Mongrels and Migrants

fish and chips

Today I had lunch with two colleagues, Samir and Farid.

“He asked what caste we are – I don’t know that!” complained Birmingham-born Samir, as he nudged his battered cod with a fork.

Samir is about to get married. Or at least he hopes so. He’s lined up a girl (a friend of his sister) and he’s trying to persuade her dad that he’s good enough for her. Last weekend, Samir and his parents went round to Aysha’s house to meet her family and get to know each other.

“Usually, at these things, you’re meant to talk about everything but the marriage. But her dad got stuck in, asking me dozens of questions and saying I wasn’t good enough. Then my dad lost it and said they weren’t good enough”, said Samir in his Brum accent.

“But Aysha’s been great, really fighting our corner”, he continued, smiling. “She’s been pleading with her dad and crying all the time”.

At this point Farid planted the pepper grinder in the middle of the table, as if staking his claim in the conversation.

“Samir, you need to take control of this situation. Who cares about what her dad says. You know what you should do? You should call the police, they’ll help sort him out. They’ll show her dad how important his opinion is”, he advised in his Urdu-accented English.

“That sounds a bit heavy”, I commented, “Samir probably wants to stay on good terms with his in-laws.”

This time Farid brought the salt shaker to join the pepper grinder, as if calling reinforcements.

“You know, in the past 50 years, us Pakistanis have progressed, whereas everyone who came to Britain back then seems to have frozen in time. When I went back to Pakistan last year, all of my married cousins – except one – were in love marriages. I went to a dinner party where three of my male cousins were there with their girlfriends. If that was fifty years ago, they’d have been shot”, commented Farid, as he flicked part of a chip from his pin-striped suit.

Samir evidently wasn’t listening. “It’s all because of her older sister, he wants to marry her off first.”

“This is ridiculous,” interjected Farid, “why do you pay attention to any of this religious crap?”

“It’s nothing to do with Islam – it’s rubbish tradition”, replied Samir, a little slighted by the remark.

Ultra-friendly and softly spoken, Samir is the most religious person I work with. He goes to mosque regularly and fasts quietly during Ramadan.

Farid, on the other hand, is almost anti-religious. Like Samir, he has Pakistani roots. Unlike Samir, he was born in Pakistan and lived there for thirty years.

“Well, at least you don’t have my problem,” mused Farid. “My mother won’t stop going on about me getting married. At first she was picky, saying ‘Farid, please don’t marry a Shi’a girl. If you do, I’ll kill myself’. Then she was like ‘I don’t mind if you marry a Shi’a, any Muslim’s ok’. Now she says ‘marry anything, I just want grandchildren’”.

Samir flipped his cod over and started picking at the greasy batter, I think he was getting bored of the wedding conversation. Either that or he was getting depressed.

“So why do you want to learn Arabic in Damascus?” he asked me, sending the conversation off on a new path.

“Well, you know, I’m interested in Middle East politics and I’ve spent a lot of time in the region. I want to improve my Arabic and Syria’s the place to do it. Besides, it’ll help my job prospects,” I conceded.

“Arabic and Farsi,” Farid pondered, “you could probably get a job at the Foreign Office with those skills.”

“But that would mean working for the government”, I replied, “and that’s a bit of a red line for me.”

“Oh come on.” Farid dismissed my position with a shake of his spoon. “You’ve got to get involved with power if you want to do anything. Change it from within”.

“You’re not buying into the whole work-your-way-up-from-the-inside thing are you?” I asked. “I don’t want to be another chump spinning policy designed by the politicians on top. Besides, how much foreign policy is really driven by the UK anyway? Don’t we just follow the Americans?”

Samir smiled. We’d had a related conversation that morning with one of his Welsh colleagues, Daffyd, who’d interrupted our 10-minute coffee break by clanging his tray on the table and asking the immortal opener: “so what are the prospects for peace in the Middle East, then?”

Samir had tried to dodge the question but found himself at the end of his break, halfway through saying something about US power in the world. He is a firm believer that the US ’empire’, like all others in history, is destined to collapse at some point.

Farid replied: “This whole chat about US this and that is rubbish. You know damn well that if Palestinians were in America’s position right now they’d be doing the same thing.”

“Completely agree”, I said, sensing it as an opportunity to chat about changing global institutions – a subject I have learned to talk softly about, since most people think I’m loopy at the first mention of the topic. “What we need to do is change the structure behind the power. I think we need some sort of assembly where we can be heard irrespective of where we live or what passport we hold.”

Farid’s eyes glazed over slightly and I rapidly became paranoid about sounding like a lunatic again.

“That’ll never happen. Think of the EU and Turkey. Europeans will never accept Turks as one of their own. No matter how much you want to, you can never persuade the richer countries to share their resources with the poorer ones”.

“I’m not talking about a world government,” I replied, “just an assembly, a parliament. Besides, the EU – like any country – is defined by a created identity, ‘European-ness’. So it’s always going to need ‘non-Europeans’ to define itself by. A democratic world assembly doesn’t suffer from the same constraints. All you need to be is human.”

Farid was unconvinced. “Not everybody wants to see themselves that way. Plenty of people are happy with their national identity”.

“I know, I know. But the whole point of a world assembly is that you could choose to put your national identity first. You could still vote as a Brit, or Pakistani, along with others who feel the same way. However, if you defined yourself in other ways – as a Muslim, a Catalan, a securlarist, a European, or indeed a Halfiranian, you’d have the freedom to do so, and your ‘group’ could make itself heard in an open and democratic way. At the moment that’s not the case. It’s be British or be quiet”.

Farid was looking pensive when Samir chimed in:

“Human. That’s how I see myself. Not British or Pakistani, but human”.

Hmm, I thought to myself. Maybe it’s us mongrels and migrants who will have to get this ball rolling.

5 Responses to “Mongrels and Migrants”

  • Really enjoyed reading this – your blog is improving, and you write brilliantly, keep up the good work ya ayr

  • I love reading your blog, I agree with Sidnaay that you writing is superb.

    P/S: Can you please show me how to set up Flickr Sidebar for K2? I installed Flickr Photo Gallery plugin (from noodletantan), K2 shows up Flickr sidebar option, but it disappears when I check the sidebar configuration.

  • nice blog.
    well done, keep it on …

  • hee lul hoe gaat het nou? zit je weer belangrijk te doen in Damas?
    You seem to have been offline….incommunicado? what’s going on, did you get my messages? haven’t been to g in ages, but should be there end of aug.

  • interesting. but i think you need to get over this “change from within is selling out” problem! i’m not saying you yourself need to go and join your enemy (whoever that might be, the UK government, UN, CNN, whatever), but you do at the very least need to find a way to work in partnership with people that work “on the inside”, if you like. the reality is that change takes all sorts: internal pressure and external agitation. my case is simply that if as an external agitant you fail to engage and mobilise those INSIDE big institutions, you’re not going to win this battle. nuf said.

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