Honour Killings and the Story of Banaz Mahmod.

remembering Banaz

remembering Banaz


The most shocking thing about Banaz’s death is that she had been in the UK with her family for 10 years when her uncle and father decided that she should die for shaming the family. They were Kurdish, originally from Iraq, and one would think that once an oppressed girl-child had reached the UK, had attended high school in London, that she would have reached a place of safety.

Banaz contacted the police 5 times during the years that her husband, a much older man in an arranged marriage, raped and beat her, and during the years afterward when her family had her followed and attempted to kill her twice in order to bring honour back to the family. As shocking, dozens (perhaps more) people in the ex-pat Kurdish community in London knew of the violence coming to Banaz, and did nothing to help her, In fact, they colluded to obstruct the police investigation into her death and protect the murderers. The police themselves are also clearly at fault for not helping her- a video of one of her police interviews is in the film. (See the photo above.) I don’t understand why she wasn’t taken to a shelter that very day.

For me, this film pounded home the truth that although women have reached a country of safety, they may not be safe at all. I recall a student in our ESL school who admitted to me that her father beat her, locked her in her room and took away her cell phone. This was happening in Ottawa, Canada, although he’d been in Canada for many years. She was new to our country and when I informed her of her rights as an adult here, her jaw dropped and she cried. It was hard for her to comprehend the many choices she had to remedy the situation. I put her in counselling with a professional woman from her own culture, in her language (no, not Kurdish).

I thought she was safe- the counselling occurred during class-time once a week. Her father escorted her to and from school, and there was no way she’d have been able to get counselling any other way. In the end, a member of her community, another student in the school, informed her father, and we never saw her again.

There was nothing more I could do. I consoled myself that in the year she’d been with us, her English had improved and she’d been schooled in her options as an abused woman… she had every phone number she needed for the day she was ready to make her move.

Deeyah Khan, the director of Banaz: A Love Story, was careful to include members of the London Kurdish community protesting at the trial of Banaz’s father and uncle who ended up in prison for their crime. The protesters, holding pictures of the 20-year-old, were verbally attacked by the father as he was escorted past them in handcuffs: “You betray the Kurdish community,” he accused them. A courageous woman answers that he is the one without honour.

Banaz was considered by many to have shamed her family by divorcing the man who raped and beat her from the age of 17 when she was forced to marry him. She later fell in love with a man her age and the family learned of this by following her and having her watched by many in the ex-pat community. She kissed this man in a public place. I won’t reveal too many details here as you may decide to view the documentary yourself. (I will say that it starts with an account of her circumcision at the age of 8 in Iraq- no anesthesia or pain killers, just a knife and her father.)

I was told of honour killings when I was in North Kurdistan in 1996- my husband was trying to impress upon me how very traditional the area was in order to get me to modify my behaviour and appearance. The account is in The Word Not Spoken. Leigh has come to Ahmet’s home village to be married. Jess, a South African already married to a Turk, has come along. She is pregnant, but it is Ramadan and no smoking, eating or drinking is allowed during daylight hours.

“What do you want to do?” Leigh asked Jess.

“If we sit here more than half an hour, guests will come, guaranteed,” said Jess.

“I wouldn’t mind if I could understand them.”

“Hey Leigh, maybe I should warn you.” Jess was pawing through her bag, looking for smokes. “Aha!” she pulled out the soft package.

“You can’t smoke!” Leigh braced herself. “Warn me about what?”

“You have to shave everywhere for your wedding night.”

“What do you mean, ‘everywhere’?”

“Men and women shave their underarms and their pubes on their wedding day. It’s a rite of passage for virgins,” said Jess, taking out a sigara and running it through her fingers.

Leigh tightened her mouth and considered this news.

“I really want a sigara. I don’t have to fast because I’m pregnant, but I shouldn’t smoke for the same reason. A quandary.” Jess paused and looked around. “The answer is to hide and smoke.”

The rain had slowed. They decided to go for a walk to find a corner somewhere. The two women slipped out the front door and turned toward the main street. The village was indeed tiny and remote; it had been only five years since the electrical and phone lines had arrived.

The main street, lined with flat-roofed buildings, was mud. Smaller streets branched off it haphazardly. Leigh and Jess headed down one of these, but it seemed to lead out into an open field—nowhere, to Leigh’s way of thinking. They walked back and across an empty village square. Leigh wondered if a pazaar came there once a week. Somehow she doubted it. Life looked simple. Many people had a garden in their yard. Ahmet had told her that most families had farm land in the area and travelled out by horse and wagon to work on it, but today, few people were working in the rain. A couple of children ran through puddles on the mud street.

A few people waited at the door of a small bakery for the unleavened bread to be ready. No baguettes here. Two old men in line shared a broken but functioning umbrella. Their shoes sunk into the mud, and they seemed stuck there, waiting silently for the next batch. When the steaming bread came to the window, there was sudden activity. The old men were served first, and they shuffled away.

A young boy triumphantly drove by on a bike. He steered with one hand and held bread wrapped in newspaper out with the other. The rain plopped loudly on the newspaper as he peddled by, and Leigh caught a warm whiff.

Chickens wandered in and out of yards and roosters crowed. Women were nowhere in sight, but men shadowed the doorways and street corners. Without exception, they wore takkes, white religious skullcaps. The men returned the women’s stares.

“I don’t think they see tourists here,” remarked Jess.

Leigh felt the men’s stares and shivered. “Don’t they look lost without their sigaras and tea?”

The main street was lined with dark men in baggy clothes. Many wore traditional Kurdish pants, the crotch hanging to their knees. A wide band of material was wrapped at the waist. Mud clung to pant hems.

Some men sat at tables in front of the teahouse; others stood in the street and stared. More men came to see what had quieted the others. No one pretended to be doing anything but staring at the white women: a tall blonde, the other with long loose hair.

Kunda,” said one man.

The women smiled politely and increased their pace. A few children were following them. Every eye in the street watched their progress.

“I don’t think we’re going to get away with a sigara,” Jess deadpanned.

“The baby is happy about it anyway,” said Leigh.

They headed back to the little house, having seen almost every edgeless brown building in the village on their twenty-minute walk. As they approached, Ahmet rushed out to meet them.

“Where have you been? Everyone is worried about you!”

“Really? Where do they think we’re going to go?” asked Jess.

“Jess needs a sigara,” said Leigh.

“You can’t break the fast here, front everyone,” said Ahmet.

“Where can I go then?” asked Jess.

“Here.” He gave her the car keys. “You and Ismail go for a ride.”

“Good idea.” She was immediately cheered and went to find Ismail.

“Ahmet,” asked Leigh, “how do people know which chickens belong to them, when the chickens wander all over the streets like this?”

He laughed. “The chickens know.”

“Oh…the chickens know. What’s kunda?

His eyes opened very wide. “Where did you hear that word?”

“On the street. A man said ‘kunda’ to me.”

Ahmet shook his head, perturbed. “It means prostitute.”


He frowned. “I don’t want you to walk alone on the street again.”

“But I was with Jess. What could happen?”

“My Angel. Nothing will happen. But they see a woman who is uncovered, and they think you are a prostitute. Good women cover. That’s what they believe. You can’t change it.” He took a breath, “Will you cover while you’re here?”

“But I’m not Muslim!” Jess said her refusal to wear a headscarf was a fight against becoming invisible.

“Leigh, it is very hard for people here to understand. They don’t see Western ways like they do in Istanbul. They spend their whole lives here, and they are proud of the old ways.”

“But I can’t change myself for them. They will learn from me that some people are different. A good Muslim will not think ill of me if I am Christian. It says in the Quran they must accept all the children of Abraham.” Leigh was tired and her mouth was dry.

Gel.” (Come.) He brought her into the house. They settled by the heater on orange and yellow striped cushions. “Listen me. It is difficult for people in Nevsehir to accept Jess, and she has lived there one year. You will be here only a few days. What will you teach them? My family is here all the time, and you must not shame them. Do you understand?”

“Sort of.” Leigh avoided his eyes.

“Would you walk down the streets of London with no clothes?” asked Ahmet.

“Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“That’s a ridiculous question. It’s against the law first of all.”

“It’s against Islamic law to reveal your legs, arms and hair.”

“But Turkey doesn’t have Islamic law.”

“We are very close to the borders of Iran and Iraq here. The law does not matter. The only important thing is what people believe. You know what Kurds think of the government and polis.”

“Yes, many people in Turkey like to take the law into their own hands, you included.” She was referring to his ex-partners. She traced the cushion stripes with her finger: orange then yellow. The fabric was thick as a kilim.

Ahmet raised a finger. “In this village, last year, a teenage girl had sex. She was not married. Our tradition is Islam. She must be killed by a man in her family to give the family honour again.”

“That’s awful!”

“Her brother sat her in a chair, and he sat in a chair across from her. Then he shot her in the heart.”

“Oh my God!” The bit of pink in Leigh’s cheeks faded. “Did she know what he was doing? Why?”

“Of course! He must do it to her face. There are a few of these murders in Kurdistan every year.” He had her full attention.

“But they are subject to Turkey’s laws!”

Hah. The brother went to jail for seventeen years. He was sacrificed on the family honour.”

“Brother and sister were sacrificed.” She swallowed and wanted water.

“And most people here believe it was right thing.” Ahmet clasped and unclasped his hands, missing his sigara. Leigh watched his hands.

Hey- and I’m not being sarcastic- happy International Women’s Day.

Watch the documentary about Banaz here: https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/banaz-love-story/

Newroz and the Haft-seen table

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Oh happy day: the day we first feel spring in the air. The first day that shoes replace boots- the light feet, the utter joy. That’s the Canadian’s late March experience, but in Mediterranean countries, they are seeing spring blooms by now, discarding jackets, eating the first local greens.

Newroz celebrates the arrival of spring and is usually celebrated around March 20, coinciding with the Northward Equinox. It has been celebrated for centuries in Iranian, Armenian, Azerbaijanian and Kurdish cultures; it was first mentioned in Kurdish poetry in the 16th century.

In Northern Kurdistan (East Turkey), Newroz is almost always celebrated with a picnic. When I visited family there, we lugged a hibatchi-type BBQ out to the woods by a stream, played hide and seek games among the trees, sang songs and feasted on tomato salad, flat bread and chicken (killed in the backyard that morning). Sometimes whole communities celebrate together with dancing and music.

In The Word Not Spoken, Ahmet uses Newroz to divert Leigh’s fears when he tells her on their wedding night that he is a freedom fighter, part of the PKK:

Ahmet hesitated. “We tell tourists and journalists about the human rights abuse and the democracy problem here.”

Leigh was relieved. “You just talk to people?”

“Yes. We are non-violent group.”

“What do you do?”

“I go to meeting every month. Right now we are planning Newroz celebrations and demonstrations.”

Ahmet explained that Newroz was celebrated on the first day of spring in Kurdistan, comparable to a New Year’s celebration in the west. It had never been celebrated by Turks, and so, over the past decades, Newroz had become an opportunity to assert Kurdish culture and identity. Only three years previous, a crowd dancing in a village square in Mersin had been fired upon by watching Turkish tanks.

“Ahmet, you don’t go to the Newroz celebration do you?”

“No. I plan it just, but I cannot be there.”

Leigh gets more information later in the story. By this time, she has met Kurdish refugees dying in tents, and she has started to write their story. Here Ahmet is telling her about his cell’s meeting the night before and what they discussed:

“We are planning Newroz. It is very important, a very strong day for my people.”

March 21st was only a couple of weeks away. Ahmet explained that this would be, as always, a celebration of spring and the new year for the people of East Turkey and parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran. The anti-government groups sought to protect the Kurdish people so that they could dress in traditional costume and dance in village squares without the army harassing them.

“Write this,” dictated Ahmet. “Ahmet says, ‘Freedom is not cheap. It is better for a Kurd to die dancing than in a burning house.’”

“Like that. With his finger in the air,” said Leigh, writing.

Newroz would happen no matter what, Ahmet pointed out. The people would be out. The only variable was what the army’s reaction would be. Some cities planned massive peaceful demonstrations. Others planned simple celebrations. Ahmet said the important thing was the Kurdish people would be seen asserting their identity and culture. The truth was Newroz had become a propaganda vehicle. It was an assertion of Kurdish identity, encouraged by pro-Kurdish groups. Ahmet said the largest demonstrations were organized in cities with weak Kurdish undergrounds. This would occupy M.I.T.’s (the secret police) attention. As well, none of the important leaders would attend. The goal was complete safety for the demonstrators.

“What else did you talk about?” asked Leigh.

This was my reality when I lived in Turkey in the mid-90s. Newroz was a time of fear and supreme courage. I preferred delightful family picnics to public gatherings; I hated the feeling of ducking my head, checking my back, walking in front of soldiers with guns in hand.

I cannot adequately share my shock when during later visits to Turkey I learned that the Turkish government had done an about-face and declared Newroz to be a Turkish holiday! If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I guess.

“The Turkish government suddenly announced that the Kurdish new year’s holiday Newroz, was in fact a Turkish holiday commemorating the day the Turks first left their ancestral Asian homeland, Ergenekon. The day was renamed Nevruz since the letter ‘w’ was not in the Turkish alphabet.” (Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey by Casier & Jongerden)

In Iran, a table called Haft-seen is displayed at Newroz. Haft-seen means 7S because seven items beginning with the letter ‘s’ must be on the table along with other more personal items. The seven items are: “Sumac (crushed spice of berries) to symbolize the sunrise and the spice of life, Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree) for love and affection,Serkeh (vinegar) for patience and age, Seeb (apples) for health and beauty, Sir(garlic) for good health, Samanu (wheat pudding) for fertility and the sweetness of life, and Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass) for rebirth and renewal of nature.” Huffpost Religion

Personal additions to the Haft-seen table may include poetry, books, a mirror (reflection on the past year), a bowl of real goldfish (new life), colored eggs (fertility), coins (prosperity), flowers (spring), and candles (light and happiness).

I photographed this Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant, 462 Rideau St., Ottawa. The owner was so pleased with my interest that she explained every item on the table to me.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Happy Spring! Happy Newroz!

Tourists detained in Malaysia for causing an earthquake? Not exactly.

A worker cleans an Islamic plaque of calligraphy saying ''Mohammad'' on the morning of Eid al-Fitr in a mosque in Kota Bharu, in Malaysia's northeastern state of Kelantan in this January 8, 2000 file photo. REUTERS/Staff/Files photo details

Out today at my neighbourhood diner for breakfast and my weekly exposure to a television. Reading the CBC news-feed, I learned that 2 Canadian tourists have been detained for causing an earthquake in Malaysia that killed 13 people. The CBC offered this reason: superstition. In Malaysia, it is believed that the tourists (clearly too dumb to be travellers, well, unless they’re drunken 20-year-old travellers) “disrespected the mountain by removing their clothes and taking photos”.

I smile ruefully and dig into fruit salad reflecting on the workplace discussions to take place tomorrow: judging Malaysians to be backward superstitious people, and the tourists to be unfairly detained.

In fact, the tourists flagrantly broke the laws of this Islamic country. The Canadian government warns us when we pick up our passports- you are subject to the laws of the country you travel to.

If you go to an Islamic country, be well-versed in Islamic law. It is unlawful to strip nude in a public place, and depending on the country, it may be unlawful to wear shorts or short sleeves. These tourists disrespected the country, the law and the culture. I wonder if they did some research before they went- as recently as a month ago, Malaysia’s movement toward harsher Islamic laws (stonings, amputations) was news-worthy.

The charge against the Canadians (and friends) is not disrespecting the mountain. They have been “barred from leaving the country on the offence of gross indecency”. (CTV News)

Sure, it’s hard for a Canadian to think and behave as if they have no rights- we almost can’t think without our rights. I had this problem in Turkey. The following excerpt from The Word Not Spoken illustrates:

(Leigh has just returned to Goreme, Turkey to see Ahmet, her new love.)

Ahmet and Leigh lugged her bags up the great hill that was Goreme. Then they climbed many icy stone steps to a patio. They dropped the bags at the door of Kaya Pension and sagged against it, catching their breath. Ahmet chipped away at the ice on the door with his keys, trying to open it.

“Why are we here?”

“We will stay here until my pension is open,” he said. “I am working every day to open it.”

“Your pension is closed?” This was news to Leigh.

“The gendarme locked the door. Even my clothes are locked in there.”

“But why?”

“The mayor of this village will not give me a license because I am Kurdish. He doesn’t want Kurdish business in his village. But I will not go.” He stabbed at the ice and chips flew all over them.

“But that’s no reason to not give you a license.” She crossed her arms.

“I tried to buy one, but he will not give it to me.”

“But what is his reason? He must give a reason, like there aren’t enough windows or enough toilets, or some rule like that?”

“What are you talking about? Did you listen? He told me the reason. It is because we are Kurdish.” He yanked on the door but it didn’t open.

“But that’s discrimination!”

Ahmet gave up on the door for the moment and turned to her. “Come here, Leigh.” He held her cold dry hands in his cold wet hands. “You are in Turkey now. We are not protected by any laws. The government is prejudiced. The court is prejudiced. The mayor can do whatever he wants.”

“Oh.” Leigh felt ridiculous. Her human rights were so basic; it was hard to think without them.

“A German journalist was here, and I told her my story. She took a picture of the pension and the sign I put on the door. It said, ‘This Kurdish business closed by Turkish government without reason.’ She put it in a German newspaper.”


Review of “Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite”.

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim is a memoir of her time in North Korea where she posed an English teacher for 2 school terms. Kim is actually an American journalist, born in South Korea.

She joined a group of Christian teachers who volunteered at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Only the sons of the political elite were able to attend this school. In fact, by the time Kim left, it seemed that no other universities were functioning as 99% of students were sent out to work on farms.

The teachers were virtual prisoners in the school, constantly watched by minders who followed them right to the bathroom door. The few times the teachers left the colourless concrete campus, it was as a group, herded to a destination planned by their minders (an apple farm, a mountain hike). One teacher mourns, “I just want to get in a car and drive to a store when I want to. That seems like such a luxury.” The teachers spent their evenings with bible study. Her peers didn’t know that Kim wasn’t Christian or that her true purpose was to write a book, and so she was in disguise even from them, pretending Christian knowledge and faith.

Although this was a university for the richest of sons, they ate no meat, only cabbage soup and rice gruel. Kim saw more evidence of extreme poverty from the bus window on the rare excursions:  stick-thin people in rags on the side of the road, empty markets, a complete lack of animal life.  She heard stories of starving multitudes who striped bark from the trees to make soup.

“The worldwide web was not really worldwide, it turned out. None of us ever breathed a word about it. A few students…said that what they missed most from their old school was how they’d all been connected by an electronic network. I understood they were talking about their intranet, a heavily censored network that allowed them access only to already downloaded information and state-sponsored websites. I was not allowed to tell them their intranet was not the same as the Internet- that the rest of the world was connected while only they were left out.”

She was subject to a whole list of rules like: no photos off-campus, boil your water, always lock your laptop and keep it with you, never criticize North Korea or even hint to a student there may be something wrong with it, don’t discuss politics or anything personal, no foreign magazines or books.  All of her communication was monitored and so became scant and eventually the contact with home became worthless to her.

And that is what fascinated me as a reader. The teachers were under such tight constraints that they quickly deteriorated, even those with great faith. They were unable to teach anything that seemed meaningful or true and their own sense of reality warped. They became paranoid. A student asking a question could be a spy or informant. When they returned to their rooms it seemed they’d been searched. “…the sense of being watched at all times was draining. I felt as though I was being buried alive, like sand was being poured into my face.  I began to feel a nausea from the sameness of each day.”

Similarly, the book goes on with a sameness, chapter after chapter, with no real climax or drama. In a way, I was waiting for something to happen- some conflict or suspense. I reminded myself that it was a truthful memoir, a captured moment in a time and a place, but I yearned for some action.

The writing is simple and uninspiring, often cliché. But, this is not a book to read for its prose; it’s a book to be read as an exercise in imagining: How would it be to live without the power to choose your vocation, residence or daily activities? How would it be to live on the bark of trees with no ability to change that by leaving or finding work? To live surrounded by falsehoods, to voice belief in those falsehoods, to suspect they are falsehoods but for it to be much too dangerous to say “The Emperor is wearing no clothes”?

Chinese Medicine


Chinese Acupuncture and Herbs Centre, Somerset St., Ottawa

Chinese Acupuncture and Herbs Centre, 615 Somerset St., Ottawa

When Western medicine fails me, I turn to the East. More than a few times over the years, I have found myself at the Chinese pharmacy in Ottawa: Chinese Acupuncture and Herb Centre run by Dr. Chou who trained and studied in China. I have received excellent care there- creams and herbal medicines that worked. I lived in Chinatown when I was a student, and I first showed up on their doorstop because it was convenient and cheap.

I have a blood disease that Western medicine holds little hope of curing. I could “try” some heavy-duty and expensive pharmaceuticals; in fact I did fill the first of two prescriptions- a hefty antibiotic. I swallowed one pill and was so sick for 3 hours that I just decided I would not live in that state for 3 months…especially with no guarantee of effectiveness. (It was $160 for a three-week supply…hmmm… times 4 refills… and to be followed by another pharmaceutical.)

I did some research online and headed down to Chinatown armed with the names of a couple of herbs.

Inside the Chinese Acupuncture and Herbs Centre

Inside the Chinese Acupuncture and Herbs Centre

seed pods, leaves, dried seahorses...

seed pods, leaves, dried seahorses…

The rows of huge jars fascinate me: seeds, dried seahorses (two kinds), leaves, pods and well, unrecognizable items…perhaps from the sea, perhaps from the earth. TCM uses about 1,000 different plant species and close to 40 animal species, including the tiger, rhinoceros, black bear, musk deer, and sea horse. Some of these animals are endangered and, of course, we are losing valuable plant species every day. See more . The seahorses are used for kidney/circulation ailments and impotence.

The doctor takes her time with each visitor, and her expert attention comes at no cost.

When my turn comes, my herbs are looked up in a fat book. “This one,” the doctor says, “This one kill germs from bug bite.”

“Yes,” I smile. “I want that.”

“And this one,” she points to the Chinese writing, “This one clean red blood.”

I feel warm all over, my gut telling me- yes, yes, yes! “I want that,” I nod, surprised at the tears in my eyes. I really want that!

I’m told one herb is on hand, but the other must be ordered. I expect to receive the one, but it is not offered. I don’t understand why until I return a week later to pick up the herbs. It turns out that I will make a tea of both herbs together. One is light-weight leaves and stems; the other is thick and round like slices of a small tree trunk.

My herbs are carefully weighed with hand-held scales. They are mixed together and packed into paper bags- each one is the correct amount for one brew of a tea that will last 2 days. The doctor asks about my ailment and teaches me how to concoct the teas- bring to boil in a glass dish with 4 cups of water, then simmer 45 minutes. Drink on a half-full stomach, as one herb is poisonous and could cause side effects (cramps, vomiting). The herbs may be brewed a second time with less water.

I conscientiously follow her instructions. I am not concerned about possible side effects- the lists of warnings that come from Shopper’s Drug Mart with my prescriptions scare me more! After all, these are plants, I can see that… and many pharmaceuticals are made from plants, poisonous and toxic ingredients included. I am willing to take my chances here.

My tea is actually delicious. It warms me in a lovely way…again, my gut, my instincts, just love it. I have experienced no side effects, and I have great hope. Dr. Chou has asked me to report back and I will – to her and to you – by updating this post in 6 weeks.

Freeze the herbs after the tea is brewed. You can use them a second time with less water.

Freeze the herbs after the tea is brewed. You can use them a second time with less water.

Community Kitchen


Community Kitchen

Literacy 3 class made stone soup.

Eman brought onions.

Ling:  lemon.

Anisah:  carrots.

Hamed:  lentils.

Others:  celery, mushrooms,

tofu, tomato, parsley, pasta,

spices I couldn’t translate.

I brought 2 huge pots,

plenty of take-home containers.

I taught food words, cooking words,

“community kitchen”.

It turned out pretty good-

one Asian, one Middle-Eastern.

After lunch, the pots were empty;

the take-home containers were empty.

“Where is the soup?” I asked.

“Will you take soup home for your family tonight?”

“Finished!” They laughed.

“Why finished?”

“Free! Students eat.”

They’d given it away.

“150 students?” I asked.

“Yes. Students happy lunch free school today!”

Pleased proud Literacy 3

taught me “community”.


-Laurie Fraser

Cultural accommodation.

Niqabs are often wore by Muslim women but not mandatory in the faith    photo credit

Canadians pride themselves on tolerating, even celebrating, the multitude of cultures in our land. We are a country of immigrants, none of us here longer than 450 years (except Aboriginals, of course). Many are new arrivals- Canada welcomes 225,000 – 275,000 newcomers a year. In a country with a population of only 35 ½ million, the new arrivals have significant impact.

Newcomers add their culture to the ever-changing Canadian reality. Italian, Chinese, Polish, Indian, Lebanese communities are Canadian, no doubt. The Somali community has become stronger in recent years developing their own community centres and teaching the rest of us about their ways. In Ottawa, Afghani restaurants have appeared in the last 5 years. For me, it’s when the restaurants start sprouting up that I feel an ethnic group is really flourishing in Canada’s tolerant atmosphere.

Of course it’s more than atmosphere- laws, rights and freedoms assure every Canadian the right to speak and worship, congregate and live in their own way.

An Ontario judge recently upheld the right of an Aboriginal parent to use traditional First Nations medicines to heal her sick child, rather than the poison called chemotherapy. By doing so, precedent has been set: mainstream allopathic medicine is not the only legitimate medical model. We have the right in Canada to follow our own values, beliefs and traditions.

So now we come the crux of the matter: individual decisions and attitudes that are, human nature being what it is, sometimes less tolerant than the country’s laws.Quebec has been experiencing charges of racism over its proposed “values charter” that would restrict religious clothing. The federal government vows it would fight such a move. Read more.

Recently mosques have been defaced in Trois Rivieres, Quebec and Cold Lake, Alberta. In Nova Scotia, a grandmother was charged with assault and criminal harassment after attacking a woman for wearing a headscarf at a mall. Read more.

These behaviours are illegal certainly, but what about the attitudes, words and quiet decisions made by individuals every day?

Tolerance is one thing, but let’s go a step further and talk about accommodating people’s beliefs and cultural practices.

Many workplaces allow their employees to celebrate their religious holidays (with pay) regardless of how they line up with traditional Christian holidays. So, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus get Christmas and Easter off because their workplace is simply not open on those days- they are statutory holidays. They may get Eid or Diwali off as well.

I’ve heard Christians complain about that- even calling it discrimination. “Why does a Hindu get more holidays than I do?” Is there a solution to this? How about calling them Personal Days and letting everyone take them off at their discretion?

As Muslims become a larger part of our population, they may demand their holy day, Friday, off, yet be willing to work Sunday. Can employers accommodate this? Well, a retail store can, a factory can, but an institution like the federal government or a school board cannot.

Airports have prayer rooms; many schools and workplaces have prayer rooms or “quiet” rooms as well. This accommodates some Muslims who have made a religious commitment to pray 5 times a day. My school has such a room and it’s used by more than Muslims. I often go in there at break time, sitting cross-legged and meditating. Sometimes a student will ask what I’m doing. I explain, “I am praying. My prayer looks like this.” The student will smile or touch me in solidarity. We seem to agree in the secluded serene space: all prayer is good.

We have female students who are completely covered with a niqab. Not all coverings are the same- see the many styles and traditions here.

The women wearing a niqab have difficulty eating at lunch time. Our school has several classrooms used as lunch rooms and a kitchen area as well. All are coed. For such women, they cannot lift the niqab to eat in the presence of men. I’ve seen them furtively slip a spoonful of food under the covering into their mouths. I’m also aware of them missing meals because they couldn’t eat with men in the room.

0e2da13f3040cc3c73bed3cde3510d9b     photo credit

Regardless of why they follow these practices, lunch time is uncomfortable, even stressful for them. When I suggested a “Women’s Only Lunchroom”, school staff reacted both pro and con:

“Yes, they deserve to be comfortable and it’s no trouble to accommodate them.”

“This is discrimination. We cannot be discriminatory.”

“They are here to learn how to integrate in Canada and they won’t be seeing a separate lunch room at their future Canadian workplace or mainstream educational institution. Might as well get used to it now.”

“The practice is abusive and we should not participate or appear to condone it.”

I think it is vital that we examine every decision we make, no matter how small, for judgement. I firmly believe it is not my place to judge another’s beliefs or practices as long as they are not illegal, harmful to self or others.

These women wear the niqab and it is not a decision that requires changing, enlightening or educating. It is a simple fact- their reality. For us to make it difficult for them or to refuse to make life easier for them imposes our beliefs on them. Do we have the right to do that? Yes, of course we do- it doesn’t impinge on their human rights.

Is it fair? That’s a whole other question.

When I lived in Turkey, I often had to do things that were uncomfortable for me. More than that- it was frustrating, even maddening, for me to be confined to the women’s “haremlik” where the women ate separately from the men (in the more traditional households, not everywhere, and not in my own home). I didn’t have the freedom to say, “I am Canadian. Please respect my values and let me eat with the men.”

Was it fair? Well, it didn’t seem fair to me, but when in Rome…

So we have come to an impasse. Some of the staff would like to accommodate the women; some think it is a mistake.

You know, to me, we are not in Rome. We are not in Turkey. We are in Canada- and Canada values holding onto one’s culture and tolerating differences. More than that- we are known to be a people who will go out of our way to be kind. We have a reputation for compassion.

As well, our students are new arrivals, the majority in the last year or two. They are constantly adapting to their adopted country; the new smells, sights and weather are all stressful on the body and brain. On top of that, the shopping, the food, the cultural expectations- everything from being at school on time to the way they discipline their children, from being spoken to by a male at the bus stop to dressing properly for winter- they are all stressful adjustments.

We are a democracy at our school, but we have not been able to come to a consensus, and so leadership is required. I am the manager. The women will have the option of a lunchroom for their use alone. It will be discreet- not a designated room with a sign- just a quiet out-of-the-way place where a few women can find some privacy to eat in comfort.

It’s almost the least we can do.

Kurdish Culture

Shahram playing the tanbour.

Shahram playing the tanbour.

Kurds are more than the fight.


How often did my husband hold his finger in the air and declare, “We want to speak our language without fear. We want the right to dance, to sing our music, to write and read our literature.”



85 + at the Ottawa Public Library

85 + at the Ottawa Public Library

After all, what are they fighting for?

At this moment, in many places, they are fighting for simple survival, a peaceful place to live, clean water, a dry warm bed, a garden, a roof, a safe haven, a border. But more than that- they are fighting for Kurdish schools, Kurdish businesses, Kurdish culture.

Jaffer Sheyholislami

Jaffer Sheyholislami

We gathered on Nov. 15, almost 100 of us, not to talk about the fight or the people dying on the mountains. We gathered to enjoy the talent of Shahram with his tanbour, the singing and film-making of children in Kobani, the poetry of Jaffer Sheyholislami and other Kurds, and the stories I had to tell about my time in Kurdistan.

reading about the 3-day wedding

reading about the 3-day wedding


It was a joyous afternoon. A reporter from Centretown News had interviewed me the day beforehand. I had been practicing my speech when she called, but I said with confidence, “I’m not nervous. It can’t go wrong with these people in the room. It’ll be all heart.” How could it be anything but?




old friends who made the trip

old friends who made the trip

Jeghir Jahangir

Jeghir Jahangir, mc extraordinaire






When is Eid?

sunset is at 8:38 today

sunset is at 8:38 today

The Islamic calendar is lunar. This is why no one is ever quite sure when Ramadan starts and when it ends too- Muslims are looking to the moon. Some believe that the moon must be seen with the naked eye while others contend that a telescope or astronomical calculations are good enough.

I sat on the South Indian beach one sultry night watching the sky with Muslim friends. It seemed very romantic to me- waiting for the moon to tell us whether fasting would begin the next morning.

I was in Kerala, on Kovalam Beach. It’s a humid place with salt in the air, where the electricity goes off every day at 6 p.m., and I always kept careful track of my candles and matches. It’s a place with spiders as big as my hand and snakes as large as my body, a place where I had to walk down a jungle path shared by such spiders and snakes twice a day.

Kovalam is very close to the equator:  sunrise and sunset were at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day of the year- a 12 hour fast. (In Canada, the fast varies widely depending on the month. This July has been hot, the fast being 15 long hours without drink, food or cigarettes.)

We sat in a crowd on the beach that night, in a deep enveloping darkness, watching for the full moon over the hard-pounding surf of the Indian Ocean. The locals had relaxed into a holiday mood, but I was concerned- it was cloudy and the stars weren’t visible. We didn’t see the moon although we sat for hours, and the light-heartedness of my companions did not diminish.

“But how will you know?” I asked my friend. “Who will tell you?”

“In Saudi, they will be seeing the moon.”

“What if it’s cloudy there too?”

He laughed. “They are not having clouds in Saudi.”

“Well, how will you know tonight?” There was no electricity, no radio or television. In fact, I was quite sure he didn’t have a telephone.

“I am starting now because maybe tomorrow is being the first day.”

“But how will you know?” insisted my Western personality.

He looked at me kindly. “Ramadan is being in the heart. It is bringing me closer to my God. If I am being early it is wonderful thing and I am not taking the chance for missing even one day. It is best days of all the year. It is happiest time for me:  My heart is singing with the God every day in the Ramadan.”

I thought these Indian Muslims were quite different from the Turkish Muslims I had known. In Western Turkey, Ramadan had been announced by the imam at the mosque; the restrictions were resented but endured by the people I hung out with there. Appearances and judgmental neighbours were a real concern. I’d never heard anyone speak of Ramadan with this kind of excitement and devotion.

The arrival of Eid which marks the end of Ramadan is also washed with uncertainty. This year it may be Monday or Tuesday. Funny pie chart here lists ways of discerning the date including “My mom will tell me” and “Just keep fasting until the phone explodes with Eid texts”.

In every Islamic culture I’ve been in, and also in Canada’s Muslim community, Eid is greeted with euphoric celebrations. No holiday is greater in Islam. The joy (and even relief) is profound.

The phrase “Eid Mubarak” means “Blessed Celebration” or more loosely- “Happy Festival”, and so on Monday, or maybe Tuesday, it’s the the thing to say to your Muslims neighbours.

sunset on the beach

sunset on the beach