Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Better Toronto


Some people refer to it as the cold heart of Canada, where its citizens are too busy to hold doors open or smile as you pass them by. But Toronto has been my home for over a decade, a city whose streets are scattered with suited businessmen and hipsters, artists and musicians, teachers and construction workers. I've studied on the 13th floor of Robarts Library, overlooking the U of T grounds, gazing off into the city beyond- subsequently losing my desire to study. I've strolled through the Annex, admiring rings at the Tibetan stall next to the ice cream place, spending hours in Seekers Books, watching people demolish chocolate cake at Futures Bakery. I've sat in taxi cabs with drivers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, speaking about their families back home, and why they came to Canada. I've sipped Kashmiri tea while dodging pigeons and pools of red spit on Gerrard Street (Little India) . I've walked through Kensington Market, breathing in the scent of fresh fruit and cigarette smoke...and I've only given you a tiny glimpse of this complex, beautiful city.

Although I'm not a political junkie, I care about this country. I care about this city. When Jack Layton died, it was not only a moment of shock, but a sense of loss--that we will never find another charismatic, genuine leader to remind us of what matters most. Some media have suggested that mourners are glorifying Layton, but I believe that we're humanizing him. Unlike many politicians, Layton was relatable and real. Someone who made us care. Of course, no one is perfect, but striving for perfection is a noble pursuit in itself.

A few days after Layton's passing, I had a meeting downtown with the Director of the International Poetry of Resistance Festival, where we spoke of activism and art. One coffee later, I walked to the nearest subway station and put my coins in the token machine. But it was broken. I had lost the only change I had, and stood there for about half a second when a young man in a fedora walked by and asked me what happened. I told him, and he handed me a token without a second thought. When I put the token in to get through the carousel, it didn't work. As I laughed at the irony and tried to figure out what to do next, a TTC employee came through and I explained what happened. He directed me to the help button and waited for the response after I pressed it. Nothing happened. A few seconds went by, and the TTC worker pulled out his wallet and swiped his pass through the machine, signalling for me to go through. I thanked him profusely and was on my way.

A few subway stops later and I found myself in front of a cafe, picking up a sandwich and coffee (yes, another one). The girl behind the counter struck up a conversation with me, introducing herself and asking me which bus I had to catch, and at what time. She wished me well and I sat down to finish my sandwich. Once I had finished, I returned the plate to the counter, and she smiled and said, "Why not have a treat on me-- choose a tart-- chocolate, pecan, lemon...whatever you like." I accepted her offer and hugged her.

After reaching Union Station, I made my way up the stairs to the bus terminal, and saw an elderly lady lugging her cart down the stairs. A man stopped her and asked if she needed help. In the bus, the seat I had chosen was wet with sticky soda, and the young woman behind it offered me the spot next to her.

I couldn't help but smile. I had witnessed kindness in the past, but not so many kind acts in one day.

What was going on? Whatever it was, it was good.

It wasn't until Stephen Lewis and Reverend Hawkes spoke of this change in their eulogies to Jack Layton that I realized what may have been happening. Lewis crystallized the sense of hope many of us felt on the night of the election, as well as the days after Jack's passing, "I believe we're slowly being steadied by a new resolve and I see that resolve in words written in chalk and in a fresh determination on people's faces. A resolve to honour Jack by bringing the politics of respect for all, respect for the Earth and respect for principle and generosity back to life."

Hawkes echoed Lewis' sentiments, "Over the past few days something has been happening. Young people have said in Canada that they don’t want this feel-good moment to be a fleeting moment."

Instead of pitting ourselves against each other, it's up to us to have a lasting, respectful dialogue, despite our different beliefs, cultures and viewpoints. Isn't this what Canada is about? Multiculturalism and diversity are often thrown around, but what we do with our differences is what will determine the future of Canada. We need to cross party lines and resist mindless displays of power and start thinking about our contribution to humanity at large- something many of us think of when we're much older and closer to death. But death doesn't wait for anyone, as we so devastatingly witnessed with the passing of Jack Layton. As he worded it, "Dream a dream longer than a lifetime." In an age of instant gratification, we believe we can fix things instantly- which isn't the case. If we continue to cultivate pettiness and hate, we'll kill the hopes of generations to come.

As Reverend Hawkes put it, "Maybe Jack's life can make us better Canadians." But Jack's life is already making us better Canadians- more reflective, kind, considerate and thoughtful. Jack was not a glorified hero or a symbol to be worshipped. He was an example of what we can all strive to become- human. Someone who acknowledges their faults and strives to make things better. Someone who believes in collective responsibility, not "yours" and "mine".

Toronto, the city that is often accused of its cold-heartedness, showed its capacity to love over the last two weeks. It reminded us of what truly matters, and of what we are capable of when we keep love, hope and optimism in sight.

The things that will destroy us are: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice.
- Mohandas K. Gandhi

Monday, August 1, 2011

Saving our Public Libraries

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."
- Jorge Luis Borges

As a child, the library was my haven. A space where I could quietly read and let my imagination run free. Every summer, my mom would take us to our local library where we allowed to choose a handful of books to take home. The library was a safe place, a sacred place, a place where if you spoke above a whisper, you'd get a stern look. It taught me to love reading. It taught me discipline. It taught me to care for possessions that were not my own. My book bag became a portal to a world of quirky characters, colourful illustrations, silly puns and magical lands.

When I went to university, the library became more than a haven. It became a lifeline. In between the shelves, I discovered poets and mystics, philosophers and teachers, artists and students. On the 13th floor, I'd stack the books on the table, take out a fresh piece of paper and copy. Copy because I wanted to internalize the words. I wanted the words to be written by my hands, to be folded and tucked in my bag, or my pocket. I copied Edmund's Speech from A Long Day's Journey into Night. I read the marginalia from students of the past, sometimes learning more about them than the book itself.

When the snowfall became too heavy and the walk to residence became too long, the library was always there. A towering house of books, where I could find a quiet corner to be left alone, to stay as long as I needed to. There is a certain lull in a library that cannot be duplicated anywhere else, except perhaps a place of worship. But the library is a place of worship, a building that houses knowledge and wisdom accessible to everyone. All you need is literary curiosity, reverence for learning and a free library card.

When my first book was published, one of my goals was to get it into a library. Bookstores have quick turnovers, but libraries keep your work forever (hopefully). The idea of having my book in an institution that contains ancient manuscripts, rare collections and historical treatises within its walls--that is all an author can ask for.

To privatize libraries is to privatize knowledge. To return to the elitism that democracy fought against. To limit the education of our future generations.

It will not, and cannot happen.

There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration. ~Andrew Carnegie

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Interdisciplinary Arts Conference: PART II

After some enlightening and engaging presentations, lunch was served. I sat with Rory Dickson, a PhD candidate researching Sufism in the West. We then proceeded inside the hall, where Fred Penner would give his keynote address/performance. He sung our favourites, he played the jaw harp, he told stories, he chatted to the little ones sitting on the floor, and he shared something that we will never forget.

Over dinner the night before, Helen spoke of Rumi and Penner was so inspired by the conversation that he found a Rumi poem (translated by Coleman Barks) and composed music to it. He performed it for the first time at the conference. The lyrics posed a question that we were all seeking the answer to, "Who am I". The question is one we pose throughout our lives, and perhaps our answers change depending on our experiences. Artists ask the question often, coming up with new answers through literature, music, dance and visual art. Borges said it best in his Parable of the Palace, claiming the poet "shall never find, the word for the universe." And perhaps that is why we can never find one word for ourselves. We are everything and nothing, simultaneously. To have Fred Penner, who we sang along with as five, six and seven olds, remind us of this truth in our early adulthood, was just the assurance we needed.

After Penner's heartfelt performance, Helen and Laura gifted him with a tapestry depicting the Tree of Life. The roots firmly planted in the earth, the branches reaching for the sky- what greater gift could he receive, and what greater gift could he give? It was no coincidence.

I would perform less than an hour later, and was ready to share what I had learned and forgotten. Forgotten in the sense that in order to perform fully, you must forget every expectation you have of yourself and you must forget that *you* as an individual, exist. This was a rare occurrence for me, as I am a relentless perfectionist and have to consciously stop myself from thinking while I perform. But this, this was different. I was there, but not there. I felt as though the audience was inside of me, and I was speaking through them. There was no separation between us, and my words were in fact, my being. "I" as a physical entity, did not exist. It was as though I had entered a vortex where time had been suspended. Nothing existed but the words. The spotlight was so bright that I could only see darkness infront of me, but in that darkness, there were intricate patterns. I did not know what it meant, and I don't need to.

As I left the stage, emotion overwhelmed me. Helen hugged me and I broke down in tears.

These are the moments we live for, and the moments we stop living to simply exist.

My performance was followed by an enchanting performance by sitar maestro, Irshad Khan, who sang a Rumi poem in English while playing the sitar. It was the perfect trinity to the conference. We had all mentioned Rumi in our performance sets. It was as though he was speaking to us and through us. The dance of the dervish never ended and never began. It is the act of the earth revolving around the sun, as natural as breathing.

It is quite a challenge for a young writer like myself, trying to revive an ancient poetic form (old school, as we know it) in an industry where the literary darlings are city dwellers with a hipster aesthetic. I was trying to stay motivated and remember why I was doing what I was doing. The validation I was looking for was found in the colleagues and contemporaries I met at the WLU Interdisciplinary Arts Conference. They are the ones who came before me, who will come after me, and who I will, Inshallah, have the great privilege of collaborating with again. They reminded me of the fact that we are interconnected, that we are moving towards a world that craves unity, diversity, peace and true art. A world that is waking up to a new reality. We may be Greek, Mormon, Sufi, Hindu- We may be from Kenya, Nebraska, Kitchener or Winnipeg, but we are all striving to answer that unanswerable question. "WHO AM I?"

I am life in a circle
I am spinning and turning
with the music eternal
I have wings to fly
That's the answer to the question
Who am I


(sung by Fred Penner at the Wake Up Conference- Wilfred Laurier University, March 26th, 2011)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Interdisciplinary Arts Conference: PART I

This past weekend, I attended and participated in The Interdisciplinary Arts Conference, held by Wilfrid Laurier University's Religion and Culture Society. My experience with the students and staff of WLU reminded me of the fact that academic institutions can be collaborative, warm and open. We often associate universities with authority, but forget that learning is also interactive.

I first met Helen Reid, President of WLU's Religion and Culture Society, in Meena Sharify-Funk's Islamic Mysticism class. I was conducting a guest lecture on Sufi Poetry, and Helen had a keen interest and understanding of Sufi philosophy. Since then, Helen and I have chatted on the phone, discussing Jung, the state of the world, reality vs. non-reality and of course, the IAC Conference.

Let's just say that Helen knows how to get a job done. Her passion, dedication and chutzpah secured beloved childhood icon, Fred Penner, as the guest of honour for the conference. She also invited sitar maestro, Irshad Khan, to play for the finale concert. I was recruited as the opening act for Irshad Khan.

When I arrived in Waterloo, I was greeted by Professor Meena Sharify-Funk, a true sufi soul, and her beloved family including her bearded collie, Sami. We were invited to Helen and her partner Rob's house for a welcome dinner. Helen and Rob's house is the kind of house you dream of having. Coloured glass vases, tapestries, bookshelves, instruments, artifacts and ornaments from Greece and India, brightly coloured textured walls, windows with intricate stained glass designs-- each room in their house seemed to be transported from another country. I met some lovely people including Zabeen, a fellow Ismaili who had just returned from India, stylish Laura, Vice President of the Religion and Culture Society, and Fred Penner, who was frantically looking for a pouch he had left behind in rehearsal.

After the croissants were eaten, the homemade calamari was consumed and the pouch was found, we sat around Penner and discussed our childhoods, the pressures on youth today, spirituality and activism. Helen spoke about the sacred circles in Sufism, likening them to the dance of the universe. Penner spoke of himself as an anarchist, stating that artists are anarchists, because they see the world for what it is and refuse to accept the status quo (I hardly think he was referring to himself as the kind of anarchist that wears all black and spray paints government properties and corporate buildings).

The next day, Saturday, was a day of seminars, presentations and performances. Helen presented her paper on Sufism, her voice heightening with excitement and newfound revelations. At the end of the presentation, she played a youtube clip of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing a qawwali. A lady stood up from her seat and began to whirl.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011



Kuldip Gill was an award-winning poet, professor and mentor based in BC. She had an elegance and class about her that was so charming it was hard to ignore. Kuldip mentored me for my MFA summer thesis, a project that eventually became my first book-- Bleeding Light.

The first and only time we met was a sunny day in Toronto. We agreed to meet at the hotel she was staying at. When I greeted her in the lobby, her pure white hair and tasteful red lipstick proved to me that you can be beautiful at any age. She was the epitome of grace. We had a coffee at the hotel cafe, brainstorming about the etymology of words and the structure of ghazals. We had a buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant and returned to the hotel so she could change for the book launch we planned to attend in the evening. Dressed in black with a subdued but intricately designed Kashmiri shawl, Kuldip apologized for making me wait for so long in the lobby (in truth, the wait was quite short). After the book launch, I offered to catch her a cab, but she insisted that she would be okay. She was independent, strong and resilient.

Kuldip was one of the first Canadian poets to experiment with the ghazal form in English. She insisted that before I could write a ghazal, I needed to research the form. She taught me to respect and study the tradition and then formulate my own poetic voice. It was one of the most valuable lessons I've learned as a writer.

Throughout the summer, we communicated via email. We exchanged comments on my ghazals and she sent me her own poetry, asking me for my opinion. It was a rewarding process, intellectually challenging and creatively stimulating. She responded to my edits within a day, always with positive and useful feedback.

Kuldip passed away before Bleeding Light was published. I was shocked and stunned. I had no idea she was ill, and didn't know how to deal with her death. The only way I could honour her was to dedicate my book to her memory.

I ordered Valley Sutra, the last book she wrote before she died, and read it cover to cover. In between the free verse poems, I found a handful of ghazals. I felt connected to her through the couplets, through the fact that a part of me stayed with her, and a part of her will always stay with me.

Our whole lives,
by this flowing river.
Our whole lives
flowing -- by this river.

Kuldip Gill, Valley Sutra

In Memoriam.

Friday, March 4, 2011

For our Youth

There is a polarization happening in the world today-- of those who seek democracy and freedom (in their purest, non political manifestations) and those who want to deny people of freedom and democracy.

Take the recent protests in the Middle East. It's encouraging to see citizens standing up and calling for the resignation of their corrupt governments. It's reassuring to see that Wisconsin and Egypt are tied by the mutual desire for accountability and democracy, despite cultural divides and the miles of ocean between them.

And then, there is the recent violence in Pakistan. A minority Christian minister is gunned down mercilessly in his car, leaving minorities in Pakistan without a voice to defend them. And right here in North America, there are hate-mongering protestors in Orange County, yelling for American-born Muslims to "GO HOME!" at a fundraiser for relief work in the U.S.

It seems as though the balance could tip either way. The global consciousness is at a saturation point- we can either make the choice to be accountable for our actions and firmly stand for peace, freedom and the rights of all living creatures (including animals and ecosystems) or we can allow ourselves to be silenced by violence, hatred and war.

The good news is that more and more people are refusing to swallow garbage the media tries to feed them. They're looking to alternative sources to understand all sides of a situation. But this number has to increase, especially among impressionable youth. The future is theirs. If they continue to numb themselves with Jersey Shore, XBOX and celebrity culture, our planet will be left to fend for itself. Which is why each one of us has to take the future into our own hands. Youth are impressionable but they are also very intelligent and observant. It just takes a little encouragement and a dose of reality for them to become impassioned about a cause. I've seen it with my own eyes, in classrooms across Toronto. They have it in them, and it's up to us to help them find it.

For our youth, for our future.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Being an Author

When my first book was published, I thought, "Finally! I'm an author." The novelty wore off after about a month, when it dawned on me that I couldn't live off my words and that I'd have to find another way to make my riches. When you put every ounce of blood into a piece of work and realize that it cannot sustain you the way you sustained it-- that is when the harsh reality sets in. The reality that in this day and age, there are thousands upon thousands of writers and poets, millions of books and yours is just a drop in a very big ocean.

So how do you live? How do you work towards this passion of being a writer without giving in to the pressures of modern day life? I was asked quite recently how I intend to make a living for myself. Perhaps I'm completely insane, but I thought, "Spoken Word/Freelance Writing". Really? Really. I'm going to buy a house and take vacations to the Far East with the money I make from performing and writing. Or not. Or I'll just be a middle aged lady who still lives at home and apparently wrote a book once upon a time.

People say, "Get a normal job! Work for a company!" Yes, let me work for a company that has no social conscience and then write about revolution and saving our planet from the destructive forces of capitalism. You see, the problem with making a living is that it's very hard to make a living without killing someone else's livelihood (karma, look it up).

So I'm stuck, I'm stuck in a position where if I don't have a gig that pays substantially every week, there is no way in hell that I'll have a career. And because I'm so stubborn in my opposition to working for the 'man', I'm going to have to muster enough courage and strength and business knack to work for myself. But as most of us know, writers are a self-deprecating lot.

We often take gigs that don't pay, undercharge or simply let opportunities pass us by, because sometimes it's too much. It's too much to have opportunities that require time and effort away from writing and creating-- opportunities that don't lead to full time writing positions or a paycheque every week/month. When it becomes so overwhelming, where do we turn?

"Become a brand!" I'm told. A brand that recites spoken word, writes english ghazals, pens half finished novels, edits original creative essays. How do you brand someone who has more than one creative personality? Do we choose from an array of who we could be and choose to be just one? But how can we deny ourselves of our full potential? And yet, whenever I post my spoken word pieces, links to events, book promotional materials on facebook, I can't help but wonder if people are confused. "Is she a performer or an author?" "What does she actually do?" Maybe the problem is that I do too much, and it's still not enough.

Perhaps John Steinbeck was right, "The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business."