Friday, 12 February 2010

the what of manchester

So – tonight was the second in our series of dialogues around England on contemporary themes of Muslim life. The touring dialogue we’re calling Your Thoughts With Mine.

Our setting was the extraordinarily beautiful Manchester Museum, where architecture and design, ancient and modern mix gracefully; allowing for each other, one containing the other in turn.

Someone has clearly paid a lot of attention to how a Victorian building formed and constructed in an age of proud industrial wealth and forged by the energies of gas, steam and human sweat could change its sense of self and accommodate a different world of café culture, exhibitions, shops with odourless wi-fi and LCD. And whoever that person was, they’ve done it modestly and magnificently.

And in the dialogue tonight – our theme reflected the building we were in: Identity.

We had a healthy mixture of young voices and older ones. We heard passionate voices, calm voices, reflective voices, instinctively judgemental voices and enquiring ones.

It was a vibrant event.

One of our guests was a young man training to be a lawyer who’s at ease with a modern life and his cultural heritage: He gets up at three in the morning to watch Pakistan play cricket against Australia but remembers his Mum, who speaks little English, being distraught when Wayne Rooney was sent off in the last World Cup.

We heard from a guy recently arrived in the England from Hungary who didn’t see why it was so important for people to identify themselves as Pakistani, Indian, British or anything else. “It’s enough to say I’m Muslim.”

“That’s because you have blonde hair and fair skin” said a woman next to him. “I’m happy in my skin” she said in her Mancunian accent. “But only last year I got called a Paki and it hurt. It hurts.”

We heard from a guy who said for thirty years he’s been a British Pakistani, who when he was a young boy and got called ‘Paki’ in the street, felt a sense of pride. He talked angrily about being stopped by the police last week for letting his automatic car crawl a few inches across the white line in the road. “Pakistan is my Mother and Britain is my wife” he said. “I’m okay,” he said. “But the young generation have a crisis of identity” he said.

The young generation (especially the women) began to speak for themselves.

We heard from a young Pakistani woman who talked confidently and proudly about her identity as a young British Muslim, whose floods of tears in the wake of a particularly aggressive torrent of post 9/11 verbal abuse moved her to stop wearing her hijab.

And then she went to design college and learnt (not from her parents but for herself) that for her Islam was about dressing modestly. In her vivid pink top her modesty, passion and eloquence spoke out loudly and proudly for the young generation.

A beautiful young woman curator spoke next: “Why are we talking about fracture like it’s a bad thing? I’m okay with fracture. It’s where art comes from.”

Another voice: “I don’t have a problem with my identity: I’m a woman; I’m British; my homeland is Pakistan. What’s the problem? I keep on being told I have a problem!”

And towards the end of the evening, another young voice spoke up. A modestly dressed 19 year old who was wearing her hijab. “I don’t have as much experience as many of the people here tonight,” she said. “So I’ll speak just from my own personal experience: I love hip hop. And I’ve been told I shouldn’t dance. But actually - I can. I can make some moves. I’ve been reading the Koran and it says it’s okay to dance.”

So that a little of the content: rich, articulate, emotionally charged at times but respectful. Always respectful.

And I sat there and said nothing. Because I was focusing not so much on the what, but the how which you can read about here.

My job – was to focus on Irna, in her first time as facilitator…

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