I'm a biracial Muslim woman in the beer industry. I live in the space between your expectations
The question, ‘are you even allowed to do this’ has followed me everywhere
This First Person article is the experience of Rozina Darvesh, who is a co-owner of a brewery and lives in Dartmouth, N.S. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I cracked open a can of my favourite small-batch beer, poured the creamy golden liquid into a chilled glass and sat down with someone close to me to share my plan to open a brewery. And that's when I was asked the question I've been most self-conscious about ever since I decided to leave my career as a speech language pathologist.
"Are you even allowed to do this?"
It's a question that has followed me throughout my life. Not because I had a young family, student debt, was leaving a career I enjoyed, or the economic risk of starting a business with upfront costs. I was asked this question because I am Muslim, and in Islam, alcohol is considered taboo. But I would say how I became the co-owner of a brewery in Nova Scotia and how I view my place in this male-dominated industry is shaped by so much more than my faith.
My Fredericton-born mom is half-Czech and half-Irish. My Czech grandfather's family were prominent owners of a flour mill and pudding factory outside of Prague. Dědeček (my grandfather) came to Canada in 1950, met my grandmother and had three children. He was a chemistry professor and my grandmother (Noni) was an engineer, and they threw epic parties, where martinis, wine and beer would flow. Of course I didn't get to sample the booze as a kid, but I ate my fill of aspics, schnitzels, elaborate desserts, beef tongue, and potato dumplings. Theirs was a place to gather and celebrate, and did they ever know how to throw a party.
It couldn't be more different from the other side of my family's approach to alcohol. My father was born in Bukoba, Tanzania, in an Ismaili Muslim Gujarati family. Dadima (my grandma) and Dadabapa (my grandpa) were shop owners who sold hardware supplies, food and household goods. Though my dadabapa was religious and would never partake in any substance use, he had a nose for sniffing out the best tobacco lots, which he also sold in his shops. Eventually my dad moved to Canada to pursue a university education, where he met my mom, and they fell in love while they studied to become chemists. The chemistry was real!
I was born in New Brunswick in 1983.
In so many ways, my parents paved the way for my sister and I to follow our own paths — from our careers to who we chose to marry and how we practice our faith. They made bridging their cultural differences look effortless to us as kids, but, of course, as an adult I can see it was not without challenges. People questioned whether my parents could make their union work and we dealt with stares and comments as a family. Truthfully, it was confusing growing up. My way of coping was not to talk about our family background, culture and faith with anyone outside of our family.
My childhood was peppered with a mix of parties where alcohol either played a larger role or no role at all. Mom's side of the family would gather each summer and roast a whole goat on the beach at Grand Lake and drink the night away. This was in contrast to so many family celebrations with my dad's family, where we'd party just as much, but with samosas, coke, peanuts, dhokra, biryani, telling stories late into the night and maybe breaking out into a little song and dandiya-raas here and there.
As an adult, I have wondered if being a Muslim and drinking alcohol were at odds for me personally. But I also know I am not alone in all of these feelings. Today, the more I talk about our family background, culture and faith, the more I realize that many other people are asking themselves similar questions.
And sometimes we put together the pieces of our lives in unexpected ways. On a trip to Prague with my now-husband Peter, I remember trying the first beer I ever liked. I wish I knew what made it taste special; it was a stellar dark beer. Fast forward several years, Peter had become an avid homebrewer and an MBA graduate, so he suggested he might want to open a brewery. This sparked something in me — as a team we could combine his hobby in brewing and business acumen with my other degree in food science. Maybe starting our own business wasn't such a strange idea after all.
It was easy to get Dědeček on board (Noni passed away before we opened). Beer, grain and business ran deep on the Czech side of the family, and we spoke of these common threads so often. Dadima and Dadabapa were equally proud of us starting a business, but I purposefully avoided discussing the alcohol aspects of the business with them. Did they really know what we did? Would they be ashamed of who I had become?
One day, my dad sat down with them in their kitchen, drinking chai and eating chevdo. He spoke in a mix of Gujarati, Swahili and English. He explained all the ins and outs of our business to them, including so much of the science behind beer making. I was shocked.I didn't know my dad was planning on divulging the details of my career choice, but perhaps it was a desire to let them know that I shared their interest in running a family-owned business just as they had. Maybe he wanted them to know that I had a good job. Maybe my dad was feeling proud of my accomplishments. Perhaps it was all of the above.
It's quite possible my jaw was wide open staring at him from across the room for the entire 10 minutes (or what felt like 10 years) this conversation went on. My heart sank at what my grandparents might say. But I misjudged their reaction. They were supportive and proud, and though I would never expect them to partake in any of our drinks, they understood the combination of science, business and community that was driving Peter and me. I'm so fortunate they understood that there was more than one way for their grandchild to be a Muslim woman forging a career in a field she was passionate about.
Today, our brewery makes saffron and cardamom-spiced ale, as well as a ginger and jaggery ale, which we serve with chaat masala fries and chicken sandwiches with raita and hot sauce. It represents all the nuances of my identity: Czech, Irish, Gujarati, Canadian and Muslim.
My experience in the beer industry over the past decade has shown me repeatedly what it feels like to live in the space in-between expectations.
"Oh, you're Muslim. Well you must not be that devout, because you produce alcohol for a living."
"Oh you're Gujurati. That's weird. Isn't Gujarat a dry state?"
"Oh, you're Czech and Irish? I guess that's where you get your interest in beer, but keep the Indian flavours to the Indian people, OK?"
The list goes on, and I haven't even mentioned commentary on being a female brewery owner. I've certainly broken down more than once at being cut down for "not being enough" of any of the parts of me that just inherently are who I am everyday.
But I've also realized that embracing life in the space in between expectations can be such a rich experience. It's confusing, sometimes full of self-doubt, but then I round out to a feeling of hope. It's exciting to think that people are more than what you assume about them, and people are, for sure, more than just one thing.
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