Multiculturalism

‘Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. ’- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

In Kafka’s world there were really two ‘Jewish questions’. The first was external, asked by the Gentiles, and is familiar: ‘What is to be done with the Jews?’ For which the answer was either persecution or ‘toleration’, that vile word.’ – Zadie Smith, ‘F. Kafka, Everyman’

‘It is dangerous to live in a secure world.’ – Teju Cole, Open City

The last decade has witnessed the strengthening of a ‘multiculturalism has failed’ narrative, seconded by any statesman worth their electoral salt (see Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy). Whilst some date the advent of a ‘multiculturalism crisis’ discourse as a post-9/11 development, this periodisation remains simplistic, eliding the broader nationalist sentiments ascendant across contemporary Europe. Namely, absorbed into this populist rejection of multiculturalism is not only a rampant Islamophobia – where Muslims are rendered a ‘suspect community’ and placed at the centre of various ‘moral panics’ – but also a more diffuse fatigue with immigration and the many diversities (‘multiculture’) increasingly prominent in various European cities.

Consequently, understanding how multiculturalism’s putative failure is rallied to encapsulate these multiple racialised anxieties requires a more nuanced understanding of what precisely is being rejected by politicians, pundits, policymakers and everyone in-between. It is this unpacking of what is meant by multiculturalism which my own chapter in The State of Race looks to address.

It argues that crucial to the populist rejection of multiculturalism is a ‘thinning’ of what it might stand for in the first place – where it is read only as ‘tolerance and ‘cultural rights’. Of course, as many influential writers have already made clear, there is already a well-recognised political conservatism to any simple appeal to tolerance given that the prevailing political hierarchy is reinforced in the very act of distinguishing those who tolerate from those who are to be tolerated. There is no dissolution of the distinction between insider and outsider but instead, the outsider remains a negatively coded, undesirable entity, awaiting interrogation and verdict. However, it might be argued that not only is a bracketed ethics of tolerance politically compromised, but, more tellingly, the casting of multiculturalism as only tolerance is the very definition which allows for its public, majoritarian rejection.

To put it boldly, does the term tolerate remain intelligible if it concerns only the ‘special interests’ of those subjects whose representational cues, as fundamentalists, criminals and welfare dependents remains entrenched and prominent? Does the term remain applicable if multiculturalism comes to be framed as the accommodation of illiberal and work-shy (or overly desperate workers – depending on the brand of multicultural excess one subscribes to) peoples and thereupon, necessitates the loss of ‘our’ most cherished political norms, economic stability and national integrity? Multicultural tolerance, if that alone, is evidently not about the recognition of others, as it only recognises such figures in the form that they are already intelligible; as Others and the pathological attributes that the popular imagery tied to these groups invoke.

What becomes silenced here is the capacity to challenge these popular representations. This vacating of what might be called representational critique (a commitment to confront the pathologisation of minority groups and migrant experiences) is what makes possible the rejection of multiculturalism whilst concomitantly laundering racist representational frames. The multicultural crisis narrative – a belief that minorities and their less than ideal ‘cultures’ have been recklessly indulged – situates minorities and their excessive attachment to a problematic group ‘culture’ at the explanatory centre of any number of social ills: be it security and crime, unemployment and welfare-dependency, or even democratic deficits, the collapse of the Welfare State and the alleged erosion of trust. At the same time, the absence of representational critique retrenches cultural explanations when accounting for the very real exclusions which many minority and migrant people continue to encounter, both economically and in everyday civic life: e.g. the fault of their inadequate black and Muslim parents, the fault of the music they listen to, or the fault of the gods that they might pray to.

It is in turn literature (and the popular arts at large) which has a pivotal role to play in retrieving a multiculturalism which is politically potent. When best rendered, literature captures the multiple flows of diversity alongside the multiple flows of exclusion which characterise the contemporary western city. But doing so requires, in the first instance, a concerted move away from tired East-West, culture-clash storytelling, notwithstanding the all too easy publication opportunities which such exotic tropes promise. It is crucial that literature reveal the fiction of such unimaginative motifs, and, instead, profile the very real marginalisation and hardships otherwise obscured by this mystifying cloud of ‘culture-talk’. Equally, such a move can return the literary gaze to social relations as opposed to discrete, impossibly sealed ‘ethno-cultural’ communities. Herein, whilst rightly avoiding simplistic sentimentalising around the wronged and the wrong, literature should and can draw attention to social relations where one person’s/group’s marginalisation is also another’s privilege.

Sivamohan Valluvan, ‘The Status of Multiculturalism’, from the State of Race

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Conference: British Diasporic Literature in English and Vernaculars

Conference and Book Launch

Friday 4TH July 2014 10am – 6pm

Racism, Writing and Resistance:  British Diasporic Literature in English and Vernaculars

Manchester Central Library Performance Space, St Peter’s Square, Manchester M2 5PD

We have seen a decade of re-energised racism and orientalist representation in Britain, particularly in the demonising of Muslims and Islam. English language literature meanwhile, often stereotypes, ridicules, simplifies and homogenises in its representation of non-westernised/modernised characters: it can often seem as if writers, assumed to be ‘writing back’, have taken over the mantle of orientalist representation by the west. Certain ideologies become invisible in ‘literature’; their normalised values are assumed to be ‘universal,’ and ‘humanist;’ whilst literature and literary criticism that questions such assumptions overtly, or presents alternative ideologies is branded as ideological, polemical, essentialist.

What role can literature and literary criticism play in perpetuating and resisting racism, imperialism? What is the relationship between literature and government policies of multiculturalism, integration, assimilation, the war on terror? What is the relationship between political struggle and literature? What is the politics of writing, representing and publishing in Britain? How does representation and ideology differ in English and vernacular literature?

Bringing together South Asian, Arab, African/Afro-Caribbean diasporic writers, along with academics and activists, this conference seeks to explore some of these questions. Through conversations across these ‘professions’ that are increasingly seen as distinct and become ever more unintelligible to each other, we seek to revive connections between writing, activism and ideas.

Programme

10 – 10.15Introduction to day

Dr. Virinder Kalra, Kavita Bhanot

10.15 – 11   The Politics of Publication

Dr.Tariq Mehmood, Peter Kalu, Dr. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

11 – 11.30    A conversation between Shamas Rehman and Daalat Ali

11.30 – 12  A conversation between Dr.Nicole Thiara and Dr. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

12 – 12.45   Lunch

12.45 –1.30 Writing out of Political Struggles: Boundaries of Fiction and Non-Fiction

Dr. Tariq Mehmood, Selma Dabbagh, Chaired by Ashish Ghadiali

1.30 – 2.30   Not literature: Vernacular Poetics and Practice

Amarjit Chandan, Dr. Rajkumar Hans, Dr. Anita Mir

2.30 – 2.45  Tea

2.45 – 4.15 Literature in Islamophobic Times

Fadia Faqir “Geographies of the Soul”

Introduced/chaired by Dr Dalia Mostafa

Panel – Dr. Humaira Saeed, Ayesha Siddiqi, Naylah Ahmed

4.15 – 6        Performances by Peter Kalu and Yusra Warsama

Book-launch for Basir Kazmi’s ‘Passing Through’

Participants

Naylah Ahmed has written for stage, radio, screen and publication. She has had a few plays produced for BBC Radio 4 and her short stories have been published by Tindal Street Press. Her most recent stage play was Mustafa, co-produced by The Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Kali Theatre Company. Her play, Butcher Boys, was one of four joint winners of the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize in 2008.  Naylah worked as a script developer, script editor and producer of radio drama at the BBC from 2002-2012.  She is currently exploring children’s writing both for screen and the page.

Adalat Ali is a politician, writer, analyst and university lecturer. Originally from Mirpur, ‘Azad’ Kashmir, Adalat Ali migrated to UK in the 1970s and began his life in the UK as a textile labourer.  He found a way through community activities to public sector employment and higher education, and on the way he became actively involved in Kashmiri politics.  One of the pioneers of Pahari-Pothwari writing in Britain, Ali Adalat is the coordinator of Kashmir National Identity Camoaign (KNIC) coeditor of ‘CHITKA’ Magazine and founder of Alami Pahari, Adabi Snagat (APAS) in Britain. He has been actively involved in setting up of earliest Kashmiri satellite TV channels in UK, Appan and KBC. Adalat has written scores of papers and articles on various aspects of Kashmiri politics and diaspora Kashmiris. He authored and produced the pioneering Pahari films ‘Mehndi Laan De’ a musical and ‘Lakeer’ (Line of Division) a feature film that is showing in Jammu and Poonch Theatres now. Currently he teaches politics and democracy at Manchester Metropolitan University Manchester.

Amarjit Chandan lives and works in London. He has published five collections of poetry, and two books of essays in Punjabi including Jarhan (Poetry), Phailsufian and Nishani (Essays). Two of his books are also published in Farsi script from Lahore, West Punjab. Amarjit has edited and translated over thirty anthologies of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction by, among others, Brecht, Neruda, Ritsos, Hikmet, Vallejo, Cardenal and John Berger in Punjabi.  Chandan was one of the ten British poets selected by Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, for the National Poetry Day in 2001, and participated in the International Alderburgh Poetry Festival. Amarjit received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 from the Language Department, Government of the Punjab, India; and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 from the Panjabis in Britain, All-Party Parliamentary Group, London.

Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer of fiction. Her first novel, Out of It, set between Gaza, London and the Gulf, published by Bloomsbury in 2011 was a Guardian Book of the Year. She has published short stories with Granta and Telegram, and written a play set in East Jerusalem, The Brick, produced by BBC Radio 4 in January 2014.

Fadia Faqir is the author of three novels: Nisanit, Pillars of Salt, My Name is Salma (U.S.A. title The Cry of the Dove) and Willow Trees Don’t Weep. She was born in Amman, Jordan, and moved to Britain in 1984. Her work has been published in nineteen countries and translated into fifteen languages. In 1989, the University of East Anglia awarded her the first Ph.D. in Critical and Creative Writing. She currently holds a writing fellowship at St Aidan’s College, Durham University, where she teaches creative writing.  She often writes on issues of gender, identity, and culture. She divides her time between Durham, London and Amman.

Ashish Ghadiali trained in Film Production at NYU, has worked as a screenwriter for producers including Shekhar Kapur, Mukesh Bhatt and Josef Aichholzer, was once the Director of the Freedom Theatre Film Unit in Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine, and once the Guest Editor of Red Pepper Magazine. Over the years he has also won some awards. He is an active member of the Kramblers walking assocation.

Raj Kumar Hans was born in a Punjabi village and graduated from Guru Nanak Dev University in 1977. For doctoral studies he moved to the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda where he has been teaching history since 1983. He shifted his field of research from economic to social and cultural history. Taking a comparative view of the regional cultural formations of the Indic civilization, he has been studying Gujarat and Punjab. For the last few years he has focused his attention on the study of Sikhism and Punjabi Dalit literature. His articles and papers on Gujarat and Punjab history have been published in journals and edited books. He was awarded a Fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (2009-11) to write his monograph on a history of Punjabi Dalit literature which is now being finalised for press. Currently he is working on history of Dalits in the Sikh religion.

Peter Kalu is a Manchester based novelist, playwright and poet.  He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date His work has been widely published, performed and displayed within the UK.  Prizes he has won include the BBC Young Playwrights Award, Liverpool Kodak Film Pitch Award, Leicester University Radio Play Commission, The Voice/Jamaica Information Service Marcus Garvey Scholarship Award and the Contact/BBC Dangerous Comedy Prizefor his play, Pants. Peter Kalu is Commonword/Cultureword’s Artistic Director.

Basir Kazmi, born in Pakistan (1953), studied and taught English at the Government College Lahore. He edited Ravi (1974) and was the office bearer of the college literary and dramatic societies. He did his M.Ed (1991) and M.Phil (2000) at Manchester University, and PGCE in English (1995). He was the news editor/reader for the BBC’s Asian Programme (1990-91) and a Literature Adviser to the North West Arts Board (1993-1996). He conducted poetry and drama workshops all over the UK and has read widely in Britain, Pakistan, India, Middle East, Europe and USA. Basir has taught at a few high schools, colleges and a university (Bradford) in the UK.  Basir’s collections of Urdu poetry, Mauj-e-Khayaal (1997) and Chaman Koi Bhi Ho (2008), a long play Bisaat (1987) and Bisaat’s translation of The Chess Board (1997) have been published. English translations of Basir’s poems have appeared in several magazines and anthologies. Basir has also written extensively on the life and poetry of his father Nasir Kazmi (1925-1972), a famous Urdu poet.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan writer of fiction. She completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University where she also teaches as an Associate Lecturer. Her novel Kintu won the Kwani Manuscript Project 2013 and was published in 2014. Her short story Let’s Tell This Story Properly was both the African Regional and overall winner of The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014.

Tariq Mehmood is an award winning writer and filmmaker. Hand On The Sun was published by Penguin, 1983. His second novel While There Is Light was published by Comma/Carcanet, 2003. He won the Francis Lincoln Diversity in Children’s Literature Award for Unpublished Novels for You’re Not Proper. He is co-director of the award-winning documentary film Injustice (www.injusticefilm.co.uk) which dealt with deaths in British police custody and which the police tried to suppress.  He is currently teaching at the American University of Beirut.

Anita Mir is an academic and writer. Her PhD was from Exeter, and she has taught at the universities of Essex, Exeter, Birkbeck, University of London and LUMS in Pakistan. In September she begins teaching at Fordham, an American university in the UK. Her work is on mystical poetry and on political Islam.  She writes plays and has had two shorts on (The Space and Soho) and rehearsed readings of several plays: RADA, Rich Mix, King’s College and Southwark Playhouse. These are under consideration with theatre companies.

Dalia Mostafa is Lecturer in Arabic and Comparative Literature at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, the University of Manchester. She has published in both English and Arabic on the contemporary Arabic novel, Arab cinema, and popular culture in Egypt. Her current research focuses on the cultural elements of the 25th January 2011 Egyptian Revolution such as literature, cinema, and song. She is currently editing a special issue entitled ‘Women, Culture, and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution’, which will appear in the Journal for Cultural Research in 2015.

Shams Rehman, born in Morra Loharaan, Akalgarh in Mirpur is a Kashmiri author, activist and presenter residing in Oldham, UK. Shams gained Honours and MA in Sociology from Karachi University. He migrated to Britain in 1988 and completed an MA (Econ) in Development Studies and MSc Sociological Research at University of Manchester.  Shams is a founding member of Karvan-e-Adab, a British Asian Literary Forum, Chitka, Soochan/Kashmir Insight, Kashmir National Identity Campaign & Association of British Kashmiris, Appna Des Channel, KBC Channel.  He has written many articles in Pahari (Mirpuri), Urdu and English on various aspects of Kashmir and Kashmiris.

Humaira Saeed is Lecturer in English at Nottingham Trent University. Her current research addresses how the gendered trauma of the Partition of India has lasting ramifications for the ways in which Pakistan and Pakistani identities are narrativised in cultural texts. She has published articles on the Partition of India and Pakistani fiction and film, and co-edited a special issue of Women: A Cultural Review on Transnational Feminisms. She maintains a scholarly and activist interest in the ways in which queer modes of belonging become asserted through racialised attachments to the nation state.

Ayesha Siddiqi is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University College of London. Her research examines the post-9/11 Pakistani novel in English through the lens of trauma theory.  The three writers of her focus are Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, and Mohsin Hamid. Ayesha did her MA in Critical Theory at Sussex University, where she focused on the writings of Thomas Hardy and E.M. Forster. She is also interested in psychoanalytic literary criticism and deconstruction. Outside of the PhD, she writes fiction and plays.

Nicole Thiara (PhD Manchester) has been Lecturer in English at Nottingham Trent University since 2013. She is author of the monograph Salman Rushdie and Indian Historiography: Writing the Nation Into Being (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and has published articles on Rushdie in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, the  Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies and contributed to Critical Insights: Salman Rushdie, edited by Bernard Rodgers (Salem Press, 2012). She is currently working on a project on the representation of Dalits in Indian Literature and film. She is also the principal investigator of the AHRC funded research network ‘Writing, Analysing, Translating Dalit Literature’ (2014-16). An international conference ‘Contemporary Approaches to the Analysis of Dalit Literature’ at Nottingham Trent and a symposium on Dalit Literature at Leicester University in June 2014, were the first events of the research network series.

Yusra Warsama is a performance poet, actor, writer and theatre practitioner, her passions lie in creating work through play and exploration of life experiences in world we live in. Past, present and future work takes many forms, from her developing a one woman show which uses spoken word, storytelling, live art and physical expression, to ‘Grace’ (05) and ‘Make – Believe’ (09) with Quarantine, which looks at exploring theatre without focus on characters but the one to one relationship between performer and audience. Yusra began her theatre career at The Contact Theatre, Manchester, whilst studying (BA HONS) Criminology & Sociology, from there she worked alongside national and international artists and companies such as Morganics, Sista Native, Lemn Sissay, Victoria- Belgium, Afro-Reggae -Brazil. Major collaborative work includes Don Lett’s ‘Speakers Corner’ this was a spoken word theatre piece alongside artists such as rapper Skinnyman and Mad Flow, to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Yusra is currently writing a play for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre with two other writers, and filming her first international feature.

 

 

Free Talha Ahsan & Extradition issues – further reading & resources

http://www.freetalha.org twitter :@freetalha / @hamjaahsan
http://www.stopisolation.org – UK based org on solitary confinement
Twitter Hashtags : #BringTalhaHome #ExtraditionFilm #MyNameisAhsan

Film : Extradition (2012)
1. A 25 minute film is online http://www.extraditionfilm.com featuring Gareth Peirce & families of Talha Ahsan & Babar Ahmad – shot before extradition explains related issues, framed around Talha’s prison poetry.
2. youtube.com/freetalha – archive of TV & Radio appearances
3. Dinnertime (2013) – film on Talha’s family directed by Clare Cameron 3 minute film online. winner of Channel 4 short documentary award
4. Art Begets Spirit (2014) – Online 8 min film profile of Hamja Ahsan transformation as campaigner on youtube.

Books
1) Shadow Lives : the forgotten women on the War on terror – Victoria Brittain
An essential read covering the case of Talha Ahsan & Babar Ahmad in special chapter & providing geopolitical context – acclaimed by Noam Chomsky & Helena Kennedy.
2) State of Race – ed. Nisha Kapoor looking at Racism, the state and the War on Terror. Contain must-read essay Extraordinary Extradition on Talha Ahsan extradition. Get copy for your university library
3) This be the Answer – anthology of Talha prison poetry & travel poetry with introductions by Aamer Anwar prison poetry & travel poems with introductions by Aamer Anwar (Human Rights lawyer) & Richard Haley (SACC)
A 2nd book of Talha’s prison poetry will be released next year with an introduction by his UK solicitor Gareth Pierce – featuring Supermax & solitary confinement writings
4) On Writing – A.L. Kennedy – book on creative writing featuring 2 essays on Talha and creative writing in prison. Award-winning novelist A. L. Kennedy has written to Talha for many years. Feature full transcript of lecture at Tate Modern featuring Talha’s prison letters as a centre piece
5) Supermax – Sharon Shalev – best book on Supermax prisons covering all issues by world’s leading expert based at LSE gave evidence in solitary ECHR ruling
6) The Establishment (forthcoming September 2014) – Owen Jones features Hamja Ahsan & Talha Campaign

Books on other British Extradition cases : 1) Saving Gary Mckinnon – Janis Sharp (featuring nice potrayal of Talha & his family campaign) 2) Price to Pay – David Bermingham (must-read book on understanding flaws of US-UK Extradition by expert witness of Natwest 3 3) Gang of One – Gary Mulgrew – extradition story soon to be turned into a Hollywood film – Talha favourite book read in prison
TV series: SILK, episode 4, series 3, based loosely on Talha’s case – available on DVD and online
Extradition Justice Reform Campaigns

1) Liberty – Extradition watch http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/campaigns/extradition-watch
Liberty supports Talha Ahsan campaign on extradition shortlist Hamja Ahsan a Liberty Human Rights Hero Award 2013 for the family campaign. At the AGM the campaign for Extradition reform was passed unanimously mentioning the injustice of Talha Ahsan extradition
2) Friends of The Extradited http://www.friends-extradited.org/
Campaign website run by Melanie Riley featuring main British extradition cases on 2003 US-UK Extradition treaty. Tweets : @FrEXTRADITED
3) Statewatch – Extradition 10 areas of concern
http://www.statewatch.org/news/2003/jul/25ukus.htm

Solitary Confinement issues:
1) Solitarywatch – must-read web-based project on Solitary Confinement featuring poetry and writings from prisoners in solitary confinement. Talha Ahsan campaign invited Jean Casella & James Ridgeway for first UK public event
http://solitarywatch.com/
2) ACLU Stop solitary confinement https://www.aclu.org/we-can-stop-solitary
3) STOP ISOLATION – UK based campaign on Solitary based in Edinburgh & London http://www.stopisolation.org

FREE DOWNLOADS :
1) Solitary Confinement Handbook – FREE PDF at http://solitaryconfinement.org/
2) ASFC Bonnie Kerness (Hamja’s hero) anthologies of writing of solitary confinement & torture in US prisons : https://afsc.org/document/survivors-manual-surviving-solitary
Supermax campaign : https://afsc.org/campaign/stopmax
3) General : ACLU – Civil liberties after 9/11 – “material support” law covered
https://www.aclu.org/call-courage-reclaiming-our-liberties-ten-years-after-911

Cases worth noting : Extradition – 1. Lotfi Raissi 2. Fahad Hashmi (pre-trial isolation)
3. David McIntyre (British solidier with Suicide risk & PSTD) 4. Lauri Love (Occupy hacker) 5. Richard O’Dwyer (student with TV shack website) 6. The Dunhams

Journalism worth noting :Jeanne Theoharis in THE NATION (google) best articles on domestic Guatanamos and “material support” cases & brilliant critique of ECHR judgement “A European Court gives a green light to torture” – all articles online at The Nation website
US Campaigns : http://no-separate-justice.org/
No separate – progressive campaign on domestic war on terror cases based in New York – monthly vigils at MCC prison in New York
Center for Constitutional Rights contextual information on“material support” charge http://ccrjustice.org/learn-more/faqs/factsheet%3A-material-support

The Dreamer by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

THE DREAMER by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

Extract from Chapter 1

I was always the anti-star, the supporting-villain, but I was beginning to be known. I had a small apartment in L.A., with less furniture than my London flat, but when I accepted a West End role for a six week run, Helen told me I was making a mistake. But I had a reason, I could sense it, and the reason was Vanessa, right on cue. She was a costume designer then, and the first time we kissed we both knew. It felt like going home, although – and this didn’t occur to us at the time –  neither of us had very good memories of home.

After Vanessa and I were married I made The King and became a household face, if not a name. After a few years, I stopped feeling paranoid; the Kingwas not a nice man; the king, of course, was the villain. The hero was Russell Crowe.

We were only screen together for one scene. Clad in my underwear, I stood in the desert and he blew my brains out in balletic slow-mo. It was the only scene he and I were together for, and it was the only time you saw my face, and even that was a controversial decision.

For the rest of the film I was in shadow or the camera would lock onto my shoes, or one of my many guns arranged beside fountain pens and telephones. And then there was my voice. I’ve played Arabs before, can get away with whole sentences in Arabic, but this took months to perfect. In the absence of my face, my voice had to speak for my whole character.

I succeeded, but it hurt. It always hurts.

Then after The King’s release I became a figure of revilement for many Asians. It vilified Muslims, they said, and I was an opportunist and traitor. For me it was a purely internal process, but the internal isn’t visible. Furthermore, they didn’t know about the following, deleted, scene.

Crowe stares down at my dying body and I morph till almost Christlike. He looks into the past and we see my old life. A family man; my family are killed; I wander in despair till I find faith and plastic explosives. Crowe’s face… a single tear.

This probably wouldn’t have satisfied them anyway, but what none of them will ever believe is that I didn’t even know the whole story until I saw the final cut. I hadn’t read the script, and I didn’t care. Actors don’t need to read the script, Ray said. It’s the character that counts, and if the character isn’t in you – if you can’t find him – you can’t do it.

Finding anything has always been hard for me. My father died when I was nine, and before then everything is hazy. When my mother died whole sections of my memory were extracted, as if by a surgeon. Others endured, fresh as newborns, but going back is always painful. At first I would pretend, and Ray and the others never guessed, but after a time the parts became too interesting, too irresistible, for pretence. So I became a method actor, giving my soul to villains who possessed me. And The King was one.

Vanessa noticed. When I returned from the desert she told me my face looked different.  She could see him in my eyes. Ray would say he’d been there for years,  but I’d dragged him into the light.

If I could have had a respite it might have been different, but in all my years I don’t think I played one character you could even describe as likeable, let alone good.

But what did I care? Suddenly I was famous, in a manner of speaking, and I had money, a lot it. I won a BAFTA and there were whispers about an OSCAR which never materialised; I met Spike Lee, could always get a table at The Ivy, and was invited to the Superbowl but didn’t go.

I suppose it was around that time people began to suspect I had a drink problem. Previously I’d been a flamboyant figure, given to gentle witty debauchery after the curtain has fallen. But now I was drunk all the time, and became significantly less witty and more unpredictable. People like Oliver Reed, eventually, will be applauded for such behaviour, but folk like me will always be viewed as animals, poked between bars while we’re sick in a corner.

The only person who ever said anything was Ray, and with characteristic directness. ‘You’re an alcoholic, Shashi. You’ll be impotent soon.’ After that, we saw less of each other, drifted apart. It’s become a habit for me to ignore his calls now, though I do this to most people. My only friends were Khal and Ameena, though even that wasn’t simple.

A few weeks after I won my BAFTA, Action Corps Theatre staged a play called The Chimp, which ran for three nights and never drew an audience greater than thirty.  It was a one man show, starring and written by Khaled Wahid. Though it showed at the Bush Theatre it didn’t have the aura of a professional production: it was a skit, for an in-crowd.

The protagonist was a boxer -the title being a twist on The Champ – who emerges from obscurity to become the featherweight champion of the world. As his success increases he comes increasingly to resemble a primate until, in the last act, he has fur growing from his shoulders and walks on all fours with boxing gloves strapped to his hands and feet. In Act I he uses a barely intelligible northern dialect, but by the end he speaks the Queen’s English in a mansion in Hampstead and with a beautiful blonde wife, whom we never see her. I sat at the back each night, slipping out just before the end.

A few months later, for the first time, Khal came to me for help, which I was happy to give. He was struggling, had two children now, and I told him he could have mycredit card if he liked, but Khal wanted Helen. He wanted to work.

Helen said yes, probably as a favour to me – the market wouldn’t easily support another Asian male in his thirties – and I was grateful, never suspecting this could affect me.As far as I was concerned I was the equal of heaven, but it’s at times like this when we begin our descent, so gradual we don’t even notice at first.

Khal began to work, to really work, entering the commercial so late he was bound to suffer.  And Khal wasn’t proud, not anymore; he even did adverts. Helen never sent us up for the same roles, which must have been deliberate, and for years we lived separate lives, seeing each other with increasing rarity.

And then I was sent a script for was a two-part television drama called Back, Sac and Crack, about two brothers who run a massage parlour as a money laundering front, but then fall for the same woman. It was quite humorous, descending into an almost operatic finale in which they fire machine guns at each other across the salon. I accepted the lead as the slightly younger brother, and then Helen rang: Khal’s the other brother, she said.

She sounded anxious, but after the initial embarrassment, everything worked out beautifully.  It was so easy working with Khal, and more to the point, so fun, which was a word I never associated with work. From the minute shooting began we were always in each others’ rooms, gossiping and bitching. Khal told me how much he hated the commercial world, and how he worried he wasn’t good enough. I was worried I’d drag him down to my level, but Khal said he didn’t care; he had two children now.

The truth is that, as an actor, Khal was only passable, but he made up for his weaknesses by being self-disciplined and organised, the opposite to me who was always late and usually drunk. Ray would have called me a prima donna,, but I didn’t care; I was Tony Shah and Tony Shah was a prick, we all knew that. Except for Khal. Khal didn’t know Tony, not until yesterday anyway. Yesterday. There isn’t that much to tell…

It was raining outside and we had about half an hour before the gunfight scene and we were in Khal’s room. The set was rather elaborate, but by now both of us were bored with the whole thing. We’d enjoyed working together, but the film was shit and the fact that we were together meant we couldn’t lie to ourselves. It didn’t matter; Khal needed money and I was too drunk to care.

I remember laughing then realising his face was wet and thinking the rain had leaked inside, but then he started to cry out loud.

Ameena’s left me.

I thought this meant she’d died, so I started crying too, or was about to:

I slept with someone else.

Idiot, I said, but only because I thought he was joking.

We sat together until we were called, which came as a surprise. I’d forgotten where we were. I don’t remember much about makeup.

There must have been twenty, thirty people on set. I had to throw open the door, run inside, punch Khal on the nose, then watch as he crawled across the floor after his machine gun. I remember the sound guy making some joke about a brewery, which could have been directed at me, and then we were shooting. I was so distracted I wasn’t even in character.

I pushed open the door, walked inside, punched Khal hard in the stomach then hammered the top of his head with the side of my fist. When I started kicking our eyes met and he looked… I didn’t care.

I can’t remember what I did after that, but it probably involved alcohol.

Writers in Politics by Ngugi Wa Thiong ‘O

Writers in Politics: A re-engagement with issues of literature and society by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O

Literature results from conscious acts of men and women in society. Being a product of their intellectual and imaginative activity, it is thoroughly social. The very act of writing, even at the level of the individual, implies a social relationship: one is writing about somebody for somebody. At the collective level literature embodies in word-images the tensions, conflicts and contradictions at the heart of a community’s being and becoming. It reflects, on the aesthetic plane, a community’s wrestling with its environment to make it yield the means of life – food, clothes, shelter. It is of course more than just a mechanical reflection of social reality. As one of man’s artistic activities, literature is in itself part of human self-realisation as a result of his wrestling with nature and with one another. It is also enjoyable as a process and as an end product. More importantly, it shapes our attitude to life, to the daily struggles with nature, within communities and within our individual souls and selves. It shapes our feelings. And feelings are an important component of thinking, imagination, decision making and action.

Literature, then, does not belong to ethereal planes and surreal spaces, electing to have nothing to do with the mundanity of economics, politics, race, class, history. As a process and an end, it is conditioned by these social forces and pressures because imagination takes place within economic, political, class and race contexts. Arising from its thoroughly social character, literature is partisan: it takes sides more so in a class society.

A writer after all comes from a particular class, gender, race and nation. He is a product of an actual social process of eating, drinking, learning, loving, hating, and he has developed a class attitude to all these activities in support or opposition. A writer tries to persuade his readers, to make them not only view a certain reality, but also from a certain angle of vision. The persuasion can take the form of a direct appeal on behalf of a writer’s open doctrine or an indirect one through influencing the imagination, feelings and actions of the recipient in a certain way towards certain goals and values consciously or unconsciously held by him.

A nation’s literature which is a sum total of the products of many individuals in that society is then both a reflection of that people’s collective reality and also an embodiment of that people’s way of looking at the world and their place in its making. It is partisan on the collective level because it tries to make the reader see how that nation has defined itself historically in the internal relationship of all the parts that contribute to its wholeness and the worlds around it.

In order to make economic and political occupation complete and effective, the coloniser tried also to control the cultural environment – education, religion, language, literature, songs and dances, every form of expressive practices – hoping in this way to control a people’ values, their world outlook and hence their images and definitions of self. Their ideal was to have a slave who accepted that he was a slave. Better still a slave who would actually be grateful to the master for his magnanimity in chaining him to a nobler civilisation…. The fact is a slave is never a slave until he accepts that he is a slave. Hence all those celebrated programmes of assimilation and co-option with the language of the colonizer playing a central mediating role. Mind control through culture was the key! Cultural subjugation was a necessary condition for economic and political mastery.

Amilcar Cabral has argued that ‘to dominate a nation by force of arms is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralise or paralyse its culture. For, as long as a section of the populace is able to have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation.’ Seeds of cultural opposition could so easily sprout into political resistance and even armed opposition. In such a situation the coloniser is faced with two untenable alternatives: liquidisation of the entire population or harmonisation of the ‘economic and political domination of these people with its cultural personality.’ The first alternative which implies the genocide of the indigenous population ‘creates a void which takes from the foreign domination its content and objective’ which is of course the labour of the dominated people. The second has never been confirmed by history for it is impossible to harmonise economic and political domination of a people whatever the degree of social development, with the preservation of its culture. To avoid either of these alternatives colonial imperialist domination creates theories about the coloniser and the colonised which are ‘nothing but crude racist formulations.’ Racism and racist doctrines formulated through culture become an integral part of the ‘permanent siege’ of the indigenous population.

Extracts from Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

Extracts from Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (1956)

‘Sometimes I look back at all the years I spend in Brit’n’ Moses say, ‘and I surprise that so many years gone by. Looking at things in general life really hard for the boys in London. This is a lonely miserable city, if it was that we didn’t get together now and then to talk about things back home, we would suffer like hell. Here is not like home where you have friends all about. In the beginning you would think that is a good thing, that nobody minding your business, but after a while you want to get in company, you want to go to somebody house and eat a meal, you want to go on excursion to the sea, you want to go and play football and cricket. Nobody in London does really accept you. They tolerate you, yes, but you can’t go in their house and eat or sit down and talk. It ain’t have no sort of family life for us here. Look at Joseph. He married to a English girl and they have four children, and they living in two rooms in Paddington. He apply to the LCC for a flat, but it look like he would never get one. Now the children big enough to go to school, and what you think? Is big fight everyday because the other children calling him darkie. When they not at school they in the street playing. Boy, when I was a little fellar my mother cut my tail if I play in the street. And you think Joseph could make out on that six pounds ten he getting?…’

One night of any night, liming on the Embankment near to Chelsea, he stand on the bank of the river, watching the lights of the buildings reflected in the water, thinking what he must do, if he should save up money and go back home, if he should try to make it by next year before he change his mind again
The old Moses, standing by the banks of the Thames. Sometimes he thinks he see some sort of profound realisation in his life, as if all that happen to him was experience that make him a better man, as if now he could draw apart from any hustling and just sit down and watch other people fight to live. Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country. As if he could see the black faces bobbing up and down in the millions of white, strained faces, everyone hustling along the Strand, the spades jostling in the crowd, bewildered, hopeless. As if, on the surface, things don’t look so bad, but when you go down a little, you bounce up a kind of misery and pathos and a frightening – what? He don’t know the right word, but he have the right feeling in his heart. As if all the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they afraid to cry, they only laughing because they fraid to cry, they only laughing because to think about everything would be a big calamity – like how they here now, the thoughts so heavy like he unable to move his body.

A Float for Shez by Kavita Bhanot

A Float for Shez by Kavita Bhanot
(published in Roads Ahead, Tindal Street Press, 2009)

It was one of those moments that hits a classroom every now and then. A wave of silence starts at the back of the room, usually the noisiest part, and laps so suddenly across the room that it catches those at the front unawares. It was Shez, sitting in the front, who was caught by the silence. And once the words were out, we both knew she’d never hear the end of it.
It wasn’t what she said. The words, if someone else had said them, would have produced a few laughs, a bit of teasing, but that was all. They would have been forgotten in minutes. But coming from Shez’s mouth, they must have sounded really strange, especially to anyone who didn’t know her. Because someone like Shez wasn’t supposed to say something like that. She was ‘trying to be who she wasn’t’ and that, as far as 9C was concerned, was unforgivable.
The first time little Shez told me that she fancied my brother Shakeel, even I asked her if she was feeling all right. Then I just found Shez’s purely theoretical obsess- ion with the male species funny, assuming it was because she spent too much time with her boy-crazy cousins, who all lived on the same street as her, and were bigger, louder, better-looking versions of her. She copied them in everything, wore their clothes, a hijab, straightened her hair. She had recently started to put on black eyeliner, smudged and wonky.
But that day, in the maths lesson, when everyone heard her, I felt myself growing red with embarrassment. ‘What did you say that for?’ I whispered, dipping my head to join hers, as the girls around us echoed Shez’s words, ‘Ali’s got a nice bum, Ali’s got a nice bum.’
Some girls ask to be bullied. Girls like Mavis, who had an old lady’s name and a stutter, but who still wouldn’t stay quiet; always trying to make jokes that weren’t funny, tagging along with girls who didn’t want her, buying them Brain Lickers, telling them her secrets. And then, when they made fun of her, when they imitated her stutter, she got so splutteringly angry she stuttered even more. But from the first day of Year 7, when we had found each other, Shez and I had managed to make ourselves invisible. Apart from the odd comment about Shez’s headscarf, nobody really noticed us. Until now.
Shez’s words followed us around for weeks. And for the first time, I saw Shez as the other girls probably saw her. She was tiny, the second smallest girl in our class, and the smallest, Louise, was virtually a dwarf. Her school uniform, passed down from her cousins, was too big for her. The long blue skirt swept the ground as she walked and she was always tripping on the rippling waves of material. She wore a baggy blue jumper that came almost to her knees; the sleeves were too long and she was constantly pulling them up to free her hands. And then, to make matters worse, there was the thin black scarf with silver CKs stamped all over it, burying her in even more fabric as she gathered it around her small face.
So when Meena told me I was ‘all right’ and asked me why I was Shez’s friend, I was ripe for the question.
It was a science lesson. A teacher stood in front of the whiteboard, clutching a piece of paper, holding it up close to his face as if he’d forgotten to wear his glasses. As we walked in, he looked up every now and then to say, ‘Hello, girls,’ or, ‘Good afternoon,’ in a foreign accent.
‘We got supply again,’ called Jan as she walked in.
‘Doss lesson,’ sang Sam, behind her.
He waited several minutes for silence, for everyone to look at him. When this didn’t happen, he looked embarrassed, focusing intently on his piece of paper, as if he was too busy to notice us. Smarter than some of the other supplies, he didn’t try to shout over everyone, but turned his back on us and introduced himself on the whiteboard, writing his name and the date in scrawly letters, and underneath, ‘Copy pages 128–135 of Biology 7.’
‘What do you think of him?’ Shez asked me. ‘What do you think of Mr, Mr . . .’ She narrowed her eyes, trying to read his name.
‘Mr Balthusier.’ I screwed up my nose. ‘Shez, leave the teachers alone at least.’
‘What? Teachers are men, too. Anyway, he’s not a real teacher. He’s supply.’
‘But he’s French or German or something. And he’s got a beard.’ ‘Ali’s got a beard,’ Shez pointed out, ‘and he’s cute.’
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t comment, because I’d never seen the famous Ali. Shez had tried to arrange a viewing, but I refused to take the 7.33 a.m. bus that she’d been catching for the past three months, ever since she’d discovered Ali driving it. Just for the pleasure of seeing him – she’d never even said hello to him – she came to school forty-five minutes early every day.
‘He’s coming over,’ Shez whispered, putting her head down. We both picked up our pens.
‘Good. Good girls,’ said Mr Balthusier, even though our pages were blank. ‘The other girls, they don’t want to learn, that is their problem, but you, you are good girls.’
I looked around. Apart from Saira, the refugee girl who had no friends and was scribbling away as if her life depended on it, no one else had bothered to pick up a pen, or to open a textbook to even pretend they were working. Hannah was brushing her hair, Jan was brushing her eyelashes and Meena was playing with her phone. Everyone else was talking. He leaned over and I could smell his aftershave, something fruity, mixed with nervous sweat, as he flipped the covers of our exercise books. ‘Shezma Masood and Mariah Ahmed. I will leave a note for your science teacher to say how good you two have been.’
‘Sir, it’s Maariah,’ I said. I hated it when teachers used flattery to divide and rule. And there was no point him leaving a note for our science teacher. Mr Miller had disappeared almost a month before; there were rumours that he’d had a nervous breakdown after some Year 10 girls locked him in the science cupboard for a whole day. We’d been copying pages from Biology 7 ever since, with a different supply taking us for every lesson.
‘Sir,’ said Meena, standing behind Mr Balthusier, a hand on her hip, her open mouth going round and round like a washing machine as she chewed gum.
Meena was beautiful. She’d recently dyed her hair a strange maroon colour and her eyes, that day, were green. Sometimes they were an unexpected blue or a cat- like hazel, depending on the contacts she was wearing, but they were always under the shade of her extra-long, extra-thick, mascara-coated eyelashes. Meena was different from the other Asian girls in our school. Most of us kept our heads down and our mouths shut, but not Meena. She was friends with the white girls. Shez’s cousins called her a coconut and said she pretended to be like them so as to fit in, but it seemed to me they were just jealous.
‘Sir, I need to go now.’
He turned. ‘Go? Go where?’
‘Go and pray,’ she said, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.
Mr Balthusier looked the gum-chewing, maroon- haired, short-skirted girl in front of him up and down. ‘Can you throw out the chewing gum?’ he said, irrelevantly.
‘No.’ This confused him. His eyes darted round the room, before settling on Meena again. ‘Only joking,’ she said. ‘I’ll get rid of it. In a bit, though. I only just put it in my mouth. I don’t want to waste it, do I?’ Mr Balthusier blinked. ‘Oh, do that again, sir.’
‘Do what?’ ‘Blink like that. Oh, you’ve got such lovely eyes.’ She turned to me. ‘Hasn’t he got lovely eyes?’ I nodded shyly. ‘What colour are they, sir? Ah, he’s all embarrassed now. Look how pink he’s gone. So, is it all right if I go now, sir?’
‘Go . . . to pray?’ he asked. Meena nodded slowly, with exaggerated patience. ‘Are you the Muslim?’ She nodded again. ‘What is your name?’ She didn’t even pause. ‘Saira Salim.’ The real Saira Salim looked up, opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, but then closed it again.
‘Do you have a note, perhaps, to say that you go to pray at this time?’
Meena sighed. ‘Sir! I didn’t know you would be here in- stead of our normal teacher, did I? And Mr Miller knows I have to go and pray, so why would I bring a note?’
The logic of her argument seemed to stump him. With his big blinking eyes, magnified by glasses, he looked like a trapped rabbit, caught between the natural scepticism of a teacher and the political correctness of a multiculturalist. His eyes fell on Shez and me. ‘Is it true?’ He looked at Shez, at her hijab. ‘So why are you not going also?’
‘We are, sir,’ I said. ‘We have to go too.’ I stood up. ‘Can we go now, please?’
‘What did you do that for?’ said Shez, when all three of us were outside the classroom. ‘We’re going to get into trouble now.’
‘What did you do that for? We’re going to get into trouble now,’ parodied Meena. She set off down the corridor, her narrow hips swaying in her tight skirt, which she had rolled up a few times, making her legs, in their black tights and platform shoes, even longer.
‘Can’t we go back in?’ Shez muttered, as we followed. We were supposed to be praying, I reminded her. We couldn’t go back straight away.
Meena turned suddenly. ‘So who’s Ali?’ Shez blushed. ‘Just a guy I know.’
‘Does he have nice bum then? Does he? Have you felt it?’ When Shez didn’t reply, Meena shrugged and walked off. She stopped a few minutes later to knock on a classroom door. ‘Is Kate there?’ she asked Miss Rai. ‘Mr Garner wants to talk to her.’
‘Yes, I’m sure he does,’ said Miss Rai. ‘Why aren’t you in class, Meena?’
Miss Rai had taken us for science last year. She was a nice teacher, but she did her best to hide it, especially in front of girls like Meena. When she saw Shez and me her attitude suddenly changed. ‘Oh, you two are with Meena. So she’s not making it up. Right, Kate, Mr Garner wants to speak to you. Yes, now. No, leave your things. Come back here straight afterwards or I’ll send out a search party for you.’
‘You two are useful to have around,’ said Meena, putting an arm through Kate’s and walking on.
It was a whole new world, being out of lessons. There was a different, hushed atmosphere in the school. It seemed as though only we were free, and everybody else was imprisoned in classrooms. We met other fugitives along the way and, whether they were in Year 7 or Year 10, for once it didn’t matter: we were all playing the same game. There were exchanged looks, smiles and warnings. ‘Watch out, Mr Henley’s round that corner,’ and ‘I wouldn’t go that way if I was you.’ We picked some of them up on the way, so by the time we got to the bike sheds, there were eight of us.
‘Can we go back now?’ Shez whispered to me, as some of the girls started pulling out cigarettes.
Irritated, I told her that she had no sense of adventure. She could go back if she wanted to, but I was staying. She looked at me, lips pouting, a hurt expression on her face. As I watched her walk away, tripping over the folds of her skirt, I had an urge to follow her. I was no longer sure why I was staying behind.
‘Where’s your friend gone?’ asked Meena, looking up from the phone she was playing with.
‘She’s gone back,’ I told her.
Meena looked at me, blinking a few times, her eyelashes sweeping the air, her green eyes almost hypnotic. ‘I don’t know why you hang out with her, you know.’
‘She’s not that bad. If you get to know her. Anyway,’ I said, implying that I was bound to her out of some sense of loyalty, ‘we’ve been friends for ages.’
Meena smiled and put her arm through mine. ‘Well, you’re all right.’
I tried not to show the pleasure that was reddening my face. ‘So are you,’ I said.

I carried Meena’s words with me for weeks. Later, I wrapped them up and put them away, taking them out for reassurance every now and then. Sometimes, but not too often in case she caught me staring and thought I was weird, I glanced at Meena and if she caught my eye, she smiled. At other times, as she walked past, she called out, ‘Wassup Mariah!’
‘Am I invisible or something?’ Shez asked me on one of these occasions, as we sat in the dining hall. ‘Why does she always ignore me?’
I shrugged. ‘Maybe she doesn’t like you.’
‘That’s so mean. Why would you say that?’
It was mean. Maybe that was why I carried on, in a twisted kind of self-defence. ‘Because she said so. Kind of.’
‘When?’
‘That day we walked out of science.’
Was I referring, asked Shez, to the day she’d had to go back to the lesson on her own?
‘I didn’t make you, you wanted –’ I stopped. ‘Anyway, after you left, Meena told me I was all right.’ The words that I had treasured, that I had replayed in my head, sounded petty now, even to my ears. Shez didn’t seem suitably impressed either.
I pushed a chip round my plate. Maybe it was a way of making the fading words real again; maybe I wanted Shez to be grateful that I was her friend. ‘She said,’ I continued, ‘that she didn’t know why I hang out with you.’
‘She said that?’ I nodded. ‘What did you say?’
‘I stuck up for you, of course. But she said, if I wanted to, I could be friends with her, with them, instead.’ It might have been the next thing she said, I told myself, if Mr Mann hadn’t come out at that moment and dragged us all back into class.
Something changed in Shez’s eyes at that moment. There was respect perhaps, and something else, fear. ‘So, what are you going to do?’
‘What can I do? I’m not going to leave you on your own, am I?’

Shez never left her pencil case at home. Every night, she packed her bag carefully, then did a check in the morning to make sure she had everything. But that day, somehow, she’d forgotten it.
‘Can I borrow a pen?’ she asked. Normally, I would have given it to her without a thought. But now, for some reason, it felt like a big deal. I rolled my eyes as I reached, in slow motion, for my pencil case and, with a sigh, held out a biro for her.
At the end of the lesson, I asked for it back. ‘I’ll just keep it for the rest of the day,’ she said, ‘so I don’t have to keep asking.’
‘No, I want my pen back,’ I said, holding out my hand. She asked to borrow it again in maths, in French, in English. Each time, she was more apologetic, and each time it was with a greater show of reluctance that I gave it to her, demanding it back at the end of every lesson. In history, I said no.
She kept her hand out, thinking I was joking. ‘What do you want me to do, beg?’ It wouldn’t make any difference I told her. She smiled. ‘Very funny. Just give it, na.’ She reached for my pencil case.
I clamped my hand over hers. ‘No, I won’t. You can’t always expect me to sort you out, Shez. What would you do if I wasn’t around?’ Her smile faded. She took her hand back. But she still waited, still expecting me to give in, to say, ‘Here you are then.’ As she waited, I watched her crumple, watched her sink deeper into her layers, losing her arms in her jumper, her head in her hijab. I watched and felt secretly thrilled.
Several minutes later, a deflated Shez put her hand up to ask Mr Thomas for a pen.
The next day I told her to buy me some chips. She didn’t have enough money, she told me, she only had a pound, barely enough for her own lunch. I shrugged. She could use that. If she had said something then, if she’d put her chin up, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Get lost,’ like the old Shez would have done, I might have stopped there. But she didn’t. She bought me chips, and after that, was buying lunch for me every day.
Over the next few weeks, I discovered parts of myself I hadn’t known existed. I found that the box I’d always lived in, assuming that I had no choice, because that was me, was not made of metal or wood, but of something softer; clay or Plasticine. I surprised even myself as I found I could push at the walls, making the box bigger, changing its shape to create new corners, edges and angles, poking a finger out here, an elbow out there.
I didn’t feel anything when, after telling her that she stank and needed to use a deodorant, I saw a tear spill from her eye and fall onto her page, causing the blue ink to spread out and create a watery black eye on her paper. I actually smiled when, after telling her that she looked like a furry little mouse and no boy, including Ali or my brother, was ever going to be interested in her, she lay her head into her folded arms on the table and refused to lift it until the end of the French lesson, emerging only when the bell went, with bloodshot eyes and her eyeliner smudged all over her swollen face. When we went swimming, I grabbed her float while she was in the deep end, telling her it was ridiculous that she couldn’t swim without it. And I watched her panic for a while; smashing the water with her arms and legs, swallowing water and sinking, before I gave it back to her.
I didn’t let her speak, cutting her off when she tried to tell me about the mela she’d gone to with her cousins at the weekend, or about the argument between her dad and her uncle. I even told her to shut up because she was giving me a headache, when she went on and on about Shahrukh Khan in a film she’d just seen.

Day by day, I watched Shez dissolve. Literally. She seemed to be drowning as her small frame shrank into her clothes, her face peeking out from all the material like a distant head bobbing in the ocean, crying for help.
‘I don’t know why you wear your hijab,’ I said one day.
‘What do you mean? It’s part of our religion.’
‘What, it says in the Koran, “Thou shalt wear a fake Calvin Klein hijab?”’
I didn’t really know about these things, had never thought about them properly. I’d just felt bad for Shez when Jan asked her if she always wore her headscarf, if she slept with it on as well, if there was mould growing in her hair. Or when Mr Thomas said, in front of everyone, looking directly at Shez, that it was a pity that some women couldn’t fight for the basic right to wear what they wanted, after all the suffragettes had done to get women the vote. Afterwards, we’d both made little drawings of Mr Thomas, exaggerating the hair that poked out from his ears and over his shirt collar.
But now, encouraged by Shez’s silence, by her wide-open eyes, the words just poured out. ‘You don’t know anything about Islam or why you’re supposed to wear it. You’re just doing it to be like your cousins. It looks silly, everyone makes fun of you. My dad says that it doesn’t even say anywhere in the Koran that women have to wear the hijab, so I don’t know why you feel so holy, so proud, as if it makes you a better Muslim or something.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with feeling proud of your religion,’ said Shez, quietly.
But the next day, she came to school wearing her long black hair in a plait, with nothing covering it. Her eyes searched mine for approval, but found none. Instead, my lips curled into a mocking smile. She had taken off her hijab because of me.
When I told her that she was too hairy, that she should get her arms and legs waxed, her eyebrows and moustache threaded, she asked her cousin to take her to Shiraz Beauty Parlour. When I told that she needed to change her uniform, to buy a new skirt and a jumper that fitted her properly, she went shopping. She looked better as a result, but the more she changed herself to please me, the more pathetic she became in my eyes.

In the middle of the spring term, I got appendicitis. For weeks there had been a dull ache in my stomach, but Dr Gupta kept sending me home, telling me it was constipation. Then the pain got worse and I could hardly breathe. In the end, I was taken to hospital in an ambulance, almost screaming, and even though the violence in my stomach was filling my brain, I enjoyed the drama of it all. When I arrived, the doctor told me that if I’d got there an hour later, my appendix might have burst.
Shez came to visit me in hospital, bringing me a box of Quality Street and a poster of Shahrukh Khan. I sat up, leaning weakly against the pillow, and told her again and again about my almost-encounter with death. She seemed suitably impressed, although by then she was impressed with everything I said. She looked depressed when I told her that I wouldn’t be back at school for at least another two weeks since I had to have full bed rest at home.
Every day, I expected her to come, but after that first time, Shez didn’t visit me again. Not even to catch a glimpse of my brother. In the past she’d often made excuses to come round, just to see him, although he hardly noticed her.
Each day of those weeks at home dragged on, with nothing to do but watch daytime television, programmes about redecorating houses, cooking and makeovers, or repeats of serials on Zee TV and PrimeTime. I lay all day on the settee downstairs, while everyone carried on their lives around me. Shakeel was always busy with his boxing or his friends. Abu came home in the morning after his taxi shift, watched television with me for a few hours, then went upstairs to sleep. Ammi was always attached to her Singer sewing machine, which sat in the living room and sang out its tune every day from eight o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night. Sometimes she gave me piles of belts to turn the right way round and then stuff, or skirts and trousers that had gone wrong, to unpick the stitches on. With no one to talk to, I found myself having imaginary conversations with Shez, collecting thoughts and stories to share with her when I next saw her.

On my first day back, as I walked into the history class, I saw Shez sitting with Saira, the refugee girl, in the second row. I noticed that she was wearing her hijab. Both she and Saira were laughing about something. I had never seen Saira laugh, or even smile before. She usually wore a blank expression on her face, looking perpetually lost, as if she didn’t know where she was or how she had got there. I remembered how Shez and I had often imitated and laughed at the ‘Saira Face’.
‘Hi, Shez,’ I said. She didn’t reply. I sat in my usual seat in the front row, waiting for her to join me, and when she didn’t come, I turned towards her. She was still talking to Saira as if I wasn’t back at school after three weeks away. ‘Shez!’ I hissed, patting the chair next to me, but she didn’t even look at me. She was ignoring me. I glanced at Meena, sitting a few rows behind her. She was looking in my direction, but right through me, as if I was invisible. I had been gone for less than a month, and everything had changed. I turned to the front, stared straight ahead as if I didn’t care, but found myself blinking away the tears that were filling my eyes.
‘Mariah,’ said Mr Thomas loudly as he walked in. ‘Welcome back!’ He froze in mock horror as he stood in front of me and looked at Shez, then at me, then at Shez again. ‘Sitting alone?’ he said. ‘Have the two of you had a fight?’
For the rest of the lesson I burned with the embarrassment, highlighted so crushingly by Mr Thomas, of sitting alone. I refused to look behind me, using my back as a shield against Shez and the rest of the class, but I could hear Shez and Saira talking away in Urdu about the latest Hindi film Jab We Met, how they didn’t like Kareena Kapoor but thought Shahid Kapoor was so cute and couldn’t believe Kareena had left him for Saif Ali Khan.
She doesn’t care at all, I thought, as I heard her giggle. Even if she wants me to, I’ll never talk to her again.
But when a piece of lined paper, torn from an exercise book, folded and folded and folded again, until it was the size of the tip of my thumb, with Mariah Ahmed written in curls on the front, landed on my table, I was glad of the acknowledgement that I existed.
Each word was written with a different colour gel pen, in the same curly handwriting. I know that you would rather be friends with Meena and I was stopping you before, but now I have Saira, and I like her, so you don’t need to worry about me
I read it several times. Then I tore the paper up into smaller and smaller pieces, until it was a pile of confetti in front of me. Picking up my bag and my books, I went to take the empty seat next to Shez and Saira.