Reconciling being British, Asian and Muslim – a tale of modern times

By Huma Munshi

The recent killing of Alan Henning has again put the spotlight on British Muslims. There have been calls for them to condemn these heinous acts apparently carried out in the name of Islam. A recent campaign on social media, “#NotInMyName”, sought to tackle the distorted narrative of Islam from the extremists and put forward an opposing, moderate set of values.

As a British Muslim woman, I have struggled with such campaigns. I don’t see white British people having to condemn the acts of far right groups. It puts the burden on community members who may already be experiencing racism and islamaphobia. As Ben Affleck recently stated: “how about more than a billion [Muslim] people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.”

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Ben Affleck addresses Bill Maher’s stereotyping of Muslim people

Most Muslim folk, like all folk, do just want to live our lives.

All these thoughts were on my mind as I went to watch East is East at the Trafalgar Studios. Based on the hugely popular film, it tells the story of a domineering Pakistani father, married to his wife from Salford and their brood. The film came out in 1999 and the stage play seems a little dated as it does not reference the issues that are part of the current mainstream media narrative, noted above. The play does not capture what has happened in the last 15 years post 9/11 where Islamophobia stoked by the media has become rife. A recent report has shown that hate crimes against Muslim people in London has risen by 65%.

In other ways, the play felt more topical than ever. It is hard reconciling the conflicting values one inherits from immigrant parents with those that are part of the “adopted” land.

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George Khan, played adeptly by Ayub Khan, is a man on a mission. His mission is to hold on to his culture from the creeping hegemony of British culture and westernisation. He reminded me of my parents. He is scared of short skirts and his children wanting to live a life away from his beloved chip shop. His chip shop provides him with the economic independence that communities coming to the UK desperately crave.

It is much easier to sympathise with his long-suffering wife, Ella, played by Jane Horrocks. She acts as a buffer between a very oppressive parent and children who are trying to desperately carve out an identity and live their lives. It is interesting that one of the most sympathetic characters in this story is white and the father, a Pakistani man, alienates both his family and audience.

Having myself come from Indian parents who came to this country to benefit from the economic opportunities, I know only too well the desperate lengths parents will go to to hold onto a semblance of their culture. George Khan is a man swimming against the tide of change and westernisation fuelled by patriarchal values.

In his fight to retain control, George attempts to get two of his sons, Tariq and Abdul, married off to the daughters of the wealthy Shah families. Although told with much humour, it was clear that these scenes were sowing the seeds of a forced marriage. Initially nobody wants to rock the boat in the face of the violence and abuse hurled by George, but then finally there is a collective fight back. It dawns on Ella that George’s demands are intolerable. She cannot continue to sacrifice the wellbeing of her children to appease her husband.

It is easy to demonise George but there is a more elaborate political point noted. It was relevant in the 1970’s when people of colour were demonised by Enoch Powell and his ilk and it is relevant now. As an immigrant, George has long experienced the feelings of being an outsider and with his children rejecting their Pakistani and Muslim identities, his alienation is compounded. He has to manage this as well as maintaining his honour in front of his community, both in Salford and in Pakistan. Indeed his obsession with his family in Pakistani persists throughout the play. He sends them money for land and watches the unfolding news almost religiously.

It is Tariq, George’s eldest son, that puts forwards the most forceful case for bringing conflicting identities together. He notes that despite his siblings best attempts they will always be seen as “the paki family” by their white peers and the neighbourhood will not look past the colour of their skin. It made me realise my own struggles to fit in. The only way one manages, as a minority within the mainstream white community, is to accept and celebrate the colour of your skin and where you are from. You may not see yourself as a person of colour but white supremacy will always remind you.

This is a play that is well worth watching; it was a more intimate experience seeing it unfold on stage as opposed to the screen. It is a timeless and quintessentially British story and lays bare painful and difficult experiences that many children of immigrant families will be struggling with.

East is East is showing at the Trafalgar Studios until 3 January 2015

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Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing. She writes about feminism, tackling honour based violence, forced marriage, mental illness, culture and activism, She is a regular contributor for the F-Word, Open Democracy and Time to Change. You can follow her on Twitter at @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.

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