Wednesday 24 June 2009

The Canker In The Rose (CsH)

Living for over 25 years in the belly of the whale that is Britain had taught me a real hard lesson - how to deal with bigotry and prejudice against my people, my history and my Faith. You faced this in the streets, in conversations with friends and acquaintances, in English literature both fiction and non-fiction but especially in that most potent medium - the print and electronic media.

I came to England in 1974 to start my post-graduate course at the Institute of Education, London University. On my arrival at Heathrow, I decided to stay overnight at a small hotel just outside of the Airport, before proceeding to London to begin my studies. Next morning, after breakfast I went for a little walk in what was a very suburban area. It was cool and refreshing and I felt a deep sense of adventure and perhaps a degree of fulfilment because this was my very first morning in a country that had been in my psyche for over 23 years. I had a feeling of deja vu like I had been here before. I attributed this to my colonial education in Singapore. It was England's literature, England's history, England's landscape and the English language that held me in awe.

On that walk, I saw my first rose, my first fragrant red rose in someone's garden and I just had to take a photograph of it. But I was to find out later that this rose, this symbol of England had a canker.

I enjoyed that period of learning and living in England. But one occasion really knocked me back. That experience removed the scales from my eyes.

I made two good friends in my class. There was a Greek girl married to an Englishman. There was also a young couple from Australia. She was a beautiful lass of Irish origin with blue eyes and golden hair. She was a Catholic and a second generation Aussie while her husband and his family had migrated to Australia from Germany in the 1940s. She volunteered the information that despite his Anglo-Saxon name her husband was a Jew. She said many Jewish immigrants had decided to anglicise their surnames so that they would not stand out as aliens in their new country. Braun became Brown, Grunfeld became Greenfield and Stein turned to Stone.

My Greek friend invited me to a party at her house and my Aussie friend and husband gave me a lift. I did not really want to go. I was no party animal and I knew I would be like a fish out of water. It was, as I had expected; an alcohol and ciggies party. My hostess friend was very sweet and made sure I had my supply of lemon juice drinks and pointed out the food that I could eat. I had my first encounter with the whiff of 'grass'. My Abah was a chain smoker and I could tell the difference - but that's just another experience to jot down.

As the party progressed, it became more and more raucous and people got more and more uninhibited - alcohol does that to you. The host then decided to entertain us with his ribald stories. But one (or two) stood out.

This was a period when gay ( at that time this word had not been appropriated yet - it simply meant bright and happy) and 'cute' jokes were going around about Asian immigrants from East Africa and India - just like the run of jokes about the Irish and the Scots. Till today, I cannot figure out why the local Brits turned to Paki jokes. There were no Indian jokes, or Punjabi jokes or Gujarati jokes, only the Paki ones. So-called Pakis faced the brunt of their mockings. But mind you, everyone who had the skin colour of people from the Indian sub-continent were called Pakis. In the wake of September 11, Punjabis were beaten up by angry whites because they were mistaken for Muslims. All because of their turbans!!

The host had a rollicking time with his Paki jokes - like how many Pakis can live in a broom cupboard! Then he went into genuflections and mumblings mimicking and making fun of the way his Paki friend did his prayer. I was not worldly-wise, I was no urbane jet-setter. I was just an ordinary Malay Muslim school teacher from the island of Singapore. I was aghast, upset and almost in tears. (I told you I was unsophisticated!!) I just could not believe what I was hearing and seeing. My Aussie friends, to their credit, could empathise with my discomfort and we left soon after.

The next day my Greek friend apologised most profusely. She confessed that as a Greek, she too had problems with English bigotry and parochialism and she confided that she didn't think her marriage would last much longer.

This episode was a forerunner of what life would be like when I came to "settle with spouse" in England in 1986. By then I was older, wiser, more street wise and bolshie. I could deal with racist taunts in the streets of Leicester giving back what they throw at me although my other half cautioned me because one day, I could get hurt. It was so very difficult because it was not the family habit to turn the other cheek. We had learned from the way Abah conducted his own life, that it was justice and dignity foremost. Abah had, for example, stood up to his British Commanding Officer (at the RAMC School of Health in Nee Soon) for not giving a fair deal to the Malay and the other non-English soldiers. And as we watched, we learned.

But now, as a resident in Britain, I was to discover a different kind of racist malice. It was cleverer, more sophisticated and the impact was instant and far ranging. Now the racist thugs and yobs from the streets have been transmogrified into the 'clever dicks' of the print and electronic media. It was more pernicious and manipulative with contributions from 'clever janes' like Fay Weldon, Julie Burchill and Melanie Phillips. Worse of all this bigotry was camouflaged and sheltered under the umbrella of freedom of expression and free speech.

Sometime in the late 1980's, during the Salman Rushdie brouhaha which was followed by Iran's fatwa against the author, the Iranian charge d'affaires was interviewed and hectored by Peter Sissons on Channel 4 about the Fatwa. Sissons was the then doyen of a new breed of newscaster cum opinion maker cum rotweiler of The System. He got so exasperated with the answers he was getting that he turned on the charge d'affaires and more or less howled; "We fought two world wars for this freedom!". "Oh yes", said I?

I used to rant at the news on TV and Radio whenever I encountered aggressive, ignorant attacks on Islam and my face must have turned as red as Peter Sissons (if it's possible for a brown face to turn red) in my anger. But now I would just laugh it off because I have read more, I know more (at least compared to the 70s) and I know how to handle the bias and crooked thinking.

The worm had turned. And this shall be seen in my next posting.

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