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How an Arab comedy troupe helped me survive Montreal

Abjad Howse, an artists’ collective, was a breath of fresh air for newcomers struggling to find their purpose in the city

By: /
8 March, 2022
Elias performing during Manshar Ghassil, Stand up Covidy Show, in Toronto, Nov 2021.

“I will tell you a secret you need to keep for yourselves. We had presidential elections in Syria during COVID-19,” I whispered into the microphone. The audience cracked up. I wasn’t sure if they were laughing at the fact that I was telling a secret on stage to 50 people, or because Syria had presidential elections.

I am a Syrian from Aleppo. I left Syria shortly after the revolution, to do my master’s degree, to establish the NGO I worked at in Lebanon, and to avoid witnessing this comedy show called “presidential elections,” even though it made for good material for my stand-up routine. I started doing stand up in Montreal, something I would have never imagined doing back in the day as a pharmacist, or even afterwards, when I switched careers to humanitarian aid and development, the subject of my studies in the UK. 

The transition from the pharmacist I was, to the stand-up comedian I am exploring today, had me pass through the Lebanese grinder at first before taking the stage in Montreal.

My journey from Aleppo to Beirut and then Montreal was somewhat smooth, as I had applied for immigration back in 2010. However, the social and emotional journey was an entirely different story. Montreal was cold, and I don’t just mean the weather. Although I had a lot of relatives and childhood friends who were living in this city, I felt lonely. Life in the city felt nothing like the life I had during my stay and work in Beirut. Calendars and daily agendas control all aspects of life, leaving barely any space for spontaneity. I spent days and nights wondering if that was it. If I had to learn to find warmth away from the people I belong to, and the causes I believe in.  

It wasn’t until I attended that event – accidentally – on a very cold Valentine’s night in 2019, that I perceived the outline of the life I wanted for myself in this very cold city, Montreal.

It took more than four years after my landing at Trudeau International Airport to meet them, to meet my future self, one that could move on beyond the memories of a so-called home.

It was an Open Mic event. I was supposed to go with a friend who canceled at the last moment. I am so grateful that I went, nevertheless.

It started with an MC making jokes in Arabic for a mostly Arab audience, laughing with no censorship at jokes that touch upon some of the taboos of our embattled region, in a very smart, naughty, and elegant way. I knew later that his name was Eli, and that he was a Lebanese filmmaker. 

Another Lebanese artist, Johnny, followed him. He was the co-founder of Abjad Howse. He introduced the “collective of progressive Arab [as in Arabic speaking] artists and art lovers who accept differences in their various forms, and are constantly exploring diverse ways to learn about the self and the other.” 

The name, “Abjad Howse,” a play on the word “Alphabet” in Arabic with a twist that replaced the original word “Hawwaze” with “Howse” – which sounds like the English word “house” but incorporates an Arabic punctuation, called the “shaddeh.” It’s a bit complicated.

Several performers took the stage at the Open Mic, a safe space for them to introduce their art. A Lebanese woman sang an original melody of hers about immigration accompanied by a francophone guitarist (another immigrant from Latin America); a Syrian woman read a text she wrote in Arabic about longing; a Lebanese young woman told her coming out story as a lesbian; a Moroccan man played the Oud and performed a love song by Kazem al-Saher (an Iraqi pop star) for his Valentine’s date; a Lebanese stand-up comedian who made jokes about BDSM, in front of an audience appeared to be partly religious, at least according to the symbols they wore. Her name was Sandy, and she became my best friend in this cold city.

A whole new world opened up before my eyes that day, behind the Open Mic. The vibrating energy in that small cafe bar resonated throughout my whole body. Everything felt so familiar though the faces were totally new to me. It felt so familiar and yet so fresh. It felt like the world I knew in Lebanon – a piece from home in this cold city. 

That event with Abjad Howse was not my first attempt to find a cultural space to express my lost immigrant self in this very cold city. In 2017, I joined a Quebecer playback theater group – an improvised form of theater that I used to practice in Lebanon – but the causes and struggles were so divergent. I felt alienated from the stories of the other members and felt mine were too heavy on them. So I left.

Two years later, and just after that Valentine Open Mic, I became an active member of Abjad Howse. It was a very smooth induction. I performed in two Open Mics, singing in one and experimenting with stand-up in the other. I joined them in a few social activities. Later, I joined the board. It was more than just joining a “collective of progressive Arab artists in Montreal,” it felt like moving in with a new family.

As per its mission statement, Abjad Howse “is an open and safe cultural space that brings together Arab-Canadian communities and their friends to connect, experience and express our different beliefs.” I met beautiful people from all backgrounds through our different activities.

Finally, I have a community that I belong to, which belongs specifically to this, not that, cold city. I finally relate to the stories, struggles, dreams, and nostalgia of people I share values with here. The community of Abjad.

After the expansion of the board that year, several new activities were included under the umbrella of Abjad beside the Open Mic. I had the chance to explore new forms of art with the support, trust and encouragement of my fellow artists. 

It took more than four years after my landing at Trudeau International Airport to meet them, to meet my future self, one that could move on beyond the memories of a so-called home.

In the Haram Party (haram means forbidden in Arabic), I played Arabic DJ for the first time in my life for a mixed audience of people longing to lose themselves on the dance floor to music they used to hear before while hiding their true selves, identities, and sexual orientations. But in the Haram Party, nothing is Haram. We remain true to our roots and value the creation of art in the Arabic language. “We take art as a way to express our ever-changing identities and expand our understanding of Canadian society and the world,” as our manifesto states. More than 200 people showed up at each of our events, some of whom were shaking off with the rhythm of the music months or even years of loneliness in Montreal, just like me. I had the privilege to be mixing the music and setting the mood.

In the Baklawa Show, an Arabic musical with a barebones storyline, I sang along with others a collection of new and old songs. My repertoire was mostly taken from old anime cartoon series that I grew up watching. We performed at Concordia University theater, bringing our culture to this edifice. Families, friends and strangers came to watch us on stage, a new family of people who had been unknown to each other.

Then Manshar Ghassil was born. A stand-up comedy group that performs in Arabic, one of the first of its kind in North America, bringing together comedians from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Syria. I was one of those that created the group. We had the chance to perform a few times before COVID-19 hit, then we resumed our shows when the restrictions loosened up a bit last summer. Manshar Ghaseel, which means a “wash rack,” is a platform to address issues that concern immigrants in Canada and in their home countries. “We believe that art and politics are closely intertwined. We are concerned with what is happening around us in the world and believe that art is the cornerstone of challenging norms in our societies,” according to our manifesto.

We talked about COVID-19, racism in Canada, politics in the Arab world, the immigration experience, sex and dating, death, motherhood and social media. We spoke about everything that concerns us, and the people watching were either triggered or laughing. Our dreams in Manshar are much bigger than what we can imagine today.

Abjad was not only a refuge for me. It was a new starting point to explore, experiment, and express myself as I know it, as it grows clearer. It was thanks to Abajd, and my people in Abjad that Montreal felt warm for the first time, and with it my life today.

The punchline for my joke about the presidential elections was this: “Those presidential elections were just like any other premium porn movie. Regardless of the story’s twists, we all know the ending.” 

“That was my time, thank you for coming,” I said.

I leave the stage, the show continues, but I don’t know how it all ends. The ending is yet to be written.

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