Tales of Toronto: Sid Naidu

Periodically, I will feature people and places that I believe have played a part in making this city magnificent. Sid Naidu is the first one.

I remember being extremely lost on my first week of university – that was TEN years ago.
For many reasons, I felt like I wouldn’t belong in a place that I told was made for a special class of people. I, like thousands of others, have experienced a sense of unpreparedness for higher education, because of the financial privilege it requires, because intellect is often a racially defined concept and because we are taught that success is a form of superiority. Failure is unfortunately a sidelined concept in life. The truth is, many of us don’t fail enough.

During my first month of school, all these preconceived notions of university started being redefined, mainly because I met  Sid Naidu. I remember being at Ryerson’s cafeteria/hub space and seeing Sid handing out flyers for a hip-hop event at the pub and I thought  to myself:

“Hip-hop? At a university?”

I didn’t think there was room for anything extracurricular, let alone anything that interested me. I met specific people who told me where they came from, Sid being one of them, and who made this new chapter feel less foreign to me.

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What Sid was doing was making the university a space for people, not just special people, not just seemingly smart people, not just the obedient ones and not just those who were looking for praise. He was fighting exclusivity and making sure that not one person was more deserving of being there than the other.

Sid told me that he was a second-year student in Arts and Contemporary Sciences and was hosting what he described as a “revolutionary” event, and told me that I should tell all my friends about it. While revolutionary may have been an adjectival term then, it’s now built into everything Sid is. He’s a Scarborough kid, which meant that back then he was commuter, which also meant that he understood that the university dynamics needed to change (not everyone there came from luxurious places) and that post-secondary elitism it all its forms needed to go. He believed in changing anything that didn’t feel right. He wore a ponytail and a baseball hat, and despite how strange it sounds to say it now, back then you could count how many men walked around a university looking that different and feeling 100% comfortable. He explained that “because of how racialized we were, we couldn’t look ambitious.” Cultural diversity may be a Toronto highlight today, but those who are in their late twenties know that racial diversity made its way into academia much later in Toronto’s history.

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Immigrants’ children know this: they live with a constant pressure to succeed, in order to compensate their parents’ hard work, yes, but also to challenge the notion that immigration is synonym to social inferiority. It isn’t, and one by one, second generation immigrants have shattered the idea that being sons/daughters of taxi drivers, caretakers, construction workers, store clerks and cooks is a limit, and instead proved that it’s a motivation folded into pressure.

“I was raised with the idea that race classified the world”, from Bahrain to Canada, Sid looked for a sense of belonging and had to build it from experience. Some east Indian, twisted into some Arab culture, flipped into some Scarborough … but the picture is still being pieced together. Sid’s search for self is far from over. For him, getting lost in the search is a lesson, not a challenge.

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Being the son of Indian parents and having had a culturally and religiously mixed childhood means that Sid Naidu doesn’t believe in simplicity, in limits or in anything conventional for that matter. He founded the Urban Hip Hop Union, which grew to be a hub for the music, culture and dance enthusiasts. He ran for the students’ union and left a pretty heavy imprint at that school. While many people settle now, and look for ways to be stable and reasons to be content, Sid doesn’t, he believes in the power of telling stories, so his art shapes his vision, he believes in the magic of connecting (those who know him, know he loves that word), so he’s on the go, all the time. He doesn’t believe in comfort zones. He had heard – many times – that he wasn’t deserving of success so he now molds it with his own definitions. And because he’s story teller, he makes the success story his own.

Toronto: fertile ground for everything amazing.

I’ve lived in Toronto for a little over 15 years – my family relocated here in 1999, leaving behind a Montreal that was (once) tougher on the anglophones and unnecessary for a trilingual 12-year-old who didn’t have to feed four children.

Toronto’s home to me in more ways than one. All of my firsts have been here – all of them.

I finished middle school, high school and university here, I had dozens of jobs, hundreds of friends and thousands of acquaintances. I’ve networked over and over and always benefited from it in one way or another. I know I’ve lived here for a long time because almost everyone I meet is affiliated with someone I knew or met a decade ago – with almost no exceptions.

I may be a little Toronto biased, but I love this city. I honestly believe there’s something here for everyone. We’ve all been a little discouraged by this city before: we’ve lived through the aches of not hearing back from our dream jobs and our dates, or getting laid off (or just laid really) and reaching some form of dead end and I get that it’s difficult, but I don’t think Toronto is a terrible place to live. I know sooner or later that I am going to have to leave here, but I don’t plan on leaving for good.

Those who truly know this city know that being a Torontonian is not about being downtown-savvy – I’m sorry, it’s far from that. Those who have immigrant parents know  that the GTA is the vessel that connects the sharpest, wittiest and most diverse crowds to the downtown core, there would be no T.dot without them. Having been here for over a decade means I pretty much grew up with this city and moved around quite a bit too. I (un)/fortunately know its transit system all too well – from one end to the other, I’ve been up and down all of its main highways at the peak of rush hour and on the verge of a panic attack. I remember some malls before they were malls and when they were limited to a one-lane with an ALDO, a Taco Bell and a Famous Players. I’ve lived through its toughest winters, pre and post vortex, and I know that this place is incredible regardless. If I leave it will be to come back better. This city has its glory and its character, it doesn’t deserve all the hatred it’s getting. I know there’s something here for everyone.

In the next few months, starting 2015, I will be interviewing and profiling a number of people whom I believe have contributed to the greatness of this city, people with talent, passion and a lot of stories to tell. Artists in the making, community builders, architects, musicians …  people who know this city’s worth. The reason I am doing this is because I recently discovered that people in Toronto don’t know where to go to exhaust its resources, and so I decided to tell them (and re-learn in the process). This year alone, I got a rush of information that forced me to discover that we’re truly being spoiled and are dangerously unaware of it. In the past year, I started working at an agency while juggling a freelance job, I started graduate school, traveled to 6 countries, 10 cities, networked endlessly and realized that there’s enough creativity right in my residential radius alone to help me kick start the project(s) I’ve been brainstorming for years. It’s a matter of knowing who to go to and where to go.

If you know Toronto like I do, you know that “cool” doesn’t have to start at Parliament and end at Jameson (stop the suburb hatred people). I didn’t always live downtown, and neither did you. A true Torontonian would have ridden the subway from Kipling to STC and from Downsview to Finch multiple times. He or she would be very well aware of the fact that beef patties are at their finest only at Warden station and Islington, that real Shawarma is only edible on Lawrence avenue, that Hakka food and Red snappers are only good in Scarborough and eastward. That no human being in the right mind shops at the Eaton center for good deals, especially during boxing week. You know that the best Persian restaurants are in the north end of the city, that Queen West has overpriced groceries, and that the hipsters in Trinity Bellwoods were once Burlington kids too. That Starbucks is an embarrassingly bad option when local goods and real coffee exist. Ethiopian food is on the Danforth, Gerrard East is for real grocery stores, and ice cream in Leslieville is fabulous. You’d know that Cherry beach is majestic at sunrise and that Food Basics is an amazingly diverse place to mingle and grocery shop. You’d know that Flemingdon Park, PO, Regent, Jane/Finch, Rexdale, Jungle, Malvern are all REAL neighborhoods too (and there will always be a regent) and unless you have neighbors who hail from every corner of this planet, you haven’t seen Toronto at all.

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Nude or Never

Telling a woman how she should dress is one part of a problem, telling a women how to think she should dress is the core of the problem itself. Let me tell you why.

We live in an era where self-expression is parallel to the self, not knowing who are will directly impact how you are. What’s inarguable is that an element of choice should be at the centre everything we do. We live in a era of a fast-paceness and interconnectedness that still overwhelm us; we get signs from everything, sounds from everywhere and influences in every millisecond of our everyday lives. We are so often and so quickly faced with things that thinking for ourselves is no longer a choice. This is a concern, not a comment and for women today, it’s a serious problem.

Women are taught by society to flaunt their femininity  in ways that please everyone before themselves, in no way am I stating that women MUST cover, but I am saying that women are repeatedly taught that strength of character, sexiness and fierceness are only visible through the dress code, in the “less is always more” sense, and THAT is bullshit.

I can’t think of the last time I saw a woman express her femininity through means other than sexual. It’s always the same depiction of courage through the same means and I am personally getting a little tired of it.

If modesty is a choice, then so is nudity, it can’t and shouldn’t be a requirement for progressiveness! I had a conversation with a ‘gentleman’ who tried to convince me that posing nude is actually the  much more expressive and attractive way of posing for pictures, he also added that stripping should be seen as significant since society strongly stands against it. When I said that I wouldn’t do either one, someone asked if I was “Religious” – so to him my choosing to not look a certain way and controlling matters instead of letting matters control me is dictated by religion, never by my society. I disagree. If religion forces someone in a direction, it’s possible to (want to) fight back, but society is the hardest thing to fight, because it’s everything around you; it’s the movies you watch, that ads you see, the people to talk to, the conversations you have, and the thoughts that are generated from all that.

The scariest thing I’ve seen to date is the amount of time women spend in front of mirrors and it’s rarely for themselves. Presentability should be the comfort you feel when you see yourself before the pleasure others feel when seeing you. The fashion, make-up and entertainment industries put a strong emphasis on perfection; “you must look it to feel it” is what echoes through their messages. Perfect hair, perfect make-up, no scars, no split ends, not a pound of over-weightness, and tons of skin- THAT is the new-school definition of sexy. And I liked the old-school system where she was who she wanted to be, how she defined herself, how she felt, where sexy meant confident and not sexualized, THAT she is the one I struggle to stay close to. THAT she is the one society tries to separate me from daily. I am not a product of my surroundings, I am product of my own beliefs, values and feelings.

Society stripped choice from she, divided progressive and modest, split liberal and reasonable, and shamelessly blamed religion on anything and everything that’s not connected to societal beliefs. That, to me, is more dangerous than being told what to wear. I can fight back if I am forced to dress a certain way, but if I’m swayed by a compliment that I am taught is essential to my self-esteem, then there’s nothing to fight back, because I’m taught to “need” compliments, that’s the drug that’s being fed to women and that’s dangerous.

Marwa Siam-Abdou

“But you’re dark for an Egyptian”

‘ “What’s your background?”

“Egyptian”

“oh..The Egyptians I know don’t look like that” ‘

I am forced to be a part of a conversation that sounds like the one above at least once a week. In an attempt to battle the ignorance that I often have to go head-to-head with, I usually respond with something along the lines of “It’s because I am from the south” and am, in return, forced to hear something like:

“Oh … so you’re from Sudan then?”

So now It’s my turn to ask: how does an Egyptian look like?  Because the things I keep hearing – from Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike – insinuate that I don’t look like an Egyptian, that most of them are olive skinned/fair skinned, or that I must be mixed something.

Based on which historically-void theory are people coming to the absurd conclusion that Egyptians aren’t supposed to be black? Or that they’re only supposed to be fair skinned?

In case it has been forgotten or ignored; Egypt is an African country, it neighbors Sudan and has been subjected to ethnic and racial transformations post the rise of the Islamic and Turkish eras (1258 AD and 16th century respectively). Meaning that, in short, Egyptians do vary in appearance, significantly.

So for those who have asked, will ask, want to ask, below is a free history lesson  for your insights and information:

Nubia [Biilad al Nouba,  Arabic], formerly known as the Kingdom of Kush,  are a number of villages located along the southern end of the Nile river, surrounding the Toshka Lakes and Lake Nasser, located more specifically between the cities of Aswan and Abu Simbel. The villages start in southern Egypt and go all the way to Northern Sudan.

The language spoken is Nubian, a no-longer documented language thanks to President Abdul Nasser’s decision to build the high dam over the old region (located east of the current location) and flood the villages, the houses, the libraries and obviously, the history. Due to these politically-motivated changes, the language spoken more commonly now  in the south is Arabic, especially among my generation. My personal belief is that the construction of the dam was a refined (and redefined) form of ethnic cleansing, due to Nasser’s Pan-Arabist views and due to the fact that the Nubians were not considered Arab.

For more information, visit www.thenubian.net, it’s an amazing website about the place, the history, the people and the traditions. On this website, I was happy and surprised to come across a short bio about my own grandfather, Yossef Sombaj. It’s now my go-to website for things that, sadly enough, I don’t know about my own heritage. I blame politics for that.

Marwa Siam-Abdou