February 2014

February 2014 Bulletin
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In this issue:

CAI's Canadian Arab to Watch

Our Canadian Arab to Watch initiative is going strong three months in, launched in December 2013 to highlight the wealth of leadership, innovation and contributions within our community. For more details about the program, past honourees  and for nominations forms, please visit our website.

Julie Nesrallah: Rock on, gypsy woman!

Call it an impulse, a tick or an obsession, but Julie Nesrallah says she must sing Carmen at least three times a year, even if it’s in the middle of her own flat (lucky neighbours). “It has to come out,” says the mezzo-soprano, CAI’s Canadian Arab to Watch this month.

Julie has sung for Prince William and Kate, Dutchess of Cambridge, and Queen Noor of Jordan; she has been called “inspired,” “riveting,” and “infectious” in Canada’s top publications; and has hosted CBC’s classical music radio program, Tempo, for six seasons.

But Julie doesn’t quite fit the opera singer stereotype. One media profile refers fondly to her affinity for cursing.  She says music is a blue-collar job. She talks about the classical music model being broken, performs in small venues in her Carmen on Tap to counter opera’s snobbery and expense (“that’s not how it’s supposed to go”), and aims to take her show to Las Vegas.

Though Julie’s parents moved to Canada when she was a child, her upbringing in Ottawa was “very Lebanese,” surrounded by a large family, close cousins, and “a lot of tabouleh.”

She remembers clearly the moment she understood her life’s calling. “I was sitting on the couch with my mom one night, watching people perform on an awards show, and on some really fundamental level, just knowing that I was one of them. I’m one of you guys.” She was four years old. At that time, she didn’t know what form it would take but the lure was “definitely, definitely,” being on stage. She calls that intuition “part of the magic of being alive.”

Early on, a teacher recognized she had a big strong voice. And so it was that she was cast in an Ottawa opera production.

Her talent may have started young, but that was no guarantee of smooth sailing within the insecure and competitive world of opera. Though many of her trained peers would not ultimately get work in opera, Julie says she never had a Plan B. “I could never come up with anything. In a lot of ways that was a blessing, because it really kept me going at points that were … extraordinarily challenging…. I didn’t want to do anything else.”

The greatest challenge occurred after 9/11 due to dwindling opportunities in the arts. Things were tight for six years and even an award-winning, charismatic singer like Julie Nesrallah can begin to worry. “The world was not your oyster anymore.”

That was when – “right on schedule” – CBC approached Julie about hosting her own show. For a confident outgoing extrovert like her, performing on stage comes naturally. It was radio that caused her to fear, doubt and feel anxious. 

Radio has affected her profoundly. In many ways, radio is the opposite of opera. Where everything is big in one world, she explains, everything is small in the other. Where the stage forces a performer to hide oneself, radio is very intimate. While the prospect was “terrifying,” it has been good for self-esteem. “Whatever you’re saying is just as good and valid as the next guy.… It teaches you about yourself and that you are fundamentally allowed to express an opinion about something and share it.… How do you know who you are if you can’t do that?”

A 1997 McGill profile quotes Julie's professor describing “the strongest work ethic that I have encountered in my experience as a teacher.” Julie says the article rings as fresh as ever but also attributes her success to tenacity, “and so much hope.”  “Hope tempers ruthless ambition.... Hope means a different thing. It’s drive but it’s almost because you can’t help it.” 

And what of her own hopes at this point? For one, she dreams of taking Carmen on Tap from east (Dubai) to west (San Francisco). She also aspires to sing at the Met and in Baalbek, Lebanon, which she concedes would open up the flood-gates for her.

Finally, Julie maintains that she dreams of being the first opera singer to grace Rolling Stone’s cover. The headline?
                                     "Rogue diva takes Las Vegas by storm,
                                      Rock on, gypsy woman!"                              


Canadian Business Opportunities in the Middle East

The third symposium on Canadian Business Opportunities in the Middle East illuminated the topic for professionals, students and business people of all backgrounds during a half-day conference at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto on Jan. 13.
In a closed-door session, H.E. Wael Aboulmagd, the Egyptian Ambassador to Canada, and (via Skype) Arif Lalani, Canada's Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, updated the crowd on the effect of the Arab Spring on investment and business opportunities.

Bessma Momani (U of Waterloo) and Walid Hejazi (Rotman) discussed key facts and figures relating to the economic and financial linkages Canada has to the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. “What’s the next big thing?” is always what business minds need to know, said Momani. What the Arab region has to offer is young people. Many of them. For instance in Egypt, nearly a third of the population of 90 million are 15 or younger. “That is when people are choosing to drink Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola or Mecca Cola" said Momani.  She argued that times are changing and economic power is becoming more diffused – it is no longer about a few markets that dominate.
Hejazi, best known for his expertise in Islamic finance, shared some surprising figures. His premise was that “unbelievably strong” evidence suggests Canada is under-trading with the MENA region. The Middle East gets 1.16 per cent of total Canadian exports, despite the fact that MENA is growing at the same rate as the rest of the world, he said. He also discussed the need for Arab countries to continue diversifying their economies, while acknowledging the time it takes to do so. “The first step to creating change is to create a sense of urgency.” As a shining example, Dubai went from being dependent on oil in 1970 - 50 per cent of its economy - down to just 2 per cent in 2012.
Next was a panel on Islamic finance and the opportunities for Canadian business. The panelists made an important distinction between what Islamic finance is and isn’t. It’s a parallel option, they said, that may have little or nothing to do with religious expression. Rather, it has to do with money, markets and momentum, said Dany Assaf, partner at Torys, a respected law firm. It’s a system that weathered the global financial crisis well and has gained in popularity ever since. It’s a tool, Assaf said, that gives access to new markets. Those markets include ones that Canada is keen to enter, such as Malaysia. Cassim Docrat, of DDCAP (DIFC) Limited, pointed out that actors who still view Islamic finance as “too exotic” will ultimately lose out on opportunities.

For those ready to do business in the Gulf, businessman Rehan Huda had some advice. Take your time and build relationships, build trust, and build ties – including with Arab colleagues who may be your best ambassadors. Furthermore, Docrat pointed out, “nuance is everything” and countries are not synonymous simply because they share borders. Ned Ismail later noted, “You wouldn’t think to look at Belgium and paint the rest of Europe with the same brush.”
So what are the business opportunities in the Middle East? Theophilos Argitis (Bloomberg News), Saad Aboudeh (entrepreneur), Ned Ismail (CWS) and Mohamad Sawwaf (Investor’s Group) offered their insights on a wide range of topis.

While many Arab countries are currently cheap-labour dependent, that will change and so too will the need for upgraded technology. Ismail also highlighted business opportunities in IT, health care, low-tech investments (people will always need diapers and medicine), and vocational education.

Ismail pointed to opportunities in finance – there are many banks, a lot of money, many sophisticated players but not enough sophisticated products. Furthermore, those banks do not as yet feature prominently on the international stage.
Sawwaf, the youngest of the panelists, took a different angle, focusing instead on the cultural shifts that are needed. He described how past generations, including that of his parents, typically did not save, and also invested in tangible assets over intangible ones – land, gold, jewelry. They rely on their children to take care of them in their old age. He argued that we must shift toward cultivating a society of savers (he used China as an exemplar) and to strive for independence in retirement years where it’s not about making ends meet, but about enjoying those increasingly long non-working years.
The symposium was co-presented by the Canadian Arab Institute, Rotman School of Business and the Canadian Arab Business Council (CABC), Rotman MBA Middle East Business Association, Rotman Institute for International Business and Torys, an international business law firm.

For upcoming events hosted by the Canadian Arab Business Council, visit their website. For upcoming CAI events, visit our event page. Photo gallery of event here.

Intra-Arab Dialogue: Discussion in a time of rising sectarian tensions

Women in black, a procession, and breast-beating. On January 22, Nadine Labaki’s Felliniesque opening scene of Where Do We Go Now launched the Intra-Arab Dialogue Series for Young Canadians: Challenging Sectarian Divides. 

A tragicomedy of the civil war in Lebanon, Labaki’s film touches on sectarian strife, connecting to both past and present conflicts in the Arab world. Interspersing the absurd with the sombre, the cartoonish with the dramatic, Labaki plays the unsuspecting viewer like a violin, all the while reflecting on the absurdity of sectarianism.  

Following the screening, a number of participants commented on the unfortunate relevance of the film to today’s tribalism in the Arab world. Education, economic bridging, and open dialogue were suggested to counteract the wave. The media’s role in sustaining conflicts was also discussed.

Naturally, the question of whether the diaspora sustains, counteracts, or neutralizes sectarian prejudices came up next. Some suggested that the diaspora provides an alternative platform for tackling prejudices, while others claimed the opposite, that living away from conflict reinforces those notions.

On January 29 at a follow-up discussion, the conversation took a broader look at the key issues and challenges to democracy in the Arab world since the start of the "Arab Uprising."  Moderated by Ryerson University's Prof. Arne Kislenko, the discussion channelled frustration with media camouflage, equally defending and blaming social media. The discussion followed opening statements by the president of the Canadian Arab Institute Mr. Raja Khouri and Dr. Bessma Momani from the Ballsillie School of International Affairs, who both related facts and figures about about Arab life in Canada and how it is impacted by conflicts in the homeland. 

What do you think? How does social media play into the lives of Canadian Arabs and their perspective on conflict? How do young Canadian Arabs understand the role of media? What are the pros and cons of geographic distance from a birthplace that's in conflict? How do you think Canadian Arabs participate in that diasporic dialogue?

Join the conversation on February 12 in the next event of the series and share your ideas (Intra-Arab Dialogue sessions are listed in upcoming events below). See you there!

Iran and the Middle East: Regional Implications

Co-presented with the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, this first lecture in a series shed light on developments in the Middle East and North Africa from the perspective of former ambassador to Iran Michel de Salaberry. Upcoming lectures for the Perspectives on a changing Middle East series can be found below.

Upcoming CAI Events


Intra-Arab Dialogue Series for Young Canadians

Co-presented with The Mosaic Institute: The dialogue series is an opportunity for young Canadians to engage with policy experts, civil servants, researchers, community leaders and human rights activists. The aim is to discuss how they can improve relations within diaspora communities in Canada with ties to the MidEast, and what roles they can play as members of the Arab diaspora to influence Canadian foreign policy. The series features film screenings, panel discussions and a community-service project. Venue: Ryerson University (details to come).

Feb 12: Session 2: Egypt on Path to Democracy? Featuring former Canadian Ambassador to Egypt Ferry de Kerkove
Feb 26: Session 3: Syria & Sectarianism: Effects on the Middle East & Canada.  
March 12: Session 4: The Arab Spring: Women & Peace building.

Lecture Series: Perspectives on a Changing Middle East

March 6: Lecture 2: "A Problem of Politics and History, not Religion: Understanding Sectarianism in the Modern Arab World."  Featuring Prof. Ussama Makdisi, professor of history and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University.
Synopsis: There is no single, peculiar problem of sectarianism in the Middle Eastern region, rather particular arenas and contexts that make various sectarian problems imminent.

Venue: 1 Devonshire Place, Rm. #108N, Toronto (north building of the Munk School of Global Affairs) 

Opportunity for joining governance bodies in Ontario

DiverseCity onBoard, an award winning initiative of the Maytree Foundation, connects qualified candidates from diverse communities to the governance bodies of nonprofit and public sector organizations in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The program’s mandate is to work with public institutions and voluntary organizations to change the face of the region’s leadership by promoting board recruitment and appointment processes that reflect the GTA’s diverse population.

DiverseCity onBoard recruits, pre-screens, and trains qualified candidates from visible minority and under-represented immigrant communities. 

Current opportunities include healthcare, theatre, community services, environment, seniors, and many more.

For more information, visit: http://diversecitytoronto.ca/get-involved/onboard/join-board/
Contact: Mona ElSayeh: melsayeh@maytree.com

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