Dany Assaf’s aspirational book underlines Edmonton’s strengths

Growing up in Edmonton, Dany Assaf was obsessed with hockey — even before we had an NHL team. He went to Ross Shep in the ’80s, playing rugby and football, and fondly remembers being part of the Knothole Gang with all the other hyperactive munchkins.

“You got those tickets for $1 at Woodward’s. You think of how unsophisticated it was,” he says happily, “how much it was based on trust: they would hole punch that card and let you into Clarke Stadium.

“For me,” says the now-lawyer living in Toronto, “it was like going to Disneyland.

“Some of the greatest memories of my life are watching Tom Wilkinson, and how exceptional that team was, how proud they made us all feel, winning those gritty games in the snow.”

But in the long shadow of the 9/11 attacks — a successful attempt to lure the United States into the same sort of dead-end war that had so drained the Soviet Union — something twisted, everywhere.

A once-friendly neighbour put a sign on her lawn pointing to Assaf’s parents’ house, reading, “Osama bin Laden lives closer than you think.”


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Never mind that the family, mostly born in Canada, was of Lebanese heritage, or that their clan had been instrumental — with help from all sorts of Edmontonians, incidentally — in building Canada’s first mosque here in 1938. People of all faiths, including the mayor, attending its opening.

This idea they were somehow outsiders? Simply ridiculous.

It would be hard to argue tensions have improved much since the Twin Towers slid down 20 years ago, the rise of social media making it incalculably easier to blame, and ‘other’ anyone even two degrees away from you for your basic troubles.

But Assaf is a thoughtful doer who’s made a bold career of approaching things head on that’s gotten him audiences with two prime ministers — really, the least of his accomplishments.

With his wife, he founded and organized the Fast in the 6 event, an open-invitation dinner celebrating Islamic culture attended by tens of thousands every year in Toronto. And, recently, he decided to write Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line, which came out this week.

Edmonton a highlight

The easygoing, informative and very Edmonton, history-filled book is a gentle manifesto of sorts. Though, Assaf notes, “I hate when people try to preach to me — God forbid, God forgive me, if I preach to them.”

Instead, in his calm and conversational way, Assaf tells his life story, the history of the Al Rashid Mosque his great-grandparents helped establish, how his family had grocery stores on both Jasper and Whyte Avenue, how proud he was when his son carried the Canadian flag at the 100th anniversary Grey Cup game, and an absolutely terrific story about how, after the Globe & Mail ran an editorial cartoon showing a kid giving his unlabelled, cartoon Arab dad a suicide bomb belt for Father’s Day, Assaf arranged a meeting with their editorial board, grabbing a picture of his kids on the way.


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“I walked into this meeting and I threw that picture across the table. And I said, ‘I just want someone here to tell me, which one of those two kids is going to give me a suicide belt this Father’s Day?’

“God bless you guys, you’re journalists,” he says, “you’re not really good at apologizing.

“The only people worse than you are lawyers,” Assaf laughs (remember, he’s one).

With numerous examples from the ongoing zeitgeist as fresh as George Floyd, pandemic boredom and the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots, Assaf’s main goal with his wonderful book is not to blame — but actually, the opposite.

“One of the motivations was this idea that we’re all vulnerable.

“If my family, with all its history and heritage in Alberta, can be ‘othered’ because of something that happened thousands of miles away and has nothing obviously do with us, than it can happen to anybody.”

Dany Assaf’s new book, which is actually quite a lot about Edmonton.
Dany Assaf’s new book, which is actually quite a lot about Edmonton. Photo by supplied

Better off as allies

Keeping his eye on what he thinks Canada is really good at, he’s hoping his contextualizing stories and patiently explored reactions to some pretty foul, anti-Muslim behaviour reminds us that we’re better off as allies, even when we disagree.

“We’re not enemies to one another. And our prosperity and security and happiness as a society is going to be in looking to bring one another up, not tear one another down,” he asserts.

Actually named after American actor Danny Thomas, Assaf examines easy ways we pull apart from each other, including using stereotypes, be it “terrorist” or “redneck.” In the book, he notes Muslims are too often depicted in the media as one of: belly dancers, billionaires or bombers. We both laugh when I note for us Russians, it’s usually gangsters — just rich or poor.


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“When I see those images, firstly, I think: boring!” He laughs, “Like, mix it up a little, think of something a little more creative!”

“But that’s why the stories are important,” he says, stressing why he went so personal. “They remind us of our own shared humanity, and to look at one another for what we are, as opposed to what people might perceive us to be.”

Seeing his home of Alberta depicted in the national media over and over by the worst behaviours of a noisy few horrific flag wavers and bus stop assailants, he says, “It’s not the Alberta that I grew up in. It’s not the Alberta I know. And I still don’t believe it’s the Alberta of today.

“We can’t let a few people with loud voices define who we are. And that’s when it comes time for us to not be complacent, to get up and to make sure we reaffirm and remind, and tell our true story.”

It’s not always easy, we all make mistakes, but he says it’s up to us to aim for harmony where we can and forgive when we can, despite attempts to disrupt that — whether it’s from people trained in decades of Cold War propaganda to lure us into online fights, or populist politicians predictably blaming outsiders for our problems.

Assaf speaks directly to someone who might instinctively look at him with hatred.

“If you’re feeling anxious, and you are uncertain of what the future is going to look like, I think the path to your prosperity and your peace is going to be to find ways for us to see one another as potential allies, not certain enemies.


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“Nobody is going anywhere. So let’s find ways to work together to make ourselves all genuinely more prosperous.”

Spicy wisdom

He goes for a metaphor. “Canada is this big boat, and we’re all on here. So how much faster are we going to be able to roll through these crazy rough seas that the world is throwing at us if only half of us are rowing?”

Noting the old saying, variety is the spice of life, he concludes, “Difference is not supposed to divide us. It’s supposed to make life more enjoyable. Look, I love burgers and wings — but I don’t want to eat that every single day. I want some Indian foods, Chinese food! I want some pot roast! I want it all!”

He laughs, having almost forgotten: “Oh yeah, something Lebanese, let’s get some hummus in there!

“Yeah, yeah, sure — I might gain a couple of extra pounds,” he notes, “but we’re all going to be happier.” And fuller, for that matter.




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