This is part of a series of conversations between authors to mark the 2021 edition of The Globe 100, our annual guide to the most noteworthy books of the year.
Kamal Al-Solaylee and Omar Mouallem both start their new books with a question that leads to a journey. In Return, Al-Solaylee explains how an unexpected desire in his 50s to return to his homeland of Yemen ended up taking him to the West Bank, Taiwan, Ghana and Spain’s Basque region to talk to those who had returned to their homelands, while in Praying to the West, Mouallem, who in his 20s had fashioned himself as a “professional skeptic,” visited 13 mosques in places as diverse as Inuvik, Brazil and Jerusalem. His goal? To observe Muslim practices as part of a re-evaluation of the faith once imposed on him, and in so doing to ask whether there might be room, in at least one of them, for a nonbeliever such as himself.
Emily Donaldson: “I’m compelled to reclaim the thing that made me a target.” That’s a line from Omar’s book, but I think it’s one either of you could have written. What were you attempting to reclaim through your respective journeys?
Omar Mouallem: For me it was reclaiming a part of my heritage, but maybe also a part of the past. Simpler times, when it wasn’t complicated for me to call myself a Muslim. But more than anything it was feeling like I needed to stand in solidarity with people who looked like me, who had names like mine, who were part of my community, whether or not I practice Islam. It does no good to put distance between myself and other Muslim people based on the strength of their beliefs versus mine, because in the end, to someone who might see us as a threat, we all look the same.
Kamal Al-Solaylee: That’s almost word for word what I would have said about Brown, my last book. But in the past five or six years I’ve shifted away from trying to stand up for myself and for people who are identified as Arab and Muslim. I felt the pressure of all the discrimination and the rising tide of extremism and Islamophobia. I’m talking to you a day after Doug Ford said something about how immigrants come here to take advantage of our benefits system, and a night after Calgary and Edmonton voted in two brown mayors, so it’s full of contradictions, but Return came from a position of retreat in a way. I’m tired. Part of me doesn’t want to be a minority any more. When I went to Cairo two years ago, there was a certain comfort, I realized, in looking like everyone else. Of passing for a local, which is something I never could, even in multicultural Toronto.
OM: I wonder how much of that experience is a consequence of being an immigrant and having an accent. Being born and raised in Canada, I rarely feel like a minority. Psychologically I’ve not experienced the alienation that you have over the course of your life.
KA: I never felt that way when I first arrived in Canada, in 1996. I felt instantly Canadian. I fell in love with Toronto, and at the time I wasn’t even a “racialized” or “brown” writer. None of these terms were in my vocabulary. I was just an arts writer. The seismic shift since 9/11 has changed everything – Return came out the week of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. If I’m honest, that process began in September, 2001, it just took a very long time to unfold.
OM: In a lot of ways you and I were pulled into our journeys by a desire that has such a strong pull, even if the reality of it wasn’t going to match up to the idea. For me that pull was being drawn back to a sense of spirituality, even though I knew that the closer I get to religion, the closer I get to scripture and the Quran, the closer I get to dogma. And I don’t like dogma. I’ve realized that because of how different mosques and Muslim practices can be, that there is no one Muslim identity, let alone one Islam. That I can claim a seat in the Muslim body, in the ummah. For me it’s esoteric, but for you it’s physical. You either can claim a homecoming to your homeland, or you can’t, whereas I found that some Islams, some mosques, would have me as a member, and that’s not something I think I would have understood unless I went on this journey to understand the diversity of Muslim practices.
ED: Kamal, did speaking to returnees complicate or simplify your thoughts about your own potential return?
KA: Definitely complicated it. There’s a lot of agency in saying I’m going to leave this comfortable, affluent West and go to a small town in sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East or Jamaica. What I discovered is that return isn’t the end of a journey. Return is to many people the beginning of another journey. There were a lot of cautionary tales, as well as some happy stories. I think when I talk about return to Yemen I’m talking about Aden, where I was born, and I realize it’s pure fantasy. It’s the Aden of family lore, the Aden that my parents lived in. A port city that at the height of the British empire was truly cosmopolitan and much more open along the lines of gender. Less so for sexuality. Deep down I have this fantasy that I’ll be able to return to that Aden, knowing very well that it’s almost impossible.
ED: Among your many encounters, which has stayed with you the most?
OM: One that discombobulated me was my experience in Trinidad. It surprised me how mainstream fundamentalist views had become within their Muslim communities. I wasn’t expecting that because these are not immigrants; they’re fifth or sixth-generation Trinidadian. They belong to the oldest continuous Muslim congregations in the West. This is a country that’s had a Muslim head of state, and Islam is such a regular part of the fabric of society that I thought it would equate to a very liberalized, unique practice over the generations. Many of their mosques were willing to eschew their own traditions, their own Western values, to sacrifice huge numbers of their congregations to feel more authentically Indian. That really stunned me. And the consequence was that everywhere I went there was an element of harsh religiosity – the thing that repelled me in my adolescence and made me want to run away, to the point where on my last day I stumbled into a radicalized mosque – a mosque that for all intents and purposes was an IS sleeper cell.
I’m glad I went there early on because I think it forced me to give up trying to portray Muslims in a positive light. It forced me to show the good and the bad and to treat individuals on their own merits and show what the stakes are when you offload your religious autonomy onto authorities who may not have your best interests at heart.
KA: A woman I met in Jamaica, Angela, was probably the most memorable for me. A lot of people ask if I made her up. She lost two husbands to violent crime, one in front of her own eyes, and still never for a second doubted that her home was in Jamaica. She had the American dream – the husband making lots of money and the home in the suburbs – and she chose to return to the land where her two previous husbands were. That left me in shock. The resilience, and also the agency.
On a different note, until I started writing this book, I didn’t realize how many countries are actively seeking the return of their citizens. It’s big business. In Northern Ireland I was shocked at how organized the repatriation of a select, highly skilled group of people in the STEM industry is – also the mobilizing of nostalgia for Ireland to give money back and invest in the economy. They want the dollars, even if the expats don’t return physically.
ED: Both of these books are about belonging. Did you draw any conclusions about what it means?
OM: I learned that my sense of belonging is tied to history. To a sense that my ancestors had a place in this country long before me, and that they were people of consequence. Learning that my great-grandparents were here more than 100 years ago, that one was a farmer in Saskatchewan, one worked in Ford’s automotive plant making Model Ts, made me feel more North American. Learning I had a distant ancestor who was the first Arab-American movie star in the silent era made me feel more truly rooted here. It helped me realize that my sense of belonging is internal; it has more to do with knowledge, as opposed to how people treat me, or people’s perceptions of me.
KA: My sense of belonging doesn’t come from whether Canada believes I belong in it or not, but whether I belong to Canada. I want that process of belonging to be on my terms. The host country can have our labour, can have our loyalty to some extent, and even gratitude, but it can’t have our souls. This is why I begin and end the book on where I want to be buried. Nothing will change that: you can have everything else, but my soul belongs in the homeland.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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