Saturday, 27 October 2012

WARHEIT MACHT FREI by Naomi Elana Zener

“Welcome to the Hib Yahood Islamic Center,” Alireza announced warmly, as he stood at the entryway of the library, greeting the few dozen men and women arriving for the seminar. “We have a great deal of information to cover tonight, so please quickly grab a coffee and find a seat.”

Men and women, the majority of whom were of Arab descent, but a handful of others whose ethnicity rooted them in British, Indian and a panoply of Eastern European ancestries respectively, excitedly found a chair and quickly pulled out a variety of note-taking devices. Steadying their corresponding notepads, iPads and smart phones in hand, each attendee sat in anticipation trigger happy to annotate the imperative information that Alireza was set to dispense. 

“You are all here in pursuit of the shared goal of attaining Canadian citizenship,” Alireza advised. “I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is for you to correctly recite the information you have learned in these classes on your citizenship test. As my first set of students, I hope that I will have taught you well. If each one of you passes the test with flying colours, then I will be very proud.”

Alireza was a tall, but slight man, the Imam of the center. He had implemented the inaugural twelve-week citizenship syllabus as an outreach program to help his congregants, who were new immigrants to Canada, obtain successfully Canadian citizenship. However, his other motivation stemmed from his desire to open the doors of his Mosque to the community at large so that he could dispel misconceptions about Muslims being anything other than moderate democratic people accepting of all other religions and ethnic groups. When Alireza founded the Mosque, he purposefully co-located it within a Jewish Synagogue so that he could further reinforce that no member of his congregation viewed Jews as infidels.

“Before we begin, we have some visitors in class tonight who are not congregants of the Hib Yahood Islamic Center, but are sitting in so that they can decide if they will enroll in the next session to help them prepare for their test,” Alireza informed the group. “Since tonight is the last class before the big exam, I thought it would be best if I hit you all with rapid fire questions to test your knowledge of Canadian history, politics and culture. If I point in your direction, please answer the question.”

“Mr. Alireza?” a young woman wearing a hijab.

“Yes,” Alireza replied.

“Before we start I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for being a wonderful teacher.  We have learnt amazing things here and I wish everyone success on passing their test,” she said.

“Thank you for your kind words. Now let’s begin. Who can tell me what the two official languages of Canada are?” Alireza asked.

Hands shot up across the room, with even a few of the newcomers participating. Alireza pointed to a young man in a baseball cap.

“English and French,” the young man replied.

“Correct,” Alireza stated. “For the newcomers in the room, I am happy to see that you feel confident enough to try your hand at answering the questions. Do not be discouraged if you get them wrong, or you do not feel ready to participate. This is not a competition. Next question: on which continent is Canada located?”

“North America,” a young man replied.

“Very good,” Alireza advised. “How many provinces are there in Canada?”

“Ten,” a young woman offered. “And two territories.”

“Excellent answer on the provinces, but there are three territories,” Alireza cheered. “Now, who can name all ten provinces and three territories? How about you sir?”

“New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, P.E.I., Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia are the provinces and the territories are Nunavit, Yukon and the Northwest Territories,” an Indian man named Ranjit answered confidently. Ranjit was a British citizen who was new to the group. As a Brit, Ranjit believed that he did not need theses classes to help him obtain Canadian citizenship, but attended to appease his wife who was worried that they may not have learned about Canada accurately at home in the United Kingdom.

“Correct. Is Canada a multi-cultural society?” Alireza asked.

“Of course it is,” Ranjit blurted out.

“Correct sir. I kindly ask you to wait to be called upon as everyone here must get a turn to answer a question or two,” Alireza warned.  Ranjit nodded in solemn understanding acutely cognizant of the fact that he did not want his exuberance and knowledge to be mistaken for British snobbery or rudeness.

“What are three rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?” Alireza queried. “You madam.”

“The right to life, liberty, and security of the person, freedom of speech and religion and the right to be a habeas corpus,” the woman answered.

“Almost correct. You have the right to legal counsel and the guarantee of habeas corpus,” Alireza advised.

“Of course I am guaranteed my corpus,” she retorted, “I have the right to determine what I do with my body in this country! It is not like back home in Saudi Arabia where men tell me what I can or cannot do.”

A collective sea of hijab covered heads bobbed up and down in a sisterhood of understanding.

“Yes you do have that right madam,” Alireza chortled as he attempted to quiet down the brewing discord amongst his Muslim sisters, “but the guarantee of habeas corpus does not speak about your right to govern your body accordingly. Rather, it requires that a person who has been arrested by the police have the right to be brought before a court of law. Let’s move on to Canadian history. Who were the first people of Canada?”

“The Indians,” Ranjit replied confidently after being called upon by Alireza.

“Yes they were first known as Indians because European explorers wrongly concluded that they had landed in the East Indies. However, today we refer to the first people of Canada as Aboriginals,” Alireza reminded the group in correcting Ranjit’s answer.

“Of course, my humble apologies,” Ranjit offered.

“Moving along, who was the first President of Canada?” Alireza inquired.

“Sir John A. MacDonald,” another woman in a hijab answered.

“Yes,” Alireza advised. “And, who is our current President?”

“Stephen Harper,” the same woman answered.  Ranjit shifted in his chair uncomfortably knowing that something was amiss in what he just heard. Rather than rudely interrupt, Ranjit decided to wait for Alireza to self-awaken to the mistakes in his questions.

“And why do we have a President?” Alireza asked.

“Because in 1759, the French were victorious over the British in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Québec City, which marked the end of Britain’s empire in America,” a young man answered. “The French implemented their Republican system of government and that is why Canada now has a President.”

Ranjit, who was not called upon, grew increasingly more agitated, but he continued to bite his tongue.

“What was Canada’s role in the abolition of slavery?” Alireza inquired. This time, Ranjit’s furious wave of his arm could not be ignored and Alireza nodded in his direction to answer the question.

“In answer to your given question, Canada abolished slavery. However, it did so as the first province in the British Empire,” Ranjit started.

“You are partially correct sir,” Alireza clarified, “but it was as the first French colony to do so.”

“Respectfully, I believe that you are mistaken about your Canadian history. Canada was a British colony and to this day recognizes the Queen as its monarch, which is acknowledged by the politically appointed role of Governor General by the Canadian Prime Minister.”

“Sir, as a newcomer to this country, I urge you to sit and listen to the questions as they are correctly answered by the students who have spent twelve weeks in my class learning the material necessary to pass the citizenship test,” Alireza ordered sternly with a stiff smile. “We have a President and we certainly do not have such a ‘Governor General’.”

“But, none of what you are teaching is right,” Ranjit countered.

“Silence please! This information is accurate. Class, I apologize for this interruption. Please rest assured that it will not happen again,” Alireza stated.  “Now, what images are found on Canadian currency?”

“There is a sailboat, a beaver, mountains, oil sands and poutine,” an elderly gentleman replied.

“Wonderful!” Alireza exclaimed. “And what is Rideau Hall?”

“A tax-exempt casino operated by the Aboriginals,” a young boy replied.

“And how did that come to pass?” Alireza inquired.

“The tax-exemption status is part of the reparations to the Aboriginals for the injuries caused to them by the original British colonization of Canada.  When the French defeated the British they implemented legislation granting all Aboriginals the right to establish tax-exempt businesses in former British landmarks.”

“This is ridiculous!” Ranjit erupted. “You do not have oil sands and poutine on your currency. You have images of Prime Ministers and the Queen! And Rideau Hall is where the Governor General resides. I know that what I learned in school in England was the correct history!”

“Sir, I have already warned you to remain quiet. If you continue to disobey me and disrespect this class, I will have no choice but ask you to leave!” Alireza shouted.

“This is insanity! All of your students are going to fail the citizenship exam because what you have taught them is nonsensical malarkey,” Ranjit raged. “First of all, the British beat the French at the Plains of Abraham. Second, the Aboriginals only do not have to pay taxes on reservations…”Ranjit trailed off.

“Sir, you are the one who is spewing claptrap! I am following the standard Canadian government issued curriculum,” Alireza interrupted as he handed the Unearth Canada: A Guide for Canadian Citizenship handbook to Ranjit.

Ranjit began to finger the pages, flipping through them furtively in disbelief that the Canadian government could teach revisionist history in such a blatantly erroneous manner. Shaking his head furiously, colour flushed Ranjit’s cheeks as though he had eaten one to many chili peppers in his curry.

“This is completely confusing to me,” Ranjit blubbered. “We learned such different information back home in England. I don’t understand how a government could simply rewrite history to omit major past chronological events that actually took place. This is not only an affront to the British, but it is a travesty of epic proportions to deny that something so monumental ever occurred.”

“I am shocked by your sense of dismay,” Alireza stated. “For a British person to be so scandalized at the rewriting of history is almost comical since that is what your government is known to do.”

“You offend me sir with your derision of my country!” Ranjit exclaimed.  “Britain does nothing of the sort.”

“I beg to differ. Was it not your beloved Britain that permitted its schools to dispense with teaching its students about the Holocaust so as not to offend the Muslims?” Alireza asked rhetorically.

“Yes, but…” Ranjit stammered.

“Britain’s heinous decision to act like the Holocaust never existed was reminiscent of its former appeasement-style political policies from the Second World War. The Canadian government took remedial action by reformulating all British historical associations with and influence over Canada. After studied reflection, the Canadian government  deemed that by teaching new potential citizens and existing ones about Britain’s role in Canada’s establishment, its history and ascension to the present date, it was perpetrating an injustice upon its Aboriginal founders. Out of respect to its Aboriginal citizens, Canada no longer teaches its people or prospective countrymen and women about Britain’s role in its development so as not to offend its Aboriginal peoples.”

“That is the most outrageous thing I have ever heard in my entire life. The Canadian government should be ashamed of itself!” Ranjit retorted.

“No sir, what is the most ridiculous thing is to lie to a group of people  by omitting one of mankind’s most horrific historical occasions as part of a policy of conciliation rooted in fear of offending a particular group. Britain is now having to accept the consequences of their actions,” Alireza advised.

“I would think that as a practicing member of Islam you would have appreciated Britain’s gesture,” Ranjit replied.

“You could not be more mistaken. Britain’s actions were a personal affront to the congregants of the Hib Yahood Islamic Center. In solidarity, we stand behind Canada’s actions to revise history accordingly. The government was merely following in the footsteps of its once former imperialist colonizer.  There is a saying that the truth will set you free. Perhaps once you and your people learn that, then your government will no longer have to mollify anyone by pretending that the past did not happen.”

Feeling the glare of all eyes targeted at him, Ranjit stood up and skulked out of the Hib Yahood Islamic Center never to return.  Ranjit took hours to walk home with his thoughts, unsure of what he would tell his wife. Upon returning home at two in the morning, Ranjit instructed his wife that they were moving to India, firmly believing that in the homeland of his Indian heritage no one would ever think to distort the events of times gone by.

© 2012. Naomi Elana Zener. All rights reserved.

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