The battle of Brick Lane

The hotly anticipated demo against the filming of Monica Ali’s novel in east London was in fact a ragbag collection of short-tempered middle-aged men.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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A small group of middle-aged Bangladeshi men staged a demonstration in Brick Lane, East London, on Sunday to protest against the film adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. But this so-called ‘Battle of Brick Lane’ was not so much a battle as a rant by a group of self-appointed community leaders who have been given disproportionate attention in the media and unfounded power to dictate what can and cannot be said by authors and filmmakers.

Ali’s novel tells the story of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who is sent to London for an arranged marriage, but who later cheats on her husband with a radical young Muslim. Ruby Films is producing a screen adaptation of the novel – but following protests by local residents, the police advised the production company to continue its filming elsewhere. What started out as a local dispute then became a national news story, with Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie engaging in a battle of words in the pages of the Guardian.

Protesters argue that Ali’s book stereotypes Sylhetis, who make up 95 per cent of Britain’s Bangladeshi community. The new campaign was launched by Abdus Salique, a local businessman who, according to the Guardian, warned that books may be burnt at the Sunday protest. He also reportedly said he could not guarantee deterring ‘the fringe elements’ from becoming violent. In the event, Sunday’s demo was something of a damp squib.

Sunday is the busiest day of the week in the Brick Lane area: cafés, bars and market stalls are buzzing with young, trendy east Londoners while Bengali restaurant touts vie for market-goers’ custom. By noon, there was still no sign of all those angry, book-burning Bangladeshis whom journalists assured us would descend on Brick Lane from all over the country to express the pain that Ali has apparently caused them.

Most market stall owners I spoke to seemed clueless about the plans for the demo. Some had heard ‘something about some book or film’; others didn’t know what I was talking about. When I asked some young Muslim men who run a stall at the market to inform people about Islam if they knew when the demonstration was starting, they told me I was in the wrong part of London – the protest against Israel was taking place in Marble Arch, they said.

Finally, the manager of Vibe Bar on Brick Lane revealed that, according to the police, there would be a demonstration at the top of the street at 3pm. With three hours to kill, I went for a drink with Ash Kotak, a playwright from North London. He explained why it is imperative that writers and artists stand up in public and oppose the censorship that follows from protests such as this one against the filming of Brick Lane.

‘This is the third incident in a year when artistic expression by Asian artists has been suppressed’, said Kotak. ‘First there was the closing down of the play Bezhti, then the cancellation of the Hussain exhibition at Asia House, and now the on-location filming of Monica Ali’s book has been stopped. The message to British Asian artists is that we’re not 100 per cent welcome here because we are not allowed free speech. Instead, we have to ask permission from our communities. In other words, if I chose to write against my community, I have to first ask for their permission to do so. It is outrageous that this is happening in Britain today.’

Later on, as we made our way towards the protest, many were still in the dark about when and where it was supposed to take place. The owner of one restaurant told me that no one around Brick Lane supports Abdus Salique, the local businessman who organised the protest. Another restaurant owner said he wants the film company to film in Brick Lane because it will raise the profile of the area. It would be good for business, he said.

At 3pm a group of around 60 older men and a couple of women had gathered at the top of Brick Lane. They were holding signs, all in the same hand writing, saying things like: ‘Book Brick Lane is full of lies, slander and cynicism’ and ‘Stop filming Monica’s book’. They chanted such catchy slogans as ‘Community, community, Bangladeshi community’.

Kotak challenged the protesters with a simple question: ‘How many of you have read Ali’s book?’ Some of them snapped and started shouting all sorts of threats, including ‘I’m going to smash your face in’. The protesters were animated, the policemen looked uneasy, the journalists had their story.

Almost all of the protesters referred to themselves as a ‘community leader’. I asked one of them whether he had ever been elected. ‘I have a shop on Brick Lane, and I deal with people in the community. We have community activities’, he replied. Another man said, ‘I am a leader of the Bengali community’. What kind of leader, I asked? Apparently he is the vice president of the Brick Lane mosque. I asked whether he could give an example of a lie from Ali’s book. ‘There are so many. I cannot remember a specific example now, but if I had the book in front of me, I could show you line by line how she has criticised the Bengali community.’

One of Abdus Salique’s sons, a man in his twenties, told me this protest will show the media that Bangladeshis have a voice. Why were there so few young people protesting? ‘You know, it’s the weekend…’, he replied. So much for hurt and anger and outrage. If all the young people who supposedly support their elders can’t even get out of bed to save their community from alleged slander, it probably means they don’t think much of their elders’ rants in the first place.

Many protesters claimed that Monica Ali is not really Bangladeshi. A leaflet declared that ‘because of her hybrid parenthood, Monica Ali, having a Bangladeshi father and an English mother, particularly her father being a non-Sylheti, who preferred to keep away from the “ignorant type”, knew little about the lifestyle of the Bangladeshi community in Britain’. One man told me that Ali is ‘half cast and that is why she is targeting 100 per cent Sylhetis’. Why would she do that? ‘Maybe she had family problems’, he suggested. He said Ali is not welcome in Brick Lane, and that she may soon end up like Salman Rushdie.

By now, Salique had joined a group of men singing traditional Bengali songs to celebrate their achievement – their achievement being stopping the filming on Brick Lane. Ruby Films has chosen, after consultation with the council and the police, to shoot the rest of the film elsewhere – though Salique told me, ‘We will carry on protesting’.

Salique and his few followers seem to have self-defined themselves as ‘Bangladeshi community leaders’ who can decree what can and cannot be said about Bangladeshis in Britain. In reality, they have no convincing arguments. Instead they keep repeating the same lines until they become meaningless. It should come as a relief, then, to those who wish to defend freedom of expression and artistic autonomy that in this case, those calling for censorship can be quite easily dismissed.

But instead, everyone – from the council to the police, from the film company to the media which overplayed the importance of this loud minority in east London – has been complicit in allowing free speech to be undermined here. The so-called community leaders of Brick Lane are only seizing the opportunity of claiming offence that the government has given them. Desperate to acknowledge ethnic minorities’ right not to be offended, it is becoming clear that politicians are denying free speech and autonomy to artists, and, by implication, to the rest of us, too.

And all of this to appease a small group of conservative and short-tempered middle-aged men? Now that is sad.

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Topics Politics


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