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Q&A with Azmi Haq, the Conversation Starter

When Azmi Haq arrived in Toronto from Lahore, Pakistan, he says he first missed people (Lahore has 6.3 million while Toronto has 2.5 million) and then conversation. "I grew up in the east, where the art of conversation is still alive," explains Haq, who worked as the federal secretary for Pakistan's late Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

In order to overcome this settlement issue and get Torontonians talking, he started a salon series in his home. It's been two years since the inaugural Salon Camden, and Haq has hosted an array of prominent thinkers -- from diplomats and journalists to musicians, filmmakers, and even architects -- who come and discuss the day's hot-button issues with locals, always over food and wine.

Just after a trip to Abu Dhabi, where he presided over his first international salon (there are also upcoming events planned for Lahore and Tokyo), Haq paused from his work in business development and consulting to talk about his own immigrant experience, how Torontonian politeness sometimes ruins conversation, and offer suggestions for improving the settlement experience for new arrivals.

Julia Belluz: Can you describe a recent salon?

Azmi Haq: In March, we hosted a salon about the Afghanistan/Pakistan scenario. We had the former UN major official in Afghanistan, Christopher Alexander, and his wife Hedvig Boserup, an eminent scholar and expert on Afghanistan. We talked about what will happen after 2011, once all the foreign forces leave. I would say it was one of the most passionate discussions because we Canadians have buried more than 140 sons and daughters and a lot of us aren't sure why we are there.

What do you hope to achieve with the salon series?

All salons are not only about the point of view of the speaker, but there are many points of view on the table. That's the beauty of the salon. There's no right or wrong view. It's a place for discussion. For example, Christopher's view was that we're in Afghanistan for the right reasons. The Taliban regime provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda attacked the western hemisphere, so then the world united to get rid of the Taliban. But there remains confusion. So in the salon, we could talk about it. Are we nation building? Are we bringing democracy to this country? I thought the conversation was enlightening.

You've delved into an array of subjects at your events: journalist Christopher Hume talked about design in Canadian cities; filmmaker Michelle Mama on her documentary about the lives of Kurdish women; mayoral candidate George Smitherman discussed the province's new green energy economy. How do you pick your topics?

We've got a core team of volunteers who have come in with fantastic input, and suggest subjects. Or we come across someone who has expressed a desire to speak. The matter has to hit our hearts. The salon is my home, so let's just call it my dinner party. Naturally, in order to be an honest host, the subject has to be important to my core existence.

What do your guests bring to these soir�es?

A willingness to share ideas, and the ancient salon tradition of bringing a bottle of wine is still there. I arrange the food. If I have time, I like to cook. The idea is to break bread together.

You said that when you came to Toronto from Lahore, you were hungry for the kinds of conversations you used to have at home. What do you think holds people in this city back from good conversation?

At the end of the day, all people like to connect. But I think people have become more than reasonably conscious of not upsetting others. On the surface, we have developed a very kind and comforting society, but deep down it has come at a price. We have stopped calling a land mine when we see it. We have become so engrossed in sugar coating everything. I think people are afraid to say 'no' or 'I don't agree with you.'

You've done studies for the Rotman School of Management (PDF) about unlocking the potential of migrant communities in Toronto. Any findings you'd like to share?

We now absorb more than 340 people everyday who will call Toronto home. That's equivalent to a ten-storey residential building. That's huge, like a small city. So our space is changing quickly, and I feel very fortunate that I am here at this point.

As a relatively new arrival, what was the most difficult part of the immigrant experience for you?

The easiest part is the physical aspect of immigration. You board a flight from point A to B and you're there. But then there's emotional immigration. What do you call home? You've left your family, friends, and memories behind. That's really painful. First generation immigrants pay a huge price.

What would help to ease the resettlement experience for migrants?

First and foremost, it's about job opportunities. As a polity that absorbs as many people as we do, we need to be sensible about recognizing foreign-trained people. We need to fast track those designations or retrain people more quickly and get them into job streams because I think not doing that causes long-term resentment. Not only for the first generation but even for second-generation immigrants. The second thing is dealing with infrastructure. The quality of infrastructure across the city needs to be consistent.

How did you find establishing a career here in Toronto?

I was fortunate because I had done a lot of consulting work at a high level. I came here by my midlife crisis and decided to take two years off to write. I worked on screenplays and television shows. Then I worked in consulting. I also worked for the then health minister, George Smitherman, as chief of strategy.

Tell me about your next salon?

On Wednesday May 5th, we'll host William Thorsell (director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum) on the plight of the physical city. Dinner will be followed by a Q&A. I don't want it to be just a dinner party. I want us to go to the next level and share some real thoughts with each other.

Julia Belluz is a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor, and researcher.

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