City of Sanctuary or City of Dreams? Conversations with Madani Younis and the events of Carthage.

I have been lucky enough over the past couple of weeks to be involved with the discussion going on at Freedom Studios around their new show The City of Dreams http://www.themill-cityofdreams.com/

Both Madani (Artistic Director) and Omar (Associate Director) have some sharp ideas, and a few sessions of throwing narrative ideas around have taught me about as much as I knew again about stories and narrative structure.  I think I am right to think that one of the challenges in developing the piece has been how the notion of dreams ties to the present generation in Bradford.

The two generations of (predominately South Asian) immigrants that have come before the one we find ourselves in are, Madani thinks, more easily able to render their dreams explicit than the youngest to reach adult hood.  The Drang nach Osten (always supplemented by the portraits of the queen in the Sweet Centers and Community Halls) that gave way to the angry Black consciousness of the Asian Youth Movement, has led nowhere particularly interesting.  Apparently in the interviews Madani and Omar have been running, Bradford young people dream about having better shopping facilities.  Interestingly, Madani even used the phrase “ghetto mentality” to describe this insular, unambitious mentality.  To be fair, its important to point out that the context of the conversation makes this a very different statement to the way its normally used, i.e as a way for the right-wing press to blame poor Black people for being poor.  On the contrary, for Madani it seemed to signal a kind of parochialism, a giving up on the great political struggles of the past.  Call it a crisis of the utopian imagination, or the inability to spot the difference between life and the accumulation of banal objects.  Apparently we stand on the field of our father’s dreams, tillage salted.

It has become clear though, through the recent Tunisian Event as much as anything else, that one can’t (and shouldn’t!) wish back an imagined time of political activism; we can’t try to recreate the militant Bradford of the past, History has no rewind button.  That the Tunis Spring is not reducible to a Khomeinism or a Ba’athism but was a new statement of the dream that reads “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”, should teach us something.  Every step forward involves violence to the past; the betrayal of  history is also its redemption.  Benjamin was right to say Flaubert got to the crux of this issue;“Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.”

One turns to the past to orient one’s self in the present, just as one does so to step forward into the future. It is not coincidental that this crisis of political imagination has caught Bradford.  Indeed, the fact that Bradford is a relatively decent place to live as a member of BME community, or as a new immigrant is a kind of mixed blessing.  It has created a mentality, which at its worst leads to a feeling of complacency, a dangerous laziness.  One problem antifascist groups have had organizing in Bradford is that sections of the Asian community who are open to the idea of a militant working class Anti-fascism ( immediately the tedious Red or Dead glasses wearing, Mini cooper driving petite bourgeois who seem to have been the main recipients of the money flying around Bradford since the last riots should be discounted, therefore) are often unwilling to go outside of Bradford to deal with the problem; “Just wait for them (EDL, BNP whoever) to come here, we’ll show them…”

The thinking seems to be that in Bradford the community is in a strong position, a safe haven if you will.  This safety having been bought over three generations of resistance to racial discrimination and violence.  Fine.  But there is a word for a “safe havens” for ethnic minorities, coined around five centuries ago; they call it a ghetto.  And this is what the community has apparently missed, the struggle against oppression has been diverted into a celebration of the fact that there is one (to be frank fairly unimportant) part of the country in which its OK to be Asian, in which young Pakistanis can grow up to be a bit middle class, and asylum seekers are not routinely attacked on grounds of race.

Fantastic.

This thinking is most apparent in the filthy idea, floated over the last couple of years by a series of ethically and intellectually bankrupt community organizations (churches, mosques various fluffy asylum support groups) of Bradford as a “City of Sanctuary”.  This is the exact opposite of Bradford as the “City of Dreams”.  Sanctuary is for those who have given up any universalist, emancipatory ambition.  It is a formula which glorifies a pathetic defense of a non offensive and politically correct particularism: As long as one can wear a Shalwar Kameez, break from work for prayers and not be racially abused in the street between the top of Leeds Road and Great Horton, damn the world outside.

But this will not do.  The emancipatory projects of the past will not be reduced to this notion of a safe haven, this ghetto, this Bradford.  The victories of the past must be given their full celebration, just as the defeats of the past will be avenged.  One only has to look at the news from North Africa and the Middle East to see that the times are changing.  The first step on this road is to give up this suffocating sanctuary and step into the cold world outside, together.  This city of sanctuary is a coffin, it seals in our dreams of real freedom.  The walls of the ghetto are not built to keep gentiles out, but to keep Jews in.

Bradford delenda est.

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