Hope and Despair: My Struggle To Free My Husband, Maher Arar

By Monia Mazigh
McClelland & Stewart, November 30, 2007, $34.99

The day was ending softly, a light breeze was blowing, which refreshed us after the suffocating midday heat. I spread a small kilim on the veranda at the back of the garden and sat there with the children, watching the magnificent colours of the sky. Houd was crawling after a toy, trying to grasp it. Barâa was playing with a collection of little plastic dinosaurs. Their names were a mystery to me, but she knew every one of them by their shape. When I was her age, dinosaurs didn’t even have a place in my imagination. Instead, my brother and I played with paper airplanes or balls, or spent hours playing "school." My brother, Mourad, was now living in Hammamet, a small tourist town sixty kilometres from Tunis. He was a mathematics professor at a preparatory school for engineers. He had just called me to catch up on my news. He would be visiting us on the weekend. I thought of Maher; he must be in Zurich now. Tomorrow morning he will be leaving for New York; he will call me as soon as he gets to Montreal. I was impatient to hear from him. By now it was almost dark; time to get the children to bed. As usual, we were all going to sleep in my parents’ old bedroom, but tonight Maher would not be with us.

We had been in Tunisia for three months now. I had come with the children in June, Maher had joined us a month later. It was our first vacation in years. Although my parents were living in Canada and I saw them often, I never saw my brother or my uncles and cousins any more. For Maher, business in Canada had been rocky. I was still on maternity leave; it was as though we had come to a crossroads. So we had decided to take a little step back and think about our plans for the future. Our vacation in Tunisia would give us an opportunity to reflect on our eight years together and what we hoped to do in the years to come — 2001 had not been a good year. The high-tech bubble of the late 1990s had burst, the whole sector was beginning to suffer. It was as though investors were waking up from their long, sweet dream to find reality staring them in the face. In Ottawa, each day seemed to bring new layoffs. Maher’s friends or former colleagues were being let go, the list of the qualified unemployed was growing longer. Like most people, we expected the high-tech boom to go on forever; the boomerang didn’t hit us at first. In early 2001, after two years of shuttling between Boston and Ottawa, Maher had left The MathWorks, the American company for which he had been working as an engineer, but the vice-president suggested that he work on contract from Ottawa. We were in seventh heaven. Life was good in Ottawa. The cost of living was reasonable and Maher was earning a good salary in American dollars; we couldn’t have hoped for anything better.

But the events of September 11, 2001, turned everything upside down. I’ll never forget that day. I was finishing my breakfast in the kitchen of our Bayshore house. Barâa was playing beside me. I was listening to the radio when the announcer said that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. He talked about it as an event merely of note; no one realized its gravity at that point. I switched off the radio, not knowing that in the minutes to come the eyes of the whole world would be riveted on New York. That day I had intended to go to the University of Ottawa library. I was working as a research assistant for a professor in the Department of Management and needed to consult certain books. Maher was on yet another trip to the United States with a fellow MathWorks employee, presenting one of the company’s software packages to a San Diego firm. Minutes later, the telephone rang. It was Maher calling from his hotel room. His colleague had just awakened him and told him to switch on the TV. A devastating attack had just occurred in New York. We were in shock. As more information became available, the name of al-Qaeda surfaced as the terrorist organization responsible for the attack. By midday, all the television and radio commentators were talking about Muslim terrorists. Maher called me again, warning me not to go alone to the library: "Your head scarf will be like a red flag; right now, there’s a lot of anger against Muslims. . . ." I didn’t change my plans and went to the library that day. But, behind the wheel, I was tense: Maher’s words were ringing in my ears. I kept the car doors locked, worried that someone was going to jump me. But nothing happened. Yet the days and months that followed the attacks introduced a new atmosphere into our lives, one of suspicion and fear. Both of us had fled a repressive regime to settle in Canada. Many times, with our own eyes, we had seen the spectre of fear hovering over our family, and over the Arab-Muslim community.

Still, we didn’t change our way of life. Maher continued with his work, I continued with my research project. But outside our home, we sensed a feeling of creeping distrust. It was as if we had to take every opportunity to show our loyalty to Canada and its democratic values. It was not enough to have chosen to live here, speak the language, send our children to school, pay our taxes, get along with the neighbours, respect the laws, vote in elections, do no harm to others: more was expected of us. Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims were increasingly tinged by a kind of awkwardness that was hard to dispel. Schoolchildren named Osama and Mohammed were often singled out, and racist remarks were frequent; it was no longer rare to hear it said that all Muslims were terrorists. But for the most part, Canadians’ reactions were polite and more discreet. In the United States, things were worse:

"The American administration has required 80,000 non-citizens to be fingerprinted, photographed and registered, simply because they come from Arab or Muslim countries. A further 8,000 young men from the same countries have been summoned by the FBI for interviews and another 5,000 other non-citizens have been placed in preventive detention," wrote David Cole and Jules Lobel in Less Safe Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror (2007).

However, two incidents occurred in our lives that had a direct impact. The first took place on December 20, 2001. Maher was returning from a business trip to Boston. As usual, he had taken his MathWorks laptop computer and his PalmPilot. When he arrived at Canadian customs, the customs officer began to rummage through Maher’s belongings. Then she questioned him about his religion and his trips to the United States. She seized his computer and PalmPilot, telling him that he would have to pay customs duties on them. The computer was not his, he explained; he had bought the PalmPilot more than a year earlier when he was living in Boston. She would hear none of it, then took both away and asked him to wait until an evaluation had been done. Maher could not believe it. He called me from the waiting room and told me not to worry. He had no idea what was going on. When, later that day, he was finally authorized to leave the airport, he was not given back the two devices. Instead, he was given a receipt and told to come back and get them the next day.

That incident upset us deeply as a case of racial profiling. We didn’t know at the time that intelligence agencies in both countries had begun to watch Maher closely. We attributed it to the multiple repercussions of 9/11 on the Arab-Muslim community. Canada was not the United States, of course, yet we could feel the vise tightening around us. We continued to live normally, but I became more and more aware that people were looking at me. I had worn a head scarf since my student days at the Institut des hautes études commerciales in Carthage, before immigrating to Canada. I had never explicitly felt racism against my person before, but now the way people were looking at me had changed from curiosity or ignorance to mistrust and suspicion. For us, the airport incident was the end of the honeymoon. Our marriage with Canada had been consummated; but now, hard reality was looming ahead of us. We could see it coming, but to maintain an appearance of normalcy, we tried to put it out of our minds. After the incident, Maher had made up his mind to seek advice from a lawyer. Michael Edelson’s name was suggested to him, but — as always happens after a few days have passed — our anger began to fade and we put it out of our minds. Maher didn’t go to see the lawyer.

The second incident was something else again. I was pregnant with Houd at the time; the baby was due in a few weeks. Maher had gone to Tunisia to attend to my father, who had returned to Tunisia for several months and had fallen quite sick. My brother, Mourad, could not stay with my father constantly on account of his work, and for me to travel this late in my pregnancy was out of the question. We decided that Maher would stay with my father until his health improved. Maher was scheduled to return to Canada in a few days. I was suffering from insomnia and spent most nights sleepless. Early one morning I began to doze off at dawn. Around seven o’clock, just as I was enjoying a little rest, I heard knocking at our door. I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought I was dreaming and tried to go back to sleep. But the knocking resumed, more insistently, so finally I decided to get up. Eyes still bleary with sleep, I put on my housecoat, went downstairs, and opened the door. Before me stood two men. One faced me directly, while the other was a pace behind. The first was tall, wore a trench coat, and had piercing, icy-blue eyes. The other was slightly plump and seemed pleasant enough. The blue-eyed man showed me his federal police officer’s ID. I took a step forward, trying to figure out what was going on. I thought I was sitting in front of the television watching an American detective movie. He asked me where my husband was. In Tunisia, I explained. The man wanted to know why he had gone there and when he intended to return. His questions came in rapid succession. He was obviously well prepared. His small eyes stared at me haughtily; again and again I felt ill at ease. There I stood with my bulging belly, my head scarf thrown over my head, my sleep-laden eyes, in a green housecoat with a bright red motif, answering questions from a plainclothes police officer. The scene was tragi-comic. Finally, the second officer stepped forward to tell me there was nothing urgent; they only wanted to ask my husband some questions. They handed me a card with a telephone number, which I promised I would give to Maher and he would contact them. I closed the door and went back inside.

What was happening to us? Why was the RCMP interested in my husband? We had never had any problems with the police. To my way of thinking, we were a law-abiding family, an educated immigrant couple seeking our path in life. Never had I doubted my husband’s honesty. I believed in him and wanted to help him so that we might succeed together. The early-morning arrival of these two police officers, with their suspicious, probing manner, had shaken me. I phoned Maher immediately and recounted the incident, gave him the police officer’s name and number, and asked him to follow up. He called him and left a message.

A few days later, Maher returned from Tunisia. This time, he had made up his mind to speak to Michael Edelson. At their meeting, Edelson informed Maher of his rights; he would speak to the officer himself and find out what he wanted. The officer, he learned, wanted to ask Maher some questions in connection with an RCMP investigation. Edelson said he would accompany Maher to the interview. Since that day, we heard nothing more about the investigation, or from the police officers. The case was closed, or so we thought. Little did we realize that, in fact, our troubles were only beginning. In the first months after the officers’ visit, we wanted to put aside what had happened by blaming it on the current climate of fear. Still, I would hear stories of people losing their jobs because of their religion, and visits by intelligence agents to certain people’s workplaces were increasingly frequent. But as always, I felt sheltered from these dangers, as if they only happened to others.

Maher’s business was not doing well. I had just given birth to Houd and would not be looking for work for the coming months. We decided to give up the house we were renting in Bayshore, move into the small apartment Maher had been renting for years for my mother and that he used as an office when he needed peace and quiet, and go to Tunisia for a two- or three-month holiday. It would not be a luxury vacation, but it would give me a chance to visit the country I had not seen for ten years, and allow us both to reflect calmly on what lay ahead.

Reprinted with permission from McClelland & Stewart.

Monia Mazigh

Monia Mazigh

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured...