Omar Mouallem and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s new books talk about trips to understand their roots
This is part of a series of conversations between authors on the occasion of the 2021 edition of The Globe 100, our annual guide to the year’s most notable books.
Kamal Al-Solaylee and Omar Mouallem both begin their new books with a question that leads to a journey. In To recover, Al-Solaylee explains how an unexpected desire in his 50s to return to his homeland of Yemen led him to the West Bank, Taiwan, Ghana and the Basque region of Spain to speak to those who had returned to their homeland of Yemen. ‘origin, while it Pray in the west, Mouallem, who in his twenties passed himself off as a âprofessional skeptic,â visited 13 mosques in places as diverse as Inuvik, Brazil and Jerusalem. His goal? Observe Muslim practices as part of a reassessment of faith once imposed on him, and in doing so, consider whether there might be room, in at least one of them, for a no. -believer like him.
Emily Donaldson: âI have to take back the thing that made me a target. It’s a line from Omar’s book, but I think it’s one that either of you could have written. What were you trying to recover through your respective travels?
Omar Mouallem: For me, it was reclaiming part of my heritage, but maybe also part of the past. Simpler times, when it wasn’t complicated for me to call myself a Muslim. But more than anything, it was as if I needed to be in solidarity with people who looked like me, who had names like mine, who were part of my community, whether I practiced Islam or not. There is no point in putting distance between me and other Muslims on the basis of the strength of their beliefs compared to mine, because in the end, for someone who might see us as a threat, we we all look alike.
Kamal Al-Solaylee: It’s almost word for word what I would have said about Brown, my last book. But over the past five or six years, I have stopped trying to defend myself and those identified as Arabs and Muslims. I felt the pressure of all discrimination and the rising tide of extremism and Islamophobia. I’m talking to you a day after Doug Ford said something about how immigrants come here to take advantage of our benefit system, and a night after Calgary and Edmonton voted for two brown mayors, so that’s full of contradictions, but To recover came from a retirement position of sorts. I am tired. Part of me no longer wants to be a minority. When I went to Cairo two years ago there was a certain comfort, I realized, to be like everyone else. To sound like a local, which I have never been able to do, even in a multicultural Toronto.
OM: I wonder to what extent this experience is due to being an immigrant and having an accent. Being born and raised in Canada, I rarely feel like a minority. Psychologically, I haven’t experienced the alienation you have in your life.
KA: I never felt like this when I came to Canada in 1996. I instantly felt Canadian. I fell in love with Toronto, and at the time I wasn’t even a “racialized” or “brown” writer. None of these terms were in my vocabulary. I was just an artistic writer. The seismic change since September 11 has changed everything – To recover came out the week of the 20th anniversary of September 11. If I’m honest this process started in September 2001, it just took a very long time to happen.
OM: In many ways, you and I were drawn into our travels by such a powerful desire, even though the reality wasn’t going to match the idea. For me, this attraction was reduced to a sense of spirituality, although I knew that the closer I got to religion, the closer I got to scriptures and the Quran, the closer I got to dogma. And I don’t like dogma. I realized that due to the diversity of mosques and Muslim practices, there is not a single Muslim identity, much less a single Islam. That I can claim a seat in the Muslim body, in the uh. For me it’s esoteric, but for you it’s physical. Either you can claim a return to your homeland, or you can’t, when I found out that some Islams, some mosques, would have me as a member, and that’s not something I think I would have. understood if I had not made this journey towards understanding the diversity of Muslim practices.
ED: Kamal, has talking to returnees complicated or simplified your thinking about your own potential return?
KA: It’s really complicated. There’s a lot of agency saying I’m going to leave this comfortable, wealthy West and go to a small town in sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East or Jamaica. What I discovered is that returning is not the end of a journey. The return is for many the start of another journey. There were a lot of uplifting stories, as well as a few happy stories. I think when I talk about going back to Yemen, I am talking about Aden, where I was born, and I realize that this is pure fantasy. It is the Aden of family traditions, the Aden where my parents lived. A port city which, at the height of the British Empire, was truly cosmopolitan and much more open to the genre. Less for sexuality. Deep down I have this fantasy that I will be able to return to this Aden, knowing full well that it is almost impossible.
ED: Among your many encounters, which has marked you the most?
OM: One that baffled me was my experience in Trinidad. It surprised me how far fundamentalist views had become within their Muslim communities. I was not expecting this because they are not immigrants; they are fifth or sixth generation Trinidadians. They belong to the oldest continuous Muslim congregations in the West. It’s a country that had a Muslim head of state, and Islam is so much a part of the social fabric that I thought it would amount to a very liberalized and unique practice over generations. Many of their mosques were ready to give up their own traditions, their own western values, to sacrifice a large number of their congregations to feel more authentically Indian. It really stunned me. And the consequence was that everywhere I went there was an element of harsh religiosity – which pushed me back into my teenage years and made me want to run away, to the point that on the last day I ran into a radicalized mosque – a mosque that for all intents and purposes was an IS sleeper cell.
I’m glad I went there early on because I think it forced me to give up trying to portray Muslims in a positive light. It forced me to show right and wrong and treat individuals on their own merits and show what the stakes are when you offload your religious autonomy onto authorities who may not have your best interests at heart.
KA: One woman I met in Jamaica, Angela, was probably the most memorable to me. A lot of people ask me if I made it up. She lost two husbands to a violent crime, one in front of her own eyes, and still had no doubts for a second that her home was in Jamaica. She had the American dream – the husband earning a lot of money and the house in the suburbs – and she chose to return to the land where her two previous husbands were. It left me in shock. Resilience, and also the agency.
On a different note, until I started writing this book, I hadn’t realized how many countries were actively seeking the return of their citizens. It’s a big deal. In Northern Ireland, I was shocked by the organization of the repatriation of a select and highly qualified group of people in the STEM industry – as well as the mobilization of nostalgia for Ireland to give money back. and invest in the economy. They want the dollars, even if the expats don’t physically come back.
ED: These two books speak of belonging. Have you drawn any conclusions as to what this means?
OM: I learned that my sense of belonging is linked to history. To the feeling that my ancestors had a place in this country long before me, and that they were important people. Learning that my great-grandparents were here over 100 years ago, that one was a farmer in Saskatchewan, the other worked in the Ford auto plant making T-models, made me feel more North American. Learning that I had a distant ancestor who was the first Arab-American movie star in the silent era made me feel more grounded here. It helped me realize that my sense of belonging is internal; it has more to do with knowledge, as opposed to how people treat me or how people perceive me.
KA: My sense of belonging does not come from whether Canada thinks I belong or not, but from my belonging to Canada. I want this process of belonging to be on my terms. The host country can have our work, can have our loyalty to some extent, and even our gratitude, but it cannot have our souls. This is why I start and end the book on where I want to be buried. Nothing will change that: you can have everything else, but my soul belongs to the homeland.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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