Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Scarcely ten miles away from Munich, the former concentration camp at Dachau still casts a tenebrous shadow. It was here where the words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' greeted thousands of prisoners, many of which would end up in the infamous gas chambers.

That the British Prime Minister David Cameron chose these surroundings to deliver his speech on multiculturalism in Britain a fortnight ago - and its failures, according to him -, could be thought to be at best, crass and careless and at worst, downright offensive, given the cuts the coalition government over which he presides is introducing in the UK. That the main target of his address was the Muslim community is also confusing, as only a few weeks before, a member of his own party, Baroness Warsi was complaining to all and sundry that Islamophobia had finally 'passed the dinner table test'. Either Mr Cameron is planning to throw a dinner party, had no intention whatsoever of inviting the co-chairman of the Conservative Party to it and instead of coming clear about it opted for a veiled approach, or the Tories are not talking to each other.

So, multiculturalism is finished. समाप्त. Bitmiş. Terminado.

Except that from where I'm sitting the view is rather different. Let me take you on a tour of my neighbourhood.

Our first stop is the market. Purely because it's a famous one. Long hailed as one of the obligatory stops for visitors not just from other parts of London, but also outside it, like Essex, this is a place steeped in history. The stock is plentiful, the prices reasonable and the quality of the products good. This market has seen no shortage of immigrants, from Cockneys in the 70s to Somalis today. Let me stand in the middle of the piazza, I close my eyes and what do I hear? Probably about seven or eight different languages, except for English, in less than five minutes. And that includes my mother tongue, Spanish, too. I open my eyes and what do I see? A Kurdish fishmonger. An Iraqi guy who sells suitcases. A Trinidadian man who runs one of the many clothes stalls in the indoor square. The woman from whom I buy my son's hair gel regularly is from Ghana. The voices of many of the fruit'n'veg vendors betray their London origin: "Free for a poun'! Free apples for a poun'! Come and take yer free apples for a poun'! A poun' for free apples, for a pound'! You aw'right, luv? How's it goin', mate'. I count three butchers' in about three hundred yards; one of them sells halal meat. It's usually full.

If I step outside the market and walk down the main thoroughfare, I will have, on my right hand side, the hairdresser's where, every three months or so, I have my hair done. It's run by a Nigerian woman from the Calabar region. Further down the road I spot two or three Turkish kebab shops and a bit further ahead our local community house. Its tenants include a Tamil organisation, a Caribbean association and a Bangladeshi forum. Whenever I am in the mood for a Proustian madeleine - and not of the involuntary kind - I pop by the Polish deli. It stocks all the products I used to enjoy as a kid when most of our imports still came from the former Eastern socialist bloc.

So, is multiculturalism working or not? It depends on what you're looking for and what you'd like your answer to be. If you're seeking disharmony and enmity, you'll find it in plenty of places, like the aforementioned market. I once saw one of the fruit'n'veg sellers give a Muslim woman a dressing-down on account of her lack of linguistic skills. By the same token, if you want to make a case for multiculturalism, spend an hour in the in-shops and you'll see a lot of people from various nationalities and speaking different languages getting on well with each other.

It is true that in his speech in Munich, Cameron was very specific about who he was addressing: those non-violent Muslim groups in Britain that, according to him, were apparently somewhat ambiguous about British moral values. But the downside was that in using the word 'multiculturalism', he somehow tarred all migrant communities with the same dirty brush.

It is daunting, even at the best of times, to move to a new country. Regardless of whether you arrive at it in the back of a lorry or on a Cubana flight, the reality of upping sticks and settling down in a foreign land can be traumatic. It's natural then, that immigrants tend to stay in their own comfort zone. They gravitate towards areas where they can speak in their own language and eat their traditional food. One of the tasks for the host nation is how to welcome and benefit from these new arrivals. There're also duties and responsibilities for the newcomers, though, namely, how to integrate and adopt the laws and rules of their new home. For that to happen several mechanisms must be in place, such as: language courses (fundamental in the process of integration), acknowledgement of the immigrant's culture and at the same time awareness of and respect for the host country's own values and way of life. Another aspect to consider is the influence some institutions will have on immigrants and how they will make their settling down process easier, for instance, schools, libraries and community centres. Politics plays an important role as the language used very often by politicians when discussing migration borders on the zenophobic. We want to feel that we're not a burden but an asset, especially for the economy. It is this latter element that complements my list of mechanisms that must work in unison if, as a society, we're to take advantage of immigrants' input. In difficult economic times, like the ones through which we're going now, our contribution is fundamental. Most immigrants I've met, and I include myself in that large group, want to work. Through our taxes we ensure that we have access to free education and free health care.

If the above structures are in place, the pluses of multiculturalism will outnumber the minuses. However, at present, the government headed by the same person who gave that speech in Munich is applying scythe-style sweeping cuts to most services that directly or indirectly benefit immigrants. For instance Esol (English for speakers of other languages) provision will see a reduction of up to 32 per cent this year. This cruel measure will isolate even more members of communities that are already quite passive in terms of integrating into British society. There's even an ironic twist in this decision to cut funding to Esol. Many colleges had been specially earmarked to deliver Esol courses as a direct route to British citizenship. Now they won't be able to. Who said the British Prime Minister didn''t have a sense of humour?

Libraries face a very uncertain future with many put down for closure. I have lost count of all the times I've seen immigrant families in my local 'temple of knowledge' with their little ones reading books in their own language. On many occasions I've seen the same parents, who a couple of years before could not articulate one word in English, reading a book in the language of Shakespeare to their children. So much for Mr Cameron's criticism of multiculturalism.

But I can't lay all the blame at No 10's door. The liberal left must take part of the flak, too. That also means yours truly. Because most of the time, when discussing multiculturalism, progressive folks speak in a way that might come across a tad bit patronising. Read journalist Madeleine Bunting's riposte to Cameron's speech and you'll see what I mean: "Multiculturalism is dead, long live multiculturalism. It's not a slogan that slips easily off the tongue, but it's the only one that seemed to capture the bizarre dissonance of a media abuzz with David Cameron's speech in Munich on the failed policies of "state multiculturalism" and my Saturday morning shopping in Hackney's Ridley Road in east London. Dozens of nationalities jostle for the best vegetables, dresses, blankets and cookware. The air is full of the smell of Turkish bread and African salted fish, the stalls are heaped with yams and chilis. The street traders' banter is littered with the Cockney endearments of love and darling. No one is dewy-eyed about this kind of London – there is too much poverty for that – but for all its many shortcomings, there is something extraordinary about how Britain has accommodated this hyper-diversity." Madeleine's description of her regular Saturday shopping outing is not that different from my own experience at the market near my house. But dig further and this is what you will find.

Both Madeleine and I praise immigrants' contribution to UK society in terms of cuisine and groceries. We enjoy the Turkish kebab shop and often order a takeaway from an Indian restaurant. I go to an African hairdresser's to have my hair done whilst Madeleine jostles with the rest of her neighbours for the best of vegetables. But all the jobs described before are menial. We can't discuss multiculturalism in terms of representation in the media and Parliament, because there's very little. That's a mitigating factor for both Bunting and me, though, in that turbans and saris are hardly ever seen on telly unless someone is discussing the Asian experience or talking about Bollywood movies. Black faces are conspicuous by their absence unless the subject to debate centres on knife crime or troubled youth.

And that's the real problem. The multicultural experience comes with a high price attached to it. If you're Bangladeshi and you're willing to slave your hours away working in a hot kitchen preparing curries for the Kaffee Klatsch set, you're welcome. But the minute you want to stray into the territory usually dominated by middle-class, middle-aged white men, then questions will be asked and eyebrows will be raised. No wonder Madeleine and I enjoy the UK's multicultural vibe so much. Everyone seems to know their place.

That David Cameron chose to criticise multiculturalism at a time when his government is making it difficult for immigrant communities to integrate is a bit rich, coming as it does from someone who has plenty of millionaires in his cabinet. But that we, on the progressive, liberal side, have not got many arguments to counteract beyond praising immigrants' cuisine and batik-dyed clothes shops, is equally embarrassing. The only way to prove that multiculturalism has worked and continues to work in the UK, is by flagging up our contribution to British society in all areas, even if those areas remain off-limits for many people from ethnic minorities. Let's start with a trickle until we have a flow. That way the likes of Cameron will probably have second thoughts before slagging off a process that started centuries ago. After all, there's never been a fixed British identity. This country's culture and economics have been enhanced by accepting the reality of community pluralism.

Last, a message for our Prime Minister. Next time you're planning to scapegoat an entire group of people, i.e., immigrants, please, make sure that you choose a less controversial backdrop, Herr Cameron.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘ Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 23rd February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Image taken from
Cultural Geography Blog


  1. I read all the news links too. I think it is hard to discuss politicians speeches. But we do know the reason they pick controversial platforms and controversial topics because they do have a group to please and they are not the general public.

    But I do love the politician talk when they say, let me be absolutely clear. And I wonder who are these Baronesses?

  2. I would love to have a multi-cultural market like that in our neighborhood. Maine is very white although we do now have a growing population of immigrants from Somali. Our governor called the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) a special interest group and told them “to kiss my ass” when they invited him to Martin Luther King Day celebrations. Our leaders have a lot to learn.

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  4. It was an outstandingly crass location to pick for a very odd speech. I sort of understood what he meant, but it wasn't the multi-culturism that I understood, which is more along your lines.

  5. I tend to ignore politician's speeches because they are usually fools and certainly out of touch with the everyday reality of the rest of us. But there are some issues around multiculturalism that bother me and those are the calls to "respect" cultural or religious views which are destructive, bigoted and/or oppressive. Sharia law is one of those religious issues and I see it evoked when SOME Muslims call for "us evil Westerners" to "respect' their customs. I will never respect any custom, religious or other wise, that condemns half of the human race to secondary status. I am completely against bringing that to the West and it should be changed in the Middle East (and other countries). Women should not be veiled, forbidden basic human rights, not allowed to go to school - the list is endless. Ditto for religious bigotry which has seen the rise of anti-Semitism all over Europe, from attacks on Jews to desecration of synagogues and graveyards. Here in SF, we have a politician of Chinese descent fighting against laws that would protect sharks. He's made a big issue that eating shark fin soup is a sacred Chinese custom and any laws that seek to protect sharks from predatory fishing are bigoted. All can be defended in the name of "multicultural" but they shouldn't be. I didn't read his speech carefully and the location was poorly chosen but I think that some of the ideas are valid. I personally believe in the enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and some of what's passing under the rubric of multicultural offends the spirit and the letter of the law.
    For a much better sense of real multicultural, look at the things that I cover in my blog - foods inspired by the multi cultural community that I live in, art from all countries and eras and a sincere wish for compassion for a living being.
    Oh dear, now I sure hope that I don't sound like a self- righteous prig but there is a good side and a bad side to multiculturalism. We see the good but shouldn't ignore the bad.

  6. Many thanks for your feedback.

    Namastenancy, you didn't sound like a self-righteous prig. I did cover some of the issues you addressed. Multiculturalism is a two-way street: I respect your values, you respect mine. In France, they banned the burqa in civic institutions. I applauded the measure. But then Sarkozy went for the ban in public places, too. I'm against. If you want to wear on the street, you should be able to and I should be comfortable with the idea. Is the veil enforced or is it willingly worn? That's a different issue.

    I always appreciate comments like yours and the other bloggers'. Time to go to bed now.

    Good night.

    Greetings from London.

  7. I can't believe that Britain is in such a situation that we have a fool like David Cameron representing us. It's appalling. He needs to shut up.


  8. Superlative post, Cuban. The economic angle of the vibrancy of London is so often disregarded. Having spent most of my life in two major cities, it was a huge shock to me to then live in a part of the UK where a black face is still a surprise.
    And the media. Like ugly women and old people, there is that great big 'Not Welcome' sign. One of the reasons why I love the World Service (another cut) so much - the diversity of the voices.
    One World. If only.

  9. It is strangely paradoxical isn't it that multiculturalism flourishes at grass roots level in cities like London (my neighbourhood Hounslow sounds similar to yours) but at govt level they always put their foot in it and strike the wrong note.....Thanks for this very insightful post and Greetings from Mexico

  10. A perfect letter to the editor, from Dear Cuban.
    As an immigrant myself, I side with your point of view. I do understand, unfortunately as it is, that native people at this point in history, feel the economic pressure and they are looking for scapegoats. Immigrants seem to be right there.
    Pluralism is appreciated by few people who have had the opportunities to experience what you and I have experienced and can understand the burden an immigrant feels to blend in the host country.

    Leaders have a great opportunity to set a good example for the nation by their words, their actions and especially their non-verbal cues.

  11. always intelligent and deeply thought out subjects here -- love reading!

  12. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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