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September-October 2016

On the importance of speaking out

Why I mustered up my courage and spoke out after my husband's arrest in the war on terror

Monia Mazigh@MoniaMazigh

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!


Speaking out is a tough job. First, you have to master the language. Then, you have to look good. Also, you have to be eloquent. Most of the time, you should be a man. But finding listeners who pay attention and help is even tougher. So why bother to speak out—especially if you are a woman wearing a veil whose husband has been arrested in the war on terror? Isn’t it a lost cause? Perdu d’avance!

My husband, Maher Arar, is a Canadian citizen born in Syria who has lived here since he was 17. In September 2002, he couldn’t convince his harsh FBI interrogators he was innocent and had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately for him, everything conspired against him: being a Muslim post-9/11 is enough to get you arrested—or worse.

A telecommunications engineer by training, he was considered smart and thus dangerous. His extensive travel for work became “evidence” he had travelled to meet shadowy figures. His travel itinerary didn’t help: entering the U.S. for a stopover was deemed proof he was looking for trouble. You go to sleep as an innocent person. You wake up and you are guilty! Of what, you don’t know.

After many days in solitary confinement, my husband was shackled and sent to Syria on a private jet—“ghost planes” as they came to be known. It took him to his tormentors: Syrian torturers. The perfect example of an extraordinary rendition, if you want to use a sophisticated legal jargon. Or simply stated: the subcontracting of torture. Because even the global war on terror can’t escape the globalization of economies. We arrest. You torture. We design. You sweat and do the dirty job.

So why speak out? Indeed, for many weeks, I really didn’t have much to say. “My husband disappeared.” That’s all I could say. Where? When? I didn’t know. Nobody wanted to tell me. Speaking out is not easy. But we don’t speak out for the sake of it. We speak out because we are desperate. Our voice is the only thing left to react, to push away the oppression, the crawling silence, and the heavy jail doors closing slowly on my mind and on my husband.

First the disappearance of my husband made newspaper headlines. People wanted to know everything about him—a sense of voyeurism mixed with a healthy dose of curiosity. We were one year after 9/11. No terrorist attacks happened in Canada. So maybe my husband was the sleeping Canadian terrorist that we missed and that our vigilant American friends caught. That “maybe” will never quit us. It will haunt us. It will hang over our heads indefinitely.

Later, after officials confirmed my husband was imprisoned in Syria, interest dropped. The curiosity faded. More collateral damage from the war on terror. A simple incident. Business as usual. Some people shrugged. Few people cared.

But I continued to speak out. I wanted people to know that my husband was a good father, a nice husband, and an honest citizen. I spoke out to say this injustice wasn’t just done to him, but to his children and to Canada. Even those who did believe me told me my chances of getting him back were feeble. Deep inside, I agreed but I knew I had to speak out until the last days of my life. It became my raison d’être.

Many times during those desperate moments, people tried to discourage me. Whispering in the dark, they would say: She makes her case even harder by going to the media; quiet diplomacy is much better than giving interviews; she shouldn’t hurt the image of Syria. People will always try to silence you when you speak out. Your persistence disturbs. Your perseverance bothers. Your words make them cringe. Your words make them think. Your words make them look deep inside. They are afraid.

Among chaos, there is serenity, and among darkness there is light. I found that light by speaking out. It helped me survive despair, chaos, darkness, and bitterness. I stood up on my shaking knees. But I stood up. Eventually, a door opened and many others followed, like Russian dolls. You open one and find another one and another one. Slowly, steadily, people grew outraged. They spoke out. We spoke out!

My husband was released 375 days after he was arrested. He came back as a zombie. A man from a grave. A man with no words. Just a terrible pain inside of him. Humiliation and suffering. A man who couldn’t speak out.

But with his release, something magical happened too. People wanted to listen. They wanted to hear from him. Their ears were now ready. Speaking out helped. It paved the road to justice. Speaking out? It is something we must all embrace for a better, more just future.

Je ne regrette rien!

Monia Mazigh is an academic, author, and human rights advocate. You can read some of her work at www.moniamazigh.com.

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