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COLUMN: MANY WRITERS, ONE LOVE

June 18, 2017

As fans of singer Ariana Grande happily exited the Manchester Arena on May 22, a lone assailant blew himself up, murdering 22. In its cold-blooded cynicism, if not its scale, the Manchester attack bears comparison with the atrocities committed by affiliates of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) on pupils from Peshawar’s Army Public School in 2014. In Manchester, as in Peshawar, the victims were predominantly very young.

Journalists poured rivers of ink in attempting to make sense of the slaughter. Racists such as Donald Trump and professional troll Katie Hopkins sought to make political capital out of the northern city’s tragedy. Hilariously, a former politician from the right-wing pro-Brexit party Ukip even called for suicide bombers to be punished by reinstatement of the death penalty.

By contrast, voices of courage and compassion also emerged. I was especially moved by the testimony of one British Muslim father from my city of Leeds. His voice breaking, Imran spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about collecting his panicking 12-year-old daughter from the arena and later telling her: “Some idiot has gone and done what they’ve done. […] You’re lucky, we got you out safe, but there are a lot of people who are going to wake up to some sad news, and you’ve got to pray for them; you’ve got to think of them.”

In the days that followed, politicians such as Amber Rudd — as well as Grande herself — rightly praised the great city of Manchester and its indomitable spirit. Writing in their 2013 book Postcolonial Manchester, Lynne Pearce and Corinne Fowler describe the metropolis as “profoundly multiracial,” giving rise to an exciting range of multicultural texts “set in locales as various as ‘the Curry Mile’, Moss Side, ‘the Gay Village’, Salford, Didsbury and Piccadilly.”

In 2006, Zahid Hussain, a young British-Pakistani author and founding member of the writers’ group Manchester Muslim Writers, published his novel The Curry Mile. Set in the fiercely competitive Rusholme restaurant trade, the narrative arc moves towards resolution of the conflict between the protagonist Sorayah and her father, Ajmal, as they vie for a National Curry Award.

In a sequence of five poems from his 2011 volume Full Blood, Rochdale-born poet John Siddique burnishes to verse the stories of men and women he interviewed in Manchester. Probably the strongest of these poems, ‘Jali’ is a luminous snapshot of the life of a Ghanaian man who plays the kora in the city’s bustling Piccadilly district:

“Life in Piccadilly Gardens/ Made clean and crystal, lifted spirit/ As we approach and leave./ Intersections of buses and trams/ Altrincham one way, Bury the other.

/ Cross-cutting the notes of time and pitch/ To hold his life together.

Humanity is different here, he says. People don’t know about each other.”

Continuing Jali’s thought about people’s isolation from each other, after the Manchester attack, Siddique wrote of his shock and hurt as a long-time resident of the city and lambasted the tunnel vision through which we “see ourselves as ‘I’, ‘We’, or ‘They’, and believe that we can somehow win, if we destroy the ‘other’.”

Qaisra Shahraz’s short story ‘A Pair of Jeans’ has been widely anthologised, translated into many languages, and is on the German high school curriculum. It was first published in 1988 and revised in 2005 to reflect the times. The story is set in an indeterminate but comfortable Manchester suburb that could be Didsbury, Chorlton or Withington. In it, a young woman named Miriam finds her engagement broken off because her fiancé’s family disapprove of her Western attire after a day’s excursion hiking in the Peak District. Shahraz is alert to clashes as well as confluences of culture, and succinctly conveys the tension between Miriam’s independent thinking and her Pakistani parents’ and parents-in-law’s communal consciousness of reputation and shame.

Another story by Shahraz entitled ‘The Escape’ features the grittier inner-city districts of Longsight and Fallowfield. It centres on an old widower, Samir, who dreams of his previous life in Pakistan, but on returning there realises he is no longer sure where home is. Early in the story, Samir goes back to the old community mosque in Longsight, which he now finds unfamiliar because its young male congregation is unknown to him and they wear beards, “a marked shift between the two generations.”

Samir walks through Longsight with difficulty because of a bad leg and observes radical demographic change in the area: “A lot had changed, the area now thriving with different migrant communities — the Pakistanis and the Bengalis living side by side with the Irish and the Somalis. Many Asian stores and shops had sprung up. The Bengali sari and travel agent shops jostled happily alongside the Pakistani ones and the Chinese takeaway. Mosques catering to the needs of the Muslim community had sprung up, from the small Duncan Road mosque in a semi-detached corner house to the purpose-built Darul Uloom centre [sic] on Stamford Road.”

If the story opened with a certain unease about mutual incomprehension between the generations, this passage portrays different ethnic communities living together in what Black British theorist Paul Gilroy would call Manchester’s space of conviviality.

As I conclude this article, news of the London Bridge and Borough Market assault that killed eight is still raw. One of the London attackers, Khuram Butt, was born in Pakistan. Notwithstanding a supposed suspension of election campaigning, Theresa May used her reaction speech to deride “tolerance of extremism in our country” and argued for the “superiority” of “British values”, seeking to portray Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as weak on combating terrorism. The electorate, it seems, was not persuaded by her politics of fear and Four Lions-esque proposed solution of clamping down on internet freedom.

Now a deeply divided Britain faces the consequences of a hung parliament and the prospect of a fragile minority government of hobbled Tories teaming up with the conservative Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. In this fast-changing political landscape it is worth channelling Manchester’s no-nonsense sociability and Grande’s “One Love” slogan.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 18th, 2017