One Thousand and One Nights: A tale from Canada’s Security Certificates

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On one of the hottest and most humid evenings Ottawa has experienced this summer, I sit across a patio table from Sophie Harkat, watching her wipe her brow and fan herself as students chatter around us. She is irritated and tired after a long day and warns me that I "don’t want to catch [her] in a bad mood on a hot day". I take this as my cue to not engage in an interview just yet, and instead listen to her recount some wildly funny moments about a day that included two documentary film makers, a lawyer, a motorcycle and an interesting bus ride.

I can listen to Sophie talk for hours, but the arrival of her Diet Pepsi occasions a slight pause on her part, and so I begin my interview.

‘Alf Layla wa Layla’, more commonly known as ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, is one of the most famous Middle Eastern stories known to the Western world. One might use current parlance to say that it has often been used to “profile” both men and women of Middle Eastern heritage as exotic, unknowable beings. The heroine, Scheherazade, survives her nights through spinning a multitude of tales encompassing the macabre, the violent, the sexual, and the mystical to a spell-bound Caliph. During the course of our evening, Sophie became my personal Scheherazade.

Possessing no power to decide her fate, I was not her Caliph, but merely a writer whose aim it was to listen, document and eventually retell her story. Retell it not because it is extraordinary, which it is; not because it is a story riddled with fanatical terrorism and danger to ‘security’; but, rather, because it is a story of a woman who met a man and fell in love. Because it is a story that could easily be yours, or mine.

The antithesis of Scheherazade, Sophie is not at the mercy of her husband, is not Middle Eastern and is by no stretch of the imagination, coy. Also unlike Scheherazade, Sophie is forced to seek out and reveal the truth in stories to which she is barred from access in a desperate struggle to keep her husband alive and in Canada. Like Scheherazade, she is also fighting for her own survival. As those who are in love would declare, an assault on their lover is an assault on their self. The deportation and its almost certain consequence -” the torture of her husband, Mohamed -” would claim a mirrored casualty in the heart of Sophie.

As of September 6th 2005, Sophie will have spent one thousand and one nights living under the shadow of destruction that began when her husband Mohamed was arrested via the auspices of the CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) Certificate, accused of having ties to terrorists. Within moments, anyone associated with a man detained behind the secret evidence of the Security Certificate has a new descriptive. In the case of Sophie, she has gone from being the wife of Mohamed or “Moe” as she calls him, to being the wife of a “terrorist” as he is being called.

The issuance of these Certificates is being justified in the name of protecting “Us” from “Them”, neither name honestly defined; used against permanent residents or refugees as a means to detain, and potentially, deport them.

The facts are simple: The ‘Secret Trial Five’ are men of Arab Muslim background, currently detained without charge, threatened with deportation to the countries from which they fled; countries where torture is common-place and execution a reality. They are detained without charges because the “evidence” against them cannot be made public for national security reasons.

Worse still is that this “evidence” is presented at secret trials where neither the accused nor their lawyers are allowed to be present; the decision rendered by the federal judge can not be appealed. Some “evidence”, in summary format, is transmitted for the review of the accused’s lawyer; identities of most witnesses at these secret trials are kept secret and so the lawyers of the accused cannot cross-examine them.

The voice you are about to hear is one that must be heeded in order to appreciate the human impact of the Security Certificate. Much has been written about Canada’s Security Certificate: its assault on our Charter of Rights and Freedoms; its collaboration with torture and death. All too often, what is absent in this discussion are the ripple effects on the humans who are caught up in its coils. Effects that can reach everybody in this community.

The following tale is that of a Canadian girl who fell in love with and married the “wrong” man, at the “wrong moment in time”: a Muslim Arab man in a post 9 / 11 world.

Born on September 17th 1974, Sophie was raised in New Liskeard, the oldest of three sisters. Her parents divorced when she was seven and she was raised by her mother and step-father, attending the local Catholic high school, École Sécondaire Sainte-Marie. Like many other young people, she left home at the age of 18 and moved to Ottawa in order to attend La Cité collégiale where, among her peers, she was the only student to graduate with double honours, receiving one degree in Public Relations, the other in Advertising.

Veering somewhere between humour and anger at the memory of a banal blind date, Sophie tells how, on her way home from that date, she walked into a gas station on St-Joseph Boulevard to “buy Diet Pepsi because it would make me feel better.” Laughing, she explains how the rotten date had made her behave a little brusquely, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the man behind the counter. Rolling her eyes, she animatedly illustrates what she must have looked like while the stranger was attempting to engage her in conversation as she buried herself in the store’s refrigerator, rummaging for Diet Pepsi. She continues explaining: “I wasn’t in the mood to talk to some guy. I wanted my Diet Pepsi and just to leave. I looked up and he had these big brown eyes and very long lashes. Beautiful long eyelashes. He smiled at me and lifted me up.”

Using her own language to communicate with Moe, Sophie began dropping into the gas station to buy her Diet Pepsi when she knew he would be working. Feigning surprise, she would offer what must have become music to Moe’s ears: “I didn’t know you were working tonight!”

In May 2000, after eight months of Diet Pepsis, Moe asked Sophie to their first date. Little did they know the lengths to which the patience carrying them through the preceding eight months would soon be tested.

At this point in the interview, Sophie, not one to mince words, exploded with an incensed “He’s not my type, not at all. He’s short. He’s tiny! And behind that counter, I didn’t know that he was standing on a platform that made him look taller! I found out only after I started liking him!”

“So, if he wasn’t your type, why did you marry him?”

“Because he is the sweetest person I know. He reminds me of a child, and I love how he laughs like a child. I went from ‘he’s not my type’ to now finding only men who look like him attractive! Imagine?” I nodded because I believe in the meaning of the Arabic word ‘naseeb’ which, loosely translated, means ‘fate’, but a fate that pertains to only a few instances in our lives, one of them being the moment we meet our partners.

On January 2nd 2001, Sophie and Moe were married in a private ceremony, one akin to elopement. Friends and family were contacted after the marriage papers were signed. Their first year and a half of marriage was troubled by Moe’s severe gambling addiction and their conflicting schedules, not seeing enough of each other. He was working three jobs, Sophie would occasionally threaten him with coming home to find his suitcases packed. This was of course an empty threat. “I never did this. I love him too much. I was just angry that I did not see him.”

By October 2002, Moe had barred himself from the casino in an effort to change his life. Determined and focused, he was working toward a viable and secure financial future whereby he could provide for his wife. Two months later, all of Moe’s endeavours would be paralyzed.

Reflecting upon a question about what the most difficult and painful moment has been to date, Sophie remembers the day when her lawyer called her to explain that Moe had been arrested on “something related to terrorism”. She explains how within the first few hours that Moe was lost to her, she could only think how she “wanted just to hug him”.

Together for less time than she has been fighting to free her husband, she now suffers from high blood pressure, migraines and irregular heartbeat. Since Moe’s arrest and detention, Sophie often has difficulty sleeping and is forced to nap in the afternoons so as to avoid “crashing” later in the day. Occasionally her back “locks” and she can neither sit nor lie down without pain. Her diabetes has worsened and she is required to take higher doses of medication. Her doctors concur that Sophie suffers the physical manifestations of intolerable stress. In the absence of guilt, how will the Canadian Government quantify and make amends for the particular reality of Sophie’s experience?

The answer to that question may be easier than the measure of emotional trauma for which the Canadian Government must also be held accountable. Although we can point at physical pain and make the wreckage of the Security Certificate a little more tangible, it is nearly impossible to do the same with emotion.

Looking to understand this particular form of ruin, I ask Sophie pointed questions and rather than receiving specific answers, she gives me a ‘connect the dots’ sketch, explaining that she does not have time to be sad or to worry. She chooses the word “angry” instead.

For three years, she has been angry that some of her family members remain doubtful as to Mohamed’s innocence, having been forced to hear “Well, you married a Muslim” on more than one occasion. Angry with the Government that robbed her of her husband. Angry with the complacency of her fellow-Canadians who know and don’t care, and those who don’t care to know. Angry that her employer did not allow her to “discuss her ‘situation’ at work” or hold interviews during her lunch hour in order to meet the 5 o’clock broadcast. Angry that she has been forced to take nearly two years of medical leave without pay, due to her ‘situation’. Angry that, should she not return to work in October 2005, she will become unemployed.

Angry that she is forced to speak to her husband through Plexiglass (& at one point, Plexiglass and wire), angry that she has only touched him twice in the course of the last 31 months, both times while in court and in public.

Anger may be the easiest and quickest emotion to tap into, and so I push her for a stronger answer. Finally, she admits to her sadness by expressing that “I miss his laugh. Simple things. I miss his smell. Washing his clothes, arguing, seeing him enjoy a meal I made that he taught me how to make. I even miss stupid things, like him making me watch things on television I hate.” After a pause, she adds “Now I watch them alone, even though I still think they’re stupid.”

I ask her if she regrets any part of it. Now that she knows the full social, physical and emotional consequences of loving Moe, would she do it again? Unflinchingly, Sophie responds with a “yes”.

Whereas Scheherazade is a moment in time, a story that lives on and of whose ending we are aware, Sophie possesses no such foresight into her future; holding no power that would allow her to spin her own tales. All she can express about the future is fear and trepidation, worrying that her and Moe will have nothing left to talk about; that after such a severe and prolonged separation, there would be emptiness. The language that is shared by lovers, in this case spanning religions and cultures, one that exists beyond the physical and is only understood by them is hard to sustain under the most normal conditions. For this reason, Sophie’s fears are not unfounded.

She mentions how although she’s much “tougher” now, her outlook on life has changed. The only thing she looks forward to is “being happy”, explaining that circumstance has made her lose track of the material, instead taking her in search of a “simple good life.” She is steadfast in her belief that her and Moe met so as to become better people through this experience, an experience that will end in “a very peaceful life”.

My final question to Sophie is the hardest one to pose since the Security Certificates allow for indefinite detention; I ask her if she wants to have children with Moe. Her response is slightly unusual for this self-proclaimed “open book” who will “tell you anything,” as this is the first time Sophie avoids my eyes and sidesteps the subject. Instead, she tells me how the children of Mohammad Mahjoub always ask her when their father is coming home. Mahjoub is another man detained on a security certificate.

When she stops telling me how loving and sweet the two children are, I give her a moment to catch her breath and then ask the question a second time. Her eyes wide, she peeks out at me from behind her glasses, smiles and answers “Yes. I just want to see what [the baby] will look like.” Though I laughed at the absurdity of her response, I was sobered by the thought that she and Moe may never have this luxury; my heart breaking for all of the men being detained, for their families, and for our Canada.

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