The least conventional bibliophile one could ever meet, Mohiddin claims, “Books aren’t good. They haven’t been good for a long time.”
Vikram Nijhawan, Staff Writer
“The physicality of a book is proof in a way that a URL isn’t. You can send someone a link of something you’ve written online – or you can hand them your book.”
Rashid Mohiddin, a thirty-year-old Toronto-based writer, had his first formal print publication in The Under Current, a nation-wide journal for International Development students. He was doing his B.A. at the University of Guelph at the time, and his essay discussed the notion of dependency theory as it relates to soccer.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve been blessed with curiosity,” said Mohiddin. “I’m always asking questions and looking for answers.” As a young scholar, he gravitated toward this particular postsecondary field because of his parental influence. His father, Dr. Ahmed Mohiddin, was a renowned political science professor, originally from Mombasa, Kenya; meanwhile, his Canadian mother also worked in international development.
The poster child for polemical polymaths everywhere, Mohiddin feels just as comfortable riddling off Juvenal quotes as he does discussing hip-hop music or the ethics of professional sports leagues. But his precocious nature masks his nonconformist attitude when it comes to institutions of higher learning. Four years within “the Academy”, as he refers to it, rendered him jaded. He feels the cloistered, hierarchical nature of a university education imparts the wrong message onto young minds about what it means to absorb knowledge and truly understand the world – especially for Development students like himself, who are supposedly taught to solve global issues, like income inequality and the spread of disease. Underpinning his many spheres of interest is his life-long passion for history, and how to relay it to others in a comprehensive yet subversive manner.
This inspired him to begin his independent publishing cooperative, Pressed Magazine. Mohiddin, who grew up in Ottawa, initially conceived the idea back in 2014, during a late-night “cloak-and-dagger” brainstorm meeting with his friends and soon-to-be collaborators.
They envisioned a compilation of fresh, insightful voices, combined with a traditional mode of distribution, that of print. Since then, Pressed has released five annual volumes, with a sixth one in the works. Each instalment tackles a different enlightening topic, from “An Exploration of Canada’s Long History” (using a non-settler, non-colonial perspective), to “Travel Below the Surface”, examining the implications of modern tourism in developing countries.
One of the main reasons he cites for the creation of Pressed is that “Books aren’t good. They haven’t been good in a long time. But I still love reading.” Although a voracious reader, Mohiddin questions the banality of the solely textual medium, going back to the age-old axiom of ‘a picture being worth a thousand words’. To that effect, he seeks to incorporate multimodality within his own writings. Alongside descriptive prose, his works feature hand-drawn illustrations, photography, and poetry – many of which are contributed by fellow young artists like himself.
Mohiddin believes that writing is fundamentally about delivering a message clearly, and that can take multiple forms. “If you’re a great storyteller,” he proposes, “then you’re probably a great writer, even if you’ve never written anything before.” He has sought to provide a platform for many of his friends who are also emerging creatives of various strands from all over Canada, including graduates from institutions like OCAD.
After graduating from Guelph in 2012, Mohiddin moved to Toronto, where he has lived for the past ten years working at restaurants. In doing so, he took a leaf from a very specific book – George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a memoir by the famous British author describing his early life as a server in the two titular cities. Mohiddin followed suit.
“I asked myself ‘How the hell can I claim to know anything about alleviating poverty unless I also know what it’s like to be poor and working a minimum-wage job?’ So I did.”
Over the past decade living and working in the city, Mohiddin learned new skills. Knowing little about the process of making a magazine, this initial blank slate presented an opportunity for him – which included teaching himself how to use Adobe InDesign, and to be diligent with his writing and research schedule.
Throughout his journey, he faced obstacles in trying to promote his work, which was often rejected by local bookstores. “At one point, I just put a bunch of copies of Pressed on a shelf at a Chapters store, and walked away,” he revealed with a sly grin. But now, Mohiddin has established himself across several branches of Book City in Toronto, as well as Octopus Books in Ottawa, among other stores.
Mohiddin’s two employers, the restaurants DROM Taberna and La Palette, have both been pillars of support in promoting his publications. DROM, a Bohemian world music bar right in the heart of downtown, is what the young author considers an exceptional example of a “third space” – a term in sociology referring to a common cultural gathering place that is not home or work-related, but necessary for fostering inter-societal connections and shared values. In this case, those shared values are flourishing multiculturalism and urban creativity.
He sold out all copies of “To Serve and to Protect”, his booklet critiquing the history of discriminatory policing in North America and Britain, at the trendy Queen Street bistro La Palette. Mohiddin released this back in the summer of 2020, coinciding with the Black Lives Matter protests which surged across the world. The success of “To Serve and to Protect” was a delightful surprise for him given the pandemic, which restricted any indoor get-together or launch party, and subsequently led to a lack of marketing for the project.
“It’s the first time I ever had to reprint my books,” he proudly recalled.
In fitting contrarian fashion, this self-described “assiduous historian” breaks the first of many academic conventions, which U of T students more than most know all too well. “Whenever I’m starting any book, my first stop is the Wikipedia page on the topic,” Mohiddin shared. He also frequently cites John Green’s ‘Crash Course: World History’ videos on YouTube, as well as various documentaries and books.
“My job as a historian is to make the connections between things, and bring disparate pieces of information together into a coherent product. I honestly think what I do with books is the same thing John Green does with ‘Crash Course’.”
At the moment, unable to work due to the COVID-19-induced lockdown, Mohiddin has more time to focus on his writing. His upcoming book will address the pandemic’s impact on the hospitality and service industries, allowing him to reflect on his own recent experiences.
Mohiddin has plenty of other percolating ideas for future publications. For instance, he plans to chronicle a history of pre- and postcolonial East Africa, using the lens of his father’s life and career. This upcoming project, much like the policing booklet, will be disseminated through his second initiative: DROM Publications. He co-founded this cooperative with his friend Celeste Wilde, borrowing the scene of the beloved titular restaurant. In addition, Mohiddin is in the midst of writing a history of labour, stretching back to the earliest stages of human civilization – an ambitious task that he concedes will prove to be quite the arduous labour itself.
The range of topics he covers is vast, but the overall guiding principle for his endeavours is to learn and better understand pressing societal issues by writing about them.
“Because isn’t it far more interesting to write about a problem than to just talk or complain about it?” Mohiddin posed rhetorically. A lesson we can all learn, indeed.