Last week I was in the emergency room of my local hospital being poked and prodded with needles, having more blood drawn than I was comfortable with and hooked up to various machines as doctors tried to figure what was wrong. During those several hours, I kept thinking about Democracy Xchange 2019. I had been invited to participate in DXC19 by the Inspirit Foundation who generously supported my attendance, and I had been looking forward to the conference for weeks before my sudden emergency room stay. So a few days after that hospital visit and after one of the hardest weeks of my life, I boarded a flight to Toronto for Democracy Xchange unsure whether it was a good idea to go, but hopeful for the possibility of healing and learning through a new experience. It was an incredible weekend, and here are some of my take-aways from the conference.
It’s summer time and there’s no better time to find great books, support your local bookstore and open up your bookshelf to authors you wouldn’t normally try. Below, a haul of (some) books during a recent trip to Toronto and my thoughts of a book that is quite possibly my favourite read of all time.
Cities are people to me, and whether it was my first trip to Toronto many years ago, trips thereafter, moving to Toronto for graduate school in 2010, or moving back to Toronto in March 2014, it’s always felt like Toronto and I are courting. Will this be my long -term city? The question has surfaced again and again in my heart and mind over the past few years, and been the subject of many audio stories and blog posts and late night cups of tea. Toronto has always been a love who is different and unexpected and challenging, and who is constantly asking me step up and become more. Toronto can drive me crazy, push me, break my heart sometimes but ultimately, it is a place where I feel intensely happy and fulfilled. In particular, this past year in Toronto has been one of the most incredibly challenging and beautiful years of my life to date, and has taught me so much. In response to that long asked question however, a couple of weeks ago I packed my things and came home to visit before I begin God-willing, a new chapter in a different city soon. Preparation for what lies ahead is often aided by learning from your experiences, and before that move, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the lessons of the past 12 months. A list of brief reflections/lessons is underneath the audio story below.
1) You cannot go backwards in time and recreate an experience.
One of the keys to contentment and adjustment I’ve discovered is that I need to create enough space in my heart for an experience and a place to unfold. When I moved to Toronto as a graduate student, I realised that the way to feel happy in the city was to not compare it to Vancouver, and to deflect questions about which city I liked better. I love both cities for entirely different reasons and avoiding comparison allowed me to fall deeply in love with Toronto and appreciate the unique characteristics that make it an incredible place to live. Similarly, when I moved this year, it quickly became clear that my experience with the city would be entirely different to my previous experiences. I was no longer a student, I had been away for two years, and in many ways it felt like I was moving to a new city that felt slightly familiar, but otherwise was very very new. Allowing the city and I to get to know each other anew was important, and towards this end, it was important to create new rituals that allowed for new definitions and understandings of Toronto to unfold.
2) It is possible to become more comfortable with uncertainty. And you really don’t need very many things to be happy.
By nature, I am someone who is not good with change and uncertainty. I like it when things stay the same. I can’t handle plot-heavy novels because I stress out about the main characters. I feel sad when the gelato flavours at my favourite cafes change. I mourn furniture changes when I come home to visit. All in all, it takes me a while to process new things. And while all these things are still true, this year has helped me to become much more comfortable with the unknown, and to learn that instead of becoming overwhelmed by change and uncertainty, all I can do is do the best I can with the day that is before me. In the past 12 months I’ve moved 4 times (3 times within Toronto and then back to Vancouver), and lived with 2 suitcases (I didn’t bring any books) for the entire time. Aside from groceries, every time I’ve wanted to purchase something, I thought about it several times beforehand, and by the time I asked myself the questions of “How will I move it? Where will I store it? Do I really need it?” several times, I usually realized it was something I could do without. In August I had a trip home scheduled, and it was time to move from the apartment I was in, so though I hadn’t found a new apartment yet, I packed my things, left them with a friend and went home for three days. When I returned I started a new job the next day and only retrieved my things a few days later, but I still had everything I needed with me in the little backpack I had taken to Vancouver. I found a new apartment the next week, but the lesson that you actually need very little, and that uncertainty can only be lived through one moment at a time has stayed with me. This year has taught me to become better at something I find very difficult: trusting and letting go.
Almost a year ago, I visited Toronto to see if the city and I were still in love, and whether it was time to live here again. Seriously Planning had its first in person events at that time. A few months later, I moved from the West Coast, and the months since then have been unexpected, challenging, full, educational and beautiful.
Above all, the most important “settlement agency” that has helped me with the (still ongoing!) transition has been the *very small* (but very exciting!) Seriously Planning bookclub that has met regularly over the past several months to discuss different books. Though the books have been very different from one another, at each session we’ve shared our feelings about what we’ve read, the lessons we’ve learnt from our reading, the questions each book has raised for us, and the way reading each book has altered/impacted the way we are in the world. We’ve tried to pick books that help us reflect and grow, and the experience of actively reflecting both individually and collectively on each book has been transformational. Even more importantly than the amazing books though, the people that have come to each session have become very important people in my life – this is the circle I come to when things seem confusing to me, when I feel homesick, when I’m upset that I’m not doing the transition with as much grace and tranquility as I would hope. Whatever the challenge, the bookclub circle has been generous, wise and patient and I’m very, very grateful for its presence in my life! Would you like to join? We’re holding two events this December (details below), but if there are any additional events, the details will be posted on the Facebook page first.
For readers who aren’t in Toronto/aren’t able to meet in person, please do share! What are the books you’ve read this year that left an imprint on your heart? It’s cold and snowy in Toronto, and I’d love to make a winter reading list.
About four years ago, I ran a storytelling program called Terry Tales. Before it began, I imagined a “Moth-style” event where from the very first event, people would enthusiastically tell stories about their lives to a group of strangers.
What I discovered instead is that it takes time and confidence to realize that you have a story and experience to share. Instead of providing a space for performances, our events were about a circle of chairs, an open room, and tea and cookies to break the ice. The conversation was intimate, unexpected and dynamic, and participants ranged from first year students, to PhD candidates to recent alumni/young professionals in the wider community. Every event was different because the participants grew each time, we blogged about the conversation afterwards, and many participants shared with us how important these bi-monthly gatherings became to them.
I stopped holding these events when I moved to Toronto for grad school, but Terry Tales taught me about the importance of spaces of community and the power of stories. Whenever I’ve moved in the past, whether it was to Toronto four years, or to Vancouver two years ago, or most recently, back to Toronto this March, it’s been important to me to find non-alcoholic centric spaces for discussion, and to find others who were striving to grow spiritually, develop strong family relations, make deep community contributions, create/appreciate heart-nourishing art, live healthily, and protect the planet. So much of the time, the conversations I have about faith are from the standpoint of explaining oneself, and so its always been important to also find people with whom to have proactive, positive conversations that widen and deepen my understanding of what it means to live faithfully in the world. The further I get from my undergraduate experience, the more questions I have, and the richer these conversations become.
Now that I’m back in Toronto, I’d like to create a space for conversation on a regular basis. In many ways coming back to Toronto has been like moving to a new city altogether, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time listening and learning through one on one chats and large group settings. In large groups it’s been beautiful (for example) to witness the passionate debate at Canada Reads about how we understand difference, belonging, colonialism and marginalization in Canada today, to learn about the NFB documentary Highrise about the experience of living vertically in Toronto today, to participate in a Muslim Chaplaincy discussion about how people with disabilities experience inaccessible mosques, and to hear beautiful expressions from students of how faith and art connect, among other experiences. In small settings, it’s been wonderful to exchange stories and perspectives over long chats and multiple cups of coffee.
Both encounters have been a reminder that that this is a city of countless stories, and telling and hearing our stories matter. Sharing one’s experience with others can be an act of discovery and identity formation, and for listeners, stories can act as both an entryway to unfamiliar perspectives and experiences and a bridge to discovering others with experiences similar to your own. In this spirit, Seriously Planning will, God-willing, offer programs on a regular basis on storytelling, books, dialogue and reflection.
For March, here are our upcoming events:
March 24th: Seriously Planning Stories
For either these events, please email seriously (dot) planning (at) gmail.com (or RSVP on the FB event page) to confirm your attendance. Hope to meet you soon!
” What makes our work relevant is love. We need love. The Prophet’s love was a source of productivity for those around him. He built the souls of the people around him. People whose hearts are filled with love, their work never stops because their work is driven by love and not by expectation. The absence of this from our life makes our life heavy. It makes a difference when we do things with love. If we have love of God and His Messenger, we see that love in our interactions with each other. Rather than claiming your rights and responsibilities and asking about your responsibilities and rights, instead of expecting, just love others. ~Shaykh Ahmad Saad Al-Azhari, Toronto Grand Mawlid, Jan 1st 2014.
At the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga on January 1st, 2014, I sat in the audience of the theatre with 1300 other people listening and participating in poetry and songs in praise of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. At end of that powerful, moving event, Habib Ali al-Jifri, a spiritual educator from Yemen concluded the evening with a beautiful prayer for all of the attendees, for the state of the world, for peace outwardly and inwardly, and made special mention of the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto. He spoke about the Chaplaincy as a project that is doing critical work to support youth during a transformational period of their lives, commended those involved, and spoke how the project needs to be supported in order to continue its work. (To learn more about making a sustainable contribution, please see here.)
Earlier in the day, I had been at a lunch titled “A Prophetic Model of Islamic Chaplaincy” at the IMO Mosque in Toronto to learn more about the Muslim Chaplaincy’s success in its first year, and what it needs to become a financially sustainable organization. As a student at the University of Toronto when the Chaplaincy was an idea, to visiting Toronto a year ago and meeting the Chaplain and attending the initial programming, to returning back to the city now, it was a delight to see how the project had grown and developed in the intervening months. There was a blog post recently on Seriously Planning on Faith Friendly Communities, and this event was a reminder that strong communities require proactive organizing and investment to make change happen.
The event started with Amjad Tarsin, the Muslim Chaplain at the University of Toronto talking briefly about their success over the first year, (more information about their work can be found in their 2012-2013 Impact Report here) and the philosophy that governs their actions. A video was also shown of a student named Zahra that was a beautiful, moving reminder that student support looks different for each student, and a university has to address issues of spiritual wellbeing and a positive university experience in ways that resonate with a diverse student body.
Below, a few comments from the different guest speakers who spoke at the event:
Our philosophy is about three things. Embrace. Engage and Empower.
We start with embrace because people want to feel valued. And so through our programming we let people know that we care. We also engage with students spiritually, intellectually, and socially through educational programming, film screenings and other events, and empower students with the tools they need in order to understand key issues and have confidence in their faith. There are other campus ministries at the University of Toronto that have been established for decades, and with nearly 5000 Muslim students at the St.George campus alone, it is important that Muslim students also have the resources they need to succeed.
MSAs and chaplains are two different things. An MSA does not have the resources or skills to support students theologically. The genius of Islamic civilization was that it created structures and institutions to meet the needs of the environment it was in. Minarets, domes and tiles are not in the Prophet’s peace and blessings be upon him original mosque, but they serve a specific purpose and function that is beneficial to the surroundings. The same is true for madressas, muftis and ijazas. The development of new things to respond to circumstances is a perennial issue.
In the Nawawi Foundation’s first trip to China we learnt about the system of female imams, and asked what made someone suitable to be a female imam. They showed us Mariam, who looked the same as everyone else, and said that since she was a young girl, she loved to come to the mosque and help people.The core competencies identified for this role were love of God and love of people. China is primarily Hanafi (a particular school of Islamic law), so these people were not leading prayers. Instead the female imam is a spiritual guide, a spiritual leader, a teacher, someone who can deal with family problems. The community recognised that there is too much work to do to leave for volunteers alone.Th ey knew they needed a paid position to meet the needs of community, and this paid position came out of the 10% that everyone gave out of their income to support the needs of the community.
We need people who love to help others. Helping people, chaplaincy work requires a certain firasa, a certain insight about people. The Prophet peace and blessings be upon him always looked at people directly in the face. He was with people fully. It’s not about mechanically doing what he did. it’s about having the attitude that I am here as long as you need me to be. A chaplain is fully there. It’s a professional role. Often we put too much focus on buildings and not on people. But we live in a time of great dislocation. How many times in our life do we move? When we invest in people, the knowledge that they get goes with them wherever they go. The tradition of growing in community in one place is rare, and chaplains are important for transitionary populations. In jails, in hospitals, in universities, in these environments chaplains are important. Our tradition tells us “to be in this world as a traveller.” And in the past there were the caravanserai. They were endowments for Muslim travellers that offered help if a person needed help. Chaplaincies are like the caravanserai of old.
We are all refugees. We have not been able to form communities in productive manners. Buildings don’t make people. They don’t develop people. We have a building fetish. We have buildings but no imams. Al-Azhar is not the building. Azhar is a way. it’s a practice. It doesn’t go away even if the building goes away. It’s a methodology. We have to think, “Have we left something for our children? Is there a mantle for them to take on? Or is there no mantle to assume?” It’s good for people here at this event to know about the chaplaincy, but other people, and other people still, need to know. We need to tell others. Not every student of sacred knowledge can be an chaplain. A chaplain deals with issues beyond textual issues. They deal with emotional issues. Bereavement issues. It takes resources, training, sacrifice. Doesn’t work with volunteers. If serious about developing communities, need to develop these resources. It’s not charity. The best people need to be supported in these roles.
Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him himself carried out the training of young people. The word qawm (community) is not necessary people linked to by lineage or by location. It’s people linked in any way. Can have a qawm of profession. Muslim have become very unwelcoming to people with difficulties. People’s souls are very tired. They don’t need more discourse but they need to talk. People don’t find people who will listen to them. Prophet gave us a methodology. He said that we must have have good character and a cheerful face. Cannot run short of these two. At the same time though, still need training. The second thing the Prophet did was that he spoke to people’s minds. He addressed them intellectually. And finally he made dua (supplication) for people. So we see in the example of the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him that he addressed people’s social side, their intellectual side and their spiritual side.
Let us renew our pledge of mercy and service. Of high morals and ethics.
Lets recognise something that we have in Canada that we don’t want to lose. That we can grow and protect if we choose. Libraries are modern community hubs, interactive educational haunts where people meet across communities, interests, generations. As things in our world seem to become wired, complex and isolated, we need public places of learning, access and invitation more than ever. Canada really is a country of libraries…”
Jian Ghomeshi, 3 Cheers for Libraries, Dec 20th Q Opening Essay.
I found myself nodding yesterday listening to Jian Ghomeshi’s essay on the excellence of Canadian libraries. A couple of years ago I looked at the creation of the City Library in Surrey, BC and the Toronto Reference Library Re:vitalize project, and what I discovered was that great cities are home to exceptional libraries. Libraries produce public culture and are a physical manifestation of “shared meanings and values of public life” (Leckie and Hopkins, 2002, p.327). Central libraries in particular, “make a physical statement about the library as an integral part of civic culture, and make visible a symbolic statement about knowledge in society“ (p.327). Developing vibrant, creative and financially robust cities requires active public spaces, strong communication channels and iconic places (Landry, 2008), and the Surrey City Centre Library and the Toronto Reference Library Re:vitalize project embody all three of these qualities in different ways. The Surrey City Centre Library places a greater emphasis on public space, and is part of the City of Surrey’s attempt to transform Whalley, “Surrey’s least desirable neighbourhood” (Sinoski, 2011) into a new high-density downtown core. The Toronto Reference Library on the other hand, focuses on the development of knowledge and positions Toronto as part of a worldwide scholarly and information conversation. How these projects act as public spaces, communication channels and iconic buildings, connect to a broader vision of their respective cities.
To be creative cities, cities today need a mix of both soft and hard infrastructure. Hard infrastructure are things like roads that connect the city, whereas soft infrastructure create pathways for people to meet one another, exchange ideas and develop relationships (Landry, 2008, p.xxiii). To create soft infrastructure, the development process must shift to include considerations of how design nurtures and encourages communication between different people (p.xxiii). Soft infrastructure means that a city has an abundance of “third places”, defined as “neither home nor work where people can be together” (p.xxiii). A range of spaces in the city qualify as third places; they are quiet or energetic spaces, spaces that incorporate green elements and other aesthetic features, and spaces that are equipped with technological features (p.xxiii). Public spaces contribute to creativity because they allow people to “go beyond their own circle of family, professional and social relations. The idea of the public realm is bound up with ideas of discovery, of expanding one’s horizons, of the unknown, of surprise, of experiment and of adventure” (p.119) For Landry, public space “is at the heart of the innovative milieu” (p.119). Libraries today are one of few non-commercial third spaces in the city.
In addition to public space, municipal governments need to provide opportunities for lifelong learning (p.63). Libraries are significant because they provide accessible learning opportunities and act as communication channels to information, one of the most important factors in encouraging creativity in cities (p.122). The function of communication channels is to “back up information resources”, because “the greater the information ‘density’ and exchange, the easier it is for creative individuals and institutions to keep abreast of events and best – practice developments, both within the city and outside it” (p.122).
Canada is a country of libraries, and in Ontario, libraries have been a feature of the urban landscape since 1882 (Leckie and Hopkins, 2002, p.327). The Toronto Public Library system has ninety-nine branches and its central branch is the 400,000 square foot Toronto Reference Library. This library has been part of Toronto for a hundred years, but opened at its present Yonge and Bloor location on Nov 2nd 1977. In 2007, the Reference Library began a five – year revitalization project with a total cost of thirty-four million dollars. The City of Toronto contributed fourteen million dollars through its municipal capital funds, the Province of Ontario contributed ten million dollars, and the remaining funds are being raised through a capital campaign called Re:vitalize. The campaign began in 2009 and is the first public capital campaign in the Library’s history.
The upgrades are meant to position the Library as an “information hub of Toronto” and Toronto’s “foremost public centre for lifelong learning, the exchange of ideas and community engagement” (2009, About Re:vitalize). Though being an exceptional communication channel is the library’s primary focus, it will also be a vibrant public space and iconic Toronto building. The new library is being designed to make it more obvious to the street and surrounding area, and will feature a special collection rotunda to emulate the reading rooms of other great libraries worldwide, more research and study spaces, “Idea Gardens”, study pods, and a “Global Connect Wall” (complete in Dec 2013!) of real-time worldwide news updates and enhanced technological resources and features within the library itself (2009, About Re:vitalize). The library’s vision of greenery, networked spaces and areas of differing energy levels matches Landry’s description of the attributes of successful third spaces. As an iconic Toronto building, the Library’s contribution to “elevating the streetscape with great design is in itself a cultural contribution” (Hahn, 2011).
As an information hub specifically, the Library describes itself an important contributor to Toronto’s overall economic, social and cultural health. In terms of its contribution to Toronto’s economic health, it notes for its thousands of daily users, the Library supports “workforce readiness, small businesses and place-based economic development” and that “business people and the creative community use the Toronto Reference Library as “they develop and grow our city” (2009, About the Toronto Reference Library).
The library’s relevance as an exceptional communication channel for Toronto’s creative community is evident in its existing resources. Specific resources in the Toronto Reference Library include the Baldwin Room, which dates back to 1883 and houses items of historic importance to Canadians, the Arthur Conan Doyle collection with works about Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and the Art Room that houses items related to Canadian and international performing and visual arts and other rare art collections (Skinner, 2011). All these collections house items that are not found at other branches.
In terms of cultural contributions, the Library offers a variety of opportunities to learn for its diverse membership and according to its website, does more to support lifelong public learning than any other public institution in the city. In particular, the Library makes a noteworthy contribution to Toronto’s cultural life through its ongoing schedule of talks in the Appel Salon by authors, artists, and other thinkers. The Appel Salon was created through a three million dollar gift to Re:vitalize, and is meant to be Toronto’s “premiere public space for cultural programming, civic discourse and community engagement” (About Re:vitalize). Outside of the Salon, the Human Library is another important project that provides Torontonians an opportunity to meet others from many different walks of life by “signing” them out for an hour of conversation.
In contrast to the Toronto Reference Library’s focus on information, the Surrey City Centre Library in British Columbia is an 82,000 square foot library that is partly a community centre, and partly a place for book-lovers to gather. Unlike many community centres or bookshops however, the library is a Silver Leed certified building and features language classes, business seminars, a coffee shop, a “teen lounge, and gaming area, a world languages collection, quiet and silent study areas, a children’s section, living room reading lounge, outreach services for the visually impaired, and even a meditation room” (Reid, 2010). At present, the Surrey City Centre Library is the most technologically equipped library in the province.
To create all theses spaces, the City Centre Library features natural light, and interconnected, private and community spaces to accommodate diverse uses. There is creativity within the design of the building because different uses can be found together that “are revealed as patrons explore the building” (Arch Daily, August 2011). The Library is meant to feel like “an extension of the patron’s home” and like Landry’s description of successful public spaces, aims to “intrigue and entice users throughout the building” (Arch Daily, August 2011). Like Landry suggests, the library’s goals of supporting education, gathering and connection are enabled by the design of the library instead of design being a secondary consideration in the development process (Landry, 2008, xxiii)
The design of the building was not an accident. Heeding Landry’s call to pay attention to iconic buildings, Mayor Watts notes that “one of the things we wanted in our city centre was an iconic building, and the regional library is definitely that” (Saltman 2010). In another report, she mentioned the library is meant to be an “architectural landmark’ and a “gathering space” (Reid, 2010). In the City’s official press release however, she makes the clearest link between Landry’s ideas and the City Centre Library:
Our new library has already become a wonderful community gathering spot and is attracting visitors from all across the region, creating a new cultural and social hub in the city,” said Mayor Dianne Watts. “It is architecturally stunning and provides an iconic landmark for City Centre. I believe that innovative and unique architecture has the ability to shape a city’s identity and create the heart and soul of a community. ~City of Surrey, 2011.
The total cost to build the Surrey City Centre library was thirty-six million dollars. Sixteen million dollars of the needed funds came from the City of Surrey, and ten million dollars of funding came from the provincial and federal government respectively (Reid, 2010). The library opened in September 2011, and is a significant first step of a broader creative strategy to create a high-density Surrey downtown called the “City Centre” that makes Surrey the “main business, cultural and social hub for the city and the South Fraser region” (Reid, 2010). The library is the first project in a series of capital infrastructure projects the City intends to build until 2016. Other projects planned include a new performing arts centre, a new 165,000 square City Hall and an outdoor plaza with a capacity for five thousand people. Ten years ago, the City of Surrey and Bing Thom Architects developed the Central City project, which is located across the street from the City Centre library and features office space, a shopping centre and the Surrey campus of Simon Fraser University. When viewed together, the Surrey City Centre is similar to the “classic physical public space” Landry describes that includes cultural space, a university, a library, a city hall and market space (Landry, 2008, p.119)
In conclusion, there is a connection between creative cities and strong libraries. Great libraries are vibrant public spaces. In Surrey, the City Library is a vibrant community space that is intended to gather people together and help them imagine Surrey in different ways, and Toronto is strengthening the incredible information resources that Reference Library already contains. Like libraries across the country, both play a vital role in supporting the economic and cultural life of their home cities, and are cause for celebration. Three cheers for libraries indeed!
Amber, P. (2011, August 18th) In Progress: Surrey City Centre Library/Bing Thom Architects. Arch Daily.
Architects and Artisans. (2011, August 16th). In Surrey B.C, A Library by Bing Thom.
City of Surrey. (2011, Sept 24th). Dynamic and Unique City Centre Library Officially Opens Downtown.
Hahn. K. (2011, August 20th). “Turning the Page on sleek architecture; Toronto Public Library beautifies cityscape with stylish renovations. Toronto Star, (August 20th 2011)
Landry, C. (2008). The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators. London: EarthScan.
Leckie, L.G., J. Hopkins. (2002). The Public Place of Central Libraries: Findings from Toronto and Vancouver. Library Quarterly. 72(3): p.326-372.
Reid, M. (2010, Nov 17th).City Centre Library: Not Just Books. Surrey/North Delta Leader.
Saltman, J. (2011, June 10th). A Library for the Future. The Province.
Skinner, J. (2011, August 25). “Libraries cater to the libraries that they serve”. Inside Toronto. Retrieved from Nov 10th, from
Taylor, S. Downtown Surrey BIA. (Oct 2009) A New Library for Downtown. The View.
Toronto Reference Library Campaign. Toronto Public Library Foundation Announces Historic Fundraising Campaign in Support of Toronto Reference Library Revitalization Project
Toronto Reference Library Campaign. About the Toronto Reference Library.
I love to share what I read. What I’m reading becomes the subject of my social media posts, my dinner time discussions with my family, my conversations with colleagues, and every so often, a conversation icebreaker with other fellow commuters. And though not every book makes its way to the blog, every so often, I write about the book I’m reading. At home, a good book and a cup of tea from my favourite teapot is the way I destress.
As we enter a new year, I’m curious to hear from you. What books have been important for you over the last twelve months, and what do you recommend reading in 2014?
Leave a comment on the blog, or if you’re in Toronto over the new year, tell us in person on December 31st. If you can make it, let us know on the Facebook event here.
Below: the ten books that we discussed this year on the blog.
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (January)
- The Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan (January)
- Green Deen by Ibrahim Abdul Matin (February)
- Islam and the Destiny of Man by Gai Eaton (March)
- Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time by Karen Armstrong (April)
- Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture (May)
- The Smart One by Jennifer Close (August)
- Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (August)
- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (December)
- North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (December)
When at home, conversations about Islam, the sight of other people praying and the sound of the greeting assalamu alaykum (peace be upon you) are commonplace. But when I travel, or am in an unfamiliar environment more generally, encountering the same moments become vital for personal health. I need a quiet place to pray and meaningful conversations about faith to process my surroundings or to decompress from frequent questions about my background.
On December 14th last year, I stood waiting for the light to change at a downtown street. As I waited, I played absent-mindedly with my phone before flipping it on and turning to Twitter. But instead of retweeting messages about the event I had just left – lunch at a downtown hotel where I had been celebrating the work of staff members whose secondment was coming to an end, the news that greeted me was that a massacre had taken place in Connecticut, killing 20 young children in the school.
Nearly a year later, I still remember that moment of feeling dizzy and shaky on my feet. In those seconds I couldn’t breathe, and all I wanted was a mosque, or any quiet place to sit and pray. But I was downtown, and there was no multi-faith space to be found. And so instead I rushed to the Vancouver Central Public Library, spread out my coat, and prayed behind a stack of books once I arrived.
As cities we have physical health strategies, strategies for a food secure city, programs and strategies to improve economic health, but we lack non commercial spaces for quiet and reflection. In moments like that, we need spaces that offer refuge and solace in times of crisis. We need spaces without stimuli – not religious spaces necessarily, but places that nurture and nourish the spirit. We need spaces and services that help us improve our spiritual health in ways that resonate with our personal spiritual and philosophical traditions. We need cities that facilitate reflection.
A few weeks ago I experienced such a moment of reflection. I was visiting University of British Columbia – Okanagan in Kelowna BC and when I arrived, I was delighted to discover that the Health and Wellness office offers a multi-faith room for the use of the campus community. The room isn’t big, but it has plenty of natural light and beautiful hardwood floors. In the cupboards in the back there are prayer mats, but the room itself does not have any religious imagery, making it accessible to individuals from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. The best part of the Centre is its accessibility; it is centrally located on campus. And because the campus is small, the prayer centre is 5 minutes away from any of the other main academic buildings. (More information about the Multi-Faith space can be found here)
In my last visit to the Centre before I flew home, another student was already there when I entered. We exchanged a few words, I confirmed the direction of prayer in the room, and then we prayed together. That combination – being greeted with kindness, the joy of hearing some of my favourite verses beautifully recited, and praying in a beautiful space brought tears to my eyes, and that moment is perhaps my favourite experience from my trip. It is, to use Karen Armstrong’s words, a ‘spot of time’ that I will return to again and again in my memory.
That moment, and that prayer space reminded me of the University of Toronto. I attended to the University of Toronto for graduate school, and while no school is perfect, U of T serves as an important model of what a faith friendly community can look like. In an interview with Sun TV, Mark Toulouse of Emmanuel College says the following:
“Three to four thousand Muslim students go to the University of Toronto in the St George downtown campus. In a thriving international city like Toronto where the evidence of a rich tradition of faith expression are all around us, it makes sense to work intentionally to create forums where we can have conversations and learn more about one other.. In many respects religious practices are private, part of one’s personal devotional life or personal beliefs. But religious practices across the world are also often public and rightly so… Religion is one of the most important forces that shape an individual’s life, and whenever people engage the public, they can only engage it with what the fullness of their life is. And part of fullness of that life is what shapes and forms them, and religious practice is among those things that do that. We believe it is very important to encourage dialogue, to have conversation with one another.”
The University of Toronto is exceptional (and I’ve outlined some of the ways that they support a faith friendly campus below) but they are not alone. Across Canada, more and more universities are recognising that any robust health and wellness policy needs to consider spiritual health as well, and support the pastoral needs of its community members.
The University hosts the Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative that “examines how religion manifests in public spaces, institutions, and interactions, and considers the challenges and possibilities of religious diversity in Toronto and around the globe.” They hold events, curate religion related news on their website, and host a ‘religion themed’ service learning course.
In Vancouver, Simon Fraser University has been a leader in interfaith understanding. The Interfaith centre at the University has its own interfaith mission and charter that outlines how the university will meet the pastoral, educational, bridge-building and worship needs of its members. It’s a forward thinking, impressive set of principles that recognises that spiritual health is a core part of personal wellbeing and success. There is also a Dispute Resolution proposal that is clearly outlined on the website. In addition, the University is continually offering dynamic, relevant programming through the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures that is available to the students and non-students alike. Within the History department, it is possible for students to pursue a concentration in Middle East and Islamic History. Over the past year or so, I’ve been so grateful for the presence of the CSMSC and the breadth and depth of the scholars they have brought to Vancouver to give public lectures.
2) Faith Based Perspective to Services/Student Development
At the University of Dalhousie, spiritual wellness is an important part of how health and wellness is understood. The Dalhousie Multifaith Centre features the events of diverse groups (including a group that looks at Women and Spirituality) and in general aims to provide “a complete education (that) addresses the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.”
Like Dalhousie, most universities have some sort of chaplain system in place. In one of the most interesting projects in Canada, students at the University of Toronto, fundraised over $70,000 in Sept 2012 for Canada’s first full-time Muslim chaplain. The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto offers classes, counselling and dialogue programs and is a project that offers fascinating possibilities of how student affairs can provide indepth pastoral care. It is a project to watch, learn, and benefit from.
Women in headscarves feature on the U of T athletics marketing materials and signage. On a personal note, seeing myself reflected in materials reminds me that exercise and athletics matter. There are ways to exercise and swim while still being covered, and health and faith are not incompatible. The Athletics facility also offers one hour of women only time daily in the weight room and reaches out to different populations at U of T to encourage them to prioritize their physical wellbeing. (Their postcards advertising their classes and pooI for instance, feature Muslim women). In 2014, the U of T Multifaith Centre will also offer programming about the connection between spirituality and physical health.
I lived at New College at the University of Toronto for a year, and the daily cafeteria menu at New College offered halal options every day. There were clearly marked signs and separate pots when a halal version of a dish was available. When the same item wasn’t available, an alternate menu item was offered and prepared separately. At the cafeteria I visited at UBC -O, there were signs posted frequently indicating that halal, vegetarian, gluten and vegan options were available on the menu.
At UBC-O, I was impressed to see how halal, vegetarian and vegan food was clearly marked in the cafeteria, giving visitors many options for lunch, regardless of their faith background.
There are multiple prayer locations at the University of Toronto and since the 1960s, there has been accommodation at Hart House for Friday prayers for Muslim students. There is space at Robarts, (the main campus library) prayer space at OISE for education students, prayer space at the Multi-Faith centre, prayer space at Bahen for engineering students, and prayer space at Emmanuel College. There are nine prayer spaces in total at the University of Toronto, and these multiple prayer locations ensure that students are able to access prayer space easily, regardless of their field of study. Out of respect for the students and the needs of their prayers, the room at Hart House where Friday prayers take place has abstract art – no faces or figurines are present in the room.
At the University of Victoria, there are also multiple prayer locations on campus, and a variety of groups are engaged in spiritual practice on campus. At Simon Fraser University, each of the 3 SFU campuses offers easily accessible, bookable prayer/meditation spaces.
Through informal and informal programming at the Multi-Faith Centre, there is also ample opportunity to meet other students from different faith backgrounds. One of my favourite programs was called Muffin Madness, and featured tea, wonderful muffins and students from different faith groups. Any faith group that books space through the Multi-Faith Centre is required to co-host one Muffin Madness and one multi-faith experience, and the diversity of multi-faith programming offered over the course of the semester is impressive. For the most part, the programming is intersectional, and emphasizes the connection between spirituality and other aspects of identity or programs on campus.
In September 2012 the U of T Religion in the Public Sphere began the “Religion Diversity Leadership Project” a 3 year, $500,000 project with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to “build networks of communication, inquiry, and action around the problems and possibilities of living in a religiously diverse society.” The project offers religious diversity youth leadership training, service learning projects that focus on religious diversity, and public forums and community research workshops.
At the University of Calgary Faith and Spirituality centre, the Student team organises events (including an interfaith bookclub!) and holds weekly meetings for community members interested in Faith and Spirituality community work. Its weekly event calendar features a variety of events, weekly teas and a program called the Communal Table that focuses on “building community around cooking and eating together.”
Effective public spaces are accessible, comfortable, sociable spaces with activities (source: The Project for Public Spaces). These four characteristics define great public spaces, and the same is true for vibrant faith friendly spaces and communities as well. Any organization or community that holds diversity as an important community value, must take spiritual health and faith friendly environments seriously in order to remain relevant.
As much as I love Vancouver, there are moments when I want to move. There are moments when I miss spaces where the educational experience of men and women is equal, such as the SeekersHub in Toronto, where I always felt welcome, and never felt like my gender was a barrier to furthering my Islamic education. I miss interfaith prayer spaces such as the MultiFaith Centre (and other prayer spaces) at the University of Toronto that were physically beautiful, and did not barricade women in a corner. And more recently, there are moments when I want to return to Dallas, where I spent a month in a mosque learning classical Arabic grammar this summer, and where class was held in the main prayer space, and structured in a way that men and women were on opposite sides of the room, and equally able to learn from our teacher. Aside from the learning benefits, knowing your teacher means that you can model their behaviour. From the ways a teacher interacts with you, you learn what appropriate gender interaction looks like, and can extend those principles to the rest of your life. Knowing your teacher means that you have someone to ask questions and seek advice when you are unsure what to do. It is essential.
In Vancouver however, we’re not there yet.
Two nights ago, the founder of the Bayyinah Institute (the same institute that offers the Arabic course I did in Dallas) came to Vancouver for a lecture on stories in the Qur’an. Though he wasn’t my teacher in Dallas, during one of our class days he came to help us review for an upcoming exam, and I was looking forward to a small way, reconnecting with what was a very special month of learning for me.
Unfortunately, I never heard him speak. The hall where the lecture was held was large, but the women were in a different, crowded space, with no video link. So after waiting for a bit and seeing if I could sit outside the lecture hall, my brother and I left. The teacher was surprised as well I think, and mentioned that ‘he wasn’t used to women not being in the same space, would do a Q and A session after the event with the female attendees, and would stay as long as women wanted him to stay.”
I appreciate his attempt to address an inequitable situation. But it’s not up to a guest teacher to find some way to include everyone; equity needs to be thought of at the outset of the planning process. To give an example from urban planning, when the floor plans of housing developments and community centres do not consider the needs of the multiple communities and cultures, it is a message that only the dominant culture matters. When transit users with wheelchairs experience horrendous delays, poorly lit and dangerous transit stops, and systems that do not account for their needs, those barriers of access signal that their needs are not valued. We send messages about who does and does not belong in the ways we structure spaces and places.
As long the learning experience of women is not valued, the education of women, communities and families will suffer. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it becomes difficult to invite friends and colleagues who may be interested in learning more about Islam and wish to fill in their own gaps of knowledge. As long as the learning experience of women is not valued, it sounds hollow to talk about how gender equity is something inherent to Islam.
And so, rather than running away to another city, below are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to create better spaces. These are not new ideas, but they make a real impact.
1) If you only have one space available that is large enough for all your attendees, have the men and women share that space, and set up tables that are side by side.
You can have an aisle separating both sides of the room for ease of movement. If you don’t have a classroom available and you’re in a mosque, use the men’s prayer room. In Dallas, the women’s section of the mosque was on the same floor as the men’s section with a one way mirror. During our evening classes, if anyone from the larger community wished to sit separately, they could still see into the class easily, but nobody could see them. (95% of attendees sat in the main section of the mosque though). A few years ago I was on a study trip called the Rihla, and spent a few weeks with teachers from the US and UK in Saudi Arabia. We sat on the floor in our classes, on opposite ends of the room. In Toronto there is a week long retreat held annually with incredible teachers from around the world, and again, that event happens through side by side seating, with a section in the middle of the room for families who wish to sit together.
2) If you are designing a space and you’d like a partition, make it subtle. At the SeekersHub in Toronto, one of my favourite spaces to learn, the men and women sat on opposite sides of the room, the teachers were at the front of the room, and there was a bookshelf in the middle. The room was equally divided, you could see the teacher, but the students on the other side of the room couldn’t see you. It was a beautiful set-up.
3) When you see an uninclusive space, act as an ally. It’s not up to women alone to advocate for inclusive spaces. In our family, we only go to events where I can hear and experience the event properly, and my Dad and brother are my strongest allies in bringing up issues of access. The teachers that I value most: my teacher in Dallas, my teacher at the Hub in Toronto, and other teachers I’ve learnt from in other settings, often speak out about how communities need to view the inclusion and involvement of women differently. The students I studied with at the University of Toronto were men and women who cared about equity, and if I was ever in a situation where I felt uncomfortable, there were lots of people who noticed the same dynamics and worked to address them. It is alienating to be the only person advocating for your learning.
4) Have an ongoing study of the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Sometimes spaces are segregated in harmful ways because we aren’t necessarily familiar with the ways women were nurtured historically in Islam. But when we study the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the ways in which he created a community in which men and women were equally valued, and the contributions, dignity and independence of his wife Khadijah, the courage of his daughters, the beauty of other members of his family and community, it is clear that gender equity are part of the Islamic tradition. One great learning resource to learn more is the Qalam Institute’s Podcast on the Prophet’s Biography, which goes into the Prophet’s life in a lot of detail.
5) Support organizations that care about their female students. If you can’t find inclusive spaces, still continue to learn. I’ve been remiss this year in organising regular study circles with others, but this is something I hope to do in upcoming months. SeekersGuidance is a place with wonderful online courses, the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto publishes its lectures and classes on its SoundCloud page, and both of these resources are wonderful resources to share, support and learn from.