Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Black Album

The headline in the London freesheet on my way to Hanif Kureishi’s new play The Black Album read ‘Racists Kidnap Muslim Leader’. Noor Ramjanally, from Loughton, Essex, was reportedly abducted from his home at knifepoint by two men, bundled into the boot of a car and driven to Epping Forest. There he feared he was about to be murdered when one of the men said ‘Let’s do it here.’ Instead, he was warned, ‘We don’t want [your] Islamic group in Loughton. If you don’t stop, we’ll come back.’

Ramjanally has been the target of a hate campaign, including the firebombing of his house, since starting a regular Friday afternoon prayer meeting in a Loughton community hall in March. It’s the sort of overt, spilling-over-into-violence bigotry that frequently goes along with far-right electoral success. The BNP has four councillors in the area, whose leader Pat Richardson denied his party’s involvement in the attacks on Ramjanally with the comment that ‘firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure.’

It is indeed a brick rather than a firebomb that goes through the window of a Pakistani butcher’s home in The Black Album. But the effect of such attacks, and the lower-level, everyday racism encountered especially – and, since 9/11, increasingly – by Muslims of Asian origin in Britain is no less incendiary.

It is this anti-‘Paki’ sentiment that provides the backdrop to Kureishi’s play, which is based on his second novel, written in 1995 and set in 1989, when the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie called on Muslims to murder the author and his book The Satanic Verses was being burnt in Bradford and other cities. The Black Album relates the rise of a militant, political Islam, told through the prism of Shahid, a young student, newly arrived in London, who had been so scarred by his experience of racism at school in Sevenoaks that he had wanted to deny his own identity and be a racist himself.

Shahid, like his creator Kureishi, feels himself disconnected from both the society in which he resides and the one from which he came. Like Kureishi, his love of literature takes him into a world of the imagination that distances him from others in his family and ethnic community. Even so, he has an immediate bond with his new Muslim friends in London, Chad, Hat and Riaz – ‘the first people he had met who were like him; he didn’t have to explain anything’. The novel follows their radicalisation in the face of the toxic cocktail of racism and the seemingly empty hedonism they encounter in a London whose youth are revelling in the drug-fuelled euphoria of rave culture following the ‘second summer of love’. The play takes us forward a further decade, to the suicide bombers of 2005, finishing with a literal bang as one of the characters dons a rucksack and blows up himself, the set and everyone on it.

I was left wanting more from Kureishi, who remains one of a very small number of writers of Asian Muslim origin who has made the crossover into the British literary milieu. The Black Album as a play felt too trite and obvious (the opportunistic Labour council leader was little more than a silly parody of George Galloway). Caught between the racists and the Islamists, I can’t help feeling that the likes of Kureishi have been cast adrift. The kind of cultural fusion that his work represents seems to find itself on ever more uncertain ground, speaking to an almost entirely white liberal audience – not so much a bridge bringing together different traditions as a no man’s land being bombed from both sides.

The Black Album as novel finishes on a life-affirming note, with Shahid and his college lecturer lover Deedee agreeing that they will continue with their ‘adventure’ together ‘until it stops being fun’. The fun has clearly stopped long before the end of the play.

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