Bassem Hafez admits he’s a controversial figure in Calgary’s Egyptian community.
“I drink, I’m an atheist, I’m on the board of a LGBTQ+ rights organization, and I make fun of every single thing from the religious establishment and the army – even the country!” he explains. “I challenge any value that puts pressure on us.”
Indeed, Hafez is a hard man to categorize, but that’s what makes him an important figure and connector of so many disparate parts of the community.
To put it simply, Hafez has an incredible amount of activism and social work on his resume. To name a few: he’s a translator and interpreter for Immigrant Services Calgary; the co-founder and ex-president of the Calgary Egyptian Association; a drama club facilitator for Inn from the Cold, a member of the United Nations Association in Canada, a volunteer for Green Calgary, a volunteer for the crisis line at the Distress Centre in Calgary and he’s a Mount Royal University general education professor.
His love for social work started with the injustices that took place within his own home in Egypt. Growing up in a privileged household, Hafez says he was raised in an environment that never stepped outside boundaries.
“I realized I was living in a bubble, and I think [my family] got used to it, and embraced it,” he says. His family had great status, money and success; they were happy being cut off from the realities of the world. But Hafez wasn’t interested – “I refused that,” he says.
Hafez remembers his teenage years as being fraught with tension and conflict with his father.
“We had lots of fights; he broke my first guitar, and tried to cut my hair, and would shame me and disgrace me in front the family.”
Hafez has long, thick, wavy black hair with streaks of gray that reaches the arch of his back, always tied back into a ponytail, and accompanied by a dark, peppered beard. It’s a look he’s been rocking since he discovered the power of heavy metal in his youth, despite it being frowned upon in Egypt.
In 1997 the Egyptian state had a crackdown on heavy metal artists and activists; claiming it promoted Satanism, atheism and homosexuality.
“It was so bad that the Egyptian Pope and the Sheikh came on TV … they called for a hanging of the kids who listen to ‘the music of the devil.’”
Hafez says heavy metal stood for the unhappy youth of Egypt who wanted to see change from those in power. The younger generation disagreed with the conservative values that were forced upon them. Their revolution began through heavy metal, but became a movement through the Internet.
Hafez was able to reach out to people through blogging, slowly building a community of like-minded people. He had a document called the “Myth of Satanism” that spoke out against the word of the government and misconceptions of heavy metal. He began networking and soon started what became his life passion; activism.
After years of social work and fighting the inequality within his community, Hafez decided he had enough of the “suffocating environment” and wanted a change. He made the move to Canada to get his PhD in political science at the U of C, even though post-secondary wasn’t something he saw for himself.
“I wanted to be a taxi driver; I thought it would be interesting! People always talk to you, and tell you stories … But my parents forced me ‘you should be an engineer like dad or a pharmacist like mama.’”
Once he settled in Calgary with his wife, Hafez found out about Calgary Outlink — a support centre for all gender and sexually diverse people — through a friend whose kids went to the same school as his twins.
But Calgary Outlink was facing some allegations of racism on the board at the time. “It exploded from the inside,” says Hafez.
After the turmoil, “the few remaining believers in Calgary Outlink” decided to resurrect it.
That’s where Hafez came in. “I like taking failing cases. I wanted to make it happen and frankly, it was the right time to explode after 35 years of existence. It needed a new structure.”
Hafez now sits as a board member with Calgary Outlink.
“The board is very much homogenous, very much dedicated — we are doing much better,” he says since its resurrection.
But he also acknowledges that a man from Egypt, coming from a Muslim background, working for a LGBTQ+ centre isn’t the most common thing. Especially for someone like Hafez, who is very connected to the Egyptian community in Calgary.
Hafez works hands-on with refugees and newcomers coming into our city — translating, offering resources and making sure they know they have a community of people to fall back on. So even if you had personal differences with him, you needed him.
“I feel confident when he’s around. I feel secure — he’s dependable” says Karim Kadry, a friend of Hafez’s for about five years.
Verginia Ghobrial-Sib, another one of Hafez’s close friends, who is a part of the Calgary Egyptian Association, agrees. “Bassem has affected my life greatly … you know when you have someone that gives you a different way of seeing stuff … he just gives you a new perspective and you start looking at things in your life differently.”
Through all the social work and constant battles against discrimination, Hafez finds balance in the chaos by continuously spreading tolerance and acceptance of differences.
“People need to know that who they are is enough,” he says softly. His small framed glasses popped up on his cheeks as he cracked a smile.
“I need to write ‘I am enough’ here,” he says while pointing at his forearm, touching the area he wants to get tattooed in order to have a constant reminder of the message he wants to spread to others and himself.
“I’m convinced I have to do it. Why would I feel the shame that sometimes I’m not; I am enough.”
Editor: Jamie McNamara | email@example.com