arts Centre, generating both buzz and revenue.
“Muslim youth are increasingly realizing their creative potential,” says Taha Ghayyur, a festival board member.
Some people conclude that it is, indeed, the second and later generations of Muslims who are finding their voice. The excuse is that their parents and grandparents were just too busy setting up house in a new country to tell any story at all. The reality is, though, that many Muslim immigrants come from places where fiction writing is not even taught or from places where the arts are undervalued or ignored.
When Hawa Kaba, a grandmother and celebrated artist living in Ottawa, held a special event for local Muslim women to share their stories against the backdrop of her African and Arabic-inspired collage, not one showed up.
“Art is not a luxury,” Ms. Kaba explains patiently to me a few months later. “And we do have a space that we need to fill.”
It’s a space that requires far more than press releases, fatwas or forceful commentaries to convince others that we truly belong. Only our stories can testify to that.
Amira Elghawaby is an Ottawa-based writer.
Originally Published on The Globe and Mail
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