segunda-feira, julho 31, 2006


The Battle of Brick Lane...
...and the failure to support Muslim feminists against a howling reactionary mob

Brick Lane is a glorious streak of neon and curry, of clubbers and fundamentalists, of old Jewish immigrant stories and new Muslim ones, in the guts of the East End. It is my home, and over the past week I have been sharing it with a little news story – and with another small sign that free speech in Britain is slowly sandpapered down by reactionary mini-mobs.

It begins with one of the most tender and beautiful British novels I know. Monica Ali’s ‘Brick Lane’ is the almost Victorian story of one woman’s liberation. Nasneen is an eighteen year-old girl shipped over from Bangladesh to London’s Bangla-Town, to marry an obese forty year old she has never met. At first she sees the East End as “a vast dump of people rotting away under a mean strip of sky,” and she is forced to spend her days cutting off her husband’s corns and trimming his nasal hair. She is discouraged from learning English or from ever leaving the house. She has been taught to be limp and passive all her life – “we are women, what can we do?” her mother always asked. She is kept drugged by superstition, told constantly it would be a sin against God to rebel.

But slowly, Nasneen realises “she could not wait for the future to be revealed, but had to make it for herself”. She learns English. She learns to ice-skate. She has an affair with a beautiful young man. She even begins to develop a more liberal strain of Islam, rejecting the dogmatic literalism of the men around her. In the end, she lets her husband pursue the immigrants’ dream-disease – Going Home Syndrome – back to Bangladesh, while she stays here, a free woman in a free country.

When the BBC decided to make this into a film, they naturally wanted to shoot on Brick Lane itself – and the troubles began. A small number of Bengali men were enraged by Ali. A woman – a woman! – had dared to take the rest of us on an intimate tour of the Bengali community. She had even tried, in her subtle, tender way, to incite a rebellion of Muslim women, to encourage them to become Nasneems and discover the joy of being free-thinking sexual women rather than being terrorised into tethered livestock hiding in cloth-prisons. They organised demonstrations to halt the filming, to shut up this uppity bitch once and for all. Their meetings talked of burning the book and of burning her.

This weekend I nipped down to the sweetshop where Abdus Saliqh has been masterminding this campaign. He is a neat man, sitting in front of a pile of newspaper cuttings, with a camera crew waiting to one side. “I have been here 37 years. It was a dark lane when we arrived,” he says. “Through our hard work, we made Brick Lane. The National Front used to come and attack us but we built it up. We are proud to live here.”

I instinctively warm to him as he says this. But when he speaks about Monica Ali, his face contorts. “She has targeted our community to get rich!” he says. “She is saying my father jumped from his ship like a monkey, that we are dirty, we are uncivilised!” I pause in incomprehension. Where in the book does it say this? “She says it! She compares us to monkeys!” One of Ali’s characters compares people from the Syleth region of Bangladesh to monkeys. Then the novel’s most sympathetic character Nasneem rebukes him, pointing out that two of Bangladesh’s great national heroes – Colonel Osmany and Shah Jalal – came from Sylhet. Don’t you see, Saliqh, that a novelist can make a character say something she doesn’t personally believe? Do you think the Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel is a Nazi because he writes dialogue for Nazi characters like “Kill the kike”? He scoffs. “It is the same thing!” he declares, waving his hand.

Salique claims to have read the book, but he keeps referring to events and passages that don’t exist, like a scene where lice fall from a character’s hair into food. But soon we get to the real reason for this rage. “Women are not fucking around in this area,” he says. “Our women, most of them, 99 percent, respect their husbands and respect their tradition.” He shakes with anger at Ali’s challenge to this ‘natural’ order. Ali’s crime has been to challenge the supremacy of Bengali men by articulating the secret experiences of Begali women. I have lived among (and loved) British Asian communities all my life – and I can attest to its veracity. More importantly, British-Bangladeshi women are seeing it for themselves: according to the Brick Lane bookshop, thousands of women hidden behind veils are buying the Bengali language version and reading it in samizdat.

This is not new. Over the past few years, there has been a cascade of protests by ultra-conservatives within Europe’s immigrant communities trying to silence women from their own neighbourhoods who are bravely calling for change. It’s not just Monica Ali. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Bezhti was stopped by a Sikh fundamentalist mob. Fadela Amara receives constant threats for setting up the Muslim feminist organisation ‘Neither Whores Nor Doormats’. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is living under armed guard because she dared to make a film exposing the epidemic of domestic violence thumping Muslim women in the Netherlands. (The director was decapitated).

The logic of multiculturalism has made it hard for these thugs to be challenged. Multiculturalism treats immigrant communities as homogenous blocks, represented by elderly, reactionary “community spokesmen”. It has created the bizarre situation where the often-great feminist Germaine Greer has ended up siding with the patriarchal protestors as the keepers of authentic Bengali culture against the carping feminists. Yet in reality, immigrant communities are diverse, clashing cacophonies like everyone else. As the great Amarya Sen has been arguing, we should ditch the outdated idea of multiculturalism and support the progressive wings of all and any communities.

All along Brick Lane I find people who view Saliqh and his tiny band of protestors as an embarrasment. Jamal Abdul Quayam, co-owner of Taj Stores, the oldest Bengali shop on Brick Lane, calls him “a big-mouth who wants publicity,” adding, “It is uneducated people like this who stop the progress of our community.” Amzal Hussain, whose restaurant is only a few doors from Saliqh’s shop, says, “I believe in free speech. It is why I love this country, and why many Bengalis do. I would be very happy for the film to be made in my restaurant.”

But this sane Bengali majority has been ignored. The filming on Brick Lane has been stopped. Salique brags about his victory. This is only a small infringement – the film will be made elsewhere – but the pattern is yet again affirmed. Instead of holding open the institutions of a free society to support these women as they change their communities, we are allowing reactionaries to intimidate them with threats of force. Bezhti is now unstageable. Hirsi Ali has been driven from Europe.

In London, the police have begun to defend free speech only selectively, telling people under threat from foaming fundamentalist fringes that they “cannot guarantee their security”. When a Muslim man held up the Mohammed cartoons at a Free Speech rally in London earlier this year to demonstrate his support for free speech, he was actually arrested for a “public order disturbance”. When my friends at the Liberal magazine printed the cartoons, they were told by the police they were on their own. What right have the police to decide to abandon chunks of the population to fanatics? Why did they not guarantee the safe passage of camera crews on Brick Lane?

The Battle of Brick Lane has been another small deflating pin-prick for our free speech – and for some of the bravest women in Britain.
Johann Hari, The Independent-30/7/2006


At 9:06 da tarde, Blogger papalagui said...

Ando a ler o Alentejo Blue, não li o Brick Lane e não estou a gostar muito. Acho-o bastante superficial e algumas falas das personagens absolutamente incoerentes. Um destes dias faço um post sobre isso.

At 10:00 da tarde, Blogger ana said...

Pois, as perversões do multiculturalismo. É por isso que a educação básica é gratuita e universal, mas ninguém se atreve a entrar nos bairros ciganos para obrigar os pais a mandar as filhas à escola. Afinal, mantê-las analfabetas, ignorantes e dependentes dos pais e maridos para tudo é respeitar a especificidade da sua cultura.

At 11:18 da tarde, Blogger Joana said...

Eu nao li nem um nem outro, nao me posso pronunciar. Mas o que me preocupa, e ao J Hari e o proliferar das cedencias ao "multiculturalismo". Sabes que em algumas instituicoes ja nao se pode desejar boas-festas para nao ofender as sensibilidades de nao cristaos, mas em compensacao celebras municipalmente festas religiosas hindus e muculmanas (o que se diga de passagem, nao acho mal). E a treta maior e que continuas a ter 50% dos homens muculmanos com mais de 25 anos no Reino Unido desempregados,raparigas que sao mortas pela familia por recusarem casamentos arranjados e no sitio onde eu trabalho ha mais alunos portugueses a fazer doutoramento que negros-so para referir tres factos de uma lista enorme.

At 3:39 da tarde, Anonymous Anónimo said...

Hi. I am currently writing a master's degree dissertation about the importance of food to memory and identity.
I have chosen to focus on the Indian/Bengali/Bangladeshi community in London, and am wondering if you know anyone (family, friend, fellow blogger, or one of your readers) who lives in London who would be interested in speaking to or e-mailing me about this topic?
For those that you ask or those reading: I would be interested in any information/personal stories about the role that food plays in your life. The information you give to me could be anything to do with food-- that a certain recipe brings back a memory of childhood, or that you are a mum and feel it important to feed your family traditional food (or maybe you have decided to get rid of traditional cooking from your home all together), or maybe you have an opinion about the difference between the food served in curry houses and "authentic" cuisine.
I would be incredibly thankful for any stories that you have to share. Thank you so much for your time in reading this.


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