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The Mail And Guardian
Monday, 27 March, 2006

Europe Now

This is an edited version of Europe Now, an address Ishtiyaq Shukri, author of The Silent Minaret, delivered at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg on Wednesday March 15

Fortress Europe
By: Ishtiyaq Shukri

What are our most enduring images of a place: England, Europe? How did we come by them? How were they formed? How, if ever, are they changed?

The first “recitation” I recall ever having to learn by heart was The Daffodils by William Wordsworth. It’s spring in Britain now. There are daffodils everywhere. I wish I could talk to you about them. I take no pleasure in what I am going to say instead. So let us come to an agreement: if it is hard to listen to, it is hard to say. I am contesting my schooling.

Let me tell you about Najla (not her real name). Najla is from Libya, the daughter of a well-to-do family. In Europe, she forms part of one of the most marginalised and despised sections of the community: asylum seekers. Powerless in themselves, but as a group, as a “bogus flood”, singled out by right-wing political groups, as has been the case in Denmark, and used as scapegoats in racist and xenophobic election campaigns powerful enough to have determined the increasingly conservative outcomes of European elections for a decade. In Denmark, the far-right Danish People’s Party now enjoys 13% of the vote.

Najla arrived in London on December 8 2002. She was 28 years old. In Libya, she was a university lecturer. But she spent her first night in London huddling in a phone-box on Leicester Square. She had survived torture in a Libyan jail and her harrowing escape from prison had been a success, but her ordeal as a “ghost” in Britain was just about to start.

Arrested in 2002 for her part in a submission to the Libyan government suggesting revisions to The Green Book, the gospel of Moammar Gadaffi’s new era, Najla was imprisoned without charge and held for six months in a confined space too low to stand up straight and too short to stretch out fully. She was tortured and repeatedly raped by more than 20 security officers.

Najla was eventually sentenced to death in absentia and informed that she would be executed on April 7 the following year. Her final wish was to see her mother. She used the 10-minute visit to whisper about her fate. Her family quickly intervened. They bribed a guard to smuggle her out of prison and paid a trafficker to get her out of Libya.

Najla was driven straight from the prison to the plane. Once airborne, she asked the trafficker where they were going. “London,” he said. “London, England.”

In January, the British government announced that it would pay failed asylum seekers £3 000 to return home voluntarily. It cost Najla’s family $70 000 to get her out of Libya.

Najla arrived in London on December 8 2002. At Heathrow, the false passport the trafficker presented for “his wife” was routinely stamped and they were waved through. They travelled by tube to Leicester Square where he left her with £20 and directions to the Home Office. Najla spoke no English. But finding her way in one of the world’s biggest cities was to be the least of her problems.

Najla’s first solicitor did not believe her story. He represented her twice -- unsuccessfully. He refused to refer her to the Medical Foundation, which specialises in the care of victims of torture. His referral only came when Amnesty International intervened. Najla finally saw the Medical Foundation on April 17 2003.

Najla’s failure to secure asylum lay not just with her solicitor but also with the system processing her. In a fortressed continent where failed asylum seekers are snatched without warning, locked in detention centres and forcibly deported to appease an increasingly conservative electorate, failure is the desired outcome of applications for asylum. Najla’s first hearing was postponed twice because Home Office officials did not have the Amnesty International and Medical Foundation reports.

With the help of Amnesty International, she got another solicitor, Elizabeth Storey at the Refugee Legal Centre. A date for her appeal was set for December 9 2004, two years and a day after Najla first arrived in the UK. During that time she had experienced humiliating treatment at the hands of Home Office officials, translators, solicitors, even her own GP. She was unable to get the MRI scan needed to determine the extent of the damage to her leg and back. As an asylum seeker, her case was not a priority.

Because the Home Office failed to deal with her case properly, Najla had no financial support and slept in churches and mosques for nearly a year. When her allowance started at the end of September 2003, it was for £35 a week. A weekly bus pass alone cost £9,50. So she used to walk from north London where she lived to get to English classes in central west London. Still dependent on a walking stick, the walk there and back would take her four hours.

In 2004, the British government spent £4,9-billion on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to British Chancellor Gordon Brown, this is because “our public finances are so strong”. That same year, Najla survived on cereal and bought threadbare clothes from Sunday markets.

Just 16 days after Najla was eventually granted full refugee status, the deadly tsunami struck in Asia. Europe has never been wealthier, but in Europe, “public opinion” has never been meaner. It is Jeremy Seabrook’s writing at the time that cut straight to the imbalance between the excesses northerners enjoy in the south and the inhumanity desperate southerners can expect from the north in return. From devastated Sri Lanka, Seabrook wrote: “One of the most poignant sights of the past few days was that of Westerners overcome with gratitude that they had been helped by the grace and mercy of those who had lost everything, but still regarded them as guests. When these same people appear in the West, they become the interloper, the unwanted migrant, the asylum seeker, who should go back to where they belong.”

The relationship between life and fiction is a complex and curious one. Writers often get asked about the autobiographical nature of their work. In the year since receiving the European Union Literary Award, events in Europe have several times led me to consider the relationship between my fictional novel and the factual flag that now adorns its cover. Let us be clear: the EU is not just the benefactor of a literary award to support new South African writing; it is also a terrain facing grave challenges. To me, serious fiction and serious writers must face these challenges too. Let’s consider what they are.

The inaugural EU award in South Africa coincided with the most serious cultural and political developments in Europe since the end of World War II. July saw the first suicide bombs in the EU. In November, race riots shook France and in January Danish cartoons shook Europe and the Muslim world.

As a citizen, as a writer and as the first recipient of the EU Literary Award, I felt a responsibility to write about these events. I live in London, but my first readers were in South Africa. I am glad that is how things have been.

These are the facts that orbit the desk where I compose fiction and my pen feels the force of their pull. I have never understood Jane Austen’s ability to obsess about middle-class provincial life in England and ignore completely the Napoleonic wars that were decimating Europe. Yet, despite -- or maybe because of -- her blind spot to war, it is Austen’s blinkered version of the 18th century that readers most enjoy. In the BBC Big Read of April 2003, voted for by the British public during the same period as the run-up to war in Iraq, Pride and Prejudice came second on the list of Britons’ 100 best-loved books. With Persuasion at 38 and Emma at 40, Austen is one of only two women to have three books in the top 50. The other is JK Rowling. My own vote was for the first novel of my education, the first novel in which I felt involved and that made me want to write: Midnight’s Children. It came last.

What are our most enduring images of a place? How do we come by them? How are they formed? Not a single novel by an African writer made it on to the list, which raises another question: How has Commonwealth literature served African writers? Following a recent announcement that negotiations for the publication of The Silent Minaret in other countries are in an advanced stage, let us be clear about this too: I do not wish to see my book in the ghetto that is Commonwealth literature. If Europe reads African writers, she reads us as equals.

Yet, what does that word mean in Europe now -- “equal”? During my schooling, the notions for which France embarked upon her revolution -- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity -- were simultaneously held up and denied, the lesson being that this was why France, and Europe, are better; they have a long history, worthy literature and noble ideals, notions which, as black South Africans during apartheid, my ilk and I were deemed not yet evolved enough to cherish. So what now? Is there any meaning left to these embattled notions when reading the names of the dead in Iraq outside Downing Street can lead to arrest? Or when the European country most famous for having reinvented itself (violently) in the 18th century in their pursuit, demonstrated itself so incapable in the 21st of running the course when others joined the race? The circumstances, which led to the riots in France last autumn, are another demonstration that, while North Africans, Arabs and blacks were fine as subjects in France’s empire, they are not welcome as citizens in its republic. How careless Europe has been with her ideals. Just two months later, the fallout following the Danish cartoons dwarfed the national unrest in France. How quickly she worsens her record. When France was burning, I asked: “For who do the stars in the circular constellation of 12 stars, which now adorns my book, shine?” My feeling remains that they shine not for us, Europe’s “ethnic minorities”.

And in that term -- “ethnic minority” -- we start to face the problem, hidden in the language. After all the hard work, the effort to do one’s best, the determined endeavour to manipulate a language, a European language, not the language of one’s ancestors but an offering from history, in the face of an undertaking to extend that language to an artistic and literary level where the beauty of its written form is revealed, all of this and still be labelled a minority on the basis of a notion as base, as fabricated as ethnicity, is a demonstration of Europe’s criteria and of how she uses them to draw her lines. Whatever one’s origins, how is one ever a minority to oneself, one’s family, one’s friends? And what comfort should the labelled take from a marker -- ethnic -- which in Europe also has a chilling history of association with a procedure -- cleansing?

What are our most enduring images of a place? How, if ever, are they undone? In London, two of Europe’s richest districts -- the City and Canary Wharf -- camouflage one of its poorest -- Tower Hamlets. In “inner-city neighbourhoods” (that’s posh for ghettos) like these across Europe, economics, ethnicity and statistics converge to play Russian roulette.

Tower Hamlets has the highest percentage of Muslims in Britain. Being of an “ethnic minority” here means living in the margins of a wealthy European capital with few prospects and little chance at a high-flying career in the banking centre of the world just up the road.

I am cautious of reducing complex individuals and communities to simplistic numbers based on religious faith, but the figures make a disturbing backdrop against which to mount our counter-images of Europe in the 21st century. These are official UK statistics compiled during Census 2001.

In 2001, there were 1,6-million Muslims living in Britain, the second largest religious group after Christians. Unemployment rates for Muslim adults were -- and remain -- higher than those of any other religious group. Muslims are least likely to have higher educational qualifications and, at the time of Census 2001, almost a third of Muslims of working age had no qualifications, the highest proportion for any religious group.

Muslims are least likely to be homeowners and most likely to be living in accommodation rented from the council. Muslim households are the most likely to experience overcrowding and, in the first decade of the 21st century, Muslims in Britain are most likely to lack central heating and sole access to a bathroom. Who is surprised that in 2001, they displayed the highest rates of reported ill health and disability in the UK?

Detractors argue that Muslims are not only poor in Europe, they face poverty in Muslim countries across the world. True.

Writing in the Times of India, Thomas Friedman put it like this: “Muslim rage [at the Danish cartoons] is about the failure of many Muslim countries to build economies that prepare young people for modernity. Today’s world has become so wired together, you get your humiliation fibre-optically, at 56K or via broadband, whether you’re in the Muslim suburbs of Paris or Kabul. When you’re already feeling left behind, even the tiniest insult from afar goes to the very core of your being -- because your skin is so thin.”

Of all the violence the Danish cartoons have sparked, one image disturbs me most. It is of gunmen in Gaza taking aim at the EU flag, a flag which will soon adorn the novels of this year’s joint winners of the EU Literary Award, Fred Khumalo and Gerald Kraak. In the year since the announcement of the first award, there have been talks to launch the award in Palestine. I hope now more than ever that these plans become real, but when I saw the picture of the gunmen and the EU flag, I despaired: Which young Palestinian writer would stand up to claim the prize today? For European editors to insist on their liberty to publish dehumanising cartoons while people who venerate the man they have vilified face brutal occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is no liberty at all, only callous malice. Exactly what have those cartoons achieved for writers and journalists outside Europe, in the Middle East, in South Africa? Newspapers here were denied the prerogative of their British counterparts -- editorial discretion. What they got was legal injunction. Twelve years don’t make a democracy. Neither do they purge the urge to censure.

True, Muslims are not only poor in Europe, but only in Europe (and North America) are they enfranchised citizens of liberal, democratic and fully sovereign states, not the pastiches of sovereignty being ripped apart in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. Clearly, it is in Europe where Muslim hearts and minds must be won. After all, where were her first suicide bombers from? Europe is loath to admit it, but faced with an apathetic electorate, this is what she needs: hearts and minds like Najla’s, whose commitment to democracy is so firm that she has forgone privilege in Libya to endure poverty in London.

Still, on January 16 this year, the day I arrived in The Hague to participate in the Winternachten Festival as part of the EU Award, it was announced that Dutch MPs are considering a ban on traditional Islamic dress. If it goes ahead, The Netherlands will become the first country in Europe to ban the burqa. What is one to make of a law designed specifically at targeting such a small group of people -- about 50 women in The Netherlands wear hijab? Besides, what business is it of a government, which is not verging towards fascism, what its citizens wear?

In an article entitled Going to the Cause, British Labour MP Robin Cook wrote the following in response to the London bombs: “So long as the struggle against terrorism is conceived as a war that can be won by military means, it is doomed to fail. The more the West emphasises confrontation, the more it silences moderate voices in the Muslim world who want to speak up for cooperation. A war on world poverty may well do more for the security of the West than the war on terror.”

One month later, Cook, who resigned in principal from Blair’s Cabinet because of the war in Iraq, was dead. “An Untimely Death”, his was called. Absolutely. Who said: “We do not choose our convictions but they choose us and force us to fight for them to the death.” The extract I read was from the last piece Cook ever wrote. Here is his final sentence. In his memory and in our ongoing efforts to get to the cause, I am honoured to make it mine. “Whatever else can be said in defence of the war in Iraq today, it cannot be claimed that it has protected us from terrorism on our own soil.”

This is an edited version of Europe Now, an address Ishtiyaq Shukri, author of The Silent Minaret, delivered at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg on Wednesday March 15

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