Archive for the ‘the other’ Category

Invitation! (sense of irony welcome but optional)

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

I’ve received the following invitation:

Mr. L. Jacques Ménard, O.C., Leaders’ Circle President

is pleased to invite you to a cocktail in honour of your contribution to the success of Centraide of Greater Montreal’s Campaign 2009 and in recognition of your title of Leaders’ Circle Partner.

This event will also be an opportunity for you to meet with volunteers responsible for allocating funds to agencies.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
BMO Financial Group, Bank of Montreal
___ St-Jacques Street, Montreal

And here’s the best part:

Invitation valid for two people.

Let me know if you want to be my date. If you’re interested in how charity works, as a donor or most especially as a recipient or interested bystander, this is an opportunity to watch the benevolent wealthy schmooze and to talk to the people who take their money. It’s also an opportunity to drink free wine. Both donors and volunteers will be dressed like donors (i.e. like rich people) and last time I went there were also representatives of agencies who were dressed like funding recipients (i.e. like grad students).

I’m not rich, but I donate because I’m not an artist or a parent or activist or even a particularly good friend — any of the many ways that people normally contribute to their communities. I try to go to as many Centraide events as I can because I’m curious about this whole charity/philanthropy thing that I participate in while philosophically objecting to.

If you’re curious too, please come with!

solace

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

I often have interesting conversations with taxi drivers, but it’s usually me who starts them.

Yesterday I gave my destination and we discussed the route. Then the driver cautiously asked me if I were Québécoise pure-laine? Well, I said, I’m anglophone but I’m born here.

Because, rushed on my driver, he had read a story in the newspaper that morning* and couldn’t stop thinking about two countries, on two continents, separated by history and religion but united in their misery. La Guinée, in Africa, and Haďti, where he was born.

He was satisfied with his life in Canada, he wanted me to know that. His children didn’t eat steak every day, but they could have meat every week. Canada is a good country, built by people who were not his parents, and he was grateful for the welcome he had been offered, the opportunity to make a life here. But he couldn’t stop looking back to his people in Haďti, feeling for their suffering.

Yes, I said, and feeling responsible but helpless and not knowing what to do. I told him I’d lived in Nigeria in the seventies when people were doing very well, that I knew a little about how people lived who didn’t have a lot of stuff, and even a little about what children looked like who didn’t have enough to eat. That I felt a bond with people in other countries and circumstances that I had no idea how to act on.

Yes, he said. One doesn’t need to have a lot of stuff to be able to care for a family. His father had been a cultivator and he had worked with him. They rotated crops with the seasons, rice and yams and vegetables. In between crops, his father fished. There was always something to do. His father had also been a judge. This was in the time of Papa Duvalier. He had disappeared one day. Both his father and his mother. The children had all found their way out of the country. It had been hard, but the children were now all over the world and managing fine. Even their cousins had left.

But now, he said, Haitian rice farmers can’t make a living any more. They can’t compete with the price of rice imported from the US, where agriculture is heavily subsidised. When rice can be bought so cheaply, people would rather buy it than grow it themselves, so they leave the farms and go to the city. But of course there is no work in the city. People struggle, women prostitute themselves.

Yes, I said, and you and I look on from our comfortable spots and don’t know what to do. I told him my father had recently returned from Bangladesh and was struggling trying to help a woman he had made friends with there. He was helping her, but it was hard. It’s hard for one person to help another person, for a country to help another country. And for one person, like him or me, to help a country – it’s very hard to know what to do.

The kind of work my parents do makes some difference directly. The kind of work I do does not. I can only donate to local and international aid organisations, but it doesn’t feel right, or like enough.

Yes, my taxi driver said, he gives to aid organisations too. To Centraide and Jeunesse au Soleil. But they’re all local.

Yes, I said, to support international aid means donating to different organisations. And then it can be hard to know if the help being offered is really useful; for instance, free american-grown rice is even worse for farmers than cheap american-grown rice. I contribute to one that gives agricultural animals. The people who receive them must commit to breeding the animals and sharing the offspring. It sounds like a good program, though I can’t be sure of its impact in practice.

My taxi driver got very excited at the thought of country people receiving such a useful and community-minded gift as breeding animals, but pointed out that it takes so much more. There has to be water, for instance. And transportation. And fertiliser. And there has to be a market.

You know, I said, we aren’t going to solve the world’s problems parked here in your taxi. But I will shake your hand and wish you a good and happy new year, and know that your frustrations are shared.

He shook my hand, and thanked me for telling him about people who work in international aid, who travel and care. He feels better now, knowing that he isn’t alone in caring.

I feel better too, knowing that I’m not alone in my lack of direction.

Happy new year to all, and may we continue to shake hands with our neighbours and share our challenges!

__________________

* That would have been these articles:

http://www.cyberpresse.ca/dossiers/crise-alimentaire/200901/10/01-816458-le-monde-de-sily.php

http://www.cyberpresse.ca/dossiers/crise-alimentaire/200901/10/01-816459-la-faim-dans-larriere-pays.php

Veils

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

[Exchange with Mark, on a train in Holland]

We were settling in our seats when a vision of loveliness floated by us in airy layers of black and brown chiffon. I immediately understood the Arabian Nights tales where our hero nearly dies of lovesickness after glimpsing the beautiful princess. How do you know a woman is beautiful enough to develop an adolescent crush on if she is draped in loose clothing that only reveals her eyes? Well, you do.

Mark started to become visibly agitated. I asked him what was wrong and we had the following conversation.

Mark: My friend would be very upset if she saw that.
Alison: What?
Mark: A woman veiled like that.
Alison: Oh. Why would your friend be so upset?
Mark: She would say the woman was oppressed.
Alison: She’s a young woman travelling alone. I’d say that’s a pretty good sign of emancipation in any culture.
Mark: She was married young.
Alison: Who is she? What’s her social background?
Mark: Oh, her husband’s a factory worker or something.
Alison: I don’t think so. She’s extremely stylishly dressed. I don’t think factory workers’ wives swathe themselves in silk to take the train.
Mark: Well anyway, she’s isolated and not integrated. She can’t read. She doesn’t even speak Dutch.
Alison: [Craning to get another look at the woman, now seated a few rows down] She’s reading a book.

Hm. What a veil can hide and reveal are not necessarily what you’d expect.

*** *** ***
[Exchange with a Greek-born taxi driver in Mississauga]

Taxi driver: Immigrants have more rights than Canadians these days. It’s not right.
Alison: You weren’t born in Canada. Do you think you have more rights than I do?
Taxi driver: No, but I’m old school. In my day immigrants came to Canada and adapted. Immigrants these days go too far. Just look at the problems muslims are causing with their veils.
Alison: A veil is a declaration of faith. I see a cross hanging from your rear-view mirror.
Taxi driver: They take it too far. In Quebec they were having all that trouble because the women wouldn’t take off their veils to vote. They had to make a law.
Alison: Well, I’m from Quebec and I can tell you that when I go to vote nobody asks to see my ID. All they want to know is my address. If they don’t need to see my face, then they don’t need to see my muslim neighbour’s face either. It should be the same for everyone.
Taxi driver: That’s right! The same here in Toronto! They just look at my address. No ID. It should be the same for everyone! You’re a really nice person, do you know that?
…
Taxi driver: You’re such a nice person.
…
Taxi driver: Well have a good trip home! You’re so nice, I wish you have a really good trip.

I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to have a job where you work for tips by deprecating a group you belong to. It reminds me a little of a scene in Black Like Me where the author witnesses an elevator conductor charging passengers a dollar to kick his ass.

*** *** ***
[Exchange with a Syrian-born taxi driver in Montreal]

Taxi driver: I’m muslim but I don’t like it when women have to wear veils. That makes me angry.
Alison: Aren’t they a statement of faith? Don’t women choose to wear the veil to make themselves visible as Muslims to everyone?
Taxi driver: You know what I hate? When those hypocritical imams get up in front of everyone and say so sweetly that you have to treasure and respect women. And you know exactly why their wives can’t show their faces. They’re hiding the bruises and scars.