Shareef and I
Some stories are easy to tell. They have a beginning and an end, and you can easily understand what the theme is and how the narrative path leads through action to illuminate meaning. This is not one of those stories. I don’t know how it ends, and I fear to think what its meaning may be. But Danish writer Isak Dinesen wrote, "All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story", and as this is about suffering, perhaps it will help to tell it as a story. And I do at least know where it starts.
It starts in February, 1991 in a grade ten advanced English class at Clarkson Secondary School in Mississauga. Fifteen years earlier I had found Clarkson an all white suburban school, but by 1991 over a third of its students had been born outside Canada, and they spoke over ninety different first languages. It was both a more interesting and a more challenging place to teach. Shareef Abdelhaleem, a student I met in that class, epitomized both aspects.
He was fifteen then, a stocky boy who had been born in Egypt and come to Canada with his family two years earlier. He was still struggling to fit in to his new country, academically and socially. He passed my English course by 5%, due in large part to his persistence and willingness to try...there wasn’t a single assignment he failed to hand in. And he worked to understand how to get better, and always took learning seriously, qualities that appeal to teachers. Socially he struggled at least as hard, trying to fit in as a normal Canadian teenager and while a teacher’s outside vision is always limited he had less success there. At fifteen, there’s a huge weight on being cool, on effortlessly surfing whatever the teen fashion of the moment might be, and Shareef didn’t have it. He was isolated and perhaps that’s why he chose to adopt me as a mentor figure, talking to me about his social problems, sharing his views about high school. I had travelled in Egypt two years before he had emigrated, and so I knew at least a small part of the world he had left behind. I taught World Religions, so I knew something about Islam, though I don’t ever remember talking to Shareef about our religious backgrounds, his Muslim, and mine Jewish.
Some students you teach and when the course is over they pass out of your life and you never hear from them again. But this is a different story. Shareef stayed in touch with me as he struggled and succeeded in graduating from Clarkson, without ever really fitting in socially, despite his efforts. He came back and visited me every couple of years as he started University of Toronto, then left to pursue a series of increasingly lucrative computer jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. That got him a lot of flashy toys that didn’t seem to be making him terribly happy. But I appreciated that Shareef wanted to keep in touch with me, and asked my advice about life. Except on one subject, the religious war over computers: Shareef favoured PC, I sided with Macintosh. Those were the only arguments I remember having with him.
I left teaching in 2003, and though I heard that Shareef had come by once to see me, I didn’t hear anything more of him until June 2006, when Steve, my ex-department head told me to look at the day’s Toronto Star. There was Shareef’s picture, one of the “Toronto 18”, eighteen young Muslim men and boys accused of planning acts of terror in either Ottawa or Toronto. My first thought was that this was a mistake, a confusion of names, but it was clearly Shareef. I waited for a trial which would clarify what had happened. I couldn’t reconcile the Shareef I had known with the terrorist the headlines were screaming about.
That was two years ago. But now I’m afraid this story falls apart. It needs a conclusion, either a vindication of an innocent friend or a revelation of dark aspects to the human soul, aspects I’d never suspected Shareef had. But this story doesn’t lead anywhere, there’s no narrative arc. There’s just a two year wait, with Shareef imprisoned in a tiny cell in Maplehurst Correctional in Milton. I kept waiting to hear more, for something to happen, for the resolution. As a boy I’d learned about habeas corpus, that since Magna Carta in 1215 accused people had the right to an immediate trial. Had I missed some part of recent history where that got taken away? Then I read that it might be another two years till Shareef’s case came to trial, and I knew I had to go see him.
The internet may make some tasks easy, but Wikipedia makes them trivial. Within half an hour of starting my search, his lawyer let me know he had forwarded my letter to Shareef’s father. Three hours later his father was explaining how the visiting arrangements worked. A week later I passed through six layers of security, picked up the phone on my side of the plexiglass, and heard Shareef, wearing the archetypally iconic neo-terrorist orange jump-suit say, “Hi Mr. Marm.” We talked for the twenty minutes we were allowed, and he told me his side of the story. But under the judicial publication ban it is forbidden to repeat anything specific here. The general core of it is a group of young people drinking too much, talking too big, lured on to further plans by the two people who appear to have been government agents.
I once worked for a year in the federal penitentiary in Kingston, and I got to know many convicted people who told me how they were really innocent. That was one version of their story and clearly the juries had preferred a different version. I believe Shareef is innocent of no greater crime than bad choice of friends, and excessive bravado, but really I don’t know. I do know that it is terribly wrong to have two or four or more years torn out of the core of your life on the basis of untold stories, stories that only the government may know, stories that no one is allowed to repeat, stories that have not been brought to trial. Shareef may be innocent or guilty, but he deserves his day in court. A society in which people can be imprisoned without a trial indefinitely is not the Canada I thought I lived in. It is not the country I want to live in.
Last night I checked my email before going to bed, and found a message from a distant Jewish cousin of mine. It was a sadly familiar urban myth that England had banned teaching of the Holocaust under pressure from Muslims. I sent him to Snopes, the wonderful website that debunks urban myths, which quotes chapter and verse about how teaching of the Holocaust is in fact compulsory in England. I don’t know if he’ll forward the truth to those from whom he got that Islamophobic story, but I know it will go on circulating whether or not he does. An artificially inflated fear of Muslim terrorists has clearly become the Western world’s fad of the moment and Shareef, who as a teenager never quite managed to catch the current style, is having his life swept away by it.