Mohamed Fahmy comes to Concordia

Award-winning journalist talks about his experience in prison and calls for the university to support Homa Hoodfar

Concordia University welcomed Egyptian-born Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy as a lecturer for the first in a series of homecoming lectures at the Sir George Williams campus on Sept. 22.

Just over one year ago, Fahmy was released from prison in Cairo, Egypt. He, along with two of his colleagues, were accused of being terrorists, he said. They were arrested in December 2013, and found guilty in June 2014, staying incarcerated for over 400 days. Fahmy also spent six weeks in solitary confinement.

To a full house at the D.B. Clarke theatre, Fahmy spoke about his experience in prison and his campaign to free other journalists in similar situations.

Fahmy detailed his experience working at various news stations prior to his arrest—namely CNN, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera, where he worked as an English bureau chief in Cairo.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge when I took the [Al-Jazeera] job,” he said. “My last story, before going to prison, was on the branding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.”

Three days later, there was a knock on his hotel door and security forces stormed in. He was falsely accused by the Egyptian government of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood—a banned organization.

“My prison neighbors were members of Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood—as a journalist, I was in heaven,” he said jokingly. The audience laughed.

During the conference, Fahmy was interviewed by Paul Karwastsky. Photo by Cristina Sanza.

To occupy their time in prison, the jailed journalists conducted interviews with the different members of these organizations. “We would interview them on their political views, and in return they would do the same,” said Fahmy.

Fahmy got tons of support from not only his family, but from the Canadian press and via social media, which all lead to his release. “It was unbelievable to see the Canadian press uniting under this one cause,” Fahmy recalled. He said social media played an important role in raising awareness and getting Canadians involved. Throughout his time in prison, his family started a crowdfunding campaign where he was able to raise $40,000. With the money, Fahmy was able to pay the bills for his lawyers.

Despite the gravity of his situation, Fahmy did not lose hope and managed to stay positive. He said he read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a chronicle of the author’s experiences as an inmate at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war. This book taught Fahmy the concept of tragic optimism, which inspired him to turn his prison time into somewhat of a positive life experience, he said.

After being pardoned of all charges in September 2015, he and his wife started the Fahmy Foundation, with goal to fight suppression of the press and to advocate from unjust imprisonments around the world. He said he is currently working on passing a protection charter with Amnesty International to ensure greater advocacy for Canadians overseas.

“We need a mechanism to obligate the government to protect our people.” said Fahmy. “Not only journalists are being falsely accused … we see this happen to regular people and recently, with Homa Hoodfar.”  Homa Hoodfar is a Montreal academic who has been imprisoned in Iran’s Evin Prison since June.

“I don’t call her a prisoner,” Fahmy said about Hoodfar. “She is a political hostage and Iran wants something from Canada—and we still don’t know what it is.”

Fahmy said he believes there should be a change in the way government deals with these problems, and that it is urgent. “She is sick, and she needs support from everyone,” he said.

Fahmy’s complete journey will be detailed in his upcoming book, “The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom,” which will be released on Nov. 15.

Be sure to check out The Concordian‘s exclusive interview with Fahmy in print and online on Sept. 27.


Activism on your plate

Detroit’s Malik Yakini showcases social transformation through food

Concordia Transitions 2015, held on Sunday Feb. 8, was a day of events organized around a student-run food system for the university. Aside from providing an in-depth overview of Concordia’s food network, its history, and where it could go, the attendees were given the chance to hear from a series of speakers.

One of them was Malik Yakini, the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and member of D-Town Farms, an organic farm in the urban decay of the city. Equally knowledgeable in history and demographics as he is in farming, Yaniki painted a grim image of his home city and its hopeful start towards redemption through the narrative of food.

The current crisis, according to Yakini, is due to Detroit’s civic collapse and decades of intentional policy against its non-white denizens. Depending on who you ask, around a third of the city now lies empty—the result, Yakini said, of both economic implosion and white flight to the suburbs in response to non-white migration into the industrial heart of the city. (Detroit is listed in the 2010 United States Census as 82.7 per cent African American or Black.) Unemployment figures—a result of what Yakini called “intentional disinvestment”—vary widely depending on who is asked, at anywhere from 20 per cent to over 50 per cent. To a large extent the decay has affected the less affluent, mostly Black population of the city. From a food perspective, what has happened is a disaster.

“As of 2007, the last national grocery store chain closed its doors in the city of Detroit,” said Yakini. The remaining network of grocery stores are deemed by Yakini to be exploitative, not to re-invest into the local community, and of inferior quality.

Organizations like D-Town farms—currently occupying a two-acre location in Detroit’s Rouge Park—see the emptiness as fallow ground waiting to be reclaimed. But to rebuild (and make it better than before) requires more than soil and seeds. It requires a change in spirit.

“The work that we do is guided by values,” he said. “Love is the overriding value that guides everything we do.” Yakini believes what’s required is a re-thinking of our place in the world, of humans as part of the ecosystem and not having dominion over it.

“This idea that human beings were put here to have dominion over the earth is a very eurocentric idea. And so we also have love for the other animals and plants with which we share the planet, and we have an understanding that our survival is dependent on us understanding that we’re part of this matrix of life that includes the other life forms with which we share the planet,” he continued. “We thought that one of the things that we could do is really promote the growing of food as a way of filling that gap.” Filling that gap has meant re-educating his community on the importance and nobility of working with food—all the way to the root: “We now understand that significant and deep societal change is intergenerational. One of our goals from the very beginning was to involve youth in the food movement. It’s very important that we have young people who see work in the food system as being valuable work, because there’s all kinds of class implications about farming in particular. Some people see farming as lower-class work.”

As befits a community disadvantaged under the current system, Yakini’s food movement breaks from the past on two issues: first, in opposition to what he calls the entrenched and universal system of white supremacism which privileges the descendents of mostly western Europeans; and second against capitalism, which Yakini has called a method that exploits land, labour, and wealth transfer independent of merit or fair work.

“There are many concepts in capitalism that are unsustainable,” he said, citing unending growth and the belief in perpetual strife over resources. “That thinking is going to lead to our destruction. We think that there is an abundance on the Earth, but we just have to change our thinking and change how those resources are distributed.”

“One of the problems with the food system is that it’s become so large that local communities can’t benefit from it and it is fragile because of its scale,” he said.

By reclaiming the city one acre at a time, Yakini’s dream is to empower and create an alternate system of civic mindedness and equality for both his community and those who choose to stand in solidarity with it.

Their methods and successes have attracted a widespread following, something that still surprises Yaniki.

“We certainly didn’t set out to be celebrities; we set out to improve the conditions in our communities. It’s mind-boggling to go places and meet people who know what we’re doing and who are inspired by it, because that was not our intent. Our intent was to make the conditions in our community better.”

Nor does Yaniki see himself as deserving of any particular praise: “I always like people to know that although I am the chief spokesman for the group, I’m representing a collective of people who work very hard.”


Sci-fi and the future of tech

Literary heavyweight William Gibson weighs in during ConU’s Thinking Out Loud

Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine a time before recorded music was available: no flipping through iTunes to hear your favourite artist’s new track, no searching on YouTube for the oldie that’s been stuck in your head all day—a time when technology was significantly different than it is today.

William Gibson invited audience members to do just that during Thursday’s session of Concordia’s Thinking Out Loud conversation series. Gibson, an American-Canadian science fiction novelist, joined Concordia communication studies professor Fenwick McKelvey for “Digital Life, Digital Identity — A Conversation About the Internet, Fiction and the Future” moderated by Erin Anderssen of The Globe and Mail.

“One of the most mysterious things about technology is the way in which we lose the previous mode of existence,” said Gibson. As a celebrated speculative fiction novelist, he’s used to imagining new technologies and presenting them in naturalistic prose. In 1982 he coined the term “cyberspace.” His works—ranging from short stories to novels and trilogies—have highly influenced the world of science fiction writing., and he was one of the founders of the cyberpunk genre.

They discussed the ever-changing popularity of technology and how it’s impossible to determine what will become the next big thing. Not only do developers not know exactly what technologies will catch on, but the way in which different groups in society use technology will also differ. Gibson suggested a poor man and a rich man might use technology very differently.

“How do you, from moment to moment, distinguish when are we being active participants and when are we being couch potatoes?” Asked Gibson. “It seems to me that the distinction is blurred in some weird way.”

While the role of technology is not always clear, it can be helpful in particular circumstances. Gibson recounted his experience assisting people across the world via social media during the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. Gibson, among others, was able to tweet links to information Japanese citizens couldn’t connect with since the natural disaster had destroyed certain networks.

Gibson predicts our current separation between self-identity and digital personas will fade for people as we move into the future. “I think they’ll find the way in which we made that distinction very, very peculiar and they’ll try very hard to understand it,” he said. “We experience now what, in the future, will be regarded as a remarkable degree of isolation.”

As a science fiction writer, Gibson is an expert in creating visions for the future. “There are bits and pieces of possible futures walking all around here, but we won’t necessarily notice them,” he said. He looks for the ones that “have legs,” seeking to balance contemporary perceptions of miraculous new technology “in a way that allows the reader the illusion of experiencing the character’s complete boredom with that technology.”


Preparing media for activism coverage

Panel of experts discuss the role of media and the nature of coverage in social movements

How does the media view social movements? Can journalists be activists? From yesteryear’s feminism and anti-war movements to today’s austerity marches and student protests, the question of how the media packages, frames, and interprets such acts is increasingly under scrutiny.

The event came on the tail end of Concordia’s Solidarity Teach-In week, a multi-day program of exchanges, workshops, and discussions leading up to the anti-austerity actions of spring 2015.

The panel featured freelancer (and former The Concordian News editor) Kalina Laframboise,

activist and producer Laith Marouf, veteran Radio-Canada journalist and assistant professor in the journalism department Philippe Marcoux, communications department assistant professor Fenwick McKelvey, and multimedia journalist Damon van der Linde.

The discussion revolved around perceptions of objectivity, the perceived hostility of traditional media towards disruptive social movements, and the differences between it and independent community media.

Van der Linde, who claims experience from extensive human rights reporting in Africa and elsewhere, believes the aim for journalistic objectivity precludes a reporter from being an activist.

“One of the biggest problems with news striving for objectivity and being a journalist covering social movements is often—not always—[that] social movements have leaders, a certain amount of power, they have political affiliations, there could also be money involved, and it’s all controlled by people,” said van der Linde.

“No one is asking to give equal space in an article or in a report, or equal credibility to both sides of a story,” said van der Linde, using the example of climate change. “But if you leave out a voice because it doesn’t follow the narrative you believe, then you’re not a journalist.”

Marcoux, owing to his many years working for Canada’s national broadcaster, offered insight on behalf of traditional, established media. “I think it’s really important to point out [that] … no matter how much you insist, [CBC/Radio-Canada] is a public broadcaster and will never be a state broadcaster.” He says influence does percolate within public media, but cautions on overextending its reach. “There is no such thing as a public line that is decided by the government and funneled down to the CBC newsroom. Journalists never hear about the government. The CBC and Radio-Canada [are] not perfect—trust me, I’ve spent my life criticizing them. But the biggest problem about them is not political influence.”

During typical coverage of countercultural events, Marcoux maintained that the people working in front of the camera and behind it are trying their best.

“They may not manage—you are perfectly allowed to think their coverage is biased—but the mistake you would be making is by not understanding that they think they’re striving for objectivity. When you deal with them, understand that they don’t think they have a bias. Use them, don’t use them, try to influence them, that’s up to you—but understand the position they start on.”

So is traditional media an ally or enemy of social movements? That’s the wrong way to look at it, according to Marcoux. “At the very least, they don’t want to be either. That’s the important point.”

This response did not sate everyone.

“CBC/Radio-Canada is just like the Syrian television, or the Portuguese government television. They are mouthpieces of whoever is in power,” said Marouf, one-time executive director of Concordia University Television (CUTV). Marouf maintained Canada’s luck came from having a third alternative to state and corporate media in the form of community media, whose mandate was to give a voice of balance to the mainstream.

“Those who decide to work for government outlets are bound by the editorial positions of their bosses,” he said. “The shortcoming of that is that you have no real control of the message, you are bound by the interests of the media to use that coverage, and you have no say obviously in which direction that content’s going to go.”

Yet the alternative of independent media isn’t too rosy, seeing as they operate in a ‘deeply fractured’ landscape. As an example close to home, he mentioned Concordia’s local media, which for all its efforts and relatively robust funding lacks effectiveness and technological savvy at reaching out the world beyond campus.

“On the one hand these media are very specific in terms of what platform they’re delivering on. With what’s happening at [Concordia] and McGill and UQAM and UdeM, the students have more than $4 million annually in financing—but the outcome for these dollars is very low. Why? Because right now the reality is that people when they’re searching for information on the Internet the traffic is going towards multimedia multiplatform delivery. The mainstream corporate sector … there’ll be audio, there’ll video, and there’ll be text, and they’ll be delivering in a newspaper format and a web format. If Concordia students really want to do something, you have democratic ways to change the realities of these islands of media, and bring them together to have very successful multiplat multimedia outlet that can have much more effect, opening this media out to the community to participate in it, to have access to training,”  he said, citing his time at CUTV in the 2012 student protests as an example of positive coverage that outshone mainstream reporting.

“CUTV was successful at the time [of the 2012 student protests] because of its ability to create a symbiosis between all the social media online, around a live broadcast, with a symbiosis of this live broadcast live-stream equipment, and the bodies of a whole team on the street at the forefront of the social movement, broadcasting you live unedited images from the frontlines.”

Whatever the nature of the reporting, Laframboise reiterated at the end something all the panelists seemed to agree with “You’re always going to get flak no matter what you write. It doesn’t matter. Everybody’s biased in one way or another.”

Student Life

Panti Bliss strips down homophobia, performance, and gender identity

Emer O’Toole and Miss Panti Bliss to host talk at Concordia

“Your name is knickers?!”

This is the reaction “accidental activist” Rory O’Neill usually receives from people when introduced to his notorious drag queen alter ego, Miss Panti Bliss.

Though, there aren’t many people left in Ireland who aren’t already familiar with O’Neill and Panti. He skyrocketed to fame last year after he appeared on Ireland’s Saturday Night Show and publicly called out certain right-wing Irish newspaper columnists for being homophobic. The ensuing fallout prompted one of the largest national public debates about homophobia and a call for action within the gay community, which led directly into the upcoming marriage equality referendum taking place in May.

Yet, according to O’Neill, the whole hullabaloo, now cheekily referred to as Pantigate, was just a case of putting his foot in his mouth.

“I say I’m an ‘accidental activist’ because I seem to get myself into a lot of trouble, and in order to get myself out of trouble I have to defend myself,” he said. “[Pantigate] became a big story, with the columnists suing me and the broadcaster, until eventually the lawyers for the broadcaster decided to cut their losses and pay out, and that turned what had been a relatively small story into a whole discussion that involved everything from homophobia and how Ireland treats gay people, to censorship, to freedom of speech issues.”

Canadian supporters flocked to Concordia University last year to hear O’Neill, as Panti, in discussion with Concordia Canadian-Irish Studies professor Dr. Emer O’Toole, who specializes in culture and performance arts with an interest in gender issues.

“We were really bouncing off of the Pantigate scenario, and how troubling it is how straight people could sue gay people for using the word homophobic,” said O’Toole. “I know that Panti/Rory was overwhelmed with the Canadian interest in Irish queer stuff.”

On Feb. 16, Panti will be back at Concordia to once again sit down with O’Toole as part of The Globe and Mail “Thinking Out Loud” series across Canada.

“We’ll be discussing gender identity, how it’s constructed, how we experience it, whether or not there’s something essential about gender identity,” said O’Toole about what’s on tap for this year’s discussion.

For O’Neill, gender and performance are inextricably linked. As Panti, O’Neill operates under many labels: spectacle, nonconformist, activist, performer, other. This makes him privy to all sorts of judgments and confidences, for better or for worse.

“When I’m dressed as a giant cartoon woman in public, people feel very free to say things to me that they would never say to me dressed as a guy,” he said.

This includes having total strangers coming up to Panti at a bar, and spilling their deepest, darkest secrets. Secrets like admitting to having had sex with their cousins.

O’Neill says that strangers’ openness with him is all to do with the deep roots of misogyny in our society. People see a man dressed as a woman and think that the man is demeaning himself in some way. In the case of dressing in exaggerated drag gear, this seems to invite people to see O’Neill and other drag queens as less-than-real caricatures or spectacles of people.

“They feel I’m someone they can just tell this secret to and it’s safe. I’ve demeaned myself so I can’t be judgmental or horrified,” he said. “That also plays into how people allow drag queens to say things to them that they would never allow a guy in a suit to say. The way they let puppets or cartoons say things that people can’t get away with.”

The same theory is more controversial on the flip side of the coin, when women dress as men, or adopt non-conforming gender traits.

“When a woman dresses masculinely, people give her a bit more respect, in an odd way because it makes them uncomfortable, but they see it as her elevating herself somehow,” mused O’Neill.

O’Toole, however, had a personal experience in this realm when she decided to forgo removing body hair to challenge society’s notions of femininity, and wound up enjoying her 15 minutes of fame because of it.

“All you’re really doing is saying ‘this convention is arbitrary and it doesn’t have to be this way’ but the amount of shock and irrational anger that people display to your transgression can be really quite overwhelming,” she said. “When this constructed social norm becomes such a part of what we understand as feminine that we actually see women as disgusting and abhorrent if we don’t conform to it.”

In any case, the upcoming discussion between Bliss and O’Toole is sure to tackle the broad implications and tiniest nuances of all that makes up gender identity and performance.

So, the final question remains, why did O’Neill name himself after an undergarment? Again, it was all a bit of an accident.

“When I was in Japan I was in a double act with an American drag queen named Lurlene, and I was using the name Leticia. Japanese people have great difficulty with the ‘L’ and ‘R’ sounds, so being called Lurlene and Leticia was just really awful, nobody could ever remember our names, nobody could ever pronounce them,” he said. “So we decided we would pick a group name, and we wanted to use English words because that was sort of our schtick in Japan, but they should be words that people could remember. So the name we chose was ‘Candy Panty’ because candy and panty are both words that had been adopted into the Japanese language. But what happened was that people just started calling her Candy and me Panty. I used to wear very short skirts at the time, I was very young. So eventually we were called Candy and Panty, and the name stuck. I guess it’s a bit embarrassing, but it’s hard to forget!”

Unforgettable—that is one thing that O’Neill, as Panti or as himself, certainly is.

Join Emer O’Toole and Miss Panti Bliss on Feb.16 at 7 p.m in the D.B Clarke Theatre (Hall Building). A signing of O’Neill’s bestselling autobiographical book, Woman in the Making will take place after the talk.


Triage system can harm access to AIDS drugs: specialist

In 1982, an 18 year-old student attended a seminar about HIV/AIDS at Concordia, which inspired him to fight the once highly stigmatized disease.

Nearly 30 years later, this student, now an associate professor in the department of social and preventive medicine at Université de Montréal and a specialist in AIDS research, led a seminar of his own at Concordia on Nov. 10.

Dr. Vinh-Kim Nguyen spoke to students, professors, and AIDS activists from Montreal in French about his time researching the effects of AIDS in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

As part of Concordia’s ongoing HIV/AIDS community lecture series, the presentation drew awareness to the consequences of HIV treatments in Africa, which are largely unknown.

Nguyen focused on the period following the beginning of widespread use of antiretroviral drugs in the 1990s, which lead to a significant drop in HIV/AIDS-related deaths. For many African countries, these life-saving drugs were scarce and the virus was considered an “invisible disease because it was not seen as a problem,” according to Nguyen.

A native-born Ivorian who attended the seminar noted that when he was growing up, his father had told him that “HIV does not exist because gays do not exist.”

With this kind of mindset, the disease continued to spread, and it became increasingly important to get tested, and to talk about the disease. Awareness campaigns were introduced, using such messages such as, “I want to live happily for a long time, so I am adopting a responsible sex life.”

Because of the scarcity and price of drugs, health organizations relied on triage where only certain people would receive the lifesaving drugs, Nguyen said. People were selected based on their ability to communicate and be suitable AIDS activists.

Speaking from an anthropological perspective, Nguyen did not offer solutions. Instead, he criticized the triage system and noted that it was difficult for Africans to talk about themselves. In North America, he explained how “we are swimming in a confessional culture.” For Africans, it is not as easy to confess, Nguyen explained.

A consequence of triage, Nguyen argued, was that it could lead to “therapeutic sovereignty,” or a fight over who should have access to treatment.

Nguyen has observed how communities are now forming with infected people who have access to drugs which have fragmented society, which he said has led to these people living longer and taxing the fragile health care system.

The associate professor wrote about the “therapeutic sovereignty” phenomenon in The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS, published in 2010.


Encouraging activism at the heart of the university

Students got a crash course in political activism, research and the university setting while munching on their People’s Potato lunch on Oct. 7, courtesy of this week’s Lounge Speaker Series panel.

Featuring Concordia professor Anna Kruzynski, Concordia Student Union president Lex Gill and activist Jaggi Singh, “Activism and Research in Turbulent Times” revealed the existence of conflicting ideas regarding what post-secondary education should be like and how research should be conducted.

Gill, who did not speak on behalf of the CSU but rather as a student with a longtime involvement with grassroots organization überculture, experience reporting during the G20 gathering in Toronto, and a background working with the Dominion and Media Co-op, called the relationship between the state and private sector “blatant” and “incestuous.” “[The] crown jewel of this whole project is the western university,” she said.

There is tension between the idea of the university as a laboratory for social change, she said, and that of the university as “a training ground for the new imperialist.”

“Should minds conform to the needs of the market?” she asked.

Singh made a repeat appearance at the series, organized in collaboration with the Quebec Public Interest Research Group at Concordia. This time, Singh spoke as a representative of the Community-University Research Exchange in an effort to make research itself seem less alienating and to share his vision of research as a tool for social transformation.

“Often, our day-to day-lives are at best things that are observed, and we’re just objects of those lives rather than being agents of our own change,” he said. “The university setting in particular trains all of us to see academics and intellectuals as […] the ones who have the important ideas and understandings of the world.”

Meanwhile, he said, “We’re out of the equation. We’re spectators.”

He encouraged a more process-oriented approach to research instead of always aiming for the end goal of a final product.

Kruzynski, who is also the graduate program director for the School of Community and Public Affairs, spoke about activism beyond the university level, seeking to eliminate the idea that youth aren’t interested in politics.
“Commentators will say that young folks are not interested, they’re not politicized, they don’t care about politics but I’d like to re-frame that actually as a lack of interest in official politics,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s quite rational, in fact, given the current state of affairs, to lose faith in liberal democracy and its institutions.”
She pointed out that oppositional politics exist outside of the official sphere. While in her opinion “the TV and mainstream media don’t actually depict what is going on,” oppositional politics are present in the form of street protests and are most often times depicted on TV. Kruzynski explained that those types of movements play an important role in “[breaking] the supposed consensus that liberal democracy is the best model and that somehow we don’t need debates on how a better world might look like.”
“It interferes to a certain extent with the normal course of things,” she added. In that way, Kruzynski said, participating in these types of protests can empower the participants to strive to make social change.


The next Lounge Speaker Series event takes place on Oct. 14. Titled “Attack on Unions: A Warning from the Postal Workers,” it features Dave Bleakney, national representative of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

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