Bring on 2012 (part of Schema Magazine's Mo-Canada column)

So 2012 is here. The Mayans predicted it would be the end of the world. I, on the other hand, believe that this will be one fantastic year.

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since I arrived in Canada and man, has it been a crazy journey so far. Immigration is truly a whirlwind, and sometimes when you’re in the middle of all of it, it’s hard to take a minute and honestly reflect on what’s been happening. In the past 12 months, I was really, really busy. Busy adjusting, busy transitioning, busy learning…and it all never stops.

I needed to take a moment, take a breath and to look back. That’s what new years are for. It’s the one time of year when people—even those usually oblivious—take the time to think what they’d like to change or improve.

It seems like it took the beginning of the ‘end-of-the-world’ for me to pay attention. But the moment has finally come.

As the year began, I woke up one day and realized that I had achieved so many of the dreams that I had previously thought were unattainable.

I used to sit on the other side of the globe and dream of the exact experience I’m going through right now. I wanted to live in another culture, pursue a Master’s degree, and challenge myself. I wanted to meet people from all over the world and live independently.

I wanted to learn more than I could’ve ever learned while in the comforts of my own home.

This is exactly my life now: I’m living in Vancouver, a world away from home. I’m enrolled in one of the world’s top universities. I live on the top floor of a house (back home we don’t live in other people’s houses…ever) with my great South African and Canadian roommates. I’ve met people from Venezuela, Nepal, France, Belgium, Malta, Columbia, India, America, Korea, Denmark, Mexico, China, Iceland, Japan…and so much more.

And if you haven’t read any of my previous column entries, well I’m as far away from the “comfort” of home as I can get. For all of that I am entirely and profoundly grateful and I’ve decided to start 2012 with a sense of appreciation and a commitment to take the time to really experience and reflect on all that is happening around me.

I’ve truly learned so much in Canada. I’ve learned how to keep an open mind and push myself to try new things. How to explain and examine aspects of my own culture that I took for granted. How to be more open to learning more about who I am. How to effectively perform household chores (sigh). How to walk in snow (considering I fell 15 times in the first hour I tired, this IS impressive). How to make a family out of people who don’t share the same name as I do. How to wrap my mind around a massive time difference. How to view massive challenges and setbacks as learning experiences.

Now I can’t wait for all the new things 2012 will bring, all the lessons I will learn and all the people I will meet. This is the year of exploration and I would like to share with you my new year’s resolution: “I dedicate 2012 to discovering, improving and embracing who I am with patience, love, honesty and forgiveness while remaining humble, kind, understanding, appreciative and eternally curious.”

And just because we love Top Ten lists: Here are my top ten resolutions for 2012:

  1. No More McDonald’s (It’s difficult when you live half a block away from one).
  2. Embrace new challenges.
  3. Visit every neighborhood in Vancouver.
  4. Read and write more.
  5. Learn to walk better in snow (I think this one is accomplished already, wooohoo!)
  6. Do or say at least one kind thing to a stranger each month.
  7. Finally accept that it will rain…a lot.
  8. Learn the art of layering my clothes (Oh, Vancouver!).
  9. Buy an unbreakable umbrella (sixth one broken as of today).
  10. Maintain a child-like curiosity and excitement about all that’s happening around me.

What are your resolutions for this year?

The prince of tide (part of Schema Magazine's Mo-Canada column)

Apparently I’m an Arab prince. At least, that’s what my friends used to call me when I first moved to Vancouver.

I wish I could say it was because I walked around trailed by my own private-security entourage‐but no. What prompted the nickname was the look of total confusion and panic on my face when I had to do my own chores.

Allow me to give you an example: It was about three weeks into September and I was down to my last pair of fresh…uh…trousers.

Evidently, my clothes weren’t going to wash themselves.

At this point I knew I had to instill the help of a friend. There was no way I was confronting a communal washing machine alone. I stood there in front of the foreboding thing, my eyebrows bunched together and my hands crossed tightly across my chest. Zelius (my helpful friend) stood by my side. “The card goes here,” he said slowly and pointed.

“Okay,” I said “and where do these go?”

I was holding up items other friends helped me buy when they became concerned at how dazed I looked at the grocery store.

Zelius stared at me. A second passed. Then three.

He took a deep breath and finally said, “You pour that here and those scented-sheets are for the dryer.”

Dryer? It seemed that the adventure just kept getting more complicated. A spin, tumble and fold later I had finally learned how to do my own laundry. I guess this could come across like I’m “pampered.” I’m not. Or more accurately, it depends how you look at it.

In Bahrain, we had a live-in housekeeper. Almost everyone I know there does. I can understand why some people here would think I’m rich and privileged. However, this is totally a matter of perspective and isn’t necessarily accurate.

Markers of wealth differ from culture to culture. Having household help in Bahrain is not one of them. Well, let’s just say it was difficult adapting to living outside my “comfort” zone (pun intended); but I have come a long way.

When I recently decided to move off of campus, I had to clean my room before inspection. My regular routine had consisted almost exclusively of vacuuming. That was just not going to cut it if I was looking to get my security deposit back. Thus started an exercise in finding the most random places that could accumulate dust and polishing like crazy.

‘Battlefield: Bathroom’ was about to begin.

I definitely didn’t feel like royalty when I was down on my knees, scrubbing the back of my toilet-seat. Though, I was proud of myself. It felt like a tremendous amount of growth.

Next, was the bathroom mirror. How on earth do people ever get them to sparkle and shine anyway? The more I tried to clean it, the worse it got. I ended up sheepishly knocking on my neighbour’s door for the Windex 101 mini-course.

I guess I still have some prince left in me after all.

"But you speak English so well!" (part of Schema Magazine's Mo-Canada column)

Have you ever been at a dinner, a party, or any social gathering with Canadians where the topic of being a newcomer comes up? Since moving to Vancouver, I’ve noticed that people will often say something that leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

Here’s an example of a conversation I had with a stranger at a a dinner gathering. We exchanged small talk—I was Egyptian Bahraini, she was Canadian. Then, the inevitable.

Stranger: “No way! Seriously? You must have studied in the States before though?”

Me: “Nope, this is actually my first time in North America or even outside the Middle East really.”

Stranger: “Are you kidding me? But you speak English so well! Are you sure?”

Me: “Uh, yes. I’m sure.”

Stranger: “But you don’t have an accent!”

Me: “Oh really? Well I guess I don’t.”

Stranger: “I mean, like, how did you learn to speak like this?”

Me: “Well, uh, school, I guess. I’m educated?”

Stranger: “But like, you have no accent! Wow, you must have studied in an American school?”

Me: “Well, I did have some American and British teachers yes.”

Stranger: “Wow, that’s crazy! I can’t believe you haven’t been here before and you have no accent. Do other people there also speak English so well?”

I don’t know how to respond to the statement, “But you speak English so well!” I don’t really know, I just do. My accent just happened. It took me a while to get to where I’m at, for sure.

In Bahrain I was in an Indian school until grade four, then I moved to another school with an American curriculum school for a year, followed by a British school and then another American school (all in Bahrain).

Believe me, at one point my accent was a hodgepodge of all the above and it was not pretty.

But I never actively tried to perfect my English. Just ask me to say the word ‘Wednesday’ or a word with multiple ‘T’s in it, like ‘tattletale’. Apparently, these words give me away. I am also definitely not an anomaly; most of my friends back home speak English like me, and some speak it even better.

So when people say, “But you speak English so well!” and expect me to justify my speaking ability, I don’t really know what to say other than, “Yes, I know. I learned it at school.”

This answer usually doesn’t satisfy the person asking. Perhaps they were hoping that I had a cool story, like I was part of a C.I.A ‘Arab de-accenting’ experiment. That might explain why I don’t fit their stereotype of Arabs speaking English, with rolling ‘R’s and guttural sounds. Unfortunately, the truth is I just paid more attention in English class because I was saving my zoning-out energy for math.

Has someone ever said “But you speak English so well!” to you? How did it make you feel?

What's up with your name? (part of Schema Magazine's Mo-Canada column)

One day, I was working out with a friend of mine. We had been there for quite some time, when out of nowhere, a gym employee came up to me.

“Excuse me,” she said. She was holding my Bahraini national I.D. card and looked puzzled. “Is this really your name?” she asked, a little inflection of amused surprise in her voice.

“Yes..?” I said, wiping the torrential sweat off my forehead.

“No way!” she dropped her jaw in disbelief. “Can you read it out to me? How do you say it?”

Oh right. The name. I should have known that’s what this was about. You see, my name has become quite the conversation starter.

It’s always with a little glee that people who know me ask me to bring out my I.D. in gatherings. “Take a look at Mohamed’s name,” they say to an unsuspecting new friend.

It’s become quite funny actually. Sometimes when a conversation lulls and I don’t know the person too well, I tend to whip out my card.

“Hey, have I ever shown you my full name?”

Yup, in Canada I use my name as an ice-breaker.

To help you better understand, let me introduce my name to you. You might want to take a deep breath if you’re going to read this out loud. Here we go: Mohamed Ahmed Abdelghaffar Ateya Ebrahim Algarf.

Think it’s a little long? Allow me to explain. This was the result of a family feud. My mother wanted to name me one name, my father another and each of my three sisters had a suggestion. Eventually, everyone was exasperated and they decided to name me all of them.


I explain this quite often so I might as well have some fun. But here’s the real answer: Mohamed is my first name and Algarf is my surname. The whole name is my paternal lineage. Ahmed is my father, Abdelghaffar is my grandfather, etc. Lineage is very important in Arab culture because family is highly valued. It’s the way things are there, I guess we all have longer names. In fact, I had always assumed that this was the standard everywhere. In Vancouver, people’s names came as a shock to me. When I’m asked for my full name I don’t start reciting this roster—I say Mohamed Algarf. So I pretty much assumed that it was the same thing here and that people introduced themselves with their abbreviated name.

My first time seeing a Canadian passport with just three names was quite the shock, but I think some Canadians remain much more startled by my name. My favorite question I get about it is, “How do kids even memorize their names?”

My answer is: one name at a time, my friend, one name at a time.

What about you? Have you ever gotten confused reactions to your name? Have you ever been in a situation where you had to explain it?

Eid burritos (part of Schema Magazine's Mo Canada column)

With Eid al-Adha around the corner on Monday November 7, I remember how I spent my first Eid in Canada last year—I ate burritos.

If you don’t know about Eid, let me explain what it is, and how I usually celebrate it in Bahrain (hint: not with burritos).

Twice a year, Arabs and Muslims around the world are swept up in a festive fervor for Eid. There’s Eid al-Adha (also known as Feast of Sacrifice or Festival of Sacrifice), and Eid al-Fitr (also known as Feast of Fast-Breaking or the Lesser Feast). The dates for the two Eids change each year based on the Islamic calendar.

Much like Christmas in the ‘Western’ world, there’s no way you could miss it. The sense of celebration is palpable everywhere you go and with everyone you meet.

When I lived in Bahrain, celebrating Eid was one of the highlights of the year for my eight nephews and nieces. Every year, there would be a new outfit for each day of the holiday, and they were always super excited. The older kids would walk into my father’s house, where we all gathered, and beam with pride as they showed off their new clothes. The younger kids would be dressed in what their parents had painstakingly chosen as the most gush-worthy ensembles.

As the children got more and more excited, we would ask them all to quiet down. They would look at each other, grin and sit cross-legged on the floor. They knew they’d each get one gift. In the past few years, they’ve gotten everything from toys to live turtles.

My nieces and nephews in Bahrain, getting gifts during Eid.

As you get older, you would get an ‘eid-eya’, a holiday allowance. In my family’s tradition, we would then usually go have dinner together somewhere nice. It always seemed as if the whole country was out and about. The roads would be crowded, people would look and smell their best and almost every child looked like they were high on joy.

After eating with my family, I would usually meet my friends to hang out, smoke some hookah or party.

…So now you see why my friends scoffed in disbelief at how I spent my first Eid in Canada.

Honestly, if it weren’t for my Facebook newsfeed I would’ve forgotten. I asked two Muslim friends of mine if we could have lunch together. Being three international students and away from home, we all got quite excited at the idea. The three of us walked around campus trying to decide where to eat. We eventually landed in a burrito restaurant. After making the tough decision of whether I want to go with chicken or beef, the three of us sat down and chatted. The conversation was very interesting.

We talked about different Islamic interpretations, stereotypes of Muslims and our personal views. I was really glad I didn’t have to spend my first Canadian Eid alone, even if I was broke, gift-less and staring at a menu with words that I couldn’t understand (“What is a ‘tamale’ anyway?”).

With my friends at the burrito restaurant for Eid.

Nevertheless, my mind kept drifting to what my family was doing and what surprises my sisters had planned for the kids. I wondered if my friends were at our favorite Karaoke bar, singing our signature songs. I also couldn’t help thinking that if I was with family, I would’ve gotten an ‘eid-eya’ and the choice of whether to buy another burrito or not wouldn’t have been so difficult.

But this year, I’m more prepared.

I had flown back to Bahrain this past August and managed to catch Eid-al-Fitr with my family. As I savored every moment of the celebrations, I had come to a realization: Eid is about the sharing. It’s about sharing food, laughter and happiness. Eid is about family: the one you were born with or the one you create along the way. This past year I’ve formed a Canadian family—a group of people from around the world I’ve come to love and cherish.

This Eid, I’m having them over for a potluck.

I’m going to decorate my apartment and take a wild stab at cooking some of my favorite Eid dishes (or more realistically, panic in the background as my roommates try to salvage the situation). I’m always going to miss spending Eid with my actual family and friends in Bahrain and Egypt. But Vancouver is a third home now, and it’s about time I start my own ritual here.

I wonder if at one point, years from now, if I’ll look back and feel a bittersweet pang when I think of my first Eid potluck. I sure hope I do.

Until then, I might even make a burrito lunch on the first day of Eid mandatory!

What about you? Have you had to adapt any of your celebrations or festivities in a new city or a new country? Did you manage to make the event your own while holding on to traditions that you love?

I’d love to hear from you.

Immigration, the sequel (part of Schema Magazine's Mo Canada column)

Two things I’ve learned (among many others): 1. It’s the little things that shape the immigrant experience. 2. How to tell the difference between British pounds and Canadian toonies.

I was born an immigrant.

My Egyptian parents had been living in Bahrain for a while before I was born there. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I became a Bahraini citizen.

I had always been aware that I was different, somewhere in between Egyptian and Bahraini. At the heart of it, both those countries are Arab, Muslim majority countries. They have a lot in common, but they also don’t.

Some differences are obvious. The Egyptian dialect is quite different than the Bahraini one. The moment I opened my mouth and started speaking Arabic I was identified. Other differences are more subtle, such as differences in how to greet someone or what to say in a funeral.

I had always been aware that I was different, somewhere in between Egyptian and Bahraini.

To me, it’s those little things that sneak up on you, or that you can’t really figure out, that shape the everyday immigrant experience.

There are different languages or dialects, different customs, different weather conditions, different job markets, different public transportation, etc. But some other things you really don’t expect or foresee, things that are minuscule in scale but that could be quite profound in effect. Things that could frustrate you or make you smile, things that could make you feel foreign or make you realize something about your own culture that you never really stopped to analyze.

To me, it’s those little things that sneak up on you, or that you can’t really figure out, that shape the everyday immigrant experience.

Today I am a different kind of immigrant, and everyday I learn something new about myself, Canada or my own culture. I came to Vancouver a little over a year ago to pursue my Masters of Journalism at UBC. From my first night in Canada, I started experiencing things differently and really realizing that I’m in a country strange to me.

I had just reached the on-campus residence where I was to live. It was a long trip with a 10-hours layover in London, England. As I passed the vending machine, I realized how hungry I was. I jiggled some coins out of my wallet and just stared at them. Queen Elizabeth stared back at me.

Which ones were the British and which were the Canadian? Do I even have Canadian coins? Wait, is Canada still under British rule? What’s the Queen even doing here?

I must have been quite the sight: a big, confused, disheveled, red-eyed Middle Eastern man who was shivering from cold and staring intently at a fistful of coins.

Luckily, someone passed by and helped me out without being too alarmed at my appearance. Since then, I’ve figured out that Canada is not really the Brits’ and I can tell a toonie apart from a £2 coin.

I must have been quite the sight: a big, confused, disheveled, red-eyed Middle Eastern man who was shivering from cold and staring intently at a fistful of coins.

My impressive list of cultural adjustment does not end there however.

In this column, I’ll be sharing some of my experiences with you. I’ve learned a lot about Canada and I’ve come to see things about the Middle East and myself from a new perspective.

I can’t wait to share all of that with you.


Voices from amidst the silence

Sometimes I wondered if it was all worth it. The battle between my inherent nature against the hate I hear around me and that has tried to ingrain itself into my soul since childhood. No, I wasn't born fighting for the liberty of others, or even my own. I wasn't taught to love whoever is different. I learned that myself. Largely because I myself do not fit into the solid parallel lines that people call culture. To me these lines have always been blurred.


Trying to fit in is not an easy task for any youth whatever their religion, ethnicity or nationality is. We all struggle at one point or the other to find who we are and what type of people we feel wholesome with. For a period of my life all I could hear around me was the voice of what I believed to be a majority. The people who preferred themselves over others due to an aspect in them that they were sure was superior. Whether it be that God chose them, that their genes make them worthier or that their culture is truly the only right way to live.


Inside me something thought differently. I wasn't convinced that I was worthier than everyone else because of such prejudiced factors. If anything makes a person worthier than the other, in my mind, it was their intentions, their actions and most importantly their compassion towards anyone and anything that shares this life with us. But for the longest most regretted time I lost my voice and could not stand up for what I believe. Mainly because I was afraid that I alone had these thoughts. That I alone would bear the burden of compassionate thinking while everyone else sneered at me. 


But then I grew up. I understood why stereotypes exist. I realized that prejudice is not only hateful but a defense mechanism. That it is so much more than people just not knowing the other. Sometimes they don't want to know. I found myself cringing and my eyes tearing up while watching news about war and terrorism. While people cheered because "their side had a victory", I was busy imagining how a child who doesn't even know what an ideology is becomes scarred for life. I did not care whose "side he/she was on".


Slowly and steadily I found my voice. I learned, I read and I observed. I transformed from a child into a man a long time before turning the legal age of 21. I objected to people who in their minds turned Jews into monsters. Who want to burn seculars or atheists at a stake. People who would rather point a machine-gun at a Muslim than shake his hand. The misguided who believe Christians should be treated inferiorly. Who laugh at the rituals of other religions and other cultures. Who disrespected their maids and called them barbarians. Who abused their drivers and chefs because they were intellectually inferior. My soul screamed 'enough' and out of my mouth came an argument. Have you forgotten that 'they' are humans too? That everyone believes, hopes, dreams, loves, loses and grieves? Shame on you.


And then I was a university student. For the first time Christians, Jews and people of other nationalities became not only an idea I was defending but an inseparable reality in my life. They became friends. They became family. They became people I talk to. In them I found the same struggle. Some of them like me, have been fighting for my rights as "the other". Some of them felt alone while fighting for a minority. Here we were, initially two strangers, who fought for each others' rights. Now we love each other and we fight even harder than the nail and tooth battle we had previously thrown ourselves into. We fight for each other and for countless faces who want to love but find themselves faced with a brick wall of inequality. Little by little I discovered I was not alone. I met many people who think similarly. They could come from the same background as me or be raised in a different culture with a different ideology. What I previously thought was only me, suddenly started gaining numbers. My life was flooded with people who want to and do stand up for what they believe is right. I was not a lone wolf but a part of a pack.


I had initially wondered if it was worth it. When in my mind I see the faces of friends: Sandra a Christian, Ali a Shi'ite, Jake a Jew and Khaled an atheist, when i see the faces of random people who could belong to any denomination, when I see a person screaming in pain due to a terrorist act, I do not wonder anymore. I know it is more than just worth it. It is a way of life that might sometimes be a struggle but that nonetheless brings me so much closer to my own humanity, to my own beliefs and to my own roots. That allows me to drop the facade of being just another person living with ideas that were unfairly fed to me. Through what we all share, I find what is unique in myself. And I yell in battle for those who's voices are silenced.