On September 6, 2005, it will have been 1,001 nights since Sophie Harkat’s husband Mohamed was arrested via the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Certificate, accused of having ties to terrorists. Justified as protecting “us” from “them,” the Security Certificates are used against permanent residents or refugees as a means to detain, and potentially, deport them.
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. 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.
Like Scheherazade, Sophie also fights for her own survival. An assault on a lover is an assault on one’s self; the deportation and its almost certain consequence — torture of Mohamed — would claim a mirrored casualty in the heart of Sophie.
Mohamed is one of the “Secret Trial Five,”, men of Arab Muslim background, detained without charge, threatened with deportation to countries from which they fled. “Evidence” against them is presented at secret trials, “secret” for national security reasons. Both the accused and their lawyers are barred from the trials and from identifying and cross-examining witnesses, allowed access only to minimal summarized “evidence.” The decision rendered by the federal judge can not be appealed.
This tale that could easily be yours or mine is 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.
Sophie tells how, after a banal blind date, she walked into a gas station on St-Joseph Boulevard in Ottawa. She animatedly illustrates what she must have looked like while the stranger behind the counter was attempting to engage her in conversation as she was buried in the refrigerator, rummaging for Diet Pepsi. Not being in the mood to speak with “some guy,” she explains how she “looked up and he had these big brown eyes and very beautiful long lashes. He smiled at me and lifted me up.”
After eight months of many Diet Pepsis, Moe finally asked Sophie to their first date. Sophie, not one to mince words, exploded with an incensed, “Heâe(TM)s not my type at all. Heâe(TM)s short. Tiny! I found out only after I started liking him! He is the sweetest person I knowâe¦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 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.
Married on January 2, 2001, their first year and a half of marriage was troubled by Moe’s gambling addiction and their conflicting schedules. 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.”
By October 2002, Moe had barred himself from the casino in an effort to change his life. Two months later, on the day of his arrest, all of Moe’s endeavours would be paralyzed.
Since the arrest, Sophie now suffers from high blood pressure, migraines and irregular heartbeat. Having difficulty sleeping, she is forced to nap in the afternoons to avoid “crashing” later in the day. Glaucoma has set in and occasionally, her back “locks” and she is left in severe pain. Her diabetes has worsened, requiring her 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 this reality?
Though quantifying physical pain can make the wreckage of the Certificates more tangible, it is nearly impossible to do the same with emotion. As with the physical trauma, will the Government be held accountable for the emotional pain? Looking to understand this consequence, I ask Sophie pointed questions but receive surface responses about “anger.”
Angry at: some of her family’s remaining doubt as to Mohamed’s innocence, uttering “Well, you married a Muslim” on occasion; the Government that robbed her of her husband; her fellow-Canadians who know and don’t care, and those who don’t care to know. Angry that she has been forced to take nearly two years of medical leave without pay and 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, only touching him twice in the course of the last 31 months, both times while in court and in public.
Finally, Sophie admits, “I miss his laugh. Simple things. I miss his smell. Washing his clothes, and arguing. 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.”
“Knowing the full social, physical and emotional consequences of loving Moe, would you do it again?”Unflinchingly, Sophie responds with “yes.”
Whereas we know Scheherazade’s fate, Sophie possesses no such foresight into her future. She expresses fear, worrying that such severe and prolonged separation may leave emptiness between her and Moe. The language that is shared by lovers, in this case spanning religions and cultures, existing beyond the physical and only understood by them is hard to sustain under the most normal conditions. Undeniably, Sophie’s fears are valid.
My final question to Sophie is the hardest to pose since these Certificates permit indefinite detention. Does she want to have children with Moe? Her response is unusual for this self-proclaimed “open book who’ll tell you anything.” Avoiding my eyes, Sophie sidesteps the subject.
I let her catch her breath and then ask the question again. 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 the men detained, their families and our Canada.