BY: Shahzad Sheikh
When I was growing up in Islington in the 1970s, my brown skin steadily thickening in response to regular racist abuse of some kind or another, I was always inwardly overly ecstatic whenever I had the rather rare opportunity to interact with another brown person (who was not a relative or family friend). ‘Brother from another mother!’ my inner voice would cry out in barely restrained rejoice.
It’s not that I didn’t have white friends, it’s just that an unspoken bond, an understanding that need not be articulated, and an inherent sense of camaraderie would pre-exist with those sporting likewise skins of shade or indeed any sort of minority community status. You feel me, right bro?
There was a natural psychosocial gravitational pull, one that overrode significantly any inconsequential considerations such as creed, culture, class, religion, language or nation of parental origin. As far as I, and I’d like to think my peers at the time, were concerned, that was all meaningless minutiae.
After all, back then Asians dared not assert any form of cultural identity too flagrantly in public. Hence why some of us are bereft of a swathe of native attributes: fluency in a mother tongue, ability to rock a shalwar kameez with easy swagger, and a preference for biryani rather than burgers – guilty, guilty and very guilty. Coconut? Maybe a little.
However, during the several decades intervening, the next generation found its bravado, rediscovered its confidence and made the world aware of its multicultural voice – bombastic and melodic. You could go to a Mela, down a torrent of pani-puris and bounce to bhangra till your arms felt they would fall off – right in the middle of London. Times were changing, humanity was evolving, peace was prevailing.
Or so it had seemed. Sadly, the idealistic vistas of a diverse euphoric humanity gaily prancing along in hand-holding harmony, celebrating rather than deprecating the multitude of differences that inevitably and inherently abound in a multicultural environment, didn’t last long. The rise of the far right, the march of the malevolent and the insidiousness of the insecure has not only attempted, but indeed successfully accomplished a destructive divisiveness that we all vainly hoped had become inconceivable.
What’s worst, is that this rhetoric of repulsion has taken hold not just between colours, cultures and communities, but at the very core within them – pitting brown against brown, like against like. Like a vulgar virus ripping apart our happy homogeneity.
Depressingly it doesn’t take much. A wicked turn of phrase, a devious stirring of ancient animosities and suddenly you’re no longer a fellow human but now an untouchable, an unacceptable and an unbearable. The vast cultural and genetic similarities are instantly brushed aside for the sake of that one artificially imagined difference that we, in our maniacally blinkered state, choose to tightly grab hold of and stubbornly refuse to relinquish.
Despite being ensconced here in the UK as a minority community, that should be outwardly robust in solidarity, we have become inwardly spiteful and subtly antagonistic towards each other. Apparently, we are not Brown anymore. Now we are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc; or Hindu, Muslim, Sikh etc; or Punjabi, Gujarati, Malayali etc; or a caste, class, clique etc; or if nothing else then of a political inclination that differs to the next desi’s. Such is cause sufficient, it now appears, for lines to be drawn and (thankfully still muffled) battle cries to be heard – mostly in Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Gosh we can be formidable in anonymity, can’t we?
It broke my heart when in the wake of the Brexit Referendum result three years ago a long-standing friend told me that for the first time in something like 20 years, he’d just been called a ‘Paki’ here in London – and not in that fun way only a fellow desi can get away with. But what really pulls the rug out from under my feet is when I hear some (and there is appropriate stress on the word ‘some’ – but it’s enough ‘some’ to set off alarm bells) British Pakistanis talking about Indians, and some British Indians talking about Pakistanis in tones unfriendly and antagonistic.
There is, as we all are sadly aware, a great deal of political and religious strife and tension on the subcontinent and for that matter the wider region, heck let’s throw the Middle East on that heap too. It’s a terrible, intangible, complex mess; and it’s a mess that, as British Asians we should do everything possible to ensure is not imported and played out by proxy here.
We’ve already seen what happens when you do that with certain aspects of the Middle East and religious fanaticism. We don’t need any more such nonsense – as a British Muslim believe me when I tell you it’ll work out badly for everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should ignore the issues of back home entirely, and if we can do anything peacefully to resolve or at least alleviate them, we absolutely should try.
Typically though, at play there, are malicious forces in high ranks stoking the flames of insanity for their own dastardly ends. As always with these things, the common person – you and me – has very little to do with any of this, has no real dispute with his or her neighbour, and is enslaved to the propaganda deployed by those aforementioned darkforces.
Sometime back in the UAE, I was working on a project with a local automotive service centre and got to chatting with a senior manager. He was from the subcontinent but I won’t tell you whether Indian or Pakistani so as not to bias the example I’m about to put forward. Recalling how delighted he had been to have got what amounted to a dream job in Dubai, his joyous state had soon evaporated and transitioned from concern to anxiety and then, quite frankly, outright fear as he was introduced to the team he would be working with. To a person they hailed from across the border to his home country.
By his own candid admission to me, such was the programming that had been embedded in his way of thinking, he was genuinely afraid and certain he would not last. Of course you can guess how the story goes – a few months in and not only were his fears extinguished, but he was hanging out with his colleagues and forging new and unlikely friendships that will last a lifetime.
I’ve already mentioned the Forces of the Dark Side, now indulge me as I bring a little Star Trek into the discussion and quote Captain Kirk: ‘The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.’ He may not be real, but that sentiment very much is, and frankly you all know it to be true.
So as we welcome not just a new year, but a fresh new decade can you all please hold up your right hands in the Vulcan salute and promise each other that: ‘I will let go of all hostile notions, against all people of all races and religions, allow my natural tolerance and understanding to flourish in my interactions with others, and employ empathy, kindness and gratitude for the peaceful existence we all deep-down desire. Live long and proper.’
Wishing you all a wonderful 2020 – let it be a year of peace, love and unity!