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When you cut the grass, the snakes will show

June 6, 2011

I went to the Hay Festival and HowTheLightGetsIn this weekend. The weather was fine and the southWalescountryside was painted juicy shades of green. It reminded me of the countryside in southernGhana. Indeed, remote places like this always remind me of the developing world. Most of us live in cities, where it is so typical to think of ourselves as light years apart.

When we arrive at out B&B we are told not to expect a phone signal until we get to a larger village (the closest was about 6 miles away). We heard a rumour some neighbours still laboured into the internet via a dial-up connection. How patiently this rural community waits for such essential things.

Whilst at HowTheLightsGetsIn I cross paths four times with Independent columnist and writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. The first was an informal encounter whilst I dig into my packed lunch. “Hello!” she says as she strides to my friend, “How are you?”

During our conversation we are joined by Lauren Booth, beaming in her Hijab. Yasmin gives her a hearty greeting and then shares a joke with a passing Peter Thatchell. I’ve been in Hay-on-Wye for two days, and have visited once before, but have never felt more welcome.

“Do you know her?” I ask my friend when she departs, ready to be impressed when she says “Yes.”

“No, never met her before!” she replied.

I took an instant like to Yasmin during our conversation but now I like her even more. She did not single us out, I see her talk to pretty much everybody with graciousness. I look forward to see her perform her one woman show.

The second encounter was at Yasmin’s one woman show: Nowhere to Belong: Tales of an Extravagant. 

It is an excellent tale of a childhood in Uganda that climaxes with her revisiting the thrill and ultimate tragedy of playing the lead role in Romeo and Juliet. It is a story of how, race, family, politics, history and Shakespeare shaped the world for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I thoroughly recommend it.

The third encounter – a lively debate about humanity’s thirst for travel. Yasmin intervenes when the enthusiastic Ben Hammersly talks about his travels, networking and cyber peer group.

“Travel is about power,” she asserts. She is right. When talking about travel and migration, you have to remember the context; there are those who feel entitled to travel and are made to feel welcome in their destinations. There are those who are not.

Let us look at nationals in this country who had foreign countries of birth. In September 2010, 290,000 members of our population were born in Germany. This ranks them 5th in the 60 most common home nations of our migrants. 236,000 had South African heritage, ranking them 6th. 197,000 were born in North America (8th place). 111,000 were born in Australia. I have never heard any objection to their presence. 

Alibhai-Brown illustrated her point by comparing her experience ofBritainto that of Rhodesians, cast out of the soon-to-beZimbabwe. It is true. Some people are entitled to travel. Others are not.

Yasmin recalled the familiar vile jibe with a jaded roll of the eyes rather than contempt because it has been exhausted by generations: “Why don’t you just fuck off home?” This leads me on to our fourth encounter, funnily enough, was recollected by Yasmin’s own column in The Independent this morning.

She tells the story better than I ever could:

“[…]I went for a drink with two young black women. We found a table with a woman on her own, asked politely if we could sit there and she smilingly assented. She was in her early fifties, short, dark hair, wore smart-casual gear in neutral colours. Nothing about her seemed crazy or untoward.

We were talking about university students fromPakistan, most of whom are now refused visas. In a bitter voice, the woman cut in: “Good. We don’t want them here. They are liars, forgers and scroungers.” We stopped, shocked and silenced. She went on – I can only paraphrase. She claimed she was an academic atCardiffUniversityand they all knew this to be true. I felt outrage rising and told her I was a visiting professor atCardiffand wondered if that is what she felt about her Muslim students. She discharged more projectile bile. They should go back and so should I. This country was not ours. Something burst out of me at this point, an accumulated sense of injustice that black and Asian people are supposed to take it, laugh it off, excuse the racism as madness or ignorance and agree that these are just small glitches in a racism- free kingdom. I reacted with reckless fury. Very un-British. And I have no regrets at all.”

I was one of the young black women, and I can assure you that this happened exactly as Yasmin retells. We found a free table with a lone lady occupying her place. We asked if we could join her. Yasmin, following on from her conversations about travel and power, introduced us to the statement, that was as yet unsubstantiated (she was clear about this too), that the number of visas offers to Pakistani students atCardiffuniversity was pitifully low.

Now read some of the comments from Independent readers this tale and the following article has incited:

“I am also in a higher education institution and I see examples of students every day who are found guilty of lying, cheating, plagiarism, scrounging off the state and in many cases are obviously in this country as ‘students’ under false pretenses.  Do you want to guess where 95% of them come from?  Cheating and lying is just a way of life to them and, in their eyes, we are all stupid for bothering ourselves about it.  I also know many people who experience the same in their business dealings with certain ethnic groups.”

“YAB and her like should not dismiss anyone who is intelligent enough to express a rational opinion about the nature and behaviour of many immigrants in this country. We have a right to criticise what we see as corrupt or reprehensible, whatever a person’s skin colour.”

“What colour was the lone woman at the table? What difference does it make that your 2 friends were black? I was barred from entering what was described by the occupants as a ‘black mans pub’ in West Yorkshire about 25 yrs ago. So what? Zzzzzzzzz.”

 “Can you imagine trying to relax over a drink and having this ghastly foreign woman and two others descending on you and nattering away in your ear about visa restrictions. I think most people in this country would have liked to have reacted in
identical manner, good for her, nice to know that the pc brigade has not overwhelmed Cardiff yet. Stop this racist c*** Yasmin AB”

There, of course, is plenty more where those came from.

There are some facts that need to be made clear.

If person tells a stranger who is clearly a migrant to “go back home” and she is  “not welcome” they are RACIST.

If any person labels any other race or nationality as “liars, forgers and scroungers” they are RACIST.

Any individual that does not agree with me is probably RACIST too.

I am so glad Yasmin shared her story with the nation today. Her article is the equivalent of cutting the grass.

Yasmin recalls another incident to close her piece:

“In a boutique in London a few months back, I saw two young teens, one black and one white, thrown out by the owner: “We don’t want trash here. Go, please, now”. The black girl spoke back and was subjected to terrible racist swearing. I fled and said nothing. In Hay I didn’t bottle out. A time comes.”

Because of Yasmin, the next time this happens, I will not bottle out either.

Immigration statistics come from:

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s one woman show is available for purchase:

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