What does radical self-love look like?

Sometimes it looks like moving your family across the world so you can finally write a memoir.

For people living with mental illnesses, the emphasis on self-love and some of its assumed performances can be alienating. For people who have C-PTSD or have grown up in dysfunctional homes of continuously traumatizing incidents, the term self-love can ring hollow. As one friend recently said, it simply doesn’t penetrate.

And that’s ok.

In the times when we are stuck in our own programming, even when we have the dual awareness to recognize we are stuck but we can’t do much about it, it is important to realize that putting one foot in front of the other, or even just longing to, is self-love.

It is not actively destructing.

It is still you in there.

For me, a big part of practicing self-love has been doing things for myself, even when I don’t feel the love: booking therapy appointments in advance (even when my brain is telling me it’s hopeless so why bother), booking home support like cleaning services (even when my brain is telling me I am worthless because I need help to do basic things), or any other steps (small and large) I might take towards helping myself continue to survive.

It is a common thing among folks living with mental illness that we can only feel in memory, never in the present moment. Our nervous systems have been trained expertly to shut down in the here and now as a protective mechanism.

And that’s ok.

That is your body loving yourself.

A big part of healing is in rolling one’s consciousness forward to now. In building one’s own safe spaces and then allowing one’s self to feel in those spaces. Even if little by little.

Radical self-love looks like such commitments to survival, even when your brain tells you that you do not want to survive. Radical self-love even looks like simply yearning to take these steps, even when your brain tells you that you cannot go on.

This is an act of radical self-love.

I am set to begin a sabbatical or leave of absence from my advocacy work with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC) on August 1st.   The community work I have set in motion will graciously be continued by my committee of dedicated directors and volunteers. This leave will entail me and my family moving to Morocco for six months to visit family and make space for the research and writing of a creative non-fiction memoir

About the project:

Why do you want to enter? Simon Levy asked me outside the entrance of the Casablanca Jewish Museum he founded and directed as of 1997. An armed Moroccan military officer stood close by, listening to our conversation. When I replied that I wanted to see the Moroccan Jewish artifacts inside, he seemed surprised, and gestured to the hijab covering my head. He said, it is not often that we have your people visiting the museum, before waving for me to follow him inside.

Five years later, I was sitting in Levy’s old office with the new museum director, Zhor Rehihil, who took over primary curatorship after Levy’s death. We were talking about my research project and dropping names of historians doing work on the departure of Jews from Morocco between 1948 and 1968. I was explaining my interest in the silences of its memory, particularly the anxieties brought on by the Holocaust and a host of other issues largely absent from both Jewish and Muslim memories.

The Holocaust had nothing to do with Morocco, she protested. I let her finish without agreeing or disagreeing, wrapping up our conversation with a promise to keep in touch and update her when my work was completed. As she was walking me out, she looked at my hijab and said, you know, that headscarf will make your research very difficult. Trust, in this field, is a complicated thing.

It was only in wading through the multivocal, emotionally-charged and often painful memories of the departure that I would come to recognize the truth of her observation and how my own work might come to be perceived because of my identities. I also came to notice patterns of belonging and rootlessness in my own story as a convert to Islam, living in a foreign country, descendant from immigrants and married to a man who also gave up his place of origin as a Mediterranean migrant.

The pursuit of homelands, both literally and figuratively, shape my experiences – both a physical and an internal migration echoed in the movement of the people I have studied and how the memory of their journeys is expressed.

What does it mean to search for home as a Muslim convert, wading through established communities? What does it mean to exist as a racialized Muslim woman in Canada, in an era of rising Islamophobia? What does it mean to immigrate to another land in pursuit of the familiar? For myself, my ancestors, my spouse?

Deeper than this, what does it mean to look for home as a wandering soul? I can hear the revolutionary chants of the Arab Spring protesters on the television my first time in Morocco: Jannah, jannah, jannah, Jannah al-wataniya. Paradise, paradise, paraside, Paradise the homeland. 

The project that I am working on is a creative non-fiction memoir, a true novel of sorts, that will braid together these stories of migration and homeland, combining my academic research with stories from my life and those close to me. I am unsure yet if the writing I am making space for will become a graphic novel script that I will commission an illustrator for, or it will remain a work of prose.

I am asking for support while I take some time off from my advocacy work to travel back to Morocco for visual research and to conduct additional interviews for the writing of this work. As I said, my sabbatical begins August 1st and will continue for 6 months. I hope to return to Canada with a complete first draft and have set up a mentorship relationship with a Professor of literature and writing to ensure I achieve this goal.

All I have to offer is my participation. All I am able to do is take each voice in the turbulence of remembering and listen to them equally. I cannot do this without your support.

To learn more about this act of radical self-love and this project, to support it and to access exclusive benefits that I am providing for my supporters, please visit my Patreon account: https://www.patreon.com/homeland/


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

This talk was delivered by Nakita Valerio on March 18, 2017 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as part of the interfaith event, Religious Freedoms: A Community Conversation.

Assalamu ‘alaikum, peace be upon all of you.

I want to thank you all for having me here today, especially the organizers for putting together this wonderful day and program.  I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on Treaty 6 territory which is the traditional land of Indigenous peoples who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. In doing this, I want to convey my utmost respect for the dignified histories, languages and cultures of all First Peoples of Canada and reiterate that each and every one of us is a treaty person whether we arrived yesterday, are indigenous to the land, or were born here from settler-immigrant families. We all have a responsibility to uphold treaty values which include mutual respect and working to ensure we all remain here together.

I normally begin all of my lectures with treaty recognition but today it is especially important as I want to start my talk on religious freedoms by reading an excerpt from a different treaty – one written in the year 713, two years after the Muslim arrival from North Africa into what would be Al-Andalus – a Muslim polity in Europe for 750 years, and what is now known as Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tudmir was a peace treaty between ‘Abd al Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusair and Theodemir, the local ruler of an area called Murcia. The document is interesting because it counters the narrative that violent military victories are what enabled the conquest of the peninsula. In fact, it calls the entire notion of conquest into question as it suggests that the process of taking over the peninsula was gradual and piecemeal and required mutual respect and cooperation between incoming Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects. The treaty itself establishes the local religious communities as protected groups under Muslim rule, meaning a guarantee of their personal safety and allowing them to freely practice their religion in exchange for loyalty and (of course) becoming tax payers.

My point in bringing this treaty as an example is to show several things. Firstly, the idea of and anxieties about religious freedom go a lot further back into history than we think. And secondly, the very preoccupation with religious freedoms has historically been related to Muslim-Christian relations and how to navigate and negotiate our differences throughout our shared history together.

The Treaty of Tudmir is only one paragraph long, in which Abd al Aziz ibn Musa Ibn Nusair agrees not to set special conditions on the local Christians, nor harass them, nor remove them from local power. Christians would not be killed nor taken prisoner and they certainly wouldn’t be separated from their women and children (which was common practice in pre-Islamic conquests). Most importantly, the treaty notes that Christians and Jews “will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm.”

Much of this sentiment derives from the Qur’an itself, the Islamic Holy Book, believed by Muslims the world over to be the direct word of God, passed through the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) during the 7th century. Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Qur’an clearly states: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.”

According to Islam, everyone has the right to live freely by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Anyone who wants to support a church, a synagogue or a mosque must be free to do so. In this sense, freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of Islam, whether or not Muslim have been or are currently very good at implementing that.

So, if this has been a continuous preoccupation with religious freedom in Islam, being the most recent of the Abrahamic faiths, where do many of the modern problems concerning religious freedom come from then? Why are Muslims constantly in the news, particularly in secularized European and North American countries, and especially as it relates to their rights to worship, to build mosques, to pray and other rather simple aspects of Muslim life? Why are Muslim women, like me, constantly hearing about how our veils (worn freely for the sake of worshiping God through our modesty) are incompatible with things like Canadian values? When speaking of catastrophic refugee crises, why have many nations including America and at one point Canada, prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim ones because the latter seem incompatible with North American life? (leaving aside, of course, more important questions about the right to life and safety for these traumatized people fleeing terrible horror and tragedy) Why are these tensions continuously arising between Muslims and Christians? And more often and especially between Muslims and secular institutions?

The problem for me is an issue of translation and definition. Our ideas of religious freedom hinges on and differ based on how we define religion. In the verse of the Holy Qur’an that I quoted, about there being no compulsion in religion, I must note the term that God uses to refer to what we now call religion. In the original Arabic, which the Qur’an was sent down in, the term we now, in my opinion, improperly translate as religion is: Deen and this is largely where the issues stem from.

Deen is not the same thing as the current societal understanding of religion. Both of these terms have their historical geneaologies and both of them mean very different things according to those contexts. And our understanding of our terms has not been fully excavated or accurately translated. You know, academics in my circles are obsessed with defining terms because we know that defining them different ways manifests completely different understandings and social realities according to context and time. We build social worlds for ourselves based on how we define things, so it’s natural that when there is continuous issues, we would return to the terms as the root of our discrepancies.

The original Hebrew term, din, meant law or judgment and, in ancient Israel, often referred to governance and the Jewish legal system, as in beit din. In Islam, the term connotes government, law, reward, punishment, loyalty and submission. It is more accurately translated into our entire comprehensive way of life, or even more accurately, a cultural system.

This differs from the modern, especially secularized, understanding of the term religion. The term religion comes from a specifically Christian historical context but through time, has evolved beyond that and has come to relate primarily to one’s private beliefs about the “supernatural”. Because religion has come to mean what we privately believe about God, there is an assumption that we can simply keep those beliefs and our actions around them at home and the public sphere can somehow be a “neutral” space for community engagement whatever our backgrounds. Where Judaism and Islam are concerned first and foremost with practice and governing social behaviour, which is decidedly public, and we use appropriate terms that are reflective of that, the term religion in the definition of private beliefs, when applied to these systems simply doesn’t work.  It is most important to note that the assumption that the public space free of religion is EMPTY is simply a historical falsity. Just because a secular public sphere seems to be empty does not mean that it is and we all need to think critically about what cultural system is invisibly in place – what values are we taking for granted because we are continuously under the assumption that nothing is there?

A famous hadith (or historical testimony from one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him at the time he was alive) states that Muhammad said: “Deen is very easy and whoever overburdens himself with it will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshiping in the mornings, the nights.” Here, it is clear that Deen must mean a complete way of life, and indeed, in Islam there are comprehensive guidances for almost everything you can imagine, from how and when to pray to how to brush your teeth, which shoes to wear, how to treat the environment, and what conduct is appropriate for dealing with our spouses, our families, our neighbours, our children and the wider communities. While the first pillar of Islam is, indeed, our declaration of faith, that there is no God except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, our way of life does not stop there.

Because Islam encompasses every detail of how we live our lives, it means that there can’t really be a secular, religion-free public sphere how people imagine it, as long as Muslims are around. Now before anyone thinks I am arguing that Muslims cannot live in secular society (which I am not) I want to state clearly and unequivocally, that historically Muslims have lived under persecution for their religion for hundreds of years, they have done so secretly for their very survival and will do whatever it takes to maintain their way of life, even if that mean, forcing it into the private sphere. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Further, does this tension mean that Muslims do not follow local laws as some groups would improperly claim, that we instead only follow shariah and are trying to implement it locally and impose it on everyone? Of course not. Part of the guidance of our way of life is in following the leadership and rule of our local governments as long as they do not cause us to leave our spiritual path. And that spiritual path is for us alone. And if there are local laws against aspects of our way of life, as I said, we are also permitted to acquiesce to those laws, depending on the context and time.

What it does mean, and explains historically, is why Muslims and Jews and many other “religious” minorities have decidedly been the OTHER in secular historical contexts, often with catastrophic results (most notably the Holocaust and colonization). In fact, there are virtually no other religious groups in the world who define their ways of life as privitizable or somehow limited to their beliefs only. There are none. And Christian groups who focus a lot on governing social behaviour are now feeling the same pressure against their ways of life in the so-called “neutral” public sphere, despite the fact that such a concept historically originated in Christian contexts.

While this is only the beginning of a much more complex and deep discussion of religion as an entity, I do want to briefly meditate on what the way forward for religious freedom then is?  I would say, that the first place to start is in definitions and translation, and that begins with education. If Islam, Judaism and virtually all other ways of life were understood for what they are, it would become immediately clear that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere will be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. And if the truth of diversity studies enhancing our shared communities has anything to say about it, it would be that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere is also detrimental to our understanding of one another.We have to recognize that historically and presently, we are not incompatible with one another. We have coexisted for centuries. We have to stay firm that it is not an option that coexistence fails. It takes hard work and agreements, and that work begins with the work of translating how we understand our own ways of life and having others learn that too.

Now, lest someone argue that I am against secularism, I need only mention that it not secularism itself which is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings. It is the idea of a homogenized, so-called “empty” public sphere that is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings and which I demand critique of. If the public sphere was instead understood as a pluralistic and diverse space for multiple ways of life to coexist in the spirit of treaties from 1300 years ago – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Brahmanism, the Sikh way of life, many others AND secularism, respectful of one anothers’ differences –  we could move forward in a much easier manner together. That is why I personally and professionally remain committed to protecting the religious freedoms of all ways of life, even when Islam is not part of the picture.

I look forward to speaking more to these issues on the panel.

Thank you.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta and sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

During the 2015 Canadian federal election, the niqab came into central focus as a key election issue with Canadians dividing themselves among the camps of supporters and condemners. The issue reached such a ridiculous fervour that, on the advice of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, I opted to write an opinion-editorial on the issue about how it was dividing the country and we must stand together to move forward. After this article’s publication, I received an email from the Rabbanit (wife of the Rabbi), Dorit, at Beth Shalom Synagogue. She proposed that we start a Muslim-Jewish women’s dialogue circle to talk about some of the issues that plague both of our religious groups and would allow us to create a safe environment for women from both groups to ask questions, offer insights and generally get pushed out of their comfort zones in the interests of learning.

Our first meeting in January at the Synagogue was small but intimate. The few women from both sides shared their life stories and, by virtue of the fact that the meeting was taking place in the Synagogue, answered many questions about their brand of Judaism, Jewish dynamics in the city and their perspectives on some political aspects of both faiths. Some amazing connections were made, especially between myself, Nakita, and Michelle from the Jewish community. A philosopher, feminist, life coach and convert, Michelle is a tour de force who has gone on to launch Edmonton’s first women’s film festival in honour of International Women’s Day. Nakita was lucky enough to help in a small way with this effort with The Drawing Board being privileged enough to build the website and help with some public relations aspects.

Such relationships are not the only beautiful thing to come out of the group so far. In our second meeting at the MAC Rahma Mosque in February, the turnout was much higher and the Muslim and Jewish women were lucky enough to get a tour of the mosque from the brand new Imam, Dr. El Sayed Amin. The Imam is exceptionally gifted in public speaking, interreligious dialogue and intellectual pursuits so to have his full attention was a true honour for all of us. Additionally, most of the Muslim women had never had a tour of their own mosque before so it was an amazing learning opportunity for us as well. The mosque was unbelievably hospitable to us, offering us the space on a continuous basis (bi-monthly as we change on and off with the Synagogue) and having the Imam around to answer any of our more in-depth questions and read us excerpts of the Qur’an.

The second meeting’s conversation revolved around the subject of veiling and modesty in both the Muslim and Jewish traditions and the dialogue was amazing. For many participants, it was the first time for them to encounter a person of the other faith, let alone sit across from them, sharing food and life stories. Perhaps my favourite part of all was when the Jewish women joined the Muslim women in the Musalla for ‘Asr prayer, with some Jewish women actually participating in the prayer, shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim sisters. It was so beautiful, it actually brought a tear to my eye.

In the coming months, we will be discussing such important and controversial issues as conversion, terrorism, Palestine-Israel and much, much more. As our group grows and solidifies, we hope to have more public events aimed at creating a better understanding of both of our often misunderstood communities. And if we can do this together with mutual respect and kindness, we have already won the day.

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own, Nakita Valerio, has been selected as a recipient for the 2015-2016 State of Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship in Graduate Studies. After an intense competition among applicants, Nakita was announced as a winner on August 10, 2015 . The award comes with significant financial assistance which will be used to fund her studies in Edmonton and research abroad.

The tentative title of her thesis is: Remembering Al-Yehud Through the Shoah: Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Holocaust and Jewishness Among Contemporary Moroccan Muslims

A summary of her research is what follows:

The Holocnakita036aust is a provocative measure of the Muslim memory of Jews. Though it isconsidered the starting point in Critical Memory studies, there is yet to be much scholarship devoted to its memory in the Islamic world. An intimate history of relatively peaceful coexistence between Moroccan Jews and Muslims has been challenged in a comparatively short time by narratives of nationalism and diaspora, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, their economic-trade policy, the rhetoric regarding normalization of Israel, and educational protocols surrounding the constructed memory of Jews in Morocco.  My working research questions are as follows: How is the Holocaust remembered by self-identified Moroccan Muslims? How is this affected by education, politics and self-prescribed ideas about the “Islamic and Jewish religions”? How does this affect overall remembering of Jews in Morocco? These questions are situated in the context of Memory literature and are used to understand how societies reconcile multi-layered cognitive dissonance.

Alhambra-in-GranadaThe Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own, Nakita Valerio, has been selected as a recipient for the 2015 State of Kuwait Graduate Student award in Islamic Studies. After an intense competition among applicants, Nakita was announced as a winner on June 15, 2015. The award comes with significant financial assistance which will be used to fund her ethnographic and archival research in Morocco and Egypt for her thesis.

The tentative title of her thesis is: Remembering Al-Yehud Through the Shoah: Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Holocaust and Jewishness Among Contemporary Moroccan Muslims

A summary of her research is what follows:

The Holocnakita036aust is a provocative measure of the Muslim memory of Jews. Though it isconsidered the starting point in Critical Memory studies, there is yet to be much scholarship devoted to its memory in the Islamic world. An intimate history of relatively peaceful coexistence between Moroccan Jews and Muslims has been challenged in a comparatively short time by narratives of nationalism and diaspora, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, their economic-trade policy, the rhetoric regarding normalization of Israel, and educational protocols surrounding the constructed memory of Jews in Morocco.  My working research questions are as follows: How is the Holocaust remembered by self-identified Moroccan Muslims? How is this affected by education, politics and self-prescribed ideas about the “Islamic and Jewish religions”? How does this affect overall remembering of Jews in Morocco? These questions are situated in the context of Memory literature and are used to understand how societies reconcile multi-layered cognitive dissonance.