Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dubai vs. Toronto: Part 4 - The Islamic and Cultural Aspect

Part 1: The Myths of Dubai
Part 2: The Harsh Truth Facing Immigrants to Canada
Part 3: Living in Toronto
Part 4: The Islamic and Cultural Aspect
Part 5: Dubai or Toronto?

The Islamic Aspect

Around 5 years ago, my Dad and I were exploring the IKEA store at one of the malls in Dubai. In the middle of our visit, it was time for Maghreb prayers. We parked our shopping trolley outside the small room at the mall that served as a prayer room, made our abolutions, and offered our prayers - and then went back to shopping. Some time back, my wife and I were in Ganting Highlands, Malaysia. Right next to the casino, they had a prayer room where we offered our zuhr prayers.

I recall this because last weekend, I was shopping at IKEA for a kitchen cabinet and the time for Asr prayers was due. Even though there are many mosques in Toronto, it's not often within walking distance - you may have to drive 10 minutes. So we ended up going to our car and praying there. For many muslims who may have to perform abolutions, doing it in a public washroom can be a hassle.

Another important aspect of the Muslim life is halal meat. Halal meat, just like kosher meat for the Jews, comes from an animal slaughtered in a ritually mandated manner. Many muslims in the West believe that since we live in a Christian majority country, the meat is allowed as Christians are one of the "People of the Book" as stated in Islam. Some other Muslims, mainly those formerly from the Middle East in my experience, eat strictly halal meat. Some are even stricter, but we will not go into that.

Again, this being Toronto, there are many halal stores and restaurants abound (we even have halal Japanese food now!) but most fast food and other 'common' restaurants do not serve halal meat.

Since prayers and food are the most important aspects of a Muslim's life (and for girls perhaps the hijab if you wear it) but I am a guy so I will stick to prayers and food (and food more :-p) these ritual aspects of Islam are easier to practice in the Middle East and other Muslim countries.

However, Islam is not about ritual aspects alone. Prayers, fasting etc. make up only a part of what makes one Muslim. There is a lot more to being Muslim - taking care of others, behaving nicely with others, taking care of the elderly, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the economically disadvantaged. Being Muslim involves taking care of the society and improving it by upholding the right and shunning the evil. Being a Muslim means to read, to learn, to better oneself and to think. Cleanliness is one half of Islam, it used to be said, be it personal hygene or spiritual wellness. Being a Muslim is about practicing not just the rituals but the spirit of Islam. And it is this important component that I find missing in the Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East.

In Canada, the culture is such that people are polite to each other. Due to our diversity, people are tolerant of each other and each other's personal beliefs. It's true - bump into a Canadian and he will say sorry! We respect each other's work (there is no shame in sitting next to a plumber or labourer on the bus - in Dubai there was strict class separation in a society that caters to the rich - this is much worse in a country like Bangladesh where a businessman will not even speak to the street sweeper).

Racism is a huge fact of life in Dubai. If you are brown, you can be sure of earning less than white person of equal caliber, regardless of your knowledge, and the white person will earn less than an Arab, who will earn less than a local Arab. Also, the amount of work done also decreases with pay!

I have a true story. A local guy I knew worked at a power plant. He went once a month to the plant - to collect his paycheque. When told by his manager (a British guy) to come at least one MORE day - the guy asked him - will I get two paycheques then? When said no, the Arab guy told the British guy (his boss, remember!) - "you have come here, we pay you well, so shut up about me and just be worried with your own work."

You can find job advertisements in UAE papers saying "UK/America" educated only and so on. One of my Australian cousins once applied to a job that asked for Australian educated applicants. When the Arab interviewer saw him, he remarked, "you are not a real Australian!"

In Canada, many mosques run soup kitchens and welfare programs that cater not just to Muslims but to everyone in the community. On any Saturday or Sunday, you will find lots of Muslims volunteering their time at these places. The Islamic Foundation of Toronto was the top fundraiser group for Sick Kids hospital. Many Muslims run for political office in Canada (we have had muslim Members of Parliament long before the US elected any Muslim senator). Muslims here are involved with the community. In Dubai, the mosque never raised funds, we never went out of our way to help the downtrodden (in fact, speaking about the truly oppressed in UAE - those labour workers - was banned). People attended Friday prayers, heard a sermon in a language they never understood and went back to shopping. Here, people will actually discuss the sermon (and perhaps even complain!) but Islam is thriving here.

If you go to any mosque during Ramadan, you will find it buzzing. I lived in the Middle East and it's a different type of buzz here. People here related to their mosque in Ramadan - it's a sense of community. In Dubai - it was mostly a thing to do because you are Muslim. Here, it's ... different.

Which brings me to the final part about Islam here. Freedom of speech. People here are free to criticise Islam - and Muslims. The effect this has is to make Muslims look inward, and see where the problem lies. Many of our faults are not due to Islam but due to backward cultural practices (such as forced marriages, status of women etc.) The fact that one can cause blasphamey has also caused Muslim thinkers to blossom in the West. The likes of Sheikh Hamza, Sheikh Yusuf, Imam Ziad etc. could never blossom in Dubai or other countries because you have to constantly watch what you say - for fear of the law. Therefore it is my belief that the revival of Islam and rebirth of Islam as a progressive religion perfectly capable of solving humanity's ills can come from the West. Even the Prophet of Islam, and the Caliphs succeeding him, permitted criticism - yet the Muslim leaders today are of higher stock than these illustrious people - it seems.

So if you can plan your prayer timings with your daily schedule, and plan where you want to eat (or abstain from meat if no halal options are there), Islam becomes much easy and a pleasure to practice here in Canada.

The Cultural Aspect

Not much to say on the cultural aspect, but Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism. You are encouraged to retain your own culture while integreting into Canada - which is different from the USA melting pot concept. If you read my blog you will notice that I have been a very Bengali guy in TO :-p always attending our cultural meetups and events - and there's a huge Bengali community in Toronto with lots of stuff happening all the time in Danforth. However, it's not Bangladesh, and yet - it's not that bad a place to be a Bengali.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lost Cat

We have lost our beloved pet for 7 years, a black Persian cat, missing since morning Friday March 19.

She is about 7 years old, medium sized, responds to name "Mini". Mini is very friendly and domesticated, however she is a bit shy and timid, and can run away when startled.

Mini is an indoor cat, but it seems she unfortunately got out somehow; naturally we are quite distressed. Any helpful hints/information/prayers will be much appreciated.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dubai vs. Toronto: Part 3 - Living in Toronto

Part 1: The Myths of Dubai
Part 2: The Harsh Truth Facing Immigrants to Canada
Part 3: Living in Toronto
Part 4: The Islamic and Cultural Aspect
Part 5: Dubai or Toronto?

I have so much (controversial?) stuff to say for Part 4, but first, let me give you my reflections of Living in Toronto.

If you think about "arranged marriage" - it's the reverse of a tradition Western romance - first comes the ceremony of marriage, then comes the physical intimacy, and finally, as you get to know your spouse, love. Moving to a different city after living a long time in another can be compared similarly to an 'arranged marriage'. First, you move to the city, and then get to know the ins and outs of this city, the transportation, how everything works, etc. very well. Finally, given time, you fall in love with the city.

After all, I had just moved from this:

to this:

Living in Toronto is generally a very good experience. Let me give you some of the ideas that I had when I came here to Toronto, myths, if you will.

Myth 1. The society in the West is all about sex and “enjoying life”; they have no culture of family life.

I think we all watched a little too much Bold and Beautiful when we were in UAE. Yes, in college, there were drunken parties by some people where untold acts occurred, but on the whole people here have the same attitudes to relationships that we do – they are looking for the one to settle with. They may take a little longer to get there, and may play the field along the way, but once they get older and are married, it’s not that everyone is having affairs right and left. I have worked with people for ten years and have yet to hear of a marriage breakdown. Meanwhile, divorce rates in UAE is touching 50%, and Saudis are the ones looking for sex on the internet.

Myth 2. People in the West have no culture and this is a very materialistic society.

So proud of I was of my Eastern origins that the first time I went fishing with my classmates in university, I remember thinking, 'what do they know of fishing - Bangladesh is the land of many rivers' - as if somehow being from Bangladesh automatically taught you how to fish! I remember feeling somewhat foolish when they were catching fish left and right with their artificial bait while my worm-laden hook was being ignored.

I have learned long since that while cultures vary, universal human values remain the same wherever you go. And Canada upholds a lot of the same values we are so proud of in Islam – caring for your fellow humans, charity, giving, respect towards minorities and those oppressed, freedom, etc. When I traveled to the US, I was astonished at how materialistic a society that was, compared to Canada. Here was one country where people OPPOSED giving other people help with health care, because it could raise their taxes. Every time I come back across the 49th parallel back to Canada, I feel at home.

Myth 3. Toronto was a buzzing city full of work.

It’s a buzzing city all right, but no work! As I said in my last part, the work you do will be very different.

Myth 4. Toronto is a very cold city.

Weather is no doubt much better elsewhere - Canada is a very cold country. But I have noticed one fact amongst immigrants here.

Those who complain most about the weather and how cold it is here are often most depressed, inactive, lazy, fat and sick. Then there are those immigrants that learn how to ski, how to skate, how to go for drives and learn about fireplaces and make hot chocolate and maple syrup and attend hockey games - those adapt to the culture and thrive. Toronto is not Antarctica!

Concluding, the biggest thing about living in Toronto is that it has something for everyone. Indeed, one of the lovely facts about Toronto is that every immigrant group thinks it is the dominant group in Toronto. Not only that, people feel about this city. I guess that is a consequence of citizenship. I could have lived elsewhere for years but if that city never considered me as one of their own, I could never have belonged.

In part 4, I want to discuss Islam and culture. I have heard from many people that in many ways Canada is more of a muslim country than Islamic countries, while other people have said you can only live as a true Muslim ONLY in an Islamic country. To me, that is a fascinating topic to explore.

Barongbar - the BSA Show

I will continue my posts on Dubai vs. Toronto after this. Last night, I attended the Bangladesh Student Associations' (BSA) 12th annual show - this time called Barongbar - which means repetition. I have often said the University of Toronto's BSA's annual show is a highlight on the Bengali social calendar here, and is often the first sign of spring.

It's about the life of a 'colony' of middle class citizens in Dhaka - whose lives are the same day in day out - hence "Barongbar".

The singing of the national anthems. With a twinge of regret/amusement, I realized I am now more comfortable singing the Canadian one than the Bangladeshi one!

The traditional dances were pretty good and the music quite peppy.

What's a "jatra" without the presence of our esteemed Prime Minister! As an aside - our two women leaders have set the cause of women's liberation decades behind with their inept management!

The travelling "Baul" singers give us their philosophy of life and death. Again, as an aside, I have always found the 'sufi' spirit of Bangladesh has done a lot for communal harmony in the country.

The Kobita (poetic) medley - on how a guy should woo a girl. Good to see the new generation of BSA-ers continuing the good work of the old!

More Kobita medley. I really enjoyed this part - especially the 'formula'. It's a departure from previous Kobita medleys.

A duet song - pretty well sung. I was amazed by the high caliber of artists and performers in the BSA nowadays.

The group dance - a signature part of BSA shows now. Really well done again, just like every other component of the show.

Take a bow BSA - you have outdone yourself this year.

Many universities in Canada now boast of significant Bangladeshi populations and Bengali shows, proms and formal nights have become an essential part of student and young Canadian-Bengali lives here. However, the BSA at University of Toronto retains its position as the premier show, and this year I can truly say they have put together one of the best three hours of theatrical enjoyment I can remember in recent times.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Dubai vs. Toronto: Part 2 - The Harsh Truth Facing Immigrants to Canada

Part 1: The Myths of Dubai
Part 2: The Harsh Truth Facing Immigrants to Canada
Part 3: Living in Toronto
Part 4: The Islamic and Cultural Aspect
Part 5: Dubai or Toronto?

People immigrate to Canada for many reasons. However, in my circles, the primary reason for most people (living in the UAE) suddenly deciding to come to Canada has been their children's education and the future. Let's face it, they have no future in UAE. Even after 20 years of serving there, they are not citizens. The moment they lose their jobs, they have to be on their way home. There are hardly any good quality universities in there. And university tuition in Canada for an international student is expensive. So, for their children's sake, they immigrate.

In an ironic twist, immigrants to Canada from UAE often have less savings than ones from Saudi Arabia or Iran. In those two places, there are so many restrictions that you often don't have avenues to spend money for leisure or luxury. Dubai's a very liberal place, so people buy furniture, spend on life's enjoyments, luxury and often go for holidays abroad, so savings are less when they come to Canada. The primary immigrants also tend to be older, 40-45ish.

Contrast this with immigrants arriving here from Bangladesh or India. They are mostly younger, 25-30ish, lucky to have had a good English education and somehow gotten the immigration to Canada. Anything in Canada for them is an improvement over their previous life.

That's not the case for our Dubai immigrants. As soon as we land here, yes, we have been warned that jobs are hard and standards of life will not be the same and cost of living is significant, but yes, dammit, we are from Dubai, we have some standard!

So the first thing to do is to get a nice place. Yes, the rent may be a bit high than the apartment complex down the street, but this is in a good area! And then, we have to buy some decent furniture. C'mon, why should we buy cheap? What if people visit us? What will they say? An engineer in Dubai, and now living like this?! No way!

And so these people will spend money they don't earn to buy things they don't need to impress people they don't really like. All to maintain a standard that they no longer have. But they are not worried yet, their savings will last them for five to six months! They are sure they will find a job in the meanwhile. So the husband looks at a few job requirements in the paper and says to himself, "I can do this! I used to do this!" And every day he fires in a few applications.

As the days go by, the lack of responses start to get to them. Slowly, the harsh reality and the harsh truth facing immigrants in Canada dawns on them. They do not have "Canadian" experience. Their credentials are not recognized. From top of the pile, used to commanding hundreds, they have now moved to near the bottom.

Then, after a year or two, they start to explore courses offered in colleges; a way to upgrade their skills, and a way to catch up. But by now, the years are against them, and the new technologies are against them. So, when people formerly from UAE meet at parties, no one asks each other "what do you do". It is taboo. The matrimonial bio-datas sent out still spell the father's profession as Engineer or Doctor, which is what they used to do years ago, not Security Guard or Sales Agent, which is what they may be doing now. And so, they comfort themselves in that their children will have a much better future here, they will enjoy a better life and all its comforts due to the parents' sacrifice.

Meanwhile, our immigrants from Bangladesh or India have had no ego to artificially boost or no standard to maintain. They have come here with specific plans - they will take the courses early on, do odd jobs and severely scrimp and save wherever they can, and soon, they will start climbing up the ladder. Youth and effort are on their side.

And thus, Canada loses a highly talented bunch of experienced professionals to jobs such as taxi driver or pizza delivery positions.

More than weather, culture, food or sports, it's jobs that's the big concern for immigrants.

Only 24 per cent of qualified immigrants work in a job that matches their education [Source: Global TV]. When I talked to Stephane Dion sometime ago (when he was running to be leader of the Liberal Party) he recognized this as an important issue and outlined some plans to deal with it. Then he started to run for the position of Prime Minister, forgot all this and got caught up in the 'green' movement. We all know what happened to him.

Things are changing. There are more and more immigrants in the country who are becoming rich and powerful. The Indian community in Canada is very well established, so are their business leaders and Members of Parliament. The Canadian government has continued to significantly push for more foreign credential recognition and progress is being made, however very slowly. With the recession, such concerns have been pushed aside for now, but they will come up again.

For now though, it's jobs, jobs and jobs. There is an annual difference of $20,000 in what an average immigrant family earns and what a regular Canadian family earns, even 10 years after being in Canada. People are people - they can deal with the weather, culture and other other issues in Canada. However, when they immigrate to Canada, they must make plans for the harsh reality that they will not be working in their chosen fields at their desired income levels.

There is a happy ending to this. Ten to fifteen years later, you will find most immigrant families happily settled in Canada. They may not be all doing really well, but they are living well enough, and hard work has paid to success. They love Canada, and are happy with their lives here.

Ten years, though, is a very long time.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Dubai vs. Toronto: Part 1 - The Myths of Dubai

Part 1: The Myths of Dubai
Part 2: The Harsh Truth Facing Immigrants to Canada
Part 3: Living in Toronto
Part 4: The Islamic and Cultural Aspect
Part 5: Dubai or Toronto?

Last year when I was vacationing in Dubai, I was invited to this party. There, someone asked me, "Why do you still live in Toronto, Canada? What can you get there that you cannot get here in Dubai? This is the best place in the world to live."

I did not respond at that moment, because a) I was at a party to relax and b) it's not polite to have a logical debate with someone who is not prepared to listen and c) food was just served. However, in the subsequent weeks and months, I always meant to pen down my thoughts on this issue. Having lived at both places, with job opportunities in both cities, and with lots of immigrants to Canada formerly from Dubai as my friends, this is a topic that comes up occasionally for discussion. I hope to explore, keeping an open mind, the two cities of Dubai and Toronto with the pros and cons of each in this 5-part blog post series.

I am going to start by attempting to break down some of the most common myths of Dubai that this gentleman at the party tried to throw down at me.

Myth 1: Dubai is the place to make money. In Toronto half of your income is sucked in by taxes.

I live in Toronto, which is the most expensive city to live in Canada. However, according to Mercer's 2009 Cost of Living Index, Dubai is the 20th most expensive city to live in the world (Abu Dhabi is 26th), while Toronto is at 85th (Complete list on wiki).

In Toronto, the yearly income of $48,000 (of an average university graduate fresh out of university) is enough to cover rent, utilities, food, entertainment and other living expenses. Depending on your work and spending habits, you can even cover mortgage. This on a single person's income alone; luxury such as travel can eat into your savings. However, if your spouse also works, the income of the second spouse is complete savings. Most young couples in Toronto, within a couple of years savings, can put the down payment on a house (and this includes expenses such as vacations, designer goods etc.) - and all this after an average of 30% tax deduction.

In Dubai, if you are lucky to get a job that pays the same amount as here in Toronto, you may think with no taxes, you will be making more. However, there are a lot of user fees. Rental amounts in Dubai are amongst the highest in the world. Speaking from experience, even if you have a hefty rental allowance from the government, you may still find spending up to one third of your income on rent (if not more). Education is not cheap - a good quality British education (O and A Level) costs around AED 12,000 per year. And this is when I was there, 10-15 years ago. Health costs, utilities, traffic and transportation (Dubai road tolls such as Salik and yearly renewal fees for cars, licenses, Nol transport for Metro) are all higher than Toronto.

As given by the cost of living index, prices for goods of equal quality and brand are much higher in Dubai than Toronto. Other goods are relatively equal (for example a movie ticket here is $10 on average or AED40 over there). Even discounting the racism (local Arabs earn more than white people who earn more than non-white people for the same job), the expected material savings do not materialize.

Myth 2: Dubai is the melting pot of cultures from all over the world.

Having lived there for more than a decade I know how hollow this claim is. While 85% of the population is composed of expatriates, Dubai is dominated by Indians (51%), Pakistanis (15%) and Bangladeshis (10%). People from Philippines, Europe (mostly British) and Iranians make up the rest [source]. Dubai has often been called the best run Indian city.

Even with so less Arabs there, the local population considers itself a class above the rest. The class divide and racism will be more completely covered in Part 4. What happens in Dubai is that most of the "cultures" keep to themselves; and there is hardly any "melting". Bollywood dominates the entertainment scene - as can be expected. Hindi and Urdu are more often spoken everywhere (in 10 years of living I never felt the need to learn Arabic - so desi was Dubai). To me it won't matter because I am brown, but to some non-brown person used to the multicultural diversity of Toronto, London, New York etc. can hardly be expected to feel at home in Dubai.

Myth 3: In Dubai we can live our lives as Muslims in a more Islamic manner.

To be covered in more detail in Part 4.

Myth 4: Dubai is good for business.

Asia is good for business, and Dubai is an important hub in Asia. However, in Dubai, to open any business, you have to take a local (called Watani) as your partner, and he will have a share of 51%. Even though YOU will be putting in 100% of the money, 100% of the effort and 100% of the blood, sweat and tears, the local Emirati person will remain the one in charge. Why? Does that sound fair? Or even, Islamic?

However, that is the law. Clearly, many people are OK with it as they open prosperous businesses in Dubai, but that is not for me. And if I had to advise some brown person on opening a business in Asia, I would recommend Bangladesh or India as much better options than Dubai. Democratic, lots of young people with untapped potential and a growing middle class in an economy with sound economic policies, those are the places in Asia to do business in. Not Dubai.

Monday, March 01, 2010

These Were Our Games

So after 17 days the Winter Olympics drew to a close. Someone told me the other day my blog and twitter feed was now all about sports. Well, what do you expect? :-) The games are in Canada and we have done exceedingly well. And to cap it off with an Olympic hockey gold in overtime was the icing on the cake.

To me of course, while the hockey gold will be the most valued, one that we would sacrifice any other gold to get, the Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir gold would remain the most beautiful.

The moments of the Games are many - Alexandre Bilodeau winning Canada's first Olympic gold medal at home, the demolition of Russia in hockey, Joannie Rochette's brave ice skating after losing her mom, Virtue and Moir's ice dancing gold, the speed skating triumph near the end, the curling (yes, curling). Oh, how sad was I when Cheryl Bernard chocked to silver, but what a performance by Kevin Martin and his rink. Over all, as Canada tops the Olympic medals in gold (14 overall, a record!) and beats its previous performance in total medals (Turin) by 2, it was a wonderful time of the year.

I would come home everyday and switch on the TV (much to my wife's chagrin who secretly also loved to watch the Games with me) and it would not be off until midnight. I watched everything! From luge to skeleton to hockey to curling to ice dancing to figure skating to skiing to snowboarding. And also followed it online!

The sending of status messages on Facebook peaked Sunday at 2:29 pm PST and 2:54 pm PST during two significant goals in the Olympic hockey finals: when the U.S. tied and Canada won. More than 3.5 million status updates were sent during the time frame of those key plays, twice the pace of the rest of the day.

And what a display of Canadian patriotic pride we have seen over the last two weeks. It was fascinating, the whole country united and welcoming. Even the British, who tried to say these were the cursed games, ended up by musing that these were the best games ever!

I actually feel sorry for those whose countries do not play sports or which are not good in anything so they don't have anything to cheer for!

So now, we return to our normal lives.

Until South Africa 2010!