Praise be to Google Translate – But wait

Last month, i kept coming across Punjabi texts in English that seemed a bit off. In fact, they made no sense at the first, second or even the third glance. At the time, it was not possible for me to stop and investigate but I truly hoped that the virus raging around us has not had a mitigating impact on my capabilities to read, or understand, plain English. Here are a few translated texts:

‘She said, ′′ The target of politics is to be read by reading it, but nothing else happened.’
‘The words of the words, the eyes of the words, the words of the words, are not the naughty ones.’
‘In every bid, in every bid, there are no common words, but there are no fools.’

You see? Each line almost means something- sometimes, many things.

Remedios Varo, Still Life, Reslicitando 1963

Amid this intellectual confusion, i posted a Punjabi poem with the title and dedication translated in English situating it as a tribute to my sister. Within moments of sharing it on Facebook, i got a message from my friend George Chris Michas:
‘As you can see, it could not translate all of it.
Thx for your lovely poem, Fauzia.’
George Chris Michas

The message had the English version of the poem attached. I opened it, and the very first glance was enough to reveal to me the secret of my feared intellectual or mental mitigation- Google Translate (GT).

if i was into Kafka, these translated texts were perfect prompts, pointers and materials to create uber literature or i could have joined host of writers who have tried, mostly in vain, to explain Kafka in newer terms. Since neither is the case, I’m only going to dwell upon a couple of possible techniques used by Google Translate to arrive at some of the more Kafkaesque* creations. This is not an easy task since there’s a little masterpiece- or the beginning or the end of one- hidden in every line. Still i’ll try to simplify.

If you are one of my non-Pakistani-Punjabi friend on Facebook, you may come across various posts in my newsfeed that use the word ‘bid’ in translation. Here are a few from the timeline of Maqsood Saqib:
‘Spoke a little bit / Apply the lok bid’
‘Lose your identity Apply the lok bid’
‘Folk bid without who Punjab / Apply the lok bid’

No, Maqsood Saqib is not into a bidding business of any kind, he is a Punjabi author, publisher and linguist participating in a discussion about language rights in the Punjab. The word for ‘language’ in Punjabi is ‘boli’ that Google Translate takes as the Urdu word ‘boli’, and indeed that ‘boli’ does mean ‘bid’. Google Translate does not differentiate between the two as it thinks Punjabi is Urdu simply because the two languages use the same Perso-Arabic script. This is ironic- we Punjabis are saying ‘punjabi is not urdu’ to the State of Pakistan since 1947, and it is scary to note that GT and the State of Pakistan share so much in how they view local languages.

But does Google Translate do that, for example, in the case of English and French? Or with any other two European languages? I seriously doubt it.

Dear GT! Please Code It: punjabi is NOT urdu, and ‘boli’ means ‘language’.

If it was only words, it could have been bearable but there also is the question of the general garbledness of Punjabi texts in translation. Take for example the following.

GT in Kafkaesque
My-Mothers-daughter-Meri-Maan-Jai-a-poem-by-Fauzia-Rafique

‘The wings have been shown solely to give a sense of
proportion
The sound of songs
The ancestor came with a change
Art guns have all the power
Find your name
Mother Saadi Di Al
Show less
Whatever you do
Sohna Kardi
There are three examples everywhere

Go to my mother
On the chest of the angry world
Awaken the shoe of love

(Thank you, my dear)’

FR in Plain English
my-mothers-daughter-meri-maan-jai-a-poem-by-fauzia-rafique/

‘glass bangles knocking
the sound of your songs
reaches me with breeze and clouds
All arts and talents nature
placed in your person
our mother’s heritage
heightened them more
Whatever you do
you do so well
your examples are cited in every field

My mother’s daughter
on the chest of a hostile world
you lit the candle of love

(Thank you, Api Jan)’

As you can see, i can’t compete with GT. She/he/they are too good. When i think of it this way, it hardly matters anymore if they think Punjabi is Urdu or if ‘boli’ means ‘bid’, look at all the offbeat concepts being created with each ostensible translation of non-first-world languages. Not to mention, the boon GT is for the Promptesque Poets of the world.

Check ‘awaken the shoe of love’. In all honesty, i never ever thought that love itself could have shoes let alone LIVE ones who keep falling asleep, Lazy Buggers, creating the need to be awakened by people deep in their own pandemic snooze.

Likewise, before i read this line ‘the ancestor came with a change’, i had never considered the possibility that mine or anyone’s ancestors could arrive with a change of clothing or of governments or of systems or ideas. But now there is a lot of hope for, and a lot less responsibility on, me as i’m hoping that the ancestors are way better equipped than myself to bring the much needed social and political change.

However, i do find myself less amazed and more in agreement with the following for non-obvious reasons:

‘art guns have all the power’ is a fair example of wishful thinking that also seamlessly integrates art and guns.
‘show less / whatever you do’ as a common social directive coming from a deceptive male mind.
‘there are three examples everywhere’ as a reminder that i have to still find a publisher for my novel ‘Triple’.

By now, i do understand that ‘the target of politics is to be read by reading it’ but i can’t understand why ‘nothing else happened’.

Fauzia Rafique

*Kafkaesque ‘having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.’ (Merriam-Webster)

‘It’s a Pity Trees in This City have Roots…’

This is a short-
a very short
story that keeps happening
on the (still) lush
stage
of the City of Parks

repeating itself / a compulsive .gif / damaging / the canopy-green screen of my city

Indeed it was beautiful
and blue
when the first
development proposal
was presented
for review

7 minutes
On this site, 25 of 26 trees will get killed
(Climate change impacts lives)
Thank you for your comments, madam.
11 minutes
76 of 76 trees of which 59 are alder…
(Canopy and related ecosystems)
Thank you for your comments, madam.
13 minutes
33 of 33 trees, every single one…
(GMO trees- no shade, no hold- will take their place)
Thank you for your comments, madam.
15 minutes
34 of 34 trees, 23 are Douglas Fir…
Actually, 67 trees. A clarification.
(a tree for a tree)
Thank you very much, sir.’
20 minutes
Save-shrubs-from-another-land-development proposal.
(a tree for every tree)
Thank you for your comments, madam.
22 minutes
21 of 39 trees are going to get killed
(a tree for every profit-damned earth-loving brown-ass tree)
Thank you for your comments, madam.

All in favour? ALL
– all in favor
Against? NONE
– none against
Carried! ALL
– all carried

222 trees killed / in less than 30 minutes / during a meeting / that happens every other week.

It’s a pity
trees in this city
have roots.
They could run for their lives
with legs
and boots.

A poem by Fauzia Rafique

This poem takes from, and rearranges, the text of an opinion piece written by Columnist Tom Zytaruk for the July 9, 2019 edition of Surrey Now-Leader. (tom.zytaruk@surreynowleader.com)
surreynowleader.com/opinion/zytaruk-and-just-like-that-surreys-trees-disappear

The poem also repeats lines from ‘Good News…’

Photo from Surrey Nature Centre.
..

Sustaining the Onslaught of ‘Footware’

Last week i shared an article on Twitter titled ‘Freedom of expression, a shape-shifting tool’ that listed some of the comments i had received in response to ‘This ‘free speech’? no thanks’ published earlier. This is the paragraph containing those comments:

‘After my response appeared on Straight.com, I was put in my place several times regarding my race, gender, skills and social status: ‘you, a person without any noteworthy accomplishments to her name… I wonder if your point has any validity to it whatsoever.’ ‘This writer has less than zero understanding of Western History, and how capitalist power and systemic racism work.’ ‘This is awful writing, I can’t believe this is considered a serious contribution to our public discourse around these issues’, ‘typical nauseating beyond far left viewpoints’. I also bagged various titles including dictator, ignorant, fascist, a Soviet-era speechwriter, but most agreed that I was someone who for sure was ungrateful for the rights I enjoy here in the ‘West’. And then: ‘What’s the daft woman’s alleged point?’ ‘the garbled word salad you wrote’, ‘What a load of tripe’.

As i was posting it, amid fresh comments and LIKES, i received the following message from Poet Jónína Kirton:

‘The things that people said to you @RafiqueFauzia made me want to cry, especially since I know you, love you & feel you are one of the most brilliant woman I know. They are WRONG… so wrong. I am not one to push guilt on others but they should really feel ashamed of themselves.’

First, my mind prompted me to chuckle, and i did, because it was as if i was caught red handed. I wasn’t feeling hurt, I was just dutifully responding to each comment the best i could while appreciating its literary merit or an interesting thought or to notice if the comment was based in elitism, racism, sexism, or whatism. Then the chuckle ended, and in one flash i was reminded of two instances that had happened a few months apart in Toronto in the 1990s. The first had occurred with my friend poet/publisher/activist Fahmida Riyaz (1946-2018) who was visiting from Karachi. I asked her how it was going over there, and she gave me a contemplative gaze, and in all seriousness said, Har qism ki jootiyan parri hain mujhe. Boot, fauji boot, pumpi, running shoes, hawai chappal, sandals, chotti airri, oonchi airri…: ‘I had all kinds of footware thrown at me. Boot, army boot, pumpi, running shoes, flip flops, sandals, short heel, high heel…’. The rest of the evening was spent on improving the list of footware that we had received on different occasions, and we experienced laughing fits going into tears and then back.

The second flashback was a visit from my friend author/educator/activist Rubya Mehdi, who was either on her way to Copenhagen from Lahore or had recently visited there. So, i asked her how did it go in Lahore, and without a moment’s hesitation, she said Uff, buhut jootay parray: ‘Uff, i took a lot of footware’, and that led to another evening of crazy laughter and tears.

After, i responded to Jónína:
‘You always touch something deeper with your words, @JoninaKirton. First, i had to inquire about my own feelings around them, and I was amazed to find that ‘hurt’ is not there, that in fact i enjoyed the ways of expression of most of them. Why? There’s another post in there.’

And, without giving it any more thought, i set out on the route that Jónína had pointed to. Why? Because i know her to be an instinctive healer of the self and others; check her tweet, it’s a tender message of strength encouraging me to proceed, if i needed to or wanted to. My tweet: ‘It has begun, i’m already telling you all about it. Thank you for creating this space for me to go over this- what can i say, sadness.’

As women in any part of the world, we take an incredible amount of verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual and physical abuse simply for being women. This abuse is doubled and tripled when some women disagree with certain familial, religious or social values and when they refuse to follow the dictates. Additional layers of abuse are added when women are anti-government or anti-state activists working for equality and fairness. The three women above, Fahmida, Rubya and myself were and are guilty on all three counts, and then some. Tangle it with class, caste, race, color, gender, ableism, ageism, and you may end up with a lot of abusive experiences. So much and so many and so fast that it would not be possible to process them all in real time. In fact, the way life happens and because it is painful and debilitating to process and confront abuse, a lot of it would remain unacknowledged, unmarked and unprocessed.

i’m not sure how Fahmida, Rubya, Jónína and other women i know, may have dealt with verbal abuse in the long term, but we all may have had to ‘thicken’ our skins enough to be able to throw the larger portion of it to the side. Throw it to the side instead of responding to it or to get drawn by it unless it was a tactic to do so. For my part, as a youth i had created a space just outside of myself to deposit all the indignities or the ‘footware’ thrown at me. I call it the Dome of Sadness, and it contains all the abuse i have suffered as a girl, a young woman, a woman; for being my kind of a writer, and, for being a certain kind of a person.

Urdu term ‘jootay parrna’ means ‘footware lashing’ and it is used for verbal abuse, ‘mild’ assaults, and ‘light’ physical battery- the three things most South Asian children become aware of early on as these are the three most used methods of disciplining them. The English terms, ‘shoeing’ or ‘shoe throwing’ do not quite express the ‘cultural’ significance of ‘footware lashing’ where it means one or all of the following:
Mild swear words: declaring humans in question as belonging to and/or originating from nonhuman species, especially dogs/bitches, donkeys, and owls.
Medium swear words: a vast canon pointing to and highlighting individual physical attributes such as ‘four eyes’, ‘one-legged’, ‘one-armed’, ‘stick’, ‘fatso’, ‘trans’, ‘no-eyes’, ‘boy-nor-girl’.
Hot swear words: declare women, young women, even girl children, to be whores, sluts and prostitutes while men, young men, even boy children, are accused of fucking their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc.
Name calling and Character assassination: constitutes Hate Speech that levels serious allegations of religious, sexual, social or political wrongdoing leading to violence.
Non-life-threatening battery, physical abuse and assaults with or without  make-shift weapon; slaps, kicks, punches, hair-pulling, baton charges, lashes, burns, acid throwing…

Please note, the abuses listed above are not the products of any of the South Asian cultures but of patriarchy. Similar themes run through all languages and cultures of the world. And this reminds me of a space where for some time, it was possible to view South Asian Muslim culture-specific verbal abuse in one place- Author Salman Rushdie’s page on Facebook where everyone could express themselves freely about the alleged blasphemous content of one of his novels. ‘The unreason, intolerance, violence, bigotry, threats, and the filthiest verbal abuse- it was all there.’ But we can’t view it anymore, it was discontinued in the 2010s.

Most of the Footware lashing i have received is hidden, and that’s what Jónína Kirton encourages me to address, to take the time to see the part where years of abuse is stored- the part that i think is situated outside of myself. In her tweet, she tosses a warm, soft and colorful shawl at me to get me on my way. There can’t be a better time for it.

The Dome of Sadness had no door, i had to dig one to get in. So much clutter! There was about 34 years of Canadian racism, over two years of British racism in Britain, decades of British racism in Pakistan. Racism mixed with Islamophobia and misogyny, the extent of which came out to me when i was filling out a form last year for a research project on Islamophobia. Extreme prejudice experienced from some white editors and publishers over the years. Barriers to employment. Unpleasant family situations, abusive men, in-laws, gossip-lovers. Character assassination in Pakistan, abuse received on the streets of Lahore. The dome was full of all kinds of insulting words and cruel thoughts, spoken, written, published. Violent actions, gestures, body language. Photos, videos, audios, detailed flashbacks. Images, paintings, drawings. Poems, prose. High piles of mixed media. Some marked, some unmarked. But looking at each, i knew what it was about. It was about something that i had already endured and i had already survived. It can teach me somethings and it can increase my understanding but it can not harm me anymore.

Well, this is a belief i have though it may not be entirely true. What i find here cannot harm me in the ways that were intended perhaps by the abuser, but it can still harm me in other ways. In case of unmarked abusive incidents, for example, it can harm me to suddenly find or accept that it was abuse(!), and in certain cases, it can exact a cost from me in the present.

As well, in many ways human mind is its own free bird, it can reach branches and tress that one may not want to get to, for example, to instances of my own abusive attitudes, behaviors and actions toward others. A tough reckoning, tougher than taking abuse itself, it is to acknowledge that i am guilty of abusing others too.

So, the somewhat perilous adventure has begun and i have been wandering around here for the past few days. On my way out right now, i am going to rename it as ‘Abuse Registration Office – Shipping’, and in the coming days, i’ll work at it.

I know, its a boring title and the place looks like a huge warehouse but inside… don’t bet on it.

Fauzia Rafique
July 27, 2020
..

A Daunting Treasure of Hundreds of Handwritten Letters

Deliberately unfocused photo by Mariam Zohra D.

It appears as if i am from the last generation of people who find ourselves in possession of hundreds of hand-written letters, and the realization comes right about now since there has been more time to look through paper filled boxes- perhaps from the Seventies- because of the ‘stay at home’ routine.

This is the continuing story of that small but highly benefic box from the 1976-78 that got left behind in the UK, and that was safe-kept by my dear friend Tim Hume and his partner Carolyn Hume for 36 years till they found me on the internet and sent it to me in Vancouver in 2014. I call it a ‘benefic’ box because it is full of uniquely valuable things- manuscripts, letters, photos. Already, i have retrieved, written and published Keerru, a novella based on a manuscript of a novel that i had begun writing in Lahore in the mid 1970s. I feel lucky because to me, that handwritten manuscript with no copies, had been lost.

When i got the benefic box in 2014, i was delighted to go through manuscripts and photos but not the letters. Now, not only that there is more time but the time is of being nearer to death, i thought, i’ll sift through my stuff to reduce the work of my beautiful children (Love You Forever) in clearing it after i move on. Wow! Some of those letters are so beautiful, and i don’t mean just the handwriting, some of the words and expressions are prolific and profound.

At the base of this is a sense of immense gratitude i feel as i see in front of my eyes the written proof of the love and support i received just in a couple of years in the UK. Also, because these letters are only a part of what was since some have been lost and some were returned to the sender; and, because this does not include the notes and greeting cards i got from people in the UK, later in Toronto, and now in Vancouver. No wonder, i did not perish at any of those times and places.

This pile of hand written and snail mailed letters was a lifeline for me and my baby daughter, and it was led by two people who had nothing in common but me, my mother and a guy who i wish not to identify (though if you like, you can see him as a fictional character in a humorous story titled ‘The Unnecessary- SahebaN vs. the Heternal Domination Loop’ in my novel ‘The Adventures of Saheban: Biography of a Relentless Warrior’). The lifeline contained letters from my sister, sister-in-law, my young and little nieces and nephews, even from my brother and brother-in-law. Letters from my dear friends, Rubya Mehdi, Ismatra Ahsan, Shahida Tabbassum, Riffat Naheed Farooqi, Bee Lee Sabuctageen, Shahnaz Alvi, Asia Arshad and Kausar Jamal sustained me throughout this time.

Please accept my gratitude, love and warmth.

The point is, what do i do with them now. Send back to sender? Recycle? Leave them for my children to deal with? What a waste. May be i can use them in fiction or something like that. Any ideas and thoughts will be appreciated.

Fauzia Rafique
..

‘The Position of Her Power’ by Fauzia Rafique

A painting by Ed Kuris

She was the kind one only sees in an Avon brochure. Light brown hair with a tint of gold, blue kinky eyes, straight nose, full lips, wide mouth and a dimpled chin. A woman she had come across years ago whom she re-called by the name of “that classy bitch”, had once classified her as the ideal woman of Anglo-Saxon lower middle class, quote, unquote. The bitch thought this to be insulting. It was not. Not to her. The only thing she objected to was the word `lower’ with the term middle class.

She was not only an ideal woman, she was also a wise woman. She had made it a point to enhance and preserve this image since her teens. And now, after about 25 years, she had reason to be proud of her efforts. Little things she had started doing then were now habits that she hardly noticed or paid attention to. Every four to six months, she would change the style of her hair to the most appropriate one at the time. Never too conventional, never too wild. What she did not change was its golden-brown colour. Like the deep blue of her eyes, the golden-brown remained the in-thing in hair colour for conventional fashion magazines.

The only thing that caused her some concern was her skin. It was white like the belly of a Salmon. As time passed by, the blue veins under her skin became more and more prominent. She never found the time or money to keep it tanned. But only her first boyfriends might have noticed that it was too white. She had evolved a useful method of delicately applying the correct combination of foundation cream and Oil of Olay on her body after her morning shower. It not only provided a thin transparent veil to the blue, it also gave a healthy and somewhat tanned look to her skin. None of her boyfriends, not even her ex-husband knew she had hair on her upper lip, arms and legs. The only noticeable hair was on her head and between her thighs. And she took good care of both.

She liked looking pretty. It made life easy on her. And pleasant. Except that she was unable to figure out why she had lost three men and was about to lose the fourth. She had wanted each one of them to stay. She knew she boosted their ego just by being with them. She knew they were all proud of having her. So then why did they always leave?

The man she was going out with was finding more and more excuses to spend less time with her. She recognized the symptoms. Last night he was to come and pick her up to go dancing. She wore her black dress with the burning red jewelry and matching shoes. A real sizzler. No one could help but look at her. But he never showed. When she called his place there was that fucking machine with tasteless loud music followed by his best voice saying `I am unable to come to the phone right now blah, blah, please leave your name and number…’. She almost drove to his place to find out why the hell he was unable to come to the phone but then she felt tired. Tired of keeping them in line. Tired of feeling outraged. Tired of the fear of being abandoned. Tired of the thought of dancing, of loud music, of attracting men, of encountering women. She went to bed and quietly slept all night.

Sleep is a great remedy. In the morning she was herself again and aghast at the fact that she had slept with her makeup on. She called him again from her workplace. He was ever so ashamed of his behavior last night but it was unavoidable. And, great news, wait till you hear this one, he had found the job of his dreams in the States and was leaving within a week or so. And then out came a rather weak and totally unenthusiastic `how about coming along?’. She said she was absolutely thrilled and yes, she would think about it. He said he was in an awful hurry and would really appreciate it if she told him by tomorrow at the latest. She said, she would.

She felt heavy. She knew there was no job and that the bastard was taking the easy way out. She still would have swallowed her pride and would have gone to the States with him but she wasn’t as free to do so. She had her mortgage to think about, she was still paying for her furniture. It was difficult to contemplate quitting her job. It paid well and was so easy. She was quite a success as it as well. Her ability to control people was not only used at work, it was also appreciated. She liked controlling people and did it almost effortlessly.

She would sit everyday in front of one of the doors leading to the office where officers conducted prearranged interviews in tiny bare cubicles; files were constantly fed to the computers, and office clerks busily walked back and forth. She loved this office. No alien could enter it without her consent. She unceasingly treasured and guarded the officers, files, computers, cubicles and all.

She always sat in a high chair behind a counter that encircled her and the door leading into the office. She had a phone, a ball-point pen and a register. Her world was made perfect by a good-sized smiling portrait of the Queen of England. Though she was quick to see deficiencies in women, she somehow never had a similar view about this one. She had a built-in sense of awe and respect for the Queen that she never found any reason to challenge. And it was only fair. After all this was not just any woman. She was dismayed at the royal choice of Diana and Fergie as daughters-in law of the crown, but she also understood the fact that there were some things that even Queens were unable to control. She kept her cool in that regard.

She kept her cool at all times. She never allowed any of them more than 60 to 120 seconds of her time. If there was resistance to that unspoken rule, she would simply sit and keep on repeating her standpoint without listening to what was being said. She knew what they were saying. If someone was dumb enough, which incidentally most of them were, not to get the message by that time, she would start punching her lines on the phone and get busy elsewhere. But the method she most commonly used was the one where she would unilaterally finish her conversation with one and would turn to the other with a `may I help you?’ uttered flawlessly to mean `what the hell do you want?’.

She had also discovered the benefits of knowing in advance if anyone standing in the line would pose problems. She was a good judge of character. She would know at a glance if they were irritating or aggravating. This way she was always prepared.

The only problem she faced at work was that she could never find any time to think. The line in front of her remained long no matter how efficiently she dealt with them. And the lunch break gave only enough time to eat. She was provided with coffee at her counter. Most of the time she liked this. Who needed time to think? But sometimes, like today, she wanted to think. She had to decide by tomorrow. No time yet she had to make a decision by tomorrow. This dumbo’s 60 seconds are over, she decided and turned to the next in line with her `may I help you?’
`Y–yes–uh–good morning Miss. I–‘
`What is it? Work permit? You have to pay 50 dollars. New rules.’
`Yes. I–I wanted to know if –if my open work permit is here please Miss—?’
`Have you passed your medical?’
`Yes, yes, I want to know if the result is on my file and if —‘
`We do not answer queries about the medical here, Sir. You have to find that out from the Ministry of Health in Ottawa’. She turned to the next, `May I help you?’
`B–but–Miss–‘
`Number is in the phone book, Sir’. She was still looking at the next one in line.
The next in line did not hesitate to come forward.
‘Yes, Sir?’
`Me meet officer, 9:30.’ He offered her a piece of paper.
She was opening her register to check the validity of his claim when her eye fell on a thin woman who was third in the line up. The look on her face unsettled her.
`Your name and file number, Sir.’
`Here, this. Here, this’.
She took the piece of paper, entered his particulars in the register but her mind remained on the woman.
`Take a seat. Your name will be called.’
She turned to the next. Now the woman was second in line.
`You need an interpreter? Which language?’
`Italy. Me Italy.’
‘Wait over there’ she indicated an open space for her to wait. Why do they come to Canada when they couldn’t say a word in English? She wondered several times every day. `May I help you?’ The woman was next after this one. What was it? She looked at her. Yes, it was the look on her face. The same look. Her eyes were clear and she stood as if she was standing in a line waiting for a bus to arrive. Yes she knew that look. It was aggravating. In fact she was disgusted with people like her. Stupid fools didn’t they know it was not a bank or a bus stop? Standing in this line was not a right. It was their Goddamn duty. But some were stupid. In fact they were all stupid. She suddenly hated them all. So many of them looking at her with expectation, with submission, like dogs. She hated dogs. Especially the ones that had no pedigree. She hated them. Her heart pounded and she wanted to be away from them. Away from Toronto. She wanted to be in California, absorbing all the sunshine that her body could need. Lying side by side with him, cooking together, walking together. She might even have a baby. `Your file number in Montreal, Sir?’ She did not have to listen to his groveling speech to find out that he wanted his files to be transferred from Montreal to here.
`Here is your appointment. Bring this paper with you when you come next time.’
‘Thank you, Madame.’
She did not call the next in line. It was her. The one with brown skin and black eyes. She absorbed herself with the appointment register. She needed a minute to set the ball rolling. She felt thirsty for coffee. But it wasn’t time yet. People in this line had apprehensive, disturbed, fidgeting or agitated eyes. Not the calm that this one had. It did not seem proper. No, it definitely was not proper. She couldn’t be a citizen. This was not the place for them. May be she was not even a landed. Let me see what her act was then, she thought.
`May I help you, Madame?’
At that very moment three young children came running towards the woman. And then the woman did something that was never done in that office. Instead of coming forward when she was called she started talking to her children. She made her wait for full 40 seconds. This was something she never took from anyone, especially aliens. And this one was not just an alien. She was an alien from Asia.
`Good morning. I am here for a work permit.’ She said as if she was asking for a pantyhose in a drug store.
‘Your job offer, please.’ She did not look at her.
`Here.’ She had the paper ready in her hand. Her hand remained extended for a while before it was taken.
`Okay, here is your appointment.’
`I need it today. The—‘
`The nearest space I have is for the same date next month.’
`Next month? Who will hold a job for me for a month?’
`May I help you?’ She dismissed her.
`No, you have got to listen to me. I have three children and if I lose this job I will have to go on government assistance. I cannot wait that long. I—‘
`Punjabi or Urdu?’ she asked dialing a number on the intercom.
`What?’
`What is your mother tongue?’
`Punjabi–but–‘
I’ve got you now woman. She felt like smiling. `Oh, hi Cindy. Can we have a Punjabi interpreter out here? Great. Thanks.’ She put the phone down. So, the bitch doesn’t want to go on Welfare, too good for it, eh? She even calls it `government assistance’.
`Why did you ask for a Punjabi interpreter? I can speak a little English.’
She kept scribbling on the paper in front of her. Too good for it as well, eh?
`You asked for a Punjabi interpreter?’ The woman was white.
`Yes. could you please tell this lady we are booked until the same date next month. That is when she has to come back.’
`Certainly’. The interpreter faced the woman and said in English “We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.”
`But who will keep this kind of job—‘
`We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.’
`I have three children—‘
`We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.’
`But you can’t do that to —‘
`We are booked—‘
The woman suddenly turned, gathered her children and started walking towards the door. And that is when she looked back towards the counter. Her eyes full of water. By the time she was out the door her cheeks must have been all wet. So much for parenting skills. Crying in front of her children. The woman disappeared behind the door but she could see her crying in the corridor. In the elevator. In the huge main lobby. On to University Avenue. Hundreds of people looking at her, watching her. She felt a sudden and unexpected urge to run after her and tell her about the other office where she could get a work permit the same day. No, she was not that soft. The creature asked for what she got. People watching. The woman crying. And then they think they have self-respect. It was only proper to do what she did.

Whenever she did something that was proper, she felt good. This was proper. It was good. That is what she liked in herself. She always did what was in her power.

Suddenly, there was no dilemma. She was strong and she had power. No, she did not need him. She would survive without him.

The decision came like an inspiration. Quick, easy and enlightening.
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The Position of Her Power was written in 1988 in Toronto, and 30 years later, i feel motivated to blog it here. Though i was tempted at times to give it a light copyedit but i didn’t (except for removing an ‘a’). The story was first published in Diva: A quarterly journal of South Asian women (V1, Issue 1, April 1988, Toronto), and then in ‘Awakening Thunder, Asian Canadian Women’, Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly (Issue 30, Spring 1990, Toronto). Most recently, it was selected to be a Finalist for Sequestrum’s 2018 Editor’s Reprint Award. ~ Fauzia

Edward Stefan Kuris is a painter, sculptor and poet who has exhibited his work since 1969 in many solo and juried group shows including Fergus, Elora, Toronto, Quebec, Slovak Republic, Cuba, and Japan. His paintings were used in a film by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman. He is an Associate of the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) since 1970. Visit Ed’s facebook page.
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Adding ‘Complexity’ to the ‘Simplicity’ of Racist Constructions – and a rabbit that was not allowed to come out of the hat

Fauzia Rafique
2018

Art work by Ed Kuris

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, I found myself doing a short term minimum-wage job in Vancouver soliciting signatures on a climate change petition from the streets surrounding some of the sports venues. I was part of a small team instructed to work in pairs for safety. In the first couple of hours on the job, I received many ‘raceompliments’ such as, ‘Your english is good’; ‘Lucky, you don’t need no sun tan’; ‘Paki-bitch’; ‘Where is your hijab?’; ‘Where did you come from?’; ‘Where did you learn your english?’; and, of course, ‘Go back where you came from’.

Right away, it was necessary for me to put in place a defense strategy, and my instinctive temporary solution was to begin sharing these ‘comments’ with my team mates in order to stop the racist attacks from piling up on me. Keep in mind that these comments were like fresh items being thrown onto a compost heap as high as a downtown highrise, since I have been a Canadian for over thirty years, and before that, I was raised a woman in Pakistan, so the heap was already made up of numerous ‘sexompliments’ and other ‘woman-abusements’ from there and here. So, I began sharing these racist vignettes in the form of small jokes, and my team mates, all young White people studying at local universities, were supportive. We laughed together and that made all the difference to me in terms of continuing to work while taking these insults at the rapid frequency that they were being dished out to me as a Woman of Color working on the street.

By the end of that week, I was asked to meet the Boss, who after listening to me became a bit restless in his chair. He said that perhaps I was making the situation more complex than it actually was by exaggerating my street encounters. That threw me off a bit because he seemed like an educated person who was apparently committed to bringing change for the better, and I couldn’t reconcile it with his blaming-the-victim mentality regarding my direct encounters with racism. So, as if joking, I asked him if he was a racist. At that, he jumped up from his chair, and said something that I could never forget, and these were his exact words (except for the name of the country perhaps): ‘How can I be a racist? My wife is Jamaican!’ To me, his concept was, and is, as baffling as: ‘How can I be a sexist? My wife is a woman!’ But, I recovered quickly, and asked if his wife had ever ‘shared with him’ any of her experiences of racism. He said no or seldom. That confused me a bit more, so I asked him about her profession, and it came out that she held a well-paid position with a government or education agency. That, of course, figured. I know how most professional middle class South Asians do not acknowledge that racism exists in this society, and they are adept in minimizing it when it happens to them or to others in front of them. Some even go as far as to stand with the settler-colonialists to condemn or to put down their own or other non-White ethnic groups. Racism takes many different forms, such as in this scenario where it is in-your-face naked, not woven in subtle processes of an educational or governmental office.

I must also note that for his part, the Boss was indifferent or clueless about the impact upon me of being exposed to those hateful racist comments, questions and statements said directly to my face, on the street, and at that high frequency.

When people choose to not see race as it factors in their lives and in the lives of others, they also may not see a few other things such as ‘class’. In this case, I was also taken to task by the Boss for soliciting and getting signatures from people who did not have an email address. Let’s see, what kind of people or which population groups are likely to NOT have an email address in Vancouver in this day and age? Yes, many homeless and older jobless people don’t have an email address, add to them some of the seniors of Color who have not yet made the transition from mail to email, people who live marginally, those with no access to technology, or ever learned to use it, rural folks, the poor. Does that mean they don’t have an opinion on the state of our environment, or that they are not impacted by it, or that their opinion is not worth having, or that their voices do not need to be heard in this matter?

The reason provided by the Boss was that signatures with email addresses could fetch the campaign a much-needed $5 each. It is interesting that he told me this even when at my job interview with him a few weeks back I had made it clear to him that I do not support selling people’s contact information when their signature was taken for one specific purpose, but that it was okay with me if a non-profit organization to whose representative that information was given, used it to send occasional messages regarding their own campaigns and events. It was as if that conversation had never taken place, and I was asked to stop soliciting signatures from those people who had no email addresses to be sold.

Since an average of only 2-5% of the signatures I took were solicited from homeless/jobless people or seniors of Color, why would a non-profit environmental protection organization not make room for them, in order to have their point-of-view and to include it in that democratic process? Instead of including the City’s marginalized voices, I was asked to stop gathering their signatures, opinions and input. Could this be because, like racism, it would have been too much of a challenge for the all-White middle-class organizers to reconcile these voices with their self-serving well-funded environmental activism? One wonders what the reasons could be.

Leaving the wonderment aside, let’s go to the end result: Even when I was the most punctual and hard-working member of the team who daily scored many more signatures than others, I could not last in that job for more than four of the six weeks, and even though they said they have my resume ‘on file’, I was never again asked to do any other work for them. Again, one wonders why.

This was a clear example of directly-administered racism on the street, and, it also showed us how that experience was NOT IDENTIFIED as racism by an all-White non-profit organization.

But that’s not the only form of racism encountered by People of Color in the workplace; there are various indirectly-administered forms that are subtle and way more lethal than the above. In those instances none of the ‘raceompliments’ are directly uttered but the actions, discussions and conversations show that that is what may have ‘informed’ the individuals who in most cases have not given the issue of systemic racism enough thought to determine where they stand or they have given it thought and have decided to continue to support the current prejudiced systemic structures. And, unlike the varied representation of people on the Street, in a non-profit organization a more homogeneous population may be found where individuals are well-educated and ‘aware’ of racism, and so the expressions are not as blatant. This unprocessed or processed, deep and submerged racism creates a much more difficult experience to live through and point to than the one shared above. We, as People of Color, must confront racism in all its varied forms in all different aspects of our daily lives- economic, social and political.

Art work by Ed Kuris

I had a four-month long debilitating experience of this ‘deep and submerged’ racism while working with another non-profit organization whose claim to anti-racism, or ‘diversity’ (their name for it), was to hire a hijab-wearing woman as their receptionist. Perhaps I was the only Person of Color ever hired by them in a decision-making role (the Project Lead); and, it seemed they didn’t know what to do with me. I was honored when they offered me the job on the basis of my work with Surrey Muse, as well as my ideas about the project that I had earlier presented in their community consultation meetings, and so I was delighted to accept. Three other people were also hired at the same time to look after publicity, technical direction, and coordination of available resources. I was asked by the Project Manager to develop a plan on the basis of project mandate and the notes from community-consultation meetings. I worked full-time (and into overtime) for the next three weeks to research and develop our plan, that was then sent to the Project Manager and the other three hired staff. That’s when strangeness began, where two opposites were at work at the same time, and one could not know which one was operating when.

For example, even though the Project Plan was unanimously praised by all concerned and it was approved without any significant critique or modification, much hostility began to come through to me via emails. As I was asked by the Project Manager to begin implementation, two of the three co-workers began to question my every move, from my developing the plan to getting the project logo redesigned. A meeting held between us was spent in squabbling about job descriptions instead of hashing out the implementation of the project. Soon, it began to feel as if I did not have colleagues or coworkers, but fierce competitors whose main job was to take me to task with excessive, and often self-serving and ill-informed, scrutiny.

I used the terms ‘ill-informed’ and ‘self-serving’ because in most cases, the concerned co-workers either had not taken the time to read the whole message or document under discussion, or they had not taken the time to inform themselves about the issues involved. For example, the person who sent long messages to say that I didn’t have the right to get the project logo made, hadn’t noticed that the project already had a logo and that I was only getting it re-designed (it had appeared too ‘simple'(!) to me and I had said to the Project Manager that we could add some ‘complexity'(!) to it). My second co-worker was dissatisfied with her designation and assigned areas of work (that had been agreed upon by her and the Project Manager before I was hired), and she remained focused on those throughout the four months of my tenure with them.

During this time, the Project Manager and his role also began to seem strange. For example, when the very first squabble arose (about whether I had the right to develop the plan) the so called ‘discussion’ went on and on for days before he made himself available to confirm that indeed he had asked me to develop the plan. I wondered why he didn’t do it sooner? Unfortunately for me, he followed this pattern regarding all such interactions- let the abuse happen, let me deal with it by myself. But if it appeared that I was beginning to embarrass my co-workers, step in and end it.

What this situation did to me was to put me under a lot of ongoing unneeded and unnecessary stress, and it left me alone to do the implementation of a sizeable project. What rescued me from this two-faced atrocity was the response from the members of Metro Vancouver’s arts community who were contacted by me to contribute their skills and time to the project. My heart softens and my eyes moisten with appreciation when I think of the fact that these were all volunteer positions. The project received support from individuals, organizations and businesses. Within a month or so, the project’s web page was receiving over a thousand views a day without us spending any money on advertising or promotion. Our calls for submission for different genres were reaching deep into the community where artists and writers of all ages and descriptions were motivated to contribute to the project. The implementation was going according to the plan, and everything was successfully in place in four months.

By that time, becoming tired of the abusive routine of my co-workers, I sent them an email message summarizing my work, and asking them to tell me what they had done for the project in four months. I went on to suggest that it might turn out better if they were to focus on their work instead of focusing on me. That brought the situation to a head, and within a couple of weeks, I was asked to resign by the Project Manager, and so I did.

In this regard, my curiosity remains with the priorities of the Executive Director and the Project Manager regarding that decision. They did not seem to understand nor care for the project mandate. Their actions seemed to indicate that they did not care, respect, nor honor the over thirty people from the arts communities who had committed to the project on a volunteer basis, half of whom were established and recognized professionals in their fields. The fact that official calls for submissions were made public, and the end date for submissions was near did not matter to them. Commitments made with the larger arts community also seemed ‘off their radar’ as they seemed unimpressed that they had, as an organization, made commitments to the public through the project. It was difficult to see if anyone was worried about the possibility that it might be an abuse of public funds to shelve a fully developed and community-engaged project in the middle of its implementation, and for no apparent reason. One may wonder, what were the true priorities in play, as it seems to this author that the goals and objectives of the project did not form a part of those priorities.

I have some clues regarding my question about the priorities of the administration. When the Project Manager asked me to resign in an email message, he also made some interesting comments. He said that they had been wondering if ‘a rabbit will ever come out of the hat’; and, that doing this project was a simple matter of organizing a few devising workshops (art creation through a collective process, mainly used in theater-making), but I made it unnecessarily complex by sending out calls for submissions and getting independent arts consultants for each genre to make the final selections.

The mandate of the project was to help produce art and literature meaningful enough to encourage a change for the better in our society. Focus themes had been drafted through community consultations that artists and writers were asked to speak to through their practiced art forms. In my view, the devising-workshop method was not a good tool to fulfill the goals of the project since it would require artists and writers to be physically present in the workshops to participate in the project. This factor alone could place serious limitations on the quality of submissions or on the art produced on the spot as it would filter out people because of their geographic location, class, color, and other marginalizations suffered historically by certain population groups.

If most of the marginalized communities are filtered out, then what kind of art-for-change we can expect to produce? Devising workshops indeed work well in the field of theater but outside of it some people and organizations may favor this method because the results might be predictable as the majority of participants would be known to the organizers, and so, the end product/s would likely be amenable to the system’s powerful but highly-prejudiced structures.

The methods evolved through the project plan assured the widest participation from diverse communities of Metro Vancouver. It engaged the arts communities through direct volunteer involvement of community leaders and youth into different layers of its implementation including outreach, solicitation, and the selection of submissions. Most prominent among the people engaged were Indigenous writers and artists because of the central position that community must hold in any kind of ‘art for change’ project in Canada. The integrity of the process was evident in requiring blind submissions and in hiring of expert professionals as selectors who were independent of the project and its parent organization. If it was allowed to go through, the project would have enriched us by surfacing meaningful poetry, short fiction and memoir that would have been published in the form of a chapbook; paintings, sculptures, sketches, cartoons, multimedia and photographs that were to be displayed in an exhibition; songs, dance and music in performance, audio and video; drama skits and monologue in live performance and videos- all featuring artists and writers from the different arts communities of Metro Vancouver.

But that lovely rabbit was not allowed to come out of the hat- not because the administration doubted that it would, but because they weren’t sure of what kind of rabbit it would be. The only thing obvious at the time was that it was not going to be an all-White rabbit with token spots of color hidden behind the ears or a few on the forehead to make them super-obvious. It is amazing that the administration was not interested in the ‘rabbit’ herself but was hung up on what she would look like.

Why is there so much fear in CanLit of the writers and artists speaking from the diverse communities of its metropolitan cities? Why is it that the necessity to create and provide space to marginalized communities is not recognized in an ‘art for change’ project? Why were the methods evolved by the project (that were successfully in place in four months) to assure that the historically marginalized communities had an opportunity to participate, not validated by the administration? If the administration was in any doubt about the project, those community members (artists et al) could have been invited to evaluate this program, their voices would have been heard, and the efficacy of the program would have been better understood.

But it was not the plan nor the project itself nor my work. I was made to go through this jarring experience, and the approved working plan of a project was shelved because of a sense of White Entitlement held by my White co-workers and the all-White administration. In the first and last meeting we had as a group, I had asked my co-workers why was I facing such hostility from them, and one person had said that I was ‘too good’ and the Plan I had presented was ‘perfect’ but that she was unhappy for not being a part of developing it. I did take her first statement as a true compliment even though the one following it was false.

The project’s organizing group was not a collective structure; I was asked to develop a plan to be presented to the Program Manager, but I had sent it to everyone for feedback and input; first the sketch of the Plan where all three co-workers had made it clear to me that they were concerned only with their own areas; accordingly, their feedback on the Proposed Project Plan was limited to those areas. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t clear what I should have done- present a project plan that did not fulfill the mandate or had many loopholes, something that did not make sense or did not jell together, just so my ‘entitled’ co-workers could feel better about themselves?

It was White Entitlement that made it possible for my two co-workers to not do nothing in four months for that approved-by-all project plan and still face no consequences from the administration. I shudder to think what would have been the consequences if two Women of Color were to try to do that in that exact situation- they would not last a few weeks let alone four months. When I, as the Project Lead, confronted them on this, I was asked to step down. The Executive Director was part of making that decision, and she made it without responding to any of my concerns and without giving me a moment of her time.

I was still reeling from this experience, unable to share with anyone, when I saw this on Facebook: The “Problem” Women of Color in the Workplace, by Emily Yee Clare, an educator and illustrator at the Centre for Community Organizations (COCo) in Montreal. The tool is originally created by Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Non-violence, and it corroborated my experience from beginning to end; from ‘honeymoon’ to ‘exit’.

To me, it’s in sync.

White leadership – Tokenized hiring
Woman of color enters the organization.

Honeymoon
Woman of color feels welcomed, needed and happy.
Yes, these were my feelings. I felt happy that my vision for the project was supported by the organization, and my hiring to me meant that the organization wished to encourage inclusive and representative art and literature.

Reality – Repetitive injury
Woman of color points out problems, tries to work within, pushes for accountability.
Indeed, I did point out problems to the individuals responsible and to the Program Manager, but nothing was done about anything, I had no choice but to keep working. And, yes, I was asked to leave the moment I directly pushed for accountability.

Response – Denial of racism
Organization denies, ignores and blames, puts responsibility back on woman of color to fix the problem, people of color are pitted against each other.
Yes, this was my experience exactly, on all three counts. The Program Manager ignored what was going on, and when he couldn’t, he blamed me; and, the Woman of Color who was the only one supportive of me in the first three months, was pitted against me by the fourth month.

Retaliation – Target and attack
Organization decides that woman of color is the problem and targets her; organization labels the conflict as a communication issue, a personnel issue or claims the woman of color is not qualified or ‘not a good fit’.
Yes, the conflict was labeled as a ‘communication’ issue, and I was labeled as an ‘isolationist’- someone who prefers to work in isolation, and, of course a magician with a magic hat, and, someone who made simple art projects unnecessarily complex.

Woman of color exits the organization
I was asked to resign: to undo everything I had done in the previous four months; to lose face in front of my communities and all the people who had promised their time, skills, resources, ideas and money to the project.

It is apparent that adding ‘complexity’ to the ‘simplicity’ of racist constructions in a Canadian workplace is a serious offense that is not going to earn you any distinctions. Rather it’ll make you lose your current job and shut a few doors on future ones. Even worse can happen if you start to talk about it. But then, how can we not.

My story exposes some of the pain experienced and the damages sustained by myself, and it points to those experienced by other People of Color elsewhere in Canada. Losing a job is damage enough in itself, yet we as Women of Color lose a lot more than a job; there are damages to our physical and mental health, yet no one who caused it is held responsible. Such is the reality of living in a racist, sexist and classist system.

I recommend accountability for organizations who wish to hire People of Color. Each non-profit organization needs to have an Anti-Racism Action Plan of its own that provides for mandatory anti-racism training for staff and volunteers. To have it, not just because the funds that are being used by non-profits are contributed by People of Color as well, but to do it to make it safe and possible for all of us to work together to the best of our abilities.
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Fauzia Rafique is a novelist and poet involved in rights activism through her writing and organizing. Working with non-profit organizations, she has developed print resources around racism, violence against women, Islamophobia and poverty. This includes ‘Developing an Antiracism Action Plan: a manual for workers in service organizations‘ (Toronto 1992), and anthology ‘Towards Equal Access, a handbook for service providers working with survivors of wife assault‘ (Toronto 1991). Fauzia coordinates Surrey Muse, an inclusive art and literature presentation group serving Metro Vancouver since 2011.

edward stefan kuris is a painter, sculptor and poet who has exhibited his work since 1969 in many solo and juried group shows including Fergus, Elora, Toronto, Quebec, Slovak Republic, Cuba, and Japan. His paintings were used in a film by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman. He is an Associate of the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) since 1970. Visit Ed’s facebook page.