On September 29th, Twitter user @ThinGrayLine posted a video of 81-year-old Dorothy Marston being prevented from safely entering Mohawk College to see Maxime Bernier and David Rubin speak. While a stoic, orange-shirted man would block her way, a woman would scream “Nazi scum off our streets!” point-blank in her face, horrifying the millions of Canadians that would go on to watch the footage over the coming days.
The internet, consumed with fury, would immediately mobilize in an attempt to identify those who committed such an atrocious act against on a senior was such a clear representation for so many Canadians’ own grandmothers. And on October 2nd, the man in the orange shirt was identified as Alaa Al-Soufi. It didn’t take long for his family, proprietors of Soufi’s restaurant in Toronto, to be found.
It was on this day that Alaa’s father, Husam Al-Soufi, first heard about what happened at Mohawk College. “Before that, I did not know what antifa was…” He says, “I had not even heard of it.”
The Al-Soufi patriarch and I began speaking after he politely requested I remove a post I had made that had generated quite a bit of attention on my personal Twitter. Husam became anxious over a screenshot I had included from an older Toronto-area foodie article which revealed the name of one of his sons’ Universities. “I don’t blame you, Anna,” he said, but his fear was palpable.
He lit up when I offered to delete my post, thanking me with a little heart emoji when I offered to contact the news outlet who had published information about his son on his behalf to request that they delete or edit the article of the potentially revealing information.
While my post had been critical of the Soufi’s, and generally dismissive of the air of virulence that had emerged on both sides of their situation, speaking with Husam instilled in me a new appreciation for his family by showing me a side the media had not covered. I took the opportunity to pick Husam’s brain about what happened that day, offering him an audience that was likely full of his biggest disparagers. But only wanting to foster dialogue, Husam jumped at the opportunity.
“We just want to wake up from this nightmare,” Husam said. “I hate politics.”
After his daughter notified him about what she saw on social media, Husam says he was incredulous. “I was so ignorant about what was happening. I thought antifa was anti-fascist—[that’s] anti-Hitler, anti-terrorist. I had no idea it happened in Hamilton. I had no idea about Mr. Maxime’s speech.”
Husam says he knew his son was politically active, but that he demonstrated for causes he believed to be right. “For Hong Kong, Tibet, Venezuela … He does volunteer work, he is a sweet young man. This time he did a mistake.” After finding out about the incident at Mohawk, Husam reviewed past footage of Alaa’s demonstrations and activities, only then becoming aware that they had become physical at various points. According to his father, Alaa has been extremely ill recently, so much so that he’ll be taking time off of university to recover.
I asked Husam if Alaa knew who the woman who screamed at Dorothy Marston, and he said that his son had never met her before. He also said he and Marston’s son, Davis, have sat down, and he hopes to have the opportunity to apologize to the elderly woman in person. “I pray it will happen. And when I say pray, I usually look at a beautiful thing and make a wish. Usually, this beautiful thing is my wife.”
On freedom of speech, Husam agreed it was a fundamentally Canadian value, even going to far as to believe people had a right to be upset over how Dorothy Marston was prevented from safely entering Mohawk College.
“She is a lovely senior lady and my son blocked her way. Wearing a scary mask is not something we should accept. It is legal but immoral.”
When the conversation shifted to antifa, Husam believed they might have good goals, but the wrong methods.
“I don’t know much about them, but I will say this … Even if their intentions are to serve and protect marginalized communities, they are going about them the wrong way.” He suggested to his son that they should be giving out flyers and handing out flowers to people. Peaceful methods to win over the hearts of people, not “shouting and wearing masks.”
Husam says his decision to close the restaurant was hasty, but only in hopes of diffusing the situation. In doing so, he found himself stuck in the middle of an even worse situation.
“I thought I would give a victory to angry people, and the threats would stop coming. I was wrong.” He says, “But then people on ‘the other side’ told me I was giving up hope for newcomers. I was in the middle. I was on no one’s side!”
Currently, Soufi’s is being managed by Paramount Foods while Husam and his wife care for Alaa and their own health. Husam noted he is unsure of when he will return to his restaurant, feeling unconvinced reopening was the right decision to begin with.
“When I closed the restaurant my decision was final, but I was under so much pressure from a lot of people,” Husam says, “I felt like I didn’t want to be the one to discourage new immigrants or refugees.”
Husam says he never intended for notoriety, or to become a symbol of anything, least of all resistance towards some racist bogeyman. Through and through, he demonstrated he was a simple man who only sought to run a quaint Syrian restaurant in his new country—a country he came to as an investor immigrant, mind, not a refugee as many had wrongly claimed. The stress this situation has brought seems to have genuinely taken its toll on him.
“Canada is my home until I die,” Husam says, noting that he loves and admires Canadian values. A civil engineer, Husam says he has much larger projects he is able to pursue, but his Soufi’s was his ‘baby,’ and he had been floored by its success. “My restaurant introduced me to Canadian people. [It was] a place where we could talk and laugh. We felt at home after this restaurant. We knew people of all ethnicities, religions, and cultures.”
When I asked him if he had any final words for the article, he reiterated a sentiment he had repeated many times throughout our conversation, once before he said he forgave everyone who had said something cruel or threatening towards his family, and once more when he was reflecting on antifa:
“Love is our only hope!”