The Tea Leaves in the English cup of Tea

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English is my second language

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney,

 

My forebears in Bombay built the British fort

Left on the spine of the ancient water-port

Muslim soldiers, buried at Horsell Common,

(Who fought for each British man and woman)

Had to be removed from those sacred grounds

When the National Front brought hunting hounds

Had the Unknown Soldier been an Indian hero

In the woods would stand an ancient Willow

Weeping and whispering: ‘here they belonged

Farewell brave soldiers’ goodbye, so long’

Far and away from their native roots,

They died for England’s green and pleasant shoots

And when young migrants flew into Heathrow

Overcome by whirlwinds of bitter-white snow

The weather was as chilling as the English faces

Of frosted hostility for browner races

And a ‘social problem’ was the migrants’ label

Causing ‘total transformation’ of the English fable

 

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney,

 

I began to memorise lines of the Qur’an

With passages of Dylan, Blake and Iqbal

At school I recited Macbeth and played lacrosse

as if I’d attended Shakespeare rather than the mosque

The revolution in Iran made me delve into Nizami,

and I remember reading the words of Albert Hourani

On Nishapur’s school housing Greek thought

Where works of Plato were poured over and taught

The teachers stopped handing me commendations

As students could not bear the shameful degradation

Because English is my second language. But, wait, no,

English came from Indo-Iranian seeds that grow

We mute, obscure immigrants are not undone

English is not our second tongue, it is your only one

And we await the day you learn ours

So that conversation finally flowers

 

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney

 

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Cousins of the Rainbow

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The ethnic make-up of our diverse extended family is fascinating to me. Just as the British library is a mere glimpse into the collection that is our intellectual heritage, the Human Genome Project sequenced base pairs to give us insight into what it means to be a human being:

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was one of the great feats of exploration in history – an inward voyage of discovery rather than an outward exploration of the planet or the cosmos; an international research effort to sequence and map all of the genes – together known as the genome – of members of our species, Homo sapiens.

National Human Genome Research Institute

I love that it is described as ‘an inward journey’, it seems much like this blog. I try and gather evidence of our history anywhere I can, because snippets of articles help me find pieces of our family story, and get me wandering in all sorts of directions. Much like this quote below:

Indians, who began arriving in large numbers in the 1960s, were slower to mix. They are now doing so—but along Jewish, rather than Irish, lines. For them, assimilation follows education: according to research by Raya Muttarak and Anthony Heath, Indians with degrees are far more likely to marry whites. Indians are not so much marrying into the white majority as into its suburban middle class, says Shamit Saggar at the University of Essex.

The Economist on British Ethnic diversity

There is an abruptness to the language, and the scooping, labelled generalisations do nothing for the image of The Economist. Despite this, however, it is one of the only articles I have found that tackles the subject.

I certainly hope I get to write more about it, or, for that matter, read about it.

 

Words are the Religion

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Your Daddy is dyslexic. His mother and father had both left school by the age of 11, so when he was 14, he had decided that he hated English class. The teacher made him read aloud.

In their home there were tabloid newspapers, and picture books when they had been young. Now, there is an old radio and three televisions. These are the windows into the outside world. They didn’t go to church, and until today never had central heating.

When I met him, in a mosque after walking the Marylebone High Street, the childhood he described was an age away from where we were.

He was only 16 when he began to attend the Sufi circle at his local mosque. This place had provided a balm, a healing for the life he had come from. They chanted ancient words in Arabic, as foreign to him as eating with chopsticks.

I was born, just as he was, a child in a big family calling a council estate my home. The social housing in East London brought together many kinds of people. My English neighbours were alcoholics that had never gotten married, whose children were mistakes. There were petty criminals and scary dog breeders. We, like the other immigrant families, lived among the neglected indigenous population of England.

I was instilled with a deep sense of moral obligation towards God and my family. Our Muslim identity was something we breathed at home, praying together and learning together. Achieving academically was very important.

When we were moved to a better neighborhood, and I attended school in Hertfordshire, that is when I learned what it meant to be different. There was a girl in my class whose father was a Tory MP, another girl whose sister was at Cambridge. Their houses were enormous, with thick carpet and big gardens and lovely bathrooms. I would go home where the 6 of us lived on the first-floor and devour my library books.

Compelling the Tears of Mothers

Whilst laying awake in the small hours of this morning, it occurred to me that, whilst I can narrate this story of our family for you, my little one, I cannot begin to narrate its future.

Compelling me to tears, as a mother, is the fear and grief of my limitations. I have tried to understand and explore our unidentifiable identity, that which is uncategorised and unfamiliar.

Neither side of your family is what you could describe as ‘elite’. Not in India, nor in England. Rather, we are a people that blend and un-blend simultaneously with other classes.

To illustrate, you have, by your father’s side, an ancestor’s name ‘Arthur King’ carved on a War memorial that stands in the town centre. I was thinking about you while I sat looking at it through a window of a coffee shop. He was a man that was of an ordinary class, English and Anglican.

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The memorial says:

‘Remember with thanksgiving the true and faithful men and women of this town and countryside who in these years of War went forth for God and the Right.’

An interesting phrase ‘God and the Right’. The God it mentions, is that the same God your father believed in when he became a Muslim? Is God simply an extension of the ego that is always right?

The way we wage war, and the way we mourn those that fell in battle is telling through every representation, including the war memorials. It is something that I find tries to compel us to cry the tears of mothers, it tries to exploit that sense of responsibility and make us mourn. It is what Susan Sontag wrote about in Regarding the Pain of Others:

The 2003 paperback edition of the brilliant book by Sontag
The 2003 paperback edition of the brilliant book by Sontag

‘To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom…During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused.’ p. 9

Watching other people in pain can profoundly impact our own choices, and that is exploited heavily in every conflict by those that represent it, to draw from us love for the Nation/the Queen/democracy or our own freedoms, and attempt to win others to it.

There have been Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Atheists in our family. We have also had refugees and gypsie blood blended together, through times of peace and conflict. Some, very few, have known money and privilege, others, were homeless or, like Arthur King, died in battle and were not so fortunate.