I haven’t been writing here for some time as I’ve been in Pakistan and writing about that instead, here. But today I felt an urge to write at my main blog – thematically and historically, it makes most sense.
So I’m sitting with my Nani (maternal grandmother) in Lahore, explaining and badly translating my way through videos of my poems and talks on Youtube. Minute by minute I watch her face change, watch a sadness set into her features. We have a conversation I didn’t know we would have where I finally manage to put into words that what I find most strange and most wonderful about being in Pakistan is that nobody assumes I’m not from here. Nobody assumes I’m an outsider. Even I am surprised by this conclusion. It seems too similar to her own experience, surely, and how can that be when Britain is my home? When this is my first time properly in Pakistan? I do not mean to say that being in Pakistan is some sort of idyll of inclusivity, no, I am quite aware that all that has happened to me here, as compared to in the UK, is that I’ve jumped to the other side of a national myth and am no longer the Other (at many other people’s expense)… and yet, the feeling is seductive.
My Nani seems sad when I explain the motivations behind my poetry to her, when I explain (crudely) the basics of criminalising measures like Prevent. She doesn’t seem shocked though. I remember that in 1978 when she met other Asian women in Bradford factories who’d been expelled from Uganda and Kenya, she took it to heart that her existence as a migrant was one of forever being in fragility; the forever possibility of being made to leave again. She says to me, with a passion that mirrors my own, ‘they came to our land for 200 years and can they speak our language? do they wear our clothes?‘ and her questions bounce and ricochet over volumes of discourse on civilising, othering, racialising, hierarchising and colonising, in my mind. All I can do is shake my head sadly.
She says she is happy that I am speaking out. In one video I am described as “unapologetic” – I translate what this word means to her. She echoes it and says, ‘we’ve been there fifty-five years, if not now, when are we going to stop saying sorry?’ She seems to stretch and encompass those years in the palm of her hand. I imagine Bradford in the 60s, the riots of the 70s, 80s Asian Youth Movements, 88 Rushdie Affair, 90s riots; Bosnia, Afghanistan and Gulf politics leaking into her own home; I see 2001 embossed under one of her fingers, riots, arrests, “the failure of multiculturalism”, 9/11; I see children pour out grandchildren, see my childhood in the tip of her little finger, I see it all. She succinctly explains that in their time, people like my Nana (her husband, my granddad) thought if they just tried hard enough, spoke well enough, said sorry enough, they’d get by – but by now, for me, she understands that “unapologetic” is the only way forward.
I propose another angle, too – that in fifty-five years there hasn’t been much change for us on a vast scale. In other words, why are we still living in so many of the same places? In the poorest council areas? With the worst housing? Why are we still discriminated against in the work-place? Why are we still made to feel we’re not at home? She points the finger at education. She says we’re not getting educated enough. I say it’s not our fault. She concedes that it’s hard to send your babies to a school where you know the teachers expect little of them and the school will invest little in them. I agree. I ask her to imagine (though we both well know I am only pretending she has to imagine, she very well knows this reality) the difference between children who grow up in a home where their parents have not been educated to a high level or at all, where their parents can’t help them with their homework, where homework isn’t a priority because of the extra work, help around the house, cooking dinner, care-giving to other children or family members etc that has to be done; where children share bedrooms with several other siblings; where kids are worrying about abusive neighbours, violence, eviction, break-ins or etc… to children who grow up in a home where their parents are university-educated in Britain and know exactly how to help them with their homework, or if not, can afford to get them a tutor who can, where children don’t have to consider any other responsibilities outside of school, where they have their own individual space and room to work in, where they feel safe and materially secure.
In some ways I am explaining the difference between her children, and her children’s children. But in another way I am explaining the continued factors that keep the Pakistani diaspora at a disadvantage. She adds that even when those socio-economic factors are in place, though, racialisation and racial stereotypes continue to undermine your security – she says this in other words – she brings my mind back to the letter that recently circulated Bradford, other cities, and online – the “Punish A Muslim Day” letter awarding points for different types (verbal, physical etc) of abuse directed at Muslims. It reminds me of the maxim I hold dear, that injustice isn’t ended through the efforts of individuals, but the restructuring of systems. No matter how much socio-economic advancement there is, the fundamental historical Othering of us, in Britain, will continue.
Our conversation didn’t really end, but dwindled. My Nani put some things in the fridge and said she hoped the future got better. I, being a sceptic of teleology, said I don’t know.
My mother sent me a link to a local news article also today. It was news that a boy my sister used to sit next to at school has been sentenced to ten years in prison for armed robbery. Of course, the headline somehow managed to use the word “terrorised” next to his brown bearded face. I glanced over the words and the “guilty” plea and just felt sad. My sister tells me that she remembers he used to come to school intoxicated and was eventually excluded at age 16. Since then two years have passed and the article briefly mentions his homelessness and recruitment with the others that participated in the robbery. I am reminded of my brilliant flatmate’s work on the construction of “innocence” as a category used as the inverse and opposite of “guilt”, leaving little space for any nuance or non-racialised understandings of violence, of “crime” as a category and of anything else.
In the same way that I saw the Pakistani diaspora’s history in my grandmother’s palm I suddenly saw the context of this boy’s life like a map in my mind. His “guilt” is merely a label justifying the exclusion of a boy already so badly excluded and let down by society.
I don’t tell my Nani about the news. We are both tired.
Something about the gulf of years between us and yet our similar responses to out different contexts makes me wonder. I believe there are peaks and troughs, I believe there is ease after every hardship, but, I also wonder where the bottom of this trough is and if we are near to begin the ascent yet – I wonder if people understand it enough. The “Love A Muslim Day” response I saw to “Punish A Muslim Day” made me grimace. I get it, I do, but at this stage I need more than individuals to hug and love me as a response to Islamophobia… I need change at a fundamental level. No bouquet of flowers could prevent a poor, working-class, racialised Muslim like the boy in my sister’s class from being so totally let down by society and its structures. I do not oppose individual good will, I welcome kindness from strangers, but I need kindness that takes a bigger, vaster, deeper, structural form.
I think back to what someone asked me in January: “what do you want 2038 to look like?” and honestly, I am not sure my imagination is vast enough (I have yet to read the latest “Our Shared British Futures” report). I log out of Facebook, delete my apps, want to bury my head in the sand of Pakistan. And yet, my Nani’s rhetorical question niggles at me, “what will the future hold?” – her question is not so different to the one about 2038 and yet it feels less scary and more compelling. Perhaps it is possible to fight for something even if you do not yet know what it looks like; perhaps it is possible to want more than this and know the work is just beginning, even if you do not know how it will end.
I tuck my Nani into bed.