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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For some time now, McGill’s Arab Student Network (ASN) has been plagued by calls to reform their election processes, magnified by a lack of transparency within the organization. The McGill Daily on has questioned the secular and apolitical mandate enshrined in the constitution of the service. A former committee member had also pointed to the service for its lack of understanding of the political framework within which Arab identity tends to be embedded in The McGill Tribune. More recently, an article in the Daily revealed the lack of democratic structures in the elections previously held in the association. Other claims made by students gathering at a North African Student Association event were that association seems to be dominated by a Levantine idea that excludes a large proportion of McGill Arabs from the Maghreb and North Africa more generally. The last report of SSMU’s Service Review Committee has graded the ASN as “failing” to meet its goals, the only service of SSMU to do so.
I interviewed Yesmine Abdelkefi who is running to be the VP Academic of ASN in their first public election. As an exchange student, I met Yesmine at my class about Middle Eastern politics and have noted her engagement throughout the semesters during gatherings of the North African Student Association (NASA), World Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Association (WIMESA) and HeForShe at McGill. Following her announcement, I was surprised to see her running for a position in the Arab Student Network that she was sometimes complaining about during our discussions after classes. I, therefore, decided to reach out to her to have more clarifications about her motivation and goals.
Hamza Bensouda (HB): Could you present yourself briefly, the position you are running for as well as your background?
Yesmine Abdelkefi (YA): My name is Yesmine Abdelkefi and I’m a second-year student at McGill double majoring in Political Science and Economics. I aspire to become a political analyst on the Middle Eastern and North African region with a specialization in strategy implementation in public policy. I’ve been in Montreal for two years now, but I grew up in Tunis. I’m running for VP Academics in ASN.
HB: You’re running for the position of VP Academics at the Arab Student Network, could you tell us what made you choose to be a part of ASN?
YA: Well, I think that as a second-year, I’ve familiarized myself enough with life in Montreal and more specifically McGill. This allows me to take the next step to be part of something bigger. To do this, I’ve always preferred to start with something that is familiar or speaks to who I am, and I believe that ASN fits perfectly as not only an Arab association which I identify with, but also as something intrinsically linked with McGill since it’s a SSMU service. Having said this, I think a lot needs to change within ASN just from my personal observations on their performance and brief interactions with their executives.
HB: You are talking about instigating a change in the service. Do you think your prospective position of VP Academics will help you do that?
YA: Yes! From what I observed, ASN is overemphasizing only specific aspects of the Arab culture, which I think have become overrated and very stereotypical like food and music. The events I have seen them organize so far only revolve around Levantine food, exotic belly dancers, and music. I believe that the cultural aspect is very important, but I also think that this way ASN has been limiting themselves to go beyond these cliché characteristics of the Arab world. I am planning on going beyond this and I believe that being VP Academic will be the perfect opportunity to do so.
HB: There is fundamentally a problem of understanding what it means to be an Arab Service. What does a North African student bring to the table?
YA: The first thing that you read in ASN’s constitution is a definition of what it is to be an Arab. It clearly states that being an “Arab refers to the culture of the 22 ‘Arab’ countries that are active members of the League of the Arab states.” If we go by this definition, this means that it doesn’t matter that you are ethnically an Arab, since the countries that form the Arab league include North Africa, some countries in the Sahel and the Levant where there are other ethnicities besides Arabs. This definition clearly affirms that being an Arab is about sharing a common language, history, culture and memory, regardless of ethnicity, which I completely agree with. The fact that ASN puts extra emphasis on one specific aspect of Arab culture makes me feel, as a North African, very underrepresented. I know there is a stigma about North Africans not being authentically “Arabs” or at least Arabized, which is true since most North African populations are Arabized Amazigh. Still, there are many Arabs in North Africa, which shouldn’t even matter because what it means to be Arab for ASN is not based on ethnicity. As a North African Tunisian student running for a VP position, I’m going to actually ensure that we get this representation that we have been missing all along.
HB: There is still a small problem, I hope you’ll agree with me, about the political side of the service. How will ASN address this specific concern?
YA: I think that there is an obsession with being apolitical. It’s because we’re displaying a service that aims to help, among others, Arabs. Politics in our countries are always a source of controversy and this automatically means that we can’t have any political stance on any issues. I am not saying that ASN should adopt a specific political ideology – far from that – but to at least acknowledge the socio-political situation in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) through workshops on ongoing political issues like the Syrian or Yemeni crisis from an Arab perspective, since North Americans would generally refer to Western media which is often biased or inaccurate. Doing this does not mean that ASN is taking a political stance, it means that they are spreading awareness about what is going on for some students coming from these countries. Take the Palestinian “issue” for example, which shouldn’t be considered as such given the fact that supporting Palestinians is not just a “political” issue, it is a human rights issue. What some students undergo because of what’s happening in their homes should be taken seriously since it does affect their personal as well as academic lives.
As a Political Science student, I’ve witnessed the inaccurate and stereotypical way that Arab realities are often presented in North America. I want to make sure that this bias is lessened. That’s why, as VP Academics, I believe that correcting the misconceptions about Arab culture and politics through educational events is an essential part of my duties.
HB: The SSMU service review committee’s year-end report has mentioned a couple of reasons why ASN hasn’t met the goals of their mission. How do you, as a potential future member of ASN, would work on making sure this never happens again?
YA: I can’t say I’m surprised. ASN has received a fail grade for all the issues that I’ve mentioned above, but more importantly because of failing in the advocacy criteria. In other words, ASN failed to concretely “address the misconceptions” people might have about the Arab world by offering more grounded educational programs and workshops to effectively address these issues. That’s where I think my role as VP Academic comes in. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of bringing forward an educational flair to ASN that ensures the inclusion of all communities to spread awareness and engage people from all backgrounds, but also work more closely with associations within McGill. I truly believe that the new change that will be brought to the executive team will guarantee that ASN never fails its mission ever again
HB: What strategy do you feel is best to incorporate students interested in the “Arab” cultures, languages and socio-political contexts who aren’t from those states?
YA: I think a lot of “non-Arabs” are interested in the culture or at least are a little bit curious to learn more about it, since many non-Arab students are taking Arabic language classes, classes about Arab cinema and literature, or Arab history. This truly shows that people from all backgrounds are genuinely interested in learning more about it and going beyond class materials. As VP Academic I will coordinate with the VP Events to organize workshops on such topics where professors from the World Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, for example, can be guest speakers and offer their input. This would ensure that Arabs and non-Arabs are included. As I said earlier, organizing debates on current Arab issues is also important to spread awareness about Arab realities for all communities.
In the past, ASN’s language mini-courses have focused on Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese Arabic dialects, without giving any attention to North Africa’s diverse dialects. This not only excludes a huge part of Arab culture and identity but also deprives non-Arabs of the chance to discover the full beauty and incredible diversity of the Arabic language. That’s why I intend to organize Arabic language classes in as many different Arabic dialects as possible, from Maghrebi to Levantine, to Gulf Arabic. This would be an interesting way of getting students who don’t know much about North Africa, for example, to get to learn more about its history and culture in an intimate way. All in all, I want this to be a platform for help but also a production of knowledge
HB: What makes you think you’ll be the best to make all of these changes happen in ASN?
YA: I think that I have a solid platform that will address some of the problems that ASN is facing in terms of cultural diversity and representation. I also believe that ASN’s continuity depends on teamwork not only within the executives but also with other associations, which are the pillars of my platform. That’s why I hope that these elections will bring real change to ASN’s functioning. Despite the difficulties that the organization has encountered these past two years, I think it remains a necessary service for all the communities here at McGill. With the proper reforms, I genuinely believe that ASN could ensure the celebration of our Arab heritage through a full and accurate representation.