Think Tank on Identity: A Canadian is a Canadian by Azfar Rizvi



We landed on the tarmac at Pearson International almost 4 years ago in the month of November. Coincidently, it was also the 20th anniversary of my uncle’s passing. He was taken away rather unceremoniously right from his door step in Karachi, Pakistan as he returned from a spoken poetry evening (jashan) commemorating the first day of the month of Muharram. The minority Shiite sect in Pakistan, according to recent UN estimates has lost more than 1400 men, women and children since January 2015.

They say, Canadians do not talk about politics. And religion. But have you picked up a newspaper lately? Or tuned into any of the radio or TV shows? It’s not just because this is election year. I am happy to report these conversations have been happening and are necessary for a nation’s emotional wellbeing. So tune into these broadcasts, because that is our future. And immigrants can’t divorce their history and identity, or more importantly their scars. Even if we sometimes wish that were possible.

I know a bit about scaring and television. I was a news producer before I chose to throw geography into the mix to challenge our foes and moved to Toronto. I still consider myself a news producer – on hiatus. I repeat this to myself when I’m getting yelled at by customers in my present job. Good thing my conflict region field production training came in handy on my current job as a customer service rep, the story of countless immigrants before and after me.

I was born in servitude of ideas. Of justice, compassion, right and benevolence. The Pakistan of the 90’s gave no one but myself a specious hope of peace and coexistence; in retrospect I may have blocked out events, which became the edifice of an entire generation’s compassion fatigue. The evil was always there, simmering behind facades, under the protection of global power-brokers, with differing names. Sometimes even in the guise of a peace-broker. Lately the world has come to hear of it as Daish or ISIS. So even in my early 20’s, this semblance of hope gradually turned into a John Carpenter screenplay. Perhaps one too many times.


Identity: Context Through Comparison

September 10th 2011. Monday.
06:30 – 07:00am: Commence editorial meeting with morning TV show team.
07:00 – 09:00am: Go live. Produce news bulletin. Introduce next day’s special programming (Ban-Ki Moon’s visit and its effect on regional stability)
09:00 – 09:30am: Skype conference with bureau reporters. Line up interviews and phoners with American expats in Islamabad to commemorate 9/11 anniversary.
09:30 – 12:30pm: Edit news packages streaming in from Reuters and Bloomberg. Send local reporter to fetch latest death count for the Federal Investigation Agency headquarter bombing.
12:30 – 2:30pm: Head out. Submit reviewed undergraduate theses to the Greenwich University. Submit notes for following week’s lecture: Storytelling and Catharsis.
02:30 – 4:30pm: Participate at Karachi University’s Journalism conference. Present thoughts as a Jury member.
04:30 – 05:30pm: Lunch. Head back.
05:30 – 07:30pm: Finalize video packages for the next day’s broadcast. Confirm no-go areas (on 9/11 and Ban-Ki Moon reportage) with Executive Producer.
07:30 – 09:00pm: Submit team work hours to HR. Back to pavilion.
09:00 – 11:00pm: Fire away TED Charter For Compassion Documentary brief. EOD

September 10th 2015. Thursday
08:00 – 05:00pm: Commence morning shift.
05:00 – 07:00pm: Prepare notes for local high school guest speaker talk.
07:00 – 09:00pm: Review Ontario Trillium Fund seed grant application.
09:00 – 01:00am: Send out resumes. EOD


Identity Now

My father (abbu) is an American citizen. He made his way with my mother and my siblings to the land of opportunities in the late 90’s, after witnessing one too many untimely demises of his own. My sense of understanding of that time only deepens with the narration of each of the harrowing tales he still reveals during his infrequent trips. These oral histories are a stark silhouette against the faux identity my generation was exposed to by the reigning complicit media of the time; a testament to the emotional trauma his generation experienced. To be perpetually cognizant of a presence lurking and laying a fierce claim to your life – simply because you are born with an imagination and not with a padlock. This fear is the price one has to pay to continue to function. Abbu is a man who escaped persecution as a Shiite in Pakistan only to find a disgruntled patch of ‘unimaginative leeches’ in his adopted country, he quips.

While the seams came off for him a couple of decades ago, I chose to not detach myself from the servitude I opened my eyes in. When I think about it hard during the wee hours of the morning, I realize I’m not the hero we always imagine we’ll grow up to be. Some would call me a fool. The hunted remains haunted, the game never ends. Geography rarely intercedes, evil remains evil. The color of your skin, your proximity or your intention does not minimize damage. Calling it ‘collateral damage’ does not make this world a safer place. The smallest coffins are the worst. Filthiest of the beaches are the ones witnessing the haunting carrion presence of the unfortunate habitants of those coffins. ‘How can you be callous and drywall your identity from what’s happening on the same patch of land you share the same sun with, where’s your compassion?,’ he once said. ‘Do you not think there would be some sort of cosmic justice for your indifference?’ I didn’t say much. Brown parents don’t usually understand the term emotional trauma or PTSD. Maybe they can’t allow themselves to. Because they sense the arc of this trauma might points towards them.

Last month I was sitting with my 80 year old abbu at the Toronto lakeshore beach. He recalled something he had read. “For your brother, offer your blood and your wealth; for your enemy your justice and fairness, and for people in general your joy and your good favor.” His eyes twinkle when he talks about a just world. There are no interlocutors in his story yet I can feel who is it directed to, and the sense of betrayal emanating from him. This is not a riddle, the answer is right there. He identified with a just society and was left wanting. I had feared this self-identification with justice, my servitude to justice, this concept I had begun a life-long affair with, this pivot from the status quo meant I would forever live in a void. An abyss that would consume me. But I thank heavens for Loren Eiseley who potentially saved hundreds of starfish, and most certainly the life of this humble scribe from an untimely and potentially anticlimactic demise.

My drivel aside, I recognize the exigency of accurate learning from his experiences, the tales he’s been telling, and the steely dispassion he still exhibits. To not let the seams hold you afar from justice, to not be hemmed in by the enormity of the stake empathy carves out of you. And to be able to introspect and see what others like him might fear, and see the world through their eyes. But yet be able to take a step back again and proselytizing for the greater good. He might not have wherewithal to bring about the tectonic shift that he expected from himself and his life, but he certainly developed a capacity for empathy of the world around him.

For better or for worse, I have inherited his understanding of the putative power of a Just world. Last week, I made friends from Israel, Hungary, Ireland, Croatia, India, Germany, Pakistan, Australia, South Africa, Barbados and the US come together for what we believe to be Canada’s first interfaith picnic. No more kicking the same can of differences, just conversations of catharsis about the Genocide, Holocaust and Karbala. These were Canadians who wanted to talk about faith and in the abiding hope of good. Editing a short video and a photo-essay last night, I realized this is a way to caper through the various facile divides we feel hemmed in these days.

And there was opposition to this idea of the interfaith picnic as well.

There were friends who recruited, warned and talked about their own experiences of trauma, hate and apathy. Will the retelling of what transpired with you make mine, or someone else’s less visceral? I have a long way to go, I am told. New immigrants learn in good time. The description of this world is not pleasant, much similar to the one I left behind. The preface was conflicted, disappointing, and so raw with all the ugliness that I wanted to violently shove the vision away – I did not believe. Because I want to believe in a better Canada where I can just be a Canadian.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”

It took successive carding sessions this year for me to recognize what I may have stepped into. And believe me I do not want to make the news ticker or the seven o’clock headlines.

So I swallow and try to not be offended by musings like ‘oh you do not sound like a new immigrant’.

So what were you doing in Afghanistan Sir? I was the creative director for a major international development behavioral marketing project.

What was the purpose of your trip Sir? I wanted to work as a Canadian expat, despite my growing affection for pouring copious gallons of coffee for customers every day.

A faint smile finally escaped his defenses and we were both again two Canadians, the only apparent difference between us was the tan. I breathed a sigh of relief; confident I am not going to be a statistic after all. Perhaps I have been watching too many shaky videos that appear on American news networks, often too late prefacing the story about the death of a youth in mistaken identity; often far too raw f0r our Canadian sensibilities. Once in the clear, the good man even asks me if he might have seen some of my work. I politely suggest it was a few years ago on BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.

Who I Am and What I Do

Shortly after this episode, I wondered. So if I never manage to become a working news producer again, I must not despair. My list of potential careers increases organically, I have noticed. Meanwhile, the craft according to the grapevine that can ‘set me up to do what I want’ is the real estate business! Ammi (mother) disagrees. She believes no self-respecting Desi family will give a salesman their daughter’s hand in marriage. But Ammi, how many news producers do you think are out there selling condos? She laughs and flings the newspaper at me.

The next day, over a bowl of butter chicken gravy and pasta I get the ‘we told you so’ looks from friends. I am beginning to develop a faint understanding of their Desi redundance. They are not living vicariously though each other’s experiences, they’re just terribly afraid of the unknown. And I can very well be their cautionary tale. I wish I could say I disagree with their fear, and I probably do to a certain extent. But I am becoming less convinced of my place here. The bright side is we live in a beautiful nation that just elected a prime minister who allegedly ‘refused to play the politics of fear’.

Despite the skepticism, I believe we’re en route to reclaim our lost wisdom. It is only fair to consider myself Canada’s keeper despite being a newcomer. How else can I expect her to fend for me?

Meanwhile fact remains, somewhere there’s a file with my name on it.

Keep the conversation going