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This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By ANGELA LONG
Staff reporter

If you want to learn about the Muslim community, don’t read the news, says the associate editor of The Islamic Monthly.

Steven Zhou, who converted to Islam six years ago, said writing about a community takes time and resources.

As a result, too many publications produce “surface-level” stories fulfilling their role as being part of the public record “because the truth needs to be told.” But as a freelancer for publications including CBC News Online, Zhou said he’s sympathetic.

“It’s easier to make money pounding out a thousand words in your underwear than it is to go on a bus and spend your money and cover something,” he said.

He was joined on the panel Know Thy Neighbour: Local News as a Tool for Overcoming Difference by Muslim Link coordinator Chelby Marie Daigle, BuzzFeed’s Ishmael Daro, and producer, writer and broadcaster Naheed Mustafa at a conference on the future of local news hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism.

The Muslim community is not as homogenous as mainstream media portrays, they said.

“I can tell you, in almost a decade of interaction with people in the community, I’m probably more confused than when I started,” Zhou said. “How does one person cover a million people?”

The answer to such a question is more critical than ever, said panel moderator Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“I usually like to tell a lot of jokes but, again, we’re having another terrorist attack in London,” she said at the beginning of the discussion.

Elghawaby played a clip, recorded the night before by a Muslim friend while out for a walk with her 11-year-old son in in Kanata, Ontario. A male voice yelled hateful racial slurs.

“He went on to say they should all be killed,” Elghawaby said. “This is what we’re talking about, knowing thy neighbour, and it’s not just a cute title of a panel.”

Getting to know the Muslim community, a community subject to an increasing number of hate crimes, which Elghawaby charts on an online map, means building connections, said Mustafa, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Walrus and numerous other publications.

Of workplaces such as CBC, where colleagues assumed certain communities trusted her with their stories because of her ethnicity, Mustafa said, ”I don’t actually have access to that community. I built access to that community.”

Building access could mean contacting at least a dozen people and attending events such as a women’s gathering in Thorncliffe Park in Toronto, as Mustafa did for a CBC documentary about what it meant to be Canadian. It could also mean being aware that journalists are in a position of power.

“If you have people in the community who are still relying on us to filter their stories,” she said, “are we really engaging in a meaningful way or are we basically forcing people to help us tell the story we’re interested in telling?”

At Muslim Link, Daigle is focused on telling the stories her community wants to tell, she said. Daigle, who says she has no background in journalism, “has learned that “people want to read about people they might actually know, or people who look like them, or people they might run into.”

“I think local news is so important for community building,” she said. “It’s how you get to know your neighbours.”

Muslim Link tells stories that explore the spectrum of a multi-dimensional community that isn’t often reflected in mainstream media, said Daigle, from Eritrean Canadians launching a charity to support refugees in Sudan to an Ottawa bus driver standing up to Islamophobia.

“The interesting thing about telling the stories of Muslims in Canada is that it’s as interesting for Muslims as it is for non-Muslims because our community is so diverse.”

Ishmael Daro, social news editor at BuzzFeed Canada who covers Islamophobia as a sub-beat, said he uses stories to help bust stereotypes. One method of doing this is to tell positive stories about the Muslim community in response to hate incidents, he said. For example, Daro countered a story about anti-Syrian-refugee graffiti at a Calgary light rail transit (LRT) station with one about a group of young Muslims armed with messages of love greeting commuters the next day.

Daro also wrote about a Palestinian donair shop owner who gave free food to the hungry. The business owner did so because it was part of his culture, Daro said, and this became a central aspect of his article.

These are the types of stories that can teach people about his culture from a Muslim perspective, he said.

Such feel-good stories aren’t going to make the front page of the Globe and Mail, he said, “but those are the stories that really connect with people. Those are the stories that I get mail for.”

BY: ALLISON RIDGWAY
Staff Reporter

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders.

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders.

When Kamal Al-Solaylee saw a group of Filipina maids enjoying a picnic in a Hong Kong park during their time off work one Sunday afternoon in 2011, the concept for his next book began to form. That idea solidified when, back home and riding the subway in Toronto, he again saw a large group of Filipina workers talking together and realized that both groups, though an ocean apart, shared two things in common: their work and their skin colour.

“I started thinking about the connection between skin colour and work,” explained Al-Solaylee, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. “I decided to try to write a book about skin colour, but it’s not really about skin colour. It’s about where skin colour becomes the gateway into something else.”

Al-Solaylee discussed his latest book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders last week at an RJRC-hosted Q&A session.

Brown explores the complexities and shared experiences of people with brown skin from around the world. Al-Solaylee travelled to 10 countries and four continents over two years to talk with people from the Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Trinidad, France, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the United States and Canada about their experiences living as brown-skinned people in the world today. The book examines issues such as immigration, work conditions, economic marginalization, racism, Islamophobia, colourism and self-perception, all the while asking what experiences unite people from vastly different countries, cultures and backgrounds who all share one common trait: their brown skin.

“I wanted to show how similar all of these experiences are,” Al-Solaylee said during the Q&A, “and that’s why it was important for me to go to all of these different countries and try to find out how the same scenario unfolds in different countries.”

He found that brown-skinned people – particularly immigrants – often end up as transient labourers stuck in precarious jobs.

“We have brought in people to do work that we don’t want to do anymore,” he said. “What I find is that there is this mass population of brown people in the service industry, whether they’re in kitchens, supermarkets, driving cabs or cleaning…The one thing that unites all of them is cheap labour”

This is true throughout the world, Al-Solaylee explained. He visited a school in Manila that trains students in housekeeping and the culinary arts so that they can work abroad. He talked with Filipina domestic workers about dealing with racism and segregation in Hong Kong (a country where foreign domestic workers make up five per cent of the population). And he met with foreign construction workers in Qatar, where, on average, one migrant worker per dies per day building the country’s infrastructure.

Al-Solaylee and Saunders discussed how these labour disparities are also found in Canada.

“We bring in a population (of new Canadians) that tend to have university degrees or are professionals, but we end up sacrificing them,” said Saunders, who wrote Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, both of which explore immigration issues in Canada and elsewhere.

“You are what Canadians assume is the default model,” Saunders said to Al-Solaylee, “which is that it’s okay that the people who clean our floors, drive taxis and so on are economically marginalized because our grandparents all did when they were immigrants and everybody slowly rose up the hierarchy. But I worry, with precarious employment, that maybe this is not working the way it used to.”

Al-Solaylee was born in Aden, Yemen and grew up in Cairo and Beirut before pursuing an education and journalism career in the United Kingdom and Canada. He wrote his first book, the award-winning Intolerable, about his decision to leave his family in the Middle East to seek greater freedom and safety as a gay man in the West.

Al-Solaylee said that writing the book was easy compared to the challenge of finding people who would talk to him, particularly in developing countries.

“You arrive somewhere after people have promised to help you and then they disappear, or when you arrive you realize that they aren’t that much help at all,” he said.

He said he ended up relying on NGOs to introduce him to potential interviewees.

“When you meet just one generous person in every destination who is willing to open doors for you, that’s the most important thing,” he explained.

Nonetheless, he still had difficulty finding people in Qatar willing to talk on-record about the country’s treatment of migrant construction workers, and was unable to find any dermatologists in Canada willing to talk about selling skin-lightening creams and treatments.

In addition to recounting the experiences of brown-skinned people from around the globe, Al-Solaylee also tells his own story in Brown, and discusses identity and intersectionality between race and sexuality. His book begins with a memory of himself as a 10-year-old boy in early 1970s Cairo, excited to watch a premier of the British musical Oliver! on TV. But while watching the show, he noticed that the young, white-skinned actor did not look like him, and felt shame over being brown. He noticed that all of the ads and shows on Egyptian television that always used light-skinned actors and began to wish that he, too, had lighter coloured skin.

“I have an awareness of how darker or lighter my skin is, and sometimes it has an impact on my self-confidence, because the lighter it is, the more confident I feel,” Al-Solaylee said. He was not alone in such experiences of colourism. While talking outside to an Indian woman in Trinidad, he noticed that they both gravitated to a table with the largest canopy so that they would stay out of the sun and not become “darker.”

He also discussed his experience feeling invisible as a person of colour in Toronto’s gay community, but he said that finding a Latino gay bar in the city also gave him a new sense of community.

“It was the one place on Church Street where I felt completely at home because there were about 100 brown people around me and I was just one of them,” he explained.

Al-Solaylee said that he was particularly upset over the shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida earlier this month and how the news media identified the victims. The nightclub, Pulse, was having a Latin night, and the majority of the 49 people killed were Latin, Hispanic and black, but the media has not identified this as an attack against people of colour as well as an attack against LGBT people, he said.

Racism, prejudice and “othering” is also an experience that unites people with brown skin, Al-Solaylee said.

“If I was just walking down the street late at night…nobody would know me as a professor or that I wrote a couple of books or any of that stuff,” he noted. “The first thing you would see is the skin colour and the otherness.”