Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"But I Warn You, They Are Not as Peaceful as Me"

Community leaders from Tower Hamlets, London have started a campaign against the filming of Monica Ali's 2003 novel Brick Lane. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and was a big commercial and critical success. Reactions by many South Asian readers I heard from were mixed, mainly because of Ali's use of a kind of pidgin English in the letters from the main character's sister in Bangladesh, Hasina. (Our blog-friend DesiDancer also had a succinct review: "utter crap", were her delicate, carefully chosen words)

Of course, the quality of the book is mostly irrelevant to the censorship campaign under way. This campaign seems to be an extension of the campaign against the book itself in 2003, and includes some of the same players and the same sad rhetoric of outrage and offense that is routinely trotted out these days in response to something or other:

In an echo of the controversy which surrounded the initial publication of the book, set partly in the east London borough, the novel is accused of reinforcing "pro-racist, anti-social stereotypes" and of containing "a most explicit, politically calculated violation of the human rights of the community".

Community leaders attacked the book on its publication in 2003, claiming that it portrayed Bangladeshis living in the area as backward, uneducated and unsophisticated, and that this amounted to a "despicable insult". (link)

The misguided attempt to protect the community's honor through censorship will be ineffective, and the censorship campaign itself has the ironic effect of making the community look really, really bad.

The leader of the campaign is making an only thinly-veiled threat of violence if film cameras are brought to Brick Lane:

He brushed aside suggestions that a work of fiction couldn't be seen as an attack on a community. "It's not a fiction book," he explained. "This is all lies. She wanted to be famous at the cost of a community."

He also claimed that community groups prevented Monica Ali from being awarded the Booker prize. "This book was contesting for the Booker prize," he said. "We stopped that."

Mr Salique raised the spectre of a worsening in community relations if filming goes ahead on location. "We are living in a multicultural society," he said. "We are in a peaceful situation. This film will make a lot of problems for local people."

He threatened mass protests if the company attempts to film on the streets of Tower Hamlets, saying that "the community feels strongly about this. We are not going to let it happen.

"Young people are getting very involved with this campaign. They will blockade the area and guard our streets. Of course, they will not do anything unless we tell them to, but I warn you they are not as peaceful as me." (link)

I love the part where he says, "this is not a fiction book . . . It's all lies." Speaks for itself, donnit? And "I warn you they are not as peaceful as me" is a really ominous, nasty little threat, which I hope the filmmakers will ignore.

Here's a paragraph from the novel itself describing the physical space of Brick Lane in London. Does it really merit this kind of censorship campaign?

A horn blared like an ancient muezzin ululating painfully, stretching his vocal cords to the limit. She stopped and the car swerved. Another car skidded to a halt in front of her and the driver got out and began to shout. She ran again and turned into a side street, then off again to the right onto Brick Lane. She had been here a few times with Chanu, later in the day when the restaurants smelled of fresh boiled rice and old fried fat and the waiters with their tight black pants stood in doorways holding out menus and smiles. But now the waiters were at home asleep, or awake being waited on themselves by wives who only served and were not served in return except with board and lodging and the provision of children whom they also, naturally, waited upon. And the streets were stacked with rubbish, entire kingdoms of rubbish piled high as fortresses with only the border skirmishes of plastic bottles and grease-stained cardboard to separate them. A man looked up at some scaffolding with an intent, almost ardent, expression as if his love might be at the top, cowering on the high planks or the dark slate roof. A pair of schoolchildren, pale as rice and loud as peacocks, cut over the road and hurtled down a side street, galloping with joy or else with terror. Otherwise, Brick Lane was deserted. Nazneen stopped by some film posters pasted in waves over a metal siding. The hero and heroine peered at each other with epic hunger. The scarlet of her lips matched the bandanna tied around his forehad. A sprinkling of sweat highlighted the contour of his biceps. The kohl around her eyes made them smoke with passion. Some invisible force was keeping them (only inches) apart. The type at the foot of the poster said: The world could not stop their love. (Brick Lane, page 32)

Now, if I lived in Tower Hamlets or worked on Brick Lane I might not be happy about the piles of rubbish Ali describes (from my own experience visiting the place five years ago, I don't remember any piles of rubbish, though I visited in the middle of the day). But why are people always so quick to find characterizations like these "offensive" or "insulting"? Is it really worth rioting over?

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


Ruchira Paul said...

Borrowing a pearl from George Bush's recent lilting speech:

"See, the irony is what they really need to do is to get the silent majority in the community to get the mischief makers to stop doing this s***"

Unless that happens, the rest of us hapless bystanders will become mired deeper and deeper in cultural, religious and political excreta that is being heaped upon us almost daily by fanatics of all varieties. Appeals to sanity, free speech and plain common sense from the outside, is like screaming into the wind.

2:02 PM  
vk said...

This sounds like a time honored censorship technique as practised on the subcontinent. First, object on some random religious/ethnic grounds. Next, threaten violence indirectly. The third stage is when "mobs" go and perform some vandalism and some violence. Often such expressions of "outrage" are enough for the govt/authority to buckle down to the censorship demand.

This is just plain hooliganism and should be treated as such. Often, the people who are "offended" have problems in principle with the individual being targeted, or what they perceive to be the individual's ideas. It is also likely that most of the people protesting have never read the book they are making a fuss about. It is simply likely that she upset someone with some power or authority in the community.

4:58 PM  
timothyfrancis said...

It does bring to mind Phillip Roth's treatment of the reaction to Zuckerman's Carnovsky and Roth's own community's response to Defender of the Faith.

4:00 PM  

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