This week, a Quebec City mosque was attacked by a gunman during prayers on Sunday evening, killing six people and injuring five others. While both Canadian and American media reported on the Sainte-Foy tragedy, a number of outlets (including Fox News and TVA) mistakenly identified one of the suspects as Mohamed Belkhadir, a Muslim man who was actually helping victims of the shooting. As vigils were held across the country, the aftermath has reignited the conversation about Islamophobia and xenophobia in a province that's historically no stranger to either.
Yassin Alsalman, aka Narcy, is an Iraqi-Canadian rapper, actor, professor, and activist, who has collaborated with acts including A Tribe Called Red, Yasiin Bey, and others. He's also a co-founder of artist collective The Medium. Below, he reflects on the experience of immigrating to Montreal with his parents, and how musicians, journalists, and the public can positively impact Canada's political narrative.
Quebec is not the warmest of places. Sure, Canada seems more polite and welcoming than our neighbours to the south—especially at the moment—but it can be hyperborean out here for an Arab. Here lines are drawn linguistically and culturally. Montreal, located at the knee of Quebec, stands as a place of free expression when it comes to self-identification; all our communities are proud. Yet this province can be isolating, conflicted—disconnected yet intertwined. It's all such a confusing and beautifully overwhelming trilingual conversation. J'adore Montréal.
My father and mother were born and raised in Iraq. Iraqis were fly in the 60s, man. When you see pictures from Baghdad back then, you would think they had their own Woodstock. My grandfather was the mayor of Basra. Life was good. But the Arab world was being meddled with more and more. Dictators were propped up in Iraq, Syria, Libya—all over the place, a Godfather-esque takeover started forming. That first, or even second wave, of post-colonial Arab started moving west.
I saw my parents struggle in the 80s while teaching us a proud knowledge of their heritage. They moved us to Montreal in search of a new identity; they had parents' intuition that things were going to get worse in Iraq. They tried to learn French, start a business, work jobs, raise a family while getting accustomed to a different culture. We watched two wars in Iraq on television together. Running for home took its toll on them. Reflecting back, I can see now, they were torn between their two worlds. It was difficult on them, every bomb pounding their hearts down. And I inherited that in a more detached, yet present identity crisis as I got older. And I saw many of my friends' families, with the exact same paths, families split, and remodeled in culture. The Desi, the Indigenous, the African, the Arab, the everybody. This is a new identity that is a big part of Canada's makeup. The children of the visitors. The international. It is something you are going to have to get used to. We, the immigrants, are the face of North America.
There is an inner dialogue most of my generation have had about belonging. Who are we? Torn between where we are from and where we are at. The public narrative on the Arab/African/Muslim has recently been the immigrants, the militants, or refugees. In each one of those public conversations, there is an issue. Immigrant means you don't belong here. Militant means you should be feared. Refugees means you need saving. Where is the power in any of those definitions of us? The only time an Arab is applauded is when he is richer than you. This is ever present in every occidental nation I go it, if they call them that any more.
I have watched violence take over all the cultures in my life. Hip-hop, Iraq, North America. Power has been abused across the board, worldwide. Too many people are dying due to the language of violence, the vitriol of war. We have allowed voices of violence to permeate every level of visceral mediation. We are numb. The stuff you see on YouTube is of our nightmares, but it's real. Our children deserve a world free of war, a narrative of positive thought and healthy living. We are the sum of our histories intertwining. Let us not allow our story to be written for us, but by us.
A couple of summers ago, during the issuance of Bill 60, people all over the news in Quebec were talking about niqabs like they were weapons. Charters of values and what have you, rights of passage, reasonable accommodation—every year, there seemed to be a new condescending way of saying we accept you, but it's never going to be about you here. That is the manifestation of an urge to culture control. But culture should travel and move freely, influence positively where it can. This is what I learned being a child of the diaspora: you are home where you stand. But Quebec had a huge, and public, discussion centered around displays of religion, the conversation predominantly focused on Islam and how it influences people.
What does xenophobia do when it spreads over the airways? How does the fear of other nations build a national identity based on diversity? How do you think shootings, such as the one at the mosque in Sainte-Foy, happen? As Marshall McLuhan said, what we can do, or plan to do about this obsolete inheritance has yet to be faced. We do not deal with the elephant in the room, we throw peanuts at it to keep it in its place. How is an AK so readily available? It perplexes me to think we are still having these conversations.
If I've learned one thing growing up in Montreal, it's that love grows and hate spreads. We, as a generation, should hold political narrative in this country as we do music and culture; live it with royal criticism, treat it with loyal respect, and the promise of love. It is ours.
As a citizen of this world and a media creator, I urge all news, art, and music platforms to reach into our communities outside of tragedies and newsfeed clickbait. Our community is vibrant and creative beyond your imagination, which why you probably don't see us. Start addressing the disease and not the symptoms. Racism is not cool. Bigotry is not lit. Xenophobia is not the next xany to pop. Let the world know, because the kids already do. You give bullies platforms to reach the top, you don't question until it's too late. We have confused celebrity with power. Let's do the work. As Nas said, "Love changes, a thug changes, and best friends become strangers."
We can co-exist in the most beautiful of ways and we do so often. But January 29th will always be a reminder. This reality is a by-product of a poor history of dealing with culture and people in Canada. Those fathers deserved better. Our fathers deserved better. I know for the Muslim community, the Arab community, the African community, this is another moment that proves that we are actually the ones under attack everywhere we go, verbally and physically. But we are a strong people and we will not be intimidated. We are resilient. As resilient as the faith of an Indigenous culture at home.
Rest in peace to Azzeddine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkarim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou, and Ibrahima Barry.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un.
Je me souviendrai toujours Quebec.
Aho mitakuye oyasin. Peace and love to and from Turtle Island.
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up for the victims of the shooting and their families, donate here.
Yassin Alsalman is on Twitter.