Thursday, December 20, 2007

In the land of heathens

Somehow this year I find Christmas unbearable. It's my seventh festive season in England. I hate it: I hate the red and black in the shop fronts, I hate the schmaltsie songs in the restaurants, I hate the hysteria building up, I hate the fact that everything - including public transport - will stop over the next few days. Even the trains to the airports stop.

Why a post-Christian nation would still want to go through this annual nerve-wrecking experience is one question. With Church attendance falling to the margins of statistical error, this festival can hardly be called religious, even if you insist on the chorals. But more important, London is not England. At least two out of the seven or eight millions of people living here come from other religious backgrounds: mostly Muslims, but also Hindu, Sikh, Budhist, and Jews. Why do we non-Christians have to suffer? It doesn't mean anything to most of us, not even the hazy memories of some original myth that we no longer believe in. It's just another cold two weeks in which you can't do anything and have to stay at home, unless you escape out of the country in time.

I now realize this is how Palestinians in Israel must feel during the High Holidays or Passover. The frenzy of another people's festivals can offer some amusement, but it's annoying when the banks are closed, the buses don't work, or - in the case of people in the West Bank -you're under virtual curfew (just to make sure you won't upset your neighbours festivities).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hackney Diary: Multi-Culturalism

The internet shop from which I connected to the web in the last three months has large signs saying "No porn sites". Twice I witnessed the staff asking clients to stop looking at naked women or log out and leave. One black Caribbean guy responded by calling the shop-attendant "Taliban". The term came so instantaneously out of his mouth, so easily without a second of reflection, that I was taken aback. "Do you know what the Taliban is?" asked the guy from the shop in a tired tone. But the customer was not interested in his take on the Taliban. He knew what the term meant, and said it again. "Taliban".

The staff are all Muslim, bearded men in galabiyas. Most are African, from Sudan and East Africa is my guess. The only thing they play on the stereo is Qur'an Suras. I can't say they're particularly nice, unless you say Salam Alaykum, and then you get a smile and 'Alaykum al-Salam'. In other circumstances I would have used the greeting - it does not come unnatural to me - but here it felt like a code to a fraternity to which, in truth, I do not belong; I did not want to feel like a phony. My Hello was always greeted with a suspicious head nod. Perhaps you develop this attitude when you're running an internet shop on a main road in Hackney. Perhaps they're just not friendly. My views on life and the universe are probably very different from theirs, but on the porn issue I'll take their side; I'd rather not have the guy sitting next to me drooling over these pictures.

It's a strange place, Hackney. Like Peckham, or Brixton, everything is in-your-face, including the mix of cultures. On the corner where the internet shop is located there is also a Turkish club for men playing cards all day; a Vietnamese grocery; a small Turkish supermarket; a West-African take-away; a cheap hostel. For a whole month the corner also featured a large billboard advertisement for Marks and Spencer's middle-class-respectable women clothes, showing a model sailing a gondola in Venice. I wondered if M&S had any idea who the people walking past were, and the likelihood of their buying into this Venice fantasy. But I'm straying off my main subject, which is the meeting of cultures, "the clash of civilisations" in the corner of Mare st and Wells st.

Diversity is the most striking feature; diversity of colours, tastes, and sounds. In contemporary writing ethnic difference is often reduced to food, and in such a place it is perhaps inevitable. Get your Chinese lettuce from the Vietnamese, your pomegranates from the Turkish, your Curry-Goat from the Caribbean takeaway. Isn't it wonderful, the collage of cuisines, and aren't we all so lucky, to be living in Bablyondon. On the bus you hear the music of a hundred languages (spoken on mobile phones), mixing together to one symphony, of dense melodic rhythms of little water streams or the cacophony of busy market places, all far far away from this hazy cold city.

From here it is only a small step to the trope of multi-culturalism, which has now the status of an official doctrine. It says, in brochures and posters, more or less in the following lines: respect, live side by side, appreciate difference. We come in all colours and shapes, we each keep our languages, our cultures, our beliefs; we engage in a polite way to make this a free and open and diverse society.

The discourse of multi-culturalism often invokes images of the tapestry or the mosaic, that is, of different elements juxtapositioned within a coherent whole. The problem with such models is that they represent the world as flat, two-dimensional and static. What is missing is the flows which create this tapestry; the forces that shape it, and the frame which sets its borders. The problem with this ideology of pluralism and tolerance is what it makes invisible: the fact that it operates and depends on a society of consumption, on global capitalism, on certain gender-roles and power-relations. You can look at the Hackney street-corner or upper-deck of the bus and marvel: like in Benetton adverts, skins in every colour. Difference is made a commodity in the age of consumer choice. But what is left of difference when you don't want to buy or sell it?

I look at the Hackney street corner and I see invisible forces at work: immigration; exploitation; power; commodification; those are but a few that make this space what it is. If you don't see them, you will see the 'clash of cultures', or, in more optimistic moments, the Mediterranean cucumbers alongside Vietnamese mint; and the smiles of the faces in the colours of the rainbow, but how they (people and vegetables alike) got here, and what they are, will be lost in the two-dimensional multi-cultural snapshot.

This doesn't mean I have a dictionary through which I can translate the world correctly, reduce everything to its real meaning, using theories of capital or gender. No; if anything, my experiences from the internet shop tells me things are never so simple.

saving those little fishes

My food scavenging experiences have largely been limited, in the past few months, to salvaging packed sandwiches and salads from their black plastic bin-liner coffins, left outside the cafes chains. For a student living on a shoestring and engaged with a battle with the phd-moloch, this is a reasonable way to fill your stomach, save money and time. However I hate living on sandwiches. The bread of these triangle shaped specimens is labeled 'malted brown' or 'multi-grain' or something to make it sound healthy, but it's cheap and crappy bread to begin with, and would not last more than a few hours after the sandwich was made. So I have devised a new way to salvage these wasted items. With salmon, roastbeef, chorizo sandwiches etc, I discard the bread as soon as I can and keep the meat or fish to serve in breakfast, or to make my own sandwiches.

I am not vegetarian. I would prefer to be one, but I enjoy eating meat and fish. I am not even a freegan - though the term freeganism is often used liberally to describe any dumpster-happy comrade, strictly speaking it refers to Vegans who allow themselves animal products when they find them and not have to pay for them; and I do buy meat and fish occasionally.

Yet there is something that strikes me as especially horrible in throwing good meat and fish away. A fellow scavenger I recently met in college put it into words. "You may think it is alright to kill animals in order to eat them. But killing a living creature, just to throw its meat away? What kind of a senseless cruelety is that? How can you possibly justify it?"

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Recently I've become obsessed with coveing my face, with hiding from the world. It happens most often on public transport: on trains, and buses, which sadly I have succumbed to taking much more in the last few months. Sometimes I wish I could wear a veil that would protect me from the wind, the rain, and the looks of strangers. But the cultural connotations of the veil preclude this option for me. So I have resorted to other means, such as letting my hair grow, until I now resemble a small shrub; and wearing the hood. When I am wearing the hood, I can see less (my field of vision is obstructed on both sides) but others can see less of me. Hooded, in a dark empty street, it's harder to tell if you're a man or a woman, angry or happy, a bum or a productive member of society(TM).

To some extent, this is about personal safety. On a bike I always felt protected from the city, like a knight on a horse, escaping unpleasant encounters by quickly turning the pedals, and arriving straight home. Coming back on foot, after midnight, to an east London estate, feels different. But real or imagined danger is not the main issue. It is about being exposed to society whether you want it or not.

In retreating to my hooded shell, I am following the rule of this city, not the exception: the rule of no-contact at all costs. Read your rubbish-newspaper; listen to your i-pod music; murmur sorry every once in a while; block out any disturbances. Ignore your fellow humans. I have always found it strange how people of all origins take on this attitude; Polish or Jamaican, everyone adapts to the London etiquette.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

another day

For some days now I've been thinking about getting Wellington rubber boots. There is a big puddle outside the front door - the drains seem to be blocked - and Wellies could help if I wanted to do something about it. Yesterday I found a pair in the street on the way home. Somebody left them next to the parking metre. As if they had come to pay for parking and then vanished into thin air.

(empty shoes always look like someone just took them off, said f. There is something indexical about shoes).

I looked around to see if the boots related to something particular, but could find nothing except people walking past busily and the random groupings of students outside college doors. I put my foot inside one boot; there was sand at its bottom. My size: reclaimed.

Later, closer to home, we checked the bins of the French patisserie on the green. I never had luck there but yesterday, success: long thin baguettes. As I closed the binliners, a man approached us, turning his head from side to side erratically: maybe you have 30p, 10p coin, I need to make a phone call. His eyes were twitching, and his manner suggested crack. No money I said, but you can find some nice bread in there, and pointed at the binliner. "What!" he exclaimed, and hurried off, shouting-murmuring, waving his hands: "Arseholes. Idiots. SCUM! Taking food from the rubbish! SCUM!"