These three qualities, when put together, make for a tremendous force for social progress. This mobilizing spirit is evident in the personal and research aspirations of Barâa Arar, a fourth-year student in The College of Humanities. Her compassion—expressed through creative storytelling—inspires others to be more critical and compassionate.
By Nick Ward
Photos by Ainslie Coghill
It may seem like the versatile Barâa Arar has the whole world snugly in her pocket, but it was a process of trial and error before she felt comfortable as a university student.
Like many aspiring scholars, she began her undergrad in a very popular, large class discipline. While this context works terrifically for some, for Arar, the shoe didn’t fit.
“I tolerated about three weeks of 500-student, first-year classes before I knew I couldn’t learn meaningfully in such a setting,” explains Arar. “In high school, university was branded as this large institution, so I thought post-secondary schooling had to be soulless, at least in the classroom. But, once I started, I refused to believe that was the only way to have a university experience.”
Recognizing she needed a change, and fast, Arar transferred to the College of the Humanities, a department renowned for its emphasis on creating connections.
Since then, Arar has become a prominent public figure, co-founding and co-hosting the popular podcast The Watering Hole, which interviews artists and activists from across the globe. She is a regular panelist on CBC’s All in a Day show, where she can be heard championing community activism, the rights of marginalized peoples, regional art, and discussing all levels of politics. If you spend time at Carleton, you have likely seen her name in the rabble-rousing campus publication The Leveller. Arar has also made a name for herself as an imaginative and passionate spoken-word artist who has performed at venues and festivals all across Canada.
At Carleton, Arar is principally focused on her Provost Scholar Award-winning research on post-colonial art and women’s issues; a stream of research which she endeavours to continue in her graduate work, once she receives her degree from The College of Humanities later this year.
“Do not try to talk yourself out of doing something you love. I tried to do that, and I still ended up transferring programs. Think about what you can do for hours, without being bored, the simplest task: Is it reading? Writing? Drawing? And then find a degree that enables you to do that.”
The College Community
“The College attracted me because of the content, but more importantly because of the warmth between students and professors,” says Arar.
“Because of the nature of the program, the students spend a lot of time together, studying niche, sometimes obscure, topics and books. Inevitably, the physical proximity breeds emo-tional closeness. The time we spend together studying becomes time we spend together laughing, eating, and going out.”
This more intimate model works well for Arar, but that doesn’t mean her time in the College has been easy. “The program is hard; in fact, the academic challenges are undeniable and sometimes, at least for me, felt insurmountable,” says Arar.
“But when you look around you, you find people struggling to understand the same questions. So, we talk it through and help each other understand the material.”
In addition to the devoted student partnerships, the unmatched access to professors has been an equally crucial dynamic in her undergraduate experience.
“We are half a floor away from most of our professors at any given moment during the school day,” she explains.
This combination of passion and prox-imity creates a dedicated community.
“I think that is obvious to anyone who walks by our lecture halls, our discussion groups, or our music nights,” says Arar.
Living up to its reputation as a program whose scholars are as gifted and zealous about teaching as they are with their research, Arar remarked that their passion is consistently contagious.
“It gets us excited about the content even if we never thought it initially to be interesting.”
Interdisciplinarity and the Historical Art of Storytelling
As Arar came to learn, professors in the College are committed advocates for looking at things expansively. She credits this interdisciplinary bent for her swift success as a blossoming intellectual, as it led her to an unfore-seeable academic arena—the story-telling done by historical artwork. Although she has always adored museums and galleries, Arar had never dedicated much thought towards understanding the way art creates meaning.
“The first time I did a slow-looking exercise for an art history class, I had a major realization—pieces of art are encapsulations of stories. The artist, and more broadly, the historical moment are trying to tell us how they see themselves,” she says.
“Art captures a worldview in one moment of time and continues to communicate that to us, across time and space. We bring our own biases and vantage points to any given art piece, and that is also worthy of exploration. If we see pain in the eyes of the subject, I think that says something about us as much as it might say something about the painter or the subject. Art tries to tell us something, for me—it is fascinating to try to figure out what that message may be.”
When asked if there was a certain artist or piece that best reflects her sentiments concerning the power of art, Arar, with only a moment’s hesitation, cites the work of French photographer Marc Garanger and his series Les Femmes Algeriennes (Algerian women) of 1960.
In French-occupied Algeria, Garanger, who was serving in the army, took identity photos of Algerian women who were forced to unveil themselves.
“Of course, there is undeniable violence in that dynamic; the camera often represents the unilateral power of the colonial state,” says Arar. “However, the reason I am intrigued by these photos is that the subjects consistently resisted the colonial dynamic with their gaze, their posture, and their arms.”
Arar understands this as the subjects asserting their tenacity in an otherwise ghastly context.
“The women do all that is in their power to reject the representative of the foreign occupier. For me, this moment of resistance is minute, but powerful. They use the very little power they have over their bodies to assert self-determination. For me, this is an extraordinary example of activism,” she explains.
Diverging a great deal from the artistic essence of Garanger, Arar also notes Alex Colville’s Refrigerator from 1977, which she first saw at the National Gallery of Canada, as formative to her a love of art.
“I think it is the first time I had an emotive, even visceral response, to an artwork,” she says. “It beautifully captures a moment of serenity, a moment of spontaneous and unpolished intimacy, between two people. Colville paints so realistically and forces the viewer to engage with the couple by placing the figures as close to possible. I was amazed how a simple painting can be so dynamic.”
As demonstrated by her diverse tastes in art, Arar has never been one to want to narrow her focus. In fact, she’s always looking for ways to broaden her scope, and the College of the Humanities has stirred up her interests.
“The College allowed me to explore many topics from different angles and multiple methodologies. I always wanted to study everything, and I think working towards my Humanities degree gave me the opportunity to do so. By the end of my fourth year, I was able to pick up almost any given academic article or book and understand the contours of the argument and the thinkers referenced.”
The breadth of the degree means Arar has been able to understand and astutely engage with a wide scope of Western history and thought. Academically, she has found this exceedingly advantageous because this exposure to content and theories across all disciplines has strengthened her ability to learn generally, be more self-reflective, and to think critically. “Simply, my undergrad showed me how much knowledge humanity has produced and how I will not be able to know it all. Now I am trying to make peace with that reality,” she remarks. “I became a better writer and thinker, and frankly, a better citizen. Being exposed to so many ideas has made me more nuanced in my approach to other people’s opinions.”
Citizenship and Student Activism
The notion of citizenship is paramount to Arar and she insists that universities must function as hubs to cultivate social change through the facilitation of activism.
Arar points to historical and contemporary examples of the central role of universities in mobilizing and organizing resistance in anti-colonial and anti-oppression movements for causes like Black Lives Matter, Palestinian solidarity, and Truth and Reconciliation.
“Universities offer a space for students to think, discuss, and organize around causes that matter to them. Right now, in Canada, we are seeing a big conversation about the role of campuses in facilitating free speech and safe spaces.
Campuses create democratic pro-cesses and quality citizens. I think it is a space that teaches us how to converse and how to disagree. To have fruitful discussions, we need to learn to be uncomfortable. Simultaneously, in my view, there are marginalized communities that need campus spaces to be unapologetically themselves.”
As a student concerned about human rights, Arar sees it as her duty to act.
“I cannot deny there are speakers and, at times, clubs who entice hate towards groups of people. When hate happens, I think students have every right to protest and use any and all democratic mechanisms to voice their concerns. I think students need to decide what their campuses will stand for; these types of decisions need to be student-led — not top-down administrative policies.”
But of course, it isn’t just up to the students. The university administra-tion also has a responsibility to be responsive to its student body.
“I am worried that campuses have become more polarized spaces where students are not talking to each other, befriending each other, and making connections. I do not think everyone needs to be friends, but I am a strong believer in constructive conversation,” she states.
Presently, Arar has devoted herself to combatting the increase and normalization of Islamophobic discourse and behaviour. She reminds us that anti-Muslim bias did not spontaneously materialize with the election of Donald Trump.
“From my observations, prominent politicians and pundits in America and Canada, equally, are weaponizing this hate for political gain. Canada and the U.S. saw an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last few years, which disproportionately threaten visibly Muslim women in hijab or niqab.
We saw the devastating example of what I call ‘trickle-down Islamophobia’ in the Quebec mosque shooting that killed six innocent worshippers. It made widows of women and orphans of children. That event really shook the Canadian Muslim community,” says Arar.
“As a young Muslim woman who wears hijab, I am deeply concerned about my safety and that of my community.”
Arar fiercely outlines the hardships faced by young Muslim women. Pressures from their own commu-nities coupled with threats from the mainstream, both socially and legislatively, leave them in decidedly vulnerable positions.
“I have seen firsthand the mental health issues, the security threats, and the destabilization of entire communities that this context produces. I recognize this is a heavy topic, but I think if I do not speak of it, we cannot start to make a change,” she explains.
“I consider myself lucky to live in a liberal democracy where I can proudly and openly defend civil liberties. I take it as a personal responsibility to never let that right go to waste.”
In her activism, Arar resolves to be passionate and respectful, but she makes sure to caveat that this courtesy is neither passive or undisruptive. For the fourth-year student, education is the key in any clash with inequality.
“Many people do not know why something is an issue let alone why it should be their issue. That education takes patience and mutual respect.
Let me give you an example. Recently, a woman approached me at a non-Muslim congregation and she told me, ‘I have never had a positive experience with Muslims.’ I was so shocked by her comment, and although I was uncomfortable, I listened to her. We spoke for almost an hour; it was important for me to listen to her grievances, although I felt uneasy about her analysis and her comments. It was a moment of cross-community conversation I wish I could see more of,” says Arar.
Arar explains that another manifestation of her respect is what she refers to as the recognition of her own privilege.
“Although my identity falls into underprivileged intersections, I also hold many undeniable privileges: a post-secondary education, a middle-class background, and I am visibly white passing. I am hyper-aware of what space I am taking up and why. I am passionate about representing my community, but I am aware that I cannot take up another community’s space. This is an important part of my activism.”
Next Steps for the Student Activist
While her vehement activism will continue, sadly for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as a fourth-year student, Arar’s time in the College of the Humanities will soon be coming to an end.
“Every professor in the College did something incredible: they infected me with a passion for academics. I cannot repay them for that. I am now far more open-minded, inquisitive and, I hope, interesting, because of it. Particularly, I would like to extend a big thank you to the professors who inspired and mentored me: Dr. Pamela Walker, Dr. Kim Stratton, and Dr. Carol Payne. Their commitment to students and their alliance meant so much to me. Many of the oppor-tunities I have gotten came from the relationships I fostered with them. I think for young women, especially of colour, in academia, mentoring relationships are so important.”
But it wasn’t just her professors who helped her navigate the choppy waters inherent in social activism and the achievement of a university degree.
“I chose to live with my family during my undergrad, and I think if I did not do so, I would not have managed to go to school and engage in activism the way I did. I am eternally grateful my parents tolerated me this long.
And my friends … every time I had a performance or speech, my friends would listen to my anxieties and help me rehearse. I am sure no one wants to hear a speech three times over before the actual thing, but they listened nonetheless. I made close and meaningful relationships based on supporting one another’s passions. I learned to show up to friends’ big moments. Especially in activist communities, it is essential to take care of one another. There are so many pressures to perform and to resist, but without mental and physical health, we cannot engage in any of those conversations.”
Arar is in the midst of applying to graduate schools both in Canada and in the United Kingdom. She plans to proceed with her research into the Algerian resistance to the French occupation, especially as captured in the visual culture.
“I think this topic is relevant to Turtle Island since we too are experiencing a post-colonial dynamic on unceded and unsurrendered territories. I hope that my research helps me under-stand these ever present complex issues of neo-colonialism and resistance movements.”
Always self-reflective and introspective, Arar declares that she hopes this helps her to understand “the world around me and how I fit into it.” Notwithstanding the irrefutable promise she has as a potential academic, Arar is more focused on research that reaches beyond the bounds of the university campus.
“I want my work to support community development and education. My ultimate hope is to create diverse and accessible programming at galleries and museums. I also think grassroots activism is so important in making sustainable and meaningful social change.”
Arar is wrapping up a truly exceptional undergraduate career, so I would be doing a disservice to students and prospective university students everywhere if I didn’t ask if she had any advice or words of wisdom for others. She enthusiastically replies, “Ah … yes … the big question!” before worrying that her answer might come across as too cliché.
“The most important thing is to be truly passionate about what you do. I began my undergrad with the knowledge I will most likely not get the job I want immediately post-grad. I know it is often naïve and privileged to simply say, ‘Do what you love.’ But I am of the belief that, if you are passionate about your work and creative about how you will do it, you will find a way to make it profitable,” says Arar.
“I recommend not focusing too much on career paths while you are deciding on a program. Focus on the skills you learn from your degree. In my opinion, those transferable skills are far more important than specific details about a third-century temple.”
Arar sternly states, “Do not try to talk yourself out of doing something you love. I tried to do that, and I still ended up transferring programs. Think about what you can do for hours, without being bored, the simplest task: Is it reading? Writing? Drawing? And then find a degree that enables you to do that.”
In other words, it is Arar’s experience that university is mostly what you make of it. When she came to Carleton, she had no specific aspirations to become a prominent student activist or to join any political clubs. She did, however, have a mandate to approach post-secondary education with an open mind.
“I guess what I am saying is, even if you are ambitious, make room for having fun.”
“I did not know I wanted to study art history, let alone Algerian visual culture. I never knew that I was interested in labour activism, yet here I am. If you are passionate, and present, you will find opportunities. I learned a lot more from my failures and confusion in my undergrad than I did from any successes. I did not get every job I applied for. I did not get every scholarship. This is important to reiterate. Sometimes it feels like everyone is getting valued except for you. I just learned to keep on going on, and the recognition will come.”
Arar maintains that it is also important to relax and enjoy yourself—some-thing, in hindsight, she wishes she had done more.
“University can be a very competitive and rigorous environment. We all want to do well and get the best grades, but I learned throughout my undergrad years, sometimes the best thing to do for your grades is to take a break, see your friends, and eat a burger.”
Arar stresses that she is not encouraging skipping school or sacrificing any learning experiences, but she discovered that during the times she arrived in class upset and stressed, she was far less proficient at retaining the information. “I used to pressure myself into trying to study for hours, even on Friday nights. But when I started planning to study for shorter periods of time, with more fun in between, I was motivated to actually do the work I needed to do.”
“I guess what I am saying is, even if you are ambitious, make room for having fun.”
Arar is a shining example of the kind of person and student that is interest-ed in the arts and social sciences. She is thoughtful, creative, informed, articulate, kind, and intensely con-cerned. Her courageous journey as a loud member of those fighting the arduous fight towards a more just and beautiful society is already inspiring people and affecting meaningful change. You are sure to hear plenty more about her very soon.
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