Published by Herd Magazine (Ottawa) – Issue 06, pgs 34-39, Aug 2014.
Regardless of who comes next on Lisgar Street, it’s safe to say that they’re
unlikely to come as a shock for this neigbourhood.
The coexistence of a sex shop, mosque, and Christian society — all within a small radius on Lisgar Street— will likely become the subject of speculation, urban legends, and rumours for years to come.
Among these seemingly autonomous alcoves, however, Herd pulls together a collection of testimonies from the people who were there with confessions to bare.
“It’s been one of the most interesting corners of the city,” says Nick Shaw, 34, co-owner of Invisible Cinema. [Ed. note: They recently closed their doors.] Since taking over the movie rental business in
2007, Shaw says he’s observed a few interesting things about his neighbours as well as their civic ancestors.
“The window of that second floor used to be blacked out,” he says, peering through the window behind his cash register. Shaw points to the building where Venus Envy, a sex shop and bookstore, previously
occupied before moving to Bank Street in early 2014.
“It was a bondage and swingers club called Breathless [before Venus Envy took it over as office space],” he continues.
“People would come here looking for Breathless, especially because there was no signage and they showed movies or documentaries,” he chuckles.
Shaw then points to the Islam Care Centre, an aging white house that sits next door to where Venus Envy was. “[The Centre] was The Stone Angel before it became a mosque,” he explains.
“It was like a coffee house but I would only go to see live punk bands in the 90’s.”
When asked about the relationship between his neighbours, Shaw points to a narrow pathway that leads to the back entrance of the mosque where Muslim women often navigate for call to prayer.
“Sometimes we’d see people practicing with whips in the parking lot,” he hints as my imagination struggles to conceptualize the juxtaposition. Next door, The Bible House sign hangs from a building established in 1922 by The Canadian Bible Society. The main floor has been vacant since April 2013 but upstairs I find their Ministry Representative, Rob Kupe, 39.
“In my seven years here I’ve never seen anything,” he says in response to whether there’s been any tension in the neighbourhood. “Everyone has coexisted peacefully,” he continues.
“To be in this type of proximity it’s a ‘live and let live’ situation,” he states frankly.
“The stuff that’s happened under our own roof is most memorable,” he adds in what sounds like a concluding remark. Then I ask Kupe about Breathless and he laughs.
“I was eating pizza at a shop on the corner one day while reading the newspaper about a Supreme Court decision on swingers, or something to that effect,” he says, continuing to chuckle.
“The paper had the address [for Breathless] on Lisgar Street, right across from my office!” he exclaims.
“Imagine: My office is across the street from Venus Envy and there was [once] a swingers club or orgy club. That was the view from my office. And the gay village,” he adds, shaking his head in jovial disbelief.
“I think this neighbourhood is an ideal example of diversity,” he explains later, commenting on the surge of condominiums and commercial chains that continue to creep into the downtown core. “You’re losing the cultural heritage, whether that’s religion or something else.”
Together we visit the main floor of the building. It’s gutted and Kupe explains that it will become a private networking centre for Christian ministers and church pastors. [Ed. note: This was recently completed.] Once occupied by successive Christian bookstores, the main level’s interior still has writing on the walls: black stickers read “Peace, Hope, Grace, and Faith.”
One of the former shopkeepers in this space, Valerie Miner, 51, was reached by phone and takes no time recalling some of her most memorable moments:
“We had a number of customers who would go to Venus Envy, first, and then come visit us,” she says candidly.
“One man in particular, I’ll never forget,” she laughs. “He walked from Venus Envy into our store and said ‘I just want to clean my mind.’”
Miner, who worked on Lisgar Street for about seven years, believes there’s a greater power associated with the property. “In many ways, it’s holy ground. God’s work has been distributed from there for about 91 years,” says Miner.
“There are lots of beautiful stories of people coming in looking for something,” she recalls.
“People just felt the presence of the Lord when they were in the building.”
As for their neighbours across the street at the Islam Care Centre, Miner has two noteworthy
recollections: “Young men [from the Centre] would come over to get an Arabic New Testament about every three-to-four months.
“I think they were just curious,” she says.
“Many times the mosque would have a crowd, especially on Fridays,” she adds, vaguely recalling that two of her colleagues, both men, ventured over to the mosque on at least one occasion to participate “in some capacity”.
“I told them: You’re taking your life in your own hands, darling,” she laughs over the phone.
Inside Ottawa’s Venus Envy, the staff are outspoken when it comes to sex but comparatively tight-lipped about their neighbours.
“The only thing I think we’ve ever really disagreed on is garbage collection and the parking lot,” recalls Lara Purvis, former Floor Manager at Venus Envy. She recalls very little interaction between people at the mosque and Venus Envy except, perhaps, when it came to displays of courage:
“On the rare occasion we’d have a kid [from the Centre] come into the store, run around quickly and leave,” she smiles. “I think it was part of a dare.”
Making my way to the Islam Care Centre, I remove my boots once inside the front entrance and place them with other footwear neatly stowed on wooden shelves, wet from melting snow. I proceed through the prayer room and down to the basement. Sitting at a desk and surrounded by books, Sulaiman Khan, 80, is the Centre’s Correctional Counselor and Director. He greets me with a smile, gesturing towards a chair as I feel the carpet against my socks.
“We all have perceptions and should not jump to conclusions,” he says in response to my curiosity with the neighbourhood. At first we discuss the Qur’an, shifting focus to the mosque, its history in Ottawa and
later, more direct questions about women’s rights, sexual education, homosexuality, and adultery. Despite lowering my own voice on occasion, no topic seems taboo to Khan. He is patient and cautious at times – only to ensure his comments are not misinterpreted.
“Sex education is important,” he says, acknowledging that the Centre’s library is “perhaps lacking in some instances.”
“It’s the decency and the decorum that we are conscious of,” he continues.
While bringing Venus Envy into the conversation multiple times, it’s during my third visit to the Centre when Khan makes an unexpected confession:
“I went in once.”
“I had a question about the garbage [collection],” he says.
“There wasn’t anything shocking. It didn’t bother me in any way,” he says, straight-faced and matter-of-fact.
“They get full rights as good neighbours,” Khan says.
“Being a good neighbour doesn’t mean you have to be friends.”
Asked whether he knows of anyone else from his congregation taking a stroll to the sex store, Khan strokes his grey beard while leaning backwards in his chair.
“We would consider it inappropriate but we wouldn’t do anything about it. There is no
On my fourth visit to the Centre, Mohamed Hachemi Bensaci, 52, Community Development Director, sits down beside us and I think he can see I’m feeling somewhat frustrated there’s no dirty laundry to air
among these neighbours.
“This is just a place,” Bensaci explains.
“It’s Allah who chose this location,” he emphasizes, pausing to ensure I’m following
“It is also he who chooses his neighbours,” Bensaci concludes with a silent smile, as if conveying a sense of twisted humourous fate for this neighbourhood’s dynamic.
We change tune for a moment, stepping away from conversations about religion to discuss
philosophy, art, and Arabic poetry.
“The way we, and the media, present Islam is not a complete way,” says Bensaci.
“It’s not just about worship.”
“We wish people would feel more comfortable walking in but they shy away,”
“They are welcome. Just know the time of prayer [five times a day] might be
uncomfortable [for a new visitor],” says Khan.
I retrieve a prayer table from the shelf that lists different times for each day and it resembles a Periodic Table of Elements from chemistry class when I was a kid. Offering a more reliable alternative, I tell my hosts that the best way to tell if call to prayer is taking place [for a non-Muslim] is to just stop by and see how many shoes are stacked at the front door.
“I have a [mobile phone] app that keeps track,” says Omar Mahfoudhi, 30, Executive Director, who also manages the Centre’s social media and website.
Like their neighbours, the Centre also has plans for the future, including a new building that will replace the current location. When asked when that will happen, Khan responds
with “In sha’Allah,” or “God willing.”
I return to the Centre at 10am on Saturday morning to find about a dozen volunteers making 220 meals for a local food bank, Ottawa Women’s Shelter, and hand-outs to people in need.
Their coordinator, Yumna Rashid, is unaware that Venus Envy had moved.
“I hope it’s not replaced with just a parking lot,” she sighs, carrying her 18-month-old son into the front
door of the mosque.
“Paved paradise,” she asks.
“Isn’t that how the song goes?”