Dreaming of a place called home


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Category: Diaspora Date: 10 Sep 98

There’s an old song which tells the story of a 38-year-old woman who stands on top of a high building threatening to jump. “Come down,” cry the crowds. “Stop it. Why are you trying to kill yourself?”        

“Because I will never go riding in a sports car through the streets of Paris with the wind through my hair,” she shouts back. Then she jumps. 


We don’t know why she felt there was no chance of her getting in that sports car. She may have been poor, a single mother of four, dying of cancer and afraid of flying all at once. The story is faintly ridiculous and far fetched but it is said that when people are dying they don’t regret what they’ve done, rather the things they have wanted to but have never done.


The tragedy of the song is that reality may have destroyed her dream anyway. The man driving the car could have been a jerk, a gush of gritty, charcoal city fumes could have blown into her face, she may have been freezing to death in the open car. Who knows. Still her plunge to death demonstrates the necessity for dreams in our lives. The irony of dreamers is that they are rarely in the position to realise them because making a dream come true often requires money, leisure, and freedom from responsibilities.


And those who are in a position to dream often don’t have the imagination to do so. (The moneyed need to be hard-nosed, ruthless and practical to get there.) There is a group that falls in-between starving artists and ruthless millionaires. They are the new world pioneers, immigrants, indentured labourers, refugees - people from poorer or war-torn countries who tooled only with a willingness to work hard, leave behind sunshine, and family with a modest dream - that of a better life for their children.


And so the world gained its Diaspora - first and second generation of hybrids in whom continents converge. Almost every country in the world today is represented in all the major Western capitals. French, British, German, Dutch, US governments all in recent time have clamped down on immigration, unwilling to take responsibilities for the problems in the countries they have colonised.


Pillaged, enslaved, war-torn, repressed or impoverished people of Africa, Asia, the Middle East now felt their only hope was to make a life in the countries which grew plump and prosperous off their land and resources. The inevitable happened. Colonialism came home to roost.  

No job was too lowly for first generation immigrants. They kept their shops open all night, mopped toilets, conducted buses, swept the streets. Although not all were successful, many were, sending their children to good schools and creating a new generation of “black”, “Asian” or simply “non-white” professionals whose parents were born in Asia or Africa.


Their children would change the landscape of the Western world - expressed largely through popular culture, literature, art, sport and music. They were a powerful influence on their host countries. Dub and calypso would mix with classical and Punjabi Bhangra. South African voices could be heard alongside Paul Simon and VS Naipaul from Chaguanas would be writing about the English countryside, with a title to his name.


From Scary Spice to Trevor McDonald, there was no lack of success stories in the non-white community. Millionaire businessmen, journalists, broadcasters, MPs, novelists, pop singers and sportsmen and women seized opportunities and vindicated their parents’ struggles. Last month in Notting Hill Gate, London, like Trinidad, became a convention ground for all nationalities of the world during Carnival as some three million Londoners chipped and waved on the streets. People dancing to calypso chipped along roads where North Africans sat in their fez listening to Moroccan music.


The carnival over, let’s take a ride in this city. From Marble Arch we move onto little Beirut on Edgeware Road to the sight of men smoking hookahs, and fully covered Arab matrons shopping for underwear in Marks and Spencers. On to little Dublin in Kilburn where a line of pubs emit folk music amid signs of the Irish green Shamrock. We stop in a bagel shop in Golders Green where ultra orthodox Israelis with curly locks mingle with young liberal Israelis. Stamford Hill is a mixture of Turkish, Kurdish, West Indian, Ultra Orthodox Hassidim. We stop at a shop which sells 1950s style Hamburg hats made for Hassidic Jews and meet some regular customers, two elderly men, one Trinidadian the other Jamaican. Like them, many West Indian men who arrived here in the ‘60s sport these hats.       


South of the river in Brixton where speakers fill the air with dub and reggae, West Indians and Africans mingle in a market with loud calls from hawkers. Here, amidst the Edwardian architecture, we find callaloo and yams and the East African specialty of snails.


The East End used to be first port of call to newcomers in this country. Today it is a struggling immigrant culture. On top of previous layers of 18th century French Huguenots, followed by Jews and Irish, followed by Bangladeshis who came here during the war and now run the garment trade. The most recent layer are the Somalis. All of whom live cheek by jowl with the London working class cockneys.


In North East London, we have a lunch of humus, pita bread and kebabs. Here Greek and Turkish Cypriots live side by side whereas back home they are divided islands with the UN keeping them apart so they don’t kill one another.           


Wembley and South Hall are little Indias with jewelry, sari and food shops selling spices to the loud sounds of India film music and smells of Samosas and curry. Although they still cleave to their own community, for the most part, communal differences at home between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are forgotten. It is a self-contained community but for the incongruity of a Tudor style pub.


In Neasden, we visit what is considered the most spectacular temple in Europe, with ornate marble, now even more famous since the Princess of Wales visited there before her death last year.             But beneath the sheen of cosmopolitan London is another reality. That of racism.


In “Cool Britannia”, there is segregation, partly self-imposed and partially the result of being rejected from mainstream society. Non-white people live in the backdrop of the glaring case of the ongoing infamous racist killing of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man who was stabbed to death in a south London street by five white hooligans.


There are many published stories of young Asian (Indian) boys and men being stoned by racist thugs. A new study which appeared last month revealed that police detained up to five times more black men than they did white. Out of the images of boats and queues of immigrants desperate for their papers to enter a first world country, a new phenomenon has emerged. The children and grandchildren of many immigrants are now lining up to go back home.


At the Barbados exhibition in Wembley last month many people in their early thirties queued up with older retired West Indians inquiring about voluntary repatriation. They are not the exception. Many of them are women. Nigerians, Tanzanians, Jamaicans, Asians, Bajans, all expressing the desire to “go back home.”


Assimilation, even for second generation non-white women is restricted mainly to the few highly-educated professional women who are expatriates rather than immigrants - daughters of ambassadors, businessmen, middle class people from other countries who chose to educate their children here. And even they have obscure longings.


Shabana, a Tanzanian born journalist of East Indian decent, is an example. Her parents moved here in the ‘60s for their children’s education. She has never experienced racism but she has shuttled between Africa, her true love, and the UK for the last 15 years. Now she has finally decided to return to live in South Africa. Although successful here she says she missed being part of the majority, among people with similar cultural and political identities.


“Growing up as Asian/black people in Tanzania we had a sense of community. Here I always feel like a guest, foreign, apart,” she says. “My heart is never here and that’s why I’ve been longing to go back.” Shabana still works for the BBC from Africa. She adds:

“Non-white people, regardless of whether they are from Africa, India or the West Indies, have cultural bonds that are separate from the Western world.

“Together they are openly affectionate and hospitable. Their tastes in food, music, art, film are similar. Most importantly, they have all inherited a sense of community which is what they create by sticking together.”


For most non-white people, classed mainly as “Asian” or “black” the concept of the patchwork quilt is a myth. Stella, a striking graduate in fashion whose parents are Nigerian who have returned home, was born here. Paulette, a single mother of four from Tottenham, works in a low-paid job for the local council. Her parents were born here. But their dreams are identical: To escape Britain’s racism.


The two who have not met have said they find it difficult to get good jobs despite the fact that their qualifications match that of their white competitors. Neither have any white friends by choice, mainly because they feel they have nothing in common with “them”. Paulette, who is deeply bitter about the taunts she received as a child, won’t allow her teenage son to bring home any white girls.


Stella, who plans to migrate to America, says she would prefer the in-your-face American racism in the US to the subtle British variety of “false tight scared smiles” and “polite refusals to job applications.” Paulette is saving up to go back to Jamaica.


For these women, racism and alienation are only part of the problem. Property and child care are outrageously expensive, and extended family life impossible due to lack of space, and long distances between the extended family deny them support they may get at home in times of financial trouble and illness. 


Although many dream of going home, and some do, many have no choice but to stay. They stay mainly due to political, military or economic problems in the country of their parents’ birth. A few stay because of job opportunities and health and educational facilities for themselves and their children here. Some simply have no one to go back to.


Even refugees and seekers of asylum who come from troubled, war-torn, financially broke or corrupt countries live with longing in their hearts of a place they truly consider home - be it a hut in Bangladesh or a mansion in Nigeria.           


Still, Britain is not so bad. France and Belgium enjoy the dubious privilege of being the most racist countries in Europe, according to a survey conducted by the French government. All-year-round sunshine, babies on grandparents’ laps, people who laugh without restraint, music, demonstrative emotional affection, home-cooked food, and a feeling of belonging. Their dreams are no less intense for being unrealistic.


When the Notting Hill Gate Carnival was over, a friend remarked to me sadly, “It is the one time of the year when white people feel safe around blacks and when blacks feel comfortable inviting in the whites into their territory. They have all returned now to their little insular pockets.”


They may not jump off buildings but many second generation immigrants live with the pain of exile, and often its just the dreams of home that sustain them in their host country.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur