By Adnan Khan
The Aga Khan museum looks like a bureaucratic building from the future. Squat and long, it sits on Wynford Dr with majesty, like a swan at rest. There’s a park and an Ismaili prayer centre next to the museum. When I visited last winter, both were drenched in blank grey light. It was the exact kind of day I think of when I remember growing up in North York: bleak and sparsely populated, punctuated by a bus driver who barked at me because I rang the “stop” bell too late.
Two seemingly suspicious Indian women pass me as I walk to the entrance, but the White ladies at the entrance are happy to see me, and the coat checkers take my toque, etc., with grace. I’m nervous to be here; I don’t have fond memories of North York, and after spending the last five years outside of Toronto I’ve come to view its fervor over multiculturalism and diversity as masturbatory. There’s a lot of talk about how the different shades of Canadian life are important to its identity but I’m always left wondering how it works out in practice. The recent push from the government against Muslims—the hijab debate, the niqab debate, the aggressive rhetoric —has made me wonder what our role is in the future of this country.
Inside the museum, beauty crackles. The purpose of the space is to promote the diversity of Islam through a collection of Islamic art, Qurans, artifacts and an assortment of modern art on the top floor. I was wary of the staleness that often greets such “purposeful” multicultural exhibitions, but none of that stillness is here. The collection of artifacts is curated elegantly and widely. Upstairs, the modern art is brash, confident, and thought provokingly fresh: an exhibit on contemporary art from Pakistan doesn’t give off a sense of translation, the vibe that Muslim art and identity has been pried open for white eyes. There is true engagement here, for newcomers and the old alike. Even the small details pop: the restaurant is busy and bustling.
When I heard of the Aga Khan museum I was happy — not because someone wanted to “celebrate diversity,” but because someone was going to spend millions of dollars on it. People are quick to extol the economic virtues of immigrants and their hard work, but I feel like we rarely give back. It was fantastic to see a Bruce Wayne-ish international playboy, his Highness Aga Khan, give millions to celebrate the Ismaili community.
I grew up in and around North York, near Graydon Hall, Bathurst and Finch, Valley Woods and Roywoods. It’s not a cool place to be from. We don’t have a Drake like Scarborough does; I think Check the O.R. from Tom Green might have been shot near Bathurst. And Snow’s Informer, of course. I rarely saw any white guys — my schools would have made the perfect diversity ads, except for the bristol board we used for blinds.
I don’t think I ever really existed here — I kind of just made it through. Now when I think of North York, I think of the estranged relationship with my brother, who still lives here, and I think of the distance between me and my father, who brought us here from Saudi Arabia. I think of C., my oldest friend, one of the first friends I made in Canada, in a parking lot with a tube going from the gas tank through the window of her ZipCar rental, killing herself. I think of the eagerness with which I left at 17, moving downtown, and then at 21 to Vancouver, then at 22, out of the country, towards Asia and as far away from this inner suburb as possible.
My head got mangled along the way—I started to wonder who I was. Every time I read about Toronto being multicultural, I felt bitter. I knew it wasn’t true the way they were saying it was. I felt the tension when I was here: Indians berating the Chinese for taking over Fairview mall, seeing a brown kid with a hockey stick be shouted at by white men to go home. Life felt cracked open here and no one was talking about it. There was always Calgary and Winnipeg to blame if you wanted to talk about race.
Now I’m 28 and after a decade away away, I finally have some semblance of understanding of North York. I might be too old for it now—I think I’ve disengaged from Toronto—but I had a strange new feeling for my old neighbourhood: pride. I loved my visit to the Khan because it stands in contrast to greasy government platitudes and the suburb’s general shabbiness. The institution’s beauty is in its aggression. On Wynford drive it stands with a prominence and exquisiteness befitting the place of immigrants here: a startling tribute to a culture whose people make this country.