Maher Arar’s mind cannot forget

Arar’s body has recovered, but the memories of his torture persist

Blair Gable/Maclean’s

This article was originally published on Sept. 8, 2011

It doesn’t take much to carry Maher Arar back to the place he least wants to be. The sight of a mustachioed policeman, any sort of filthy smell, or even the sound of a crying baby has the power to transport him to that tomb-like prison cell. Nine years on, his body has recovered from the beatings the Syrian Mukhabarat inflicted with their fists and thick strips of cable, but the psychological scars of his rendition, imprisonment and torture persist. It is worse when he travels. “When I take the plane, I’m always tense and nervous,” he says. “It just triggers a fear in me that I might be kidnapped again.”

Sept. 26, 2002, was the day U.S. authorities detained him at New York’s J.F.K. airport, as he was heading home to Ottawa from an extended family stay in Tunisia. Oct. 8 was the night he was hustled on to a CIA-leased private jet and flown to Jordan, then driven—shackled and blindfolded—to the border of his native Syria. It was early April 2003, when he next felt daylight, allowed to roam a prison courtyard for a few minutes. Freedom—and a flight back to Canada, his wife and two young children—finally came that Oct. 5.

There’s no doubt, however, of when everything really did change for the 41-year-old telecommunications engineer. On the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks, Arar was in San Diego, Calif., on business for a Boston-based client. The sun wasn’t even up when the phone in his hotel room rang. It was his friend and colleague David Hilf telling him about terrorists hitting the World Trade Center. At first, Arar thought it was a prank—he and Hilf, who is Jewish, spent a lot of their time on the road joking about their odd-couple alliance. When he was finally convinced to turn on the TV, Arar was devastated by what he saw. One of his first thoughts was of the inevitable anti-Muslim backlash. He called his wife, Monia, then pregnant with their second child, in Ottawa and warned her not to leave the house. “She’s visible. She wears a head scarf,” he says. “There might have been some crazy people trying to get revenge.”

Within a few weeks, he himself had become a target, swept up in the international post-9/11 security scramble. An RCMP-led task force, Project A-O Canada, was probing another Syrian-born Ottawa engineer, Abdullah Almalki, for suspected terrorist links. Circumstance—the two men were acquaintances and Arar had once named Almalki as an “emergency contact” on a townhouse rental application—became conspiracy. Soon Canadian Border Services agents were hassling Arar at the airport, snooping through his computer, and police were knocking on his door. Information on both men—incomplete, speculative, and made up—was passed on to the FBI, and eventually other foreign intelligence agencies. The next time they met was in a Syrian jail in September 2003—Almalki was seized for questioning when he returned to Damascus to visit family in April 2002—where they compared notes on the tortures they were enduring.

A public inquiry in 2006 officially cleared Arar of any wrongdoing, winning him an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and $11.5 million in compensation for the misdeeds of the RCMP and other Canadian authorities. (Almalki, and two other Canadians who were also detained and tortured by the Syrians, were similarly found to be victims of dubious intelligence in a 2008 judicial probe.) But to this day, the suspicion lingers. “My name has been associated with terrorism, and whether I like it or not, it’s a lifelong experience,” says Arar. The questions, like the flashbacks, have never gone away. Ten years after Sept. 11, Maher Arar still finds himself undergoing regular interrogations about his past, present and future. “At least,” he says, smiling at a visiting reporter, “you’re doing the interview without threats.”

The fascination with computers started when he was 10, although it took a couple of years to cajole his father into purchasing one: a primitive and by then hopelessly outdated Sinclair that hooked up to the TV set. The Arars, who owned a fabric store, were middle class by Syrian standards, but that didn’t leave much for luxuries. Maher, the youngest of seven children, was the first family member to make it to university.

In 1987, he and his parents left Damascus, joining his eldest brother in Montreal. (All the siblings now live in Canada—four brothers in Montreal, and a brother and sister in Toronto.) The dream was to study engineering—something that the lack of money, and five years of mandatory military service, would make almost impossible back home.

It was a difficult transition for the 17-year-old, struggling to adapt to school in French, his third language. The stakes in Canada were somehow higher, with lots of family pressure to study, and a financial imperative to work. Arar spent what little free time he had those first years—still the pre-Internet age—writing letters to the many friends he had left behind. It was better by the time he entered McGill to study computer engineering in 1991, the same year he became a Canadian citizen. He met Monia Mazigh, a recent immigrant from Tunisia, through a mutual friend. They married in 1994.

Arar went on to do a master’s in telecommunications at the Université du Québec. After graduation in 1997, his background in software and wireless, as well as his language skills, put him in demand in the workforce. The couple moved to Ottawa, then Boston for a time, eventually returning to Canada, where he set himself up as a consultant. Looking back on it now, through the prism of 9/11, Arar realizes how it must have looked: a computer-savvy engineer who travelled a lot, and was a devout Muslim. “It’s scary. Their profile of a terrorist, it fits me 100 per cent,” he says. The authorities, on edge for the next plot, were well within their rights to be suspicious, even to pull him in for questioning, he says, “but it became tunnel vision. They interpreted everything I did in their own way.” And then they contracted out the dirty work.

Being the poster boy for torture—Amnesty International’s American website even has a downloadable paper airplane with his face on it, meant to serve as an airborne call for a U.S. government apology—doesn’t sit easily with him. A few months ago in Kelowna, B.C., he presented a paper about his recently completed Ph.D. thesis on multiple-input-multiple-output wireless communications. The questions from the audience were about his incarceration. “Sometimes you just want to move on with your life,” he says.

However, what happened to him is now central to whom he has become. When we meet in Ottawa, Arar chooses the safe ground of Amnesty’s local office, rather than his home or workplace. He’s chatty and surprisingly chipper, smiling and laughing frequently. But there’s an undercurrent of nervousness, and a palpable desire not to be misunderstood. One of the first things out of his mouth is an explanation for his current limp: a soccer injury, rather than an unwelcome Syrian souvenir. Throughout our conversation, his hands remain clasped on the table in front of him, as if invisibly cuffed together.

As the years have passed, his life has become more settled. The fear and anxiety—initially so debilitating that he couldn’t make the simplest choice, or even find the confidence to pay a bill online—are largely under control. The flashbacks have become less frequent. Talking about his experiences is still draining (he spends days psyching himself up for interviews) but also cathartic. He gave up looking for a permanent job a while ago, after finding the continued rejection too hard to take. These days, he devotes much of his energy to Prism, an online magazine monitoring security practices, that he founded in 2009.

Arar has considered leaving Canada for a fresh start, perhaps in the Gulf states, but feels like his family would suffer. Monia, an economist by trade, recently took a job with the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Daughter Barâa, now 14, loves her school and is a keen swimmer. And his nine-year-old son Houd, a big fan of the Vancouver Canucks, has just started playing hockey.

And despite the complicity of Canadian authorities in his deportation and torture, this country long ago became his home. Since the 2006 inquiry made him a widely recognized figure, he has been both heartened and amazed by the outpouring of sympathy from his fellow citizens. People routinely stop Arar in the streets to shake his hand and add a personal apology for what he has endured. Not so long ago, out for dinner with friends at an Ottawa restaurant, he asked for the bill, only to find that the table’s tab had been covered by an anonymous patron. He sees a role for himself in upholding national values like freedom of expression, due process and government accountability—and as an advocate for those who find themselves similarly under the shadow of suspicion. “I have nothing against the people, I have something against the system,” he says. “Even now the pendulum is not balanced.” To the best of his knowledge, his own name remains on U.S. and international no-fly lists. (His sole trip abroad since returning to Canada was a 2006 trip to Brussels to testify about his rendition before a committee of the European Parliament.)

A decade on, Maher Arar is not the man he was before the events of Sept. 11, 2001. “The fact that I walk, talk and smile, should not deceive people from the fact that I am internally bruised.” But neither is he the victim who returned home broken two years later. He and his lawyers took on Canada’s security system and brought it to heel, winning an apology, compensation, and the eventual resignation of Giuliano Zaccardelli, the commissioner of the RCMP—all are measures of comfort and fairness in a world that still often tilts toward fear.“I’m in a much better position than the people who have had no justice at all,” he says.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.