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September 21, 2017
To celebrate the winners of our inaugural writing contest in the lead up to the festival on September 24, we’ll be publishing the top three winning stories here on our website. And to really get to know the authors, we’re pairing each story with a short written interview with each of the authors.
Also, be sure to see the special showcase of the contest with all three authors reading portions of their winning stories.
Read on to learn about the First Place winner, Elham M. Ali, and her story, “The Night is Powerful.”
What does diversity in writing mean to you?
To me diversity in writing is the representation a wide variety of voices and experiences in literature. It’s not just about the stories that are being published, but about the people being the stories. More than anything I think this is dependent on a variety of individuals and experiences existing in the publishing industry in Canada in order to create an environment that can nurture and develop a spectrum of voices.
What does your writing space like?
I wish I had a “writing space!” Right now it’s wherever I can find a quiet place and an outlet, be it on my bed surrounded by snacks, at a coffee shop for a few minutes after work, or at my local library.
Who are your favourite writers and how have they influenced you?
I try to read as widely as possible, so I don’t really have any single favourite author, the kind whose entire body of work I’ve read. This year though there have been a few standout authors who’s writing has really stayed with me and who I would love to emulate in my own writing. I finally read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee this year and it was absolutely incredible, I loved the way she built this whole little town through her writing and made the community almost another character in her story.
Another favourite was a more recent publication called The Age of Reinvention by Karine Tuil. The writing of this book was so beautiful and the author’s voice so distinct. The story is about an Algerian Frenchman who lies about his heritage in order to get ahead as a lawyer in New York. It’s a bit dark, but what the author does in her story is what I want to do in my own writing, which is to write about a Muslim character whose faith is simply an aspect of his character and not his defining feature—the story is about so much more than that.
Describe the process of writing your winning story.
This is going to sound terrible, but there wasn’t really a “process” involved in writing my story. I decided really late to enter the contest, like a couple of days before the extended deadline! I wasn’t really going to enter, but then it occurred to me one day that if being a writer is something I really want to do then I’m going to have to start somewhere. So I kind of told myself, “this is it, no more putting things off, no more waiting for the right time, just finish something!”
So I started writing without really thinking about what the end result would look like and go wherever my thoughts took me, though I had a broad idea of what I wanted to write about. The contest was running during the month of Ramadan so I decided I wanted to write about that. I wanted my story to be more a portrait of a community than a narrative, though I wasn’t sure how that would go over. I finished my story on the last day of the contest and since I was working that day and then going out to visit family at night I ended up writing my story on my cell phone and then finishing and editing on my cousin’s computer. It was the most nerve wracking thing I’ve ever done! Still it’s given me the confidence to know that I can write and finish things if I want to, but I should probably plan better going forward.
What are you trying to achieve with your writing, if anything at all?
As a minority writer, I think very often it can be easy to pigeonhole yourself or be pigeonholed into the idea of writing only about or for your community. As a Muslim woman I want to avoid that trap as much as possible, while still staying true to myself and the stories I have to tell.
It’s a bit hard to explain, but basically I want to write human stories about Muslim characters. I want to avoid as much as possible the cliché Muslim “issues” and be a writer who can take on the deeper things that make us human and the experiences that connect people. I cannot begin to describe the frustration I feel when I see the way Muslims are depicted in media, literature included, and I’m not even talking about the terrorist/extremist examples! I mean the sad young Muslim girls who “just want to be normal,” the overbearing brown parents, the cowed women and misogynistic men.
It feels to me that “culture clash” is the only issue ever depicted in stories about Muslims and I want to go far beyond that. I feel that good writing is a mirror that is meant to reflect the world of the reader and the reader themselves, we read so we can analyze ourselves as people and societies and come away better. I want my writing to be a mirror for my own community but others as well; I want people to read my stories and no matter where they come from or what their background is be able to see a little bit of themselves in my work. But like any author I think first and foremost I just want to write good stories. And I don’t want to limit myself to the serious stuff either! Fantasy, comedy, even romance, I want to try it all!
If you stand at the centre of Kipling Avenue and Rexdale Boulevard, you can spin around in almost any direction, and when you come to a stop be within walking distance of a mosque. There is nothing remarkable about any of these buildings, all converted warehouses, and with the surrounding industrial buildings, fast food restaurants, truck depots, and one giant Catholic church, you would never think this area a hub for Toronto’s Muslim community; it’s a secret kept only by virtue of being placed in a forgotten corner of this mega metropolis.
Tonight, cousin Marwa and I drive in from the west side of the intersection. Stopping at the red light, we contemplate our plentiful prayer options to try and decide where we will commune with the divine tonight. Before we can decide though, Marwa announces she’s thirsty just as the light switches to green, and so swings a wide U-turn in the empty street, heading for a nearby Somali diner, empty but with its Open sign still blinking. In Ramadans past Marwa and I would stop at the 24-hour Tims a few blocks from the intersection for iced caps with all the other late night prayer-goers, but ever since she started at York Marwa’s made a few Somali friends so now we get mango shakes.
Back in the car and realizing we still have a bit of time before prayer starts, we roll the windows down to let the breeze in and sip our drinks as we once again assess our options. In the driver’s seat, Marwa snaps pictures of her shake (#sweetsuhur #ramadan2017 #lasttendays), while I glance over my shoulder to the mosque in the south.
“I heard KBW’s AC is out,” I say, taking a drag on my straw.
“Then we’re definitely not doing there. Plus Somalis there always double park”. She scrolls through her phone as she speaks, her shake forgotten in its cup holder. “What about Nabawi? We haven’t been there in a while.”
“Nah,” I shake my head, “Pakistanis like to let their kids read and they all go way too fast. Dar-ul?”
“No way, Aliyah’s brother goes there and I’m not talking to him after he broke up with Saleha.” I
roll my eyes at MSA drama but at least our decision is made; Marwa pulls out of the parking lot and we head north to join our west Indian brethren.
Parking spaces are uncharacteristically plentiful tonight, but still Marwa insists on finding a spot
away from the entrance. Tucked in the shadows on the building’s south corner, I realize why she did this when I step around the back of the car and see her hunched over between her SUV and the van next to it, the edge of her abaya at her thighs as she squirms to adjust the tights she’s got on underneath. The last of my shake stings the back of my nose as I laugh and she shushes me angrily. “It’s hot, bruh!” she snaps, which is true, but that’s why smart sisters wear basketball shorts.
I’m still snickering as we walk up to the building. Dumping my cup in the trashcan that props
open the door. We make our way into the women’s section. Despite the late hour, women are scattered throughout the space. Teenage girls sit cross-legged, chatting quietly while their mothers sit adjacent, Qurans resting on their knees. A row of chairs lines the back so older women won’t have to strain their joints in kneeling, and here and there some women catch a few minutes sleep before the prayer starts, hijabs over their faces despite the dimmed lights.
Marwa and I find spots in the middle rows of the congregated women, placing ourselves on the edge of one of the carpet’s wide blue stripes, alternated with white and perfectly spaced to allow the average sized human enough room to submit to their Lord without smashing into the person in front of them. Crossing my legs I try to get comfortable and contemplative before the prayer starts, Ramadan is a time of reflection and it’s during night prayers that one should be especially meditative. That being said, connecting with the divine is quite difficult with a gaggle of pre-teens sitting not two feet away, furiously whisper interrogating each other about their “crushes.”
Now, barring the impropriety of gossiping about boys in a house of God right next to your mothers, these girls haven’t yet graduated past slip on hijabs, what do they know about crushes or boys? Apparently Marwa’s wondering the same because she leans over to whisper something in my ear, but before she can the imam comes on the mike and gives the call to prayer. We’re about to start.
The congregation stands and we arrange ourselves along the marked-off rows. Although every mosque I’ve ever been to has some sort of carpet guide in place, I’ve yet to find one where the rows are actually straight. The imam urges us to stand “shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot” and when that doesn’t work some older women take it upon themselves to physically move people into place, tugging them one here, another there, or shoving them into an entirely different row to try and fill in gaps and straighten rows. Still it’s of no use, a set of broken teeth is the most inoffensive we can get. When the mosque aunties have given up, they too fall in line.
It begins with Allahu Akbar, everyone knows that. The man leading prayer is Brother Rahman, who’s been leading Ramadan prayers at this mosque since he moved to Toronto from Alexandria in ‘77. Despite being a naturally soft spoken man in his 70’s, when he leads prayer Brother Rahman’s voice peal’s loud and clear as church bells, his thick Egyptian accent disappearing, he doesn’t even need the microphone.
I’ve been listening to Brother Rahman recite Quran since I was seven and Marwa was five, when her parents convinced mine to sign us up for weekend Quran classes here. A lover of Saturday morning cartoons, I was wholeheartedly opposed to this plan, but I was seven so what I wanted didn’t matter. Even then I marvelled at the incredible voice that projected out of the old man, a voice he used whether he was leading grown men or tutoring children. I’ve often heard non-Muslims describe Quran recitation as singing, but to say that Brother Rahman sings the scripture does not do him justice. To me, he recites it like love poetry he’s written himself, the words flowing from his heart as warm and natural as chai from its pot. As moved as I was by his voice though it wasn’t enough to stay in his class. My first was my last and I faked a stomach-ache for three subsequent weekends before Mama got the point.
This tiny childhood victory I reflect on throughout the first rakaat, the first cycle of standing, bowing, and prostration of the long night prayer, so absorbed was I in remembering Brother Rahman’s voice that I wasn’t even listening to it. I curse myself in my head as the Brother calls a long drawn out Allahu Akbar, and everybody bows to the next position. Ramadan night prayers are especially holy and I vowed this year to make the most of them. Focus, focus focus! I chastise myself as we stand again before the third Allahu Akbar sends us down to the floor in prostration.
The Ramadan night prayers, tahajjud we call them, are made up of eight pairs of rakaat, with breaks in between them. Tahajjud is a time for personal prayers and meditation, people wait all year for these nights, so I feel I’ve really wasted a golden opportunity as we go through two more cycles where all I can think about where the teenage sister in front of me got her dress.
Just as we finish the second set of rakaat Brother Karim takes the mike for a bit of fundraising while he’s got us all here. Brother Karim recently inherited the presidency of the mosque from his father (God rest his soul). A good-natured man in his 40’s, a doctorate in mechanical engineering and 25 years in Canada did nothing to get rid of his Guyanese accent, which is as thick as his waist and just as bouncy. I am convinced that at some mosque leaders’ convention in the past decade, all the imams and sheikhs in Toronto got together and decided that halfway through a 2:00 a.m. prayer in the month where no one is allowed to eat is the best time to do as much fundraising as is humanly possible. Now is the time to meet your $500,000 annual goals and fund your extensions, those minarets aren’t going to pay for themselves. Mama spent the final ten nights of last Ramadan bouncing us back and forth to each of the four mosque as one by one their fundraising practices sent her into a fury. One Imam spent a full 45 minutes imploring the assemblage to open their hearts and wallets to help pay for a parking lot extension for the mosque’s growing attendance, though no amount of money or the extra parking spaces could stop Muslims from double parking on Fridays.
Keeping these experiences in mind I am ready to hunker down for a nap, but to my surprise Brother Karim says that they’ll be keeping donation time short this year. “Bruddas and sistas I know we all got work in de mornin’. And the Lord don’t wait fo’ nobody so we gon’ finish quick and get back to it.”
Soon we’re in our rows again and Brother Rahman is enveloping the room with his recitation and I’m trying my hardest to focus, focus, focus but am finding it incredibly difficult on account of my new neighbour. For the first half of the prayer I’d had Marwa on my left, and to my right a stocky Arab woman with a sleeping baby strapped to her back and a toddler at her feet. She swayed gently backwards and forwards as she prayed and sank to the floor a bit slower than everyone else. Now however the swaying has turned into a constant shuffling and tiny elbows jabbing me in the hip. I’m still focused on focusing but I can’t help but look out the corner of my eye to see the perpetrator, and I realize that in the post fundraising reshuffle I am now standing next to one of the little girls from before. Her Pakistani pajamas must itch because she keeps squirming and scratching at them, throughout the standing phase into the bowing phase, and even with her forehead pressed to the floor she never stops moving. Instead of convening with the divine I’m seriously considering if knocking a child over in the middle of prayer is going to send me to hell. Before I know it we’ve finished the next cycle of prayers and are on the last one, two more rakaat and it’s finished and I’ve been distracted the entire time.
In the final rakaat of tahajjud Brother Rahman leads us in a special invocation, calling out to ask
for the health of the congregation, for peace on earth, for the acceptance of our fasts this Ramadan, and the success of our children. Each invocation is followed by a low, collective ameen that forms the thrumming heartbeat that will carry our prayers out into the universe.
As Brother Rahman leads, I stare into my raised hands and trace the lines within them, trying to
think of what I want or need to ask for, but my mind is still blank (ameen). I shake my head lightly at myself screaming internally, focus! How do you mess up praying (ameen)?
Time is running out, I know because Brother Rahman is crying, so overcome by his calls to heal the sick, and I can’t think of a damn thing to pray for besides forgiveness for saying damn in the middle of prayer. I suddenly think about the little girl in the fuschia hijab, I wonder what she is praying for? Was she the one with the crush (ameen)? In her confused youth is she praying he likes her back (ameen)? I’m confident that the woman with the baby on her back is praying for her children (ameen), and Brother Karim is probably in tears praying for his deceased father (ameen). Marwa has her exams and even poor Saliha who got dumped by Aliyah’s brother has a broken heart to pray for (ameen). What do I have? What do I need? But it’s too late to wonder, the final ameen is called and we press our faces to the carpet one last time before the prayer is over. It’s 3:00 a.m.
Marwa and I are fortunately placed close to the exit, so we manage to get out early, but we decide to move to a corner of the foyer to put our shoes on so as not to block exiting traffic. Despite the late hour not everyone is leaving though, some hang back to have their pre-fast meal at the mosque. Already some of the women, lead by Brother Karim’s wife Sister Chandra, warm rice in the mosque’s tiny kitchen, hoping there will be enough for the third helpings people will need to keep them going through the day. Some of the older gentlemen will head across the street to a roti and doubles shop who’s owner knows the Ramadan calendar better than anyone in the mosque, despite a Trinidadian Hindu. The rest will head home to families and children and rushed meals a few minutes before sunrise. Stepping out into the cool night, I take a deep breath, turning my face up to the one star I can see, soon find the moon as well, still but a sliver held up against the black. Marwa is already halfway to her car as I take in the night, she’s in a hurry to get back to Brampton before sunrise. She calls out to me and I sigh, hiking up my abaya a bit as I run to the car.
As Marwa backs out of her spot I spot that little girl again, this time with her parents and an older boy, making their way across the lot. As she turns towards the exit I hear a baby strapped to its mother’s back crying out, see her bouncing softly to try and soothe it. We pass the mosque entrance again and I spot Brother Rahman, surrounded by the roti and doubles gang who help him to his car, and I’m about to wave to Brother Karim, who’s spotted me, when Marwa slams on the breaks. I whip around to see why and burst out laughing when I do. A long line up of cars sits waiting by the exit, double parked, blocking our way out. Marwa is alternately swearing and repenting furiously, we both know we’re never going to get home in time to eat. I turn to her and grin, though her face is still stormy.
“Oh well, at least we still have your shake.”
Elham Mohammed Ali is a Toronto based writer. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English Literature, continuing her studies at the Humber College Creative Book Publishing program. Currently, she spends her days as a marketing coordinator at Canada’s Ballet Jörgen, and her nights getting lost in a good book. Elham hopes to write a few in her lifetime.