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Hope & Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar

by Monia Mazigh; Patricia Claxton and Fred A. Reed, trans.

On Sept. 26, 2002, Monia Mazigh’s life changed forever. Her husband, Maher Arar, had cut short his vacation with his family in Tunis to return to Ottawa for work, flying home via Zürich and New York. When he arrived in New York, he was apprehended by authorities and held incommunicado for a week, then flown to Jordan, and finally imprisoned and tortured in the country of his birth, Syria. 

Hope & Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar tells the story of the 12 months it took Mazigh to obtain his freedom and her subsequent struggle to clear his name. Written with the same dignity she showed while campaigning on Arar’s behalf, Mazigh’s book introduces us to a clandestine world where rumours rule and answers are difficult to pin down.  

Relying on her wits and a select group of activists and politicians, the professor turned politicized activist tenaciously navigates through a murky labyrinth of obfuscation. Throughout her ordeal, Mazigh’s two young children keep her grounded: her son proudly takes his first steps, and her daughter can’t wait for a back-to-school shopping trip. Mazigh finds solace in her little ones’ blissful ignorance when, for example, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham declared publicly that Arar was in no physical danger in Syria. 

After a year of passionate campaigning, Mazigh fully expects to hear that her husband has been sentenced to death. When the phone finally does ring, it is to let her know that he is waiting for a plane home. The next phase of the couple’s ordeal is no easier, however. Arar suffers the brutal after effects of torture, and his wife can do nothing but listen to his horror stories.

Mazigh is rigorous in recording the details of her family's ordeal: each development in the story is meticulously dated. The author relies on her notebooks, letters, e-mails, and newspaper clippings to compile her family's story up until the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into the Maher Arar Affair, and on official documents thereafter. Mazigh adds some disturbing questions to the officially sanctioned findings of the Arar inquiry. For example, she asks who was leading the disinformation campaign suggesting that Arar had trained in Afghanistan, which continued both during and after his imprisonment.

Mazigh acknowledges intense waves of emotion that threatened to overcome her efforts in writing this book. Despite this, Hope and Despair focuses on her political interventions rather than dwelling on her interior struggle, as if she requires some level of detachment in order to tell her tale. In the end, she has produced a fascinating book that sheds light on the struggle to uphold Canadian ideals of justice even when the government and its agencies fail to do the same.