During this time of fear, confusion and uncertainty, my friend Lucie and I couldn’t help seeing the humour in our own reactions, and those of our friends. In this 12min monologue performed by Lucie and written by us both, the character, Nicky, tries to grapple with the big issues we faced in the week before lockdown.
It was a mild mid-summer evening as I stood at the entrance to a municipal office building in Euston and pressed the buzzer for a second time. The intercom remained silent. Beside me hovered a young man in his twenties, denim jacket, high-top trainers ‘Are you here for phone banking too?’ I asked. ‘Yeah’ he replied. It was June, Britain still enjoyed the confidence of Europe and Momentum, the campaign group around Jeremy Corbyn, had rallied members to canvass for Remain.
The door opened and a tall, elegant brunette in a jumper dress stood before us. It was quite a surprise when, in a voice deeper than the guy beside me, she asked ‘Are you here for phone banking?’ ‘Yes’ I nod, a little taken aback. ‘Great. I’m Clare’. We follow her up the stairs and in seconds, Clare has shown us how to use the app. The shabby office is host to around thirty people, all trying to convince the British public to stay in Europe. I pour myself a plastic cup of water, peel a complimentary tangerine and begin the task in hand.
At this point, I had no idea how much time I would be spending, nor emotional energy I would be expending, in this thirty-foot patch of regulation fire-proof carpet. But ten days later, the space where fellow phone bankers sipped tea and smiled reassuringly, had become like an emergency room in A&E. Shadow Cabinet resignations, dramatically announced like orchestrated cluster bombs, signaled a coup was being mounted and a great many of us rushed to help. Accusations of incompetence were circulating; the mantras ‘unelectable’ and ‘not a leader’ repeated constantly. It was like a tidal wave had hit a fishing boat and everyone was spltuttering for air.
‘How on earth are we going to win this?’ I asked Clare, hot desking beside me in the midst. Her powdered green eyes fixed firmly on her screen, ‘We’re going to win’ she replied, stern and resolute. And as I looked around the office, I saw huddles of young people, some no more than eighteen years-old, rebounding attacks through Facebook memes and carefully composed tweets. Henry, spectacled and awkward, a recent Oxford graduate and Momentum volunteer, was condensing the findings of an in-depth pro-Corbyn report into less than twenty words. During those dark days, Momentum’s social media reach stood at 11.7 million hits a day.
And then something extraordinary started happening. At very short notice, sometimes seventy-two hours, sometimes twenty-four, mass gatherings were being held across the country in support of Corbyn.
Suddenly, I was on the phone to Momentum members in Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool begging them to film these events, photograph them – anything that would record these extraordinary times. From Glasgow to Penzance, Momentum held rallies in town centres, public meetings, marches through the streets. Often venues would need to change last minute as the assembled crowd was too big. In the small market towns across Britain, port towns, old industrial centres, people raised their voice in unison and chanted ‘Corbyn In, Tories Out’. These were not members of a cult. They were active and politically engaged Labour voters who want an end to Conservative policies that are damaging their lives.
I’m on the phone to Sarah in Exeter. Her accent’s from the north but down south is where she’s made her life. Local radio will be interviewing her about a rally the next day and she’s nervous. Sarah is very much the typical Momentum member I encountered; mid-fifties, wife, mother, nurse, Labour roots right up the family tree. The conversation moves on. We start to talk about how we feel. ‘I’ve been a lifelong Labour supporter’ she tells me ‘and Corbyn represents my values. It’s the first time I’ve felt like this about the Labour Party in years. Now they’re trying to get rid of him and it’s like something is about to die’ I agreed. The muted panic of impending loss hung over all of us. But it wasn’t Corbyn. It was our renewed hope that Labour might once again mount a credible opposition, represent core voters, the silenced and the young.
The next day, two hundred and fifty people turned out in Exeter town centre. Sarah was ecstatic. At seventy-two hours notice in a rather conservative town in the South West of England, this was a triumph. Members of Momentum Exeter invited those assembled to write pledges of support. The messages were simple and unpretentious ‘We’re behind you, please keep going’; ‘For the first time in my life a politician that speaks for me’; ‘Stay left, Stay Corbyn, Stay kind’; ‘Now we need change not factions, let’s be better than that’. After a hundred people wrote messages they ran out of pledge forms and had to go and print some more.
Videos and photos started landing in my inbox from other Momentum rallies across Britain. These were not the high-production images of crowds erupting in city after city, which we saw during Corbyn’s re-election tour that summer. Instead, they were scratchy video recordings taken jerkily on mobile phones and snapped photos from within the throng. But their impact was no less powerful.
Faces young and old, some creased with lines of hardship, others touched pink by rays of English sun, messages in marker pens on cardboard held up high above their heads. A lady in her fifties full of common sense and elegance grips a tannoy to her mouth and demands to know, ‘How can you lie when you decide to send planes over innocent people and put bombs on them?!’ In Liverpool a blond young man, his words passionate, his manner cool, holds the attention of a crowd assembled with less thirty-six hours notice, ‘In our greatest hour of need in 1945 the Labour Party went out into the community, went out into the workplaces, spoke to the people and the solution was collectively coming together to build an NHS, to build public services, to give our children education. These are the ideals that we still believe in, and these are what we have to fight for.’
In the ten days after Hilary Benn expressed no confidence and triggered a coup, over thirty thousand people across Britain had turned out for Corbyn. The organisers I spoke to were astonished. Dawn from Momentum Cornwall couldn’t believe it when a hundred and sixty people gathered in Penzance, ‘It’s a very small town. When we do events we expect around fifty.’ In Hull, five hundred attended a public meeting, some for the first time. Gary reported it as one of the biggest political meetings for many years ‘This is a battle for the future of the Labour Party and ordinary members must win’ he told me forcefully during a conversation over the phone, ‘There is no support in Hull for a coup against Jeremy’. Sixty-thousand people joined the Labour Party that week. By mid-July, it had risen to a hundred and twenty thousand.
Now I had these photographs and videos, what was I going to do with them? I decided to consult with Santiago. Although only twenty-four, Santiago emits the wisdom of an elder. Surveying the flows and currents of the office floor, he smiles as I sit down beside him at his corner desk. ‘Santi, I need filmmakers,’ I begin. ‘We’ve got those’ his words trip lightly and before I know it, an email call has gone out to Momentum members asking filmmakers to get in touch. From across the country, editors, directors, camera men, camera women, animators, sound technicians, actors, poets, composers – you name it – took up the call. Off-shoots of Momentum had already popped up all over the place: Momentum Arts, Momentum Kids, Momentum Women, Momentum Rock & Roll Socials, Momentum Football and now my contribution, Momentum TV.
I wanted to meet artists whose work reflected this burgeoning grassroots political movement. Down in Bristol, where Momentum groups design apps for mass online political engagement, I met John D’Oh, an unassuming West Country lad whose graffiti of Corbyn sprayed all the way from Weston-Super-Mare to London. On Brick Lane, we used it a backdrop for a poetry performance by up-and-coming Liverpudlian singer, Louisa Roach.
“…unelectable to me
would be a party that forgot its cause
voting for unnecessary wars
voting for cuts, workfare, abstaining on inhumane laws
concerned with career,
empty aimless applause.
the plan is flawed”
As I went on to build Momentum TV, I heard repeated references to war and in particular, to the invasion of Iraq, so much so that it became the one unifying factor behind almost every Corbyn supporter I met. It was certainly the reason I was there. Like so many other Labour voters, I’d withdrawn after the invasion, consigned to watch neighbourhoods exploding, family traumas bleeding down through generations, the union jack fluttering from the masts of tanks while our moral influence and honour were collapsing in the rubble.
Just up the road, a Momentum Hackathon was taking place, where coders looped up symbols in a marriage of technology with democracy. Outside, a propped up advertising board invited people in. I maneuvered my way past it to be greeted by Beth, nineteen and sprite-like, holding a packet of Frazzle crisps. She offered me one before asking if I’d like to join a group. Volunteer techies sat around in huddles discussing ways to engage more people in politics through digital learning apps and networks for community engagement. Beth’s eyes widen when I show her a picture of John D’Oh’s graffiti down the road. She adds the photo to Momentum’s Instagram and pledges to collect more. Graffiti of Corbyn was flashing up on walls and billboards throughout that summer. I tried to recall a political figure who had inspired so many renegade portraits – Che Guevara? Mandela? But it was not just rebellious graffiti art, it was also rappers, beat-boxers, DJs, musicians, singers; at times it felt as if the whole of creative Britain was behind the Corbyn leadership campaign.
On stage at The Forum in North London, an old 1930’s Art Deco cinema turned Irish Dance Hall, and now a live music venue, Liam and I are watching Ken Loach speak about the deprivation many around Britain are facing. Liam is a video artist from East London and Momentum member who responded to the call out. On the mugs and t-shirts stall is Julie, a platinum blond forty-something from Liverpool. Her accent takes me back to childhood days spent watching episodes of BREAD on BBC. ‘I haven’t been able to go into work today’ Julie confides, ‘I’ve been that nervous’. Tonight the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party (NEC) will vote to decide whether Corbyn stays on the ballot in the re-run of the leadership election he fought and won with a landslide less than twelve months before. Up until then, I’d been pretty confident the Labour Party’s administrative body would resist moves to deselect him. Julie puts me right, ‘Most of those on the NEC are against Jeremy. If they can get him off the ballot then they will’. The panic that had consumed me during those first, uncertain days of the coup, returned. Lost for what to do, I bought Julie a pint and hurried backstage to find Liam.
Speakers and performers sat awkwardly on uncomfortable chairs nibbling cheesy crisps and drinking warm beer. It was a world away from cocktail parties in resplendent rooms. Ken Loach sat in one corner, perfectly comfortable being accosted by Liam and others for whom he is a hero. The big guns had turned up: McDonnell and Abbot, a little later, Corbyn too. Heavy regional accents permeated the room as Union men discussed the impending outcome of the NEC vote.
At the front of the stage a cheer goes up. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union has just announced the results of the NEC ballot. Corbyn stays on by one vote. I push through heavy fire doors in time to see the audience clapping, whooping, standing up. On their faces is relief, others elation, and I note again the mixed palette of races, angled jowls of poverty on some, plump fresh cheeks on others, sunken eyes betraying troubled minds, smiles flushed with cheer and hope. In a wheelchair a man in bifocals roars with victory at the prospect life may get a little better. Draped across the mixing desk in the centre of the crowd a banner reads, ‘Women for Corbyn’. Collectively we cherish the moment as winds blow momentarily in our favour. Two days later, Labour donor, Michael Foster, submits a legal challenge to overturn the ruling.
So began ‘The NEC Sagas’, a string of dramatic moves that were widely interpreted as attempts to diminish Corbyn’s support within the Labour Party membership. Around this time, the NEC excluded a hundred and thirty thousand Labour Party members from voting in the leadership election. It then opened up a forty-eight hour window for people paying £25 to sign up as registered voters and participate in it. Momentum’s social media team were on fire. ‘£25 All Votes Must Go!’ declared one Facebook meme against an image of frenzied Black Monday shoppers. ‘For a world where people can’t buy votes’ cried another, ‘Democracy shouldn’t have a price tag but we can’t afford to lose this’. A hundred and eighty thousand people signed up during those forty-eight hours, the vast majority of whom backed Corbyn.
But then the exclusions started, and it wasn’t a fair fight anymore. Some were undoubtedly justified. Members of other political parties cannot join Labour and, as Momentum would discover to its detriment some months later, concerns around the disruptive influence of hard left activists are real. However, the people I encountered were long standing party members, Labour councilors, some excluded for infractions as minor as sharing a Green Party tweet. While the NEC combed through members’ social media accounts, the polls closed on 21st September with sixty thousand people still waiting for their ballot papers, including my own mother.
Back in the Momentum office, I meet Katie in the lift. ‘How’s it going?’ I chirp. ‘Don’t ask’ she sighs and rolls her eyes, dark pockets of anxiety beneath them ‘I’ve had the worst week of my life’. Katie is another recent graduate, nervous and rotund, she suffers from epilepsy and is entirely dependent on the NHS for medication. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without the NHS’, she admits, running agitated fingers through knotty straw-blond hair as we stand together on the balcony some days prior. Katie visits picket lines in solidarity with Junior Doctors and writes about it on her Facebook page. She’s also in charge of merchandise, or was, until a mole exposed the story of the t-shirts. Masquerading as a volunteer for five weeks, Mohammed, which we later found out was a fake name, was in fact a reporter for The Mail on Sunday. As the lift ascends, Katie tells me about the panic-attack she had when the story broke, ‘I couldn’t breath’ she tells me plainly. Allegedly, the t-shirts Katie bought were made in Bangladeshi sweat shops. ‘They advertised as an ethical company’ Katie’s face, usually as bright as winter sun was overcast with pain ‘and I made sure we did the printing here in England’. She tails off defeated, looks away, ‘I never want to see another t-shirt as long as I live’.
I saw changes to Momentum after Mohammed the mole had left. An invisible drawbridge came up, anxiety and suspicion crept in where before there was only openness and trust. Perhaps naively, everyone had been welcomed. The three members of staff at Momentum worked without hierarchy or favour. When I began volunteering for Momentum, I had no idea who was permanent staff and who wasn’t. Everyone was just mucking in together. Behind me, I hear Faduma enter. As ever, swathed in brightly coloured material, her headscarf framing dazzling white teeth against smooth, brown skin. Most of the time Faduma’s smiling, except when her eyelids drop, her smile vanishes and she’s quite visibly and quite vocally pissed off. ‘If anybody else steals my volunteers’ she declares ‘I’m going to seriously tell them off ’.
Volunteer Wars were a common feature of life at Momentum. Anyone with tangible skills would be co-opted by other teams, usually surreptitiously. Katie’s younger brother, Dougal, was helping me with Momentum TV and quite soon, I found myself fighting a Volunteer War with Justin from The World Transformed. Justin is tall, dapper, from Barnsley in Yorkshire and has teddy-boy hair. ‘Dougal can’t just not show up to a meeting, Justin, because he’s been given work by you’ I protest. Justin recoils before conceding with a sigh, ‘Okay, we can part with him for as long as you need him’. At sixteen, Dougal prefers working with the older boys anyway, so I’m fighting a losing battle and I know it. Relieved that’s over, Justin goes back to the screen of his dented laptop, from which he directs comms for The World Transformed (TWT), a festival of art, activism and grassroots voices that will run alongside the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. Momentum TV plans to profile artists and activists from its line-up and Ursula, another sassy young Oxbridge graduate, has offered to lead on it. Soon she and Justin are discussing logistics. As it turns out, they already know each other from the Occupy movement.
The World Transformed was held at The Black-E in Liverpool, a mid-nineteenth century chapel turned community arts centre. Positioned on a hill leading up from redeveloped docks where the Labour Party conference would take place, the Black-E towered over like a Christ the Redeemer, its giant fluted Corinthian columns standing statuesque upon wide stone steps tread, over the course of the festival, by over four thousand visitors.
On the third-floor landing of its wooden back staircase, a massive satirical poster condemning advertising hangs a few steps from Darren Cullen. Cullen is a Dismaland artist whose work questions the culture of consumerism that increasingly pervades British society. Outside on the steps, Ash from THTC Clothing explains how consumer choice can be redirected towards fairer conditions and better workers rights. Inside, the Fracking Nanas describe how they take their anti-fracking campaign to the Grandmothers of England’s shires. Artists in Residence, Alam Padam, chat to punters as they sketch. Beside them is the banner of campaign group, Global justice Now, who won their fight against the might of transatlantic corporations. A training session on public speaking is taking place downstairs. Huge and intricate banners hang like Coats of Arms from double-tiered balconies, some emblazoned with heraldry of Trade Unions, others weighted by the stitches of their intricately-sewn call to arms against injustice, discrimination and in support of better wages.
I look around the space inside this grand, Victorian, high-vaulted chapel and I think to myself, here is Britain’s political opposition. And it pains me that the old guard of the Labour party fail to see this. Here, the entrepreneurial energy of twenty-first century activism combines with political-party engagement to produce the compound that is Corbyn’s Left. Trade unions sit comfortably within this configuration, part of a worldview where every worker, here or elsewhere, is treated fairly, complimented by a concept of ethical consumerism that drives this. Climate change is no metropolitan indulgence in this political context. It is a natural extension of our belief in the power of collective solutions for all life because that is what will feed us, body and soul, in the end. This is not the world of Millennium Goals or UN Charters for Universal Peace. It is practical, civil society engagement responding to the issues that our fellow British subjects face and who, until now, have found little voice in parliament. Labour Party membership has increased three-fold since Corbyn stood for leader. Faith in him is faith in Labour’s chances. But this merger will not last forever.
Just as through his megaphone, the passionate young Liverpudlian reminded us of Labour’s pioneering social project in 1945, and just as the answer back in 1945 was to collectively come together to support each other, so might this be our solution now. But what was achieved in 1945 with pen, paper and the telegraph will now be done through web connections, apps and social networks. Momentum exists to discover and to disseminate these innovations and, at this defining moment in the history of our country, we have a treasured opportunity to use them. Already they have bonded activist youth networks together with traditional working class communities, the might of our trade unions with the imagination of our artists and the business minds who believe in the power of individuals to influence through consumer choice. What winning formula! What an opportunity!
Life is turbulent for Momentum right now. Members of anachronistic left-wing factions are playing power games and its future is uncertain. During my time there, I never once saw trace of hard left thinking, bar the occasional email signed off ‘Solidarity’ usually twinned with ‘and best wishes’ or in my case, ‘and One Love’. But even if Momentum’s founders fail to steer a course around this iceberg, the network will live on. My local Momentum group in Kensington and Chelsea has just re-formed and will campaign to protect our diminishing community spaces and the Notting Hill Carnival, which is under threat. Of all the filmmakers who I worked with, campaigners, musicians, Momentum members, activists, artists, not one was calling for violent revolution of the Marxist-Trotskyist kind. These people wanted something much more simple: a Labour government that represents their values and will fight for policies they believe in. And right now, Corbyn is their guy. So let’s stop posturing and squabbling, and start riding this gigantic tidal wave of electoral potential. Labour is perfectly placed to be the political party of Britain’s future. Victory is within our grasp. Let’s take it.
For what it’s worth, I’m going to throw my two-pence into the current debate about anti-Semitism within the Labour party. I know from friends how much nervousness there is around anti-Jewish rhetoric; school friends whose grandmothers were in Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz, who watched their sisters being shot in front of their eyes, who were starved to a point from which their bodies never recovered, who died in the camps and left children – mothers and fathers of friends – who are still trying to overcome the emotional legacy.
I understand the frightened words of Jack Lewy, a student who writes passionately in The Independent about his feelings when he hears Ken Livingston’s comments on the radio or reads articles about Naz Shah, ‘In the last few weeks I have never been made to feel more uncomfortable about my race and my religion…we are horrified but more importantly we are scared’. I have deep sympathy for Jack Lewy’s feelings and I know they are shared by others.
At the same time, the charge of anti-Semitism should not be leveled against people who disagree with the politics of the Israeli state. It demeans the significance of the charge and it links all members of the Jewish community to the politics of Israel, whether they agree with these politics or not. This is wrong.
I was at a dinner a few months ago during which I expressed my support for Jeremy Corbyn. One of the guests replied that Jeremy Corbyn was an anti-Semite. This made me cross as he is not an anti-Semite and has fought against injustice throughout his career, often alongside Jewish activists fighting the same causes. When I pointed this out, the charge of anti-Semitism was turned on me.
I left that dinner deciding the man was a bully who I should ignore. But I was very upset. It’s a heck of a charge to be called anti-Semitic, especially when you were brought up in North West London and all your secondary school mates are Jewish. It’s doubly hard when your parents have spent part of their careers making documentaries about the Holocaust and who count Jews amongst their closest friends. But even if that wasn’t my background, it’s a very big charge to throw at someone. For everyone’s sake, it should not be done lightly.
In an article in CapX a few days ago, the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, wrote ‘No one had mentioned Israel. It was Piers Corbyn (Jeremy Corbyn’s brother) who has introduced Israel into a discussion of anti-Semitism, for no reason other than to attack the idea that it needed to be tackled’. But that message gets diluted when the Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev, makes a statement on Saturday urging the Left to take the following action: ‘It is important that the leadership is not neutral or agnostic about anti-Semitism… You have had too many people on the progressive side of politics who have embraced Hamas and Hezbollah. Both of them are anti-Semitic… There needs to be an unequivocal message from the leadership saying there is no solidarity with anti-Semites’. This not religion. This is politics.
I thoroughly agree that Ken Livingstone should be suspended for his comments and I hope he understands how terrifying it is for the Jewish community to hear him makes these statements. But to claim the Labour Party is riddled with anti-Semitism seems unfair. If anything, the Labour party has been a great friend to the Jews over the years: there have been more Jewish MP in the Labour party than in any other party, Labour have appointed more Jewish peers and, until only last year, the leader of the Labour party – Ed Miliband – was Jewish.
So I guess my plea is for people to save the charge of anti-Semitism for those who really are prejudiced towards the Jewish community, who really do sign-up to stereotypes and who have a racist mentality. The politics of Israel are just that –politics. The Jewish religion, as I experience it, is spiritually nurturing, thoughtful and questioning, and yet mystical; infused with an easy-going closeness between family and friends, it celebrates humour and believes in building confidence in others. I really do not believe it is fair to make Judaism synonymous with Israel’s politics, and I hope this stops being part of the rhetoric.
I’ve been called many things in my life, but a ‘non-Muslim’ is not one of them. That was, until I watched Trevor Phillips’ programme on Channel 4 entitled, ‘What British Muslim’s Really Think’ directed by Paul Copeland and David Modell. Now, I find, I have become part of a new category within British society: the ‘non-Muslims’. If you are not a Muslim, then you are in this category too.
The ‘non-Muslims’, according to Phillips, represent the British public at large. According to the results of ‘a unique new survey’, the ‘British public’ are liberal, whereas the views of Muslims – or some of ‘them’ at the very least – are ‘out of line with the rest of British society’. Why is this? Phillips asks rhetorically before informing us that ‘Part of the answer probably lies in their ancestral backgrounds’.
The somewhat controversial title, ‘What British Muslims Really Think’ – as if British Muslims are a homogenous mass rather than individuals with a range of complex viewpoints – could be an arresting entry point for a programme that genuinely seeks to unravel stereotypes and present a multiplicity of views. But this expectation fades rather rapidly as the opening sequence shows dramatic archive footage of the 7/7 bombings in London ten years ago. The sequence, accompanied by a sinister music score, is overlaid with Phillips’ opening narration: ‘Just over ten years ago, terror struck Britain. None of the bombers survived. But the menace they posed did not perish with them. Hundreds of young British men have left their own country to fight abroad. Some may return to take up arms here they say, in defence of religious belief.’ Hmmmmm….
During the programme there is one discussion with ordinary members of the Muslim community. At this, Phillips represents the rest of us as the ‘non-Muslim’ in the room. But the bulk of the evidence used to reveal What British Muslims Really Think comes from this ‘unique new survey’ commissioned by Channel 4 and analysed by Phillips. After asking 1,081 people of the Muslim faith living in areas with a high-density population and a higher than average Muslim demographic, the results are used to tell us what three million British individuals think. However, even the architects of the survey are clear that it covers only ‘half of Britain’s three million Muslims’, presumably because the other half are not living in ghettos on the outskirts of large cities. But we should be reassured, Philips tells us, because ‘While it couldn’t be guaranteed to reflect the opinions of the other half in every respect, it would be unlikely to be far out of line’. How he has reached this conclusion, we are never told. Laying anxiety aside, I remind myself that Phillips is the former Chairman of the Equality and Human Right’s Commission, so he must be presenting a balanced view.
Despite this significant caveat, Martin Boon, the man who carried out the survey, claims that it reflects ‘what Britain’s three million Muslims really think on a range of issues’ as well as, Boon continues, telling ‘us how they compare to what the rest of Britain is thinking’. Sliding into the realms of satirical comedy, Boon announced that he has chosen to illustrate the views of Muslims and ‘the rest of Britain’ through the image of a chasm. At this point, I fear the programme’s credibility may be starting to wane. Standing in front of a whiteboard on which two rocks are drawn seemingly moving further and further apart, Boon concedes, ‘We do have a number of similarities between Muslims and the wider population’ – well, at least that’s something – ‘but in actual fact,’ Boon qualifies, ‘once we look deeper into the survey results, we do find that a chasm does develop between Muslims and the way they believe, the way they think, and the wider population’. I might suggest that a survey purporting to tell us ‘the way they think’ in relation to any section of British society is nearing very dangerous ground.
And who are the rest of Britain here – the ‘non-Muslims’, that is? Who represents ‘the wider population’? Is it the farmers of Cumbria? The UKIP voters of Maidstone? Is it those living in the old mining communities of The Black Country or The Valleys? The SNP voters in Aberdeen? The descendants of Middle Eastern parents residing in Chelsea? The British-Caribbean population of Bristol? I’d be fascinated to learn who represents us ‘non-Muslims’ in twenty-first century Britain. But unfortunately, we are never told.
Despite these worrying discrepancies, Phillips draws conclusions from this survey that, in his own words, ‘will shock many’. One is that ‘significant numbers of British Muslims don’t want to change and don’t want to move to adopt the behaviours of the majority’; another is that ‘British Muslims who sympathise with violence are around twice as likely to prefer to live a more separate life here in Britain than those who don’t’; a third is that ‘the way of life for integrated Muslims is seriously challenged’; a fourth that ‘everyone who’s pinned their hopes on the rise of liberal and reforming British Muslim voices is in for a disappointment’; and finally, on a more positive note perhaps, ‘Some young British Muslims have become more extreme, but others do hold views on some issues that look a bit more like the rest of Britain’. At this point, I’m starting to wonder whether I should be contacting the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.
To take Phillips’ first conclusion, ‘significant numbers of British Muslims don’t want to change and don’t want to move to adopt the behaviours of the majority’. This is reached through extrapolating from the following data: although 56% of Muslims mix with non-Muslims outside their home but away from work and college – so over half of those surveyed – only 21% go to the home of a non-Muslim once a year or less (note the extremely sinister music score accompanying the scene) and 21% never go to the home of a non-Muslim. Presumably this is so shocking because ‘the rest of Britain’ regularly visits the homes of a whole rainbow nation of people. My mind again wonders to exactly who the rest of us actually are. How many residents of Derbyshire villages, the coastal towns of Cornwall, smaller cities of Britain such as Preston, Ipswich or Chichester regularly visit the homes of people from different races or religions? And if the answer is ‘pretty seldom’, would Phillips then conclude these people ‘don’t want to change and don’t want to move to adopt the behaviours of the majority’. A minute ago, they were the majority – the ‘non-Muslim’ one, of course. So what’s going on?
Perhaps I should not forget another piece of evidence that Phillips may argue is yet more damningly conclusive: of the 1,081 people interviewed ‘17% wish to lead a separate life as far as possible’. I can almost guarantee that if you asked 1,081 people in Maidstone this question, the percentage would be far higher.
Turning to Phillips’ second conclusive finding: ‘British Muslims who sympathise with violence are around twice as likely to prefer to live a more separate life here in Britain than those who don’t’. Again, the evidence may possibly bear a second glance. According to the statistic emblazoned across the screen, ‘6% have sympathy towards making terrorist threats as part of the political process’. The directors felt the next finding should not be printed in statistical form as all the others have been, and nor should the question be shared with the viewer. Instead, both would be explained by Martin Boon. Boon is only too pleased to oblige, ‘when it comes to the most extreme form of violence – suicide bombing using explosives for example – to meet political objectives, well, about 4% of Muslims expressed some form of sympathy with the more extremist end of it’. Leaving aside question marks around use of the word ‘sympathy’ (the word also employed by The Sun in its survey of Muslim opinion for which it was then forced to publicly apologise) the claim is made even more complex by the fact that actual question asked was whether there was ‘sympathy for the use of suicide bombing to fight injustice’. Quite why directors Paul Copeland and David Modell decided to omit the precise phrasing of this question is unclear. But it seems rather incongruous when all other questions are printed across the entire width of the screen.
These two questions, which form the basis of Phillips case for linking integration with violence, do not refer specifically to the British political process and instead ask a general question about the use of terrorist violence in the political process. Taking this into account, I would imagine that if the same question had been asked to residents of north London in the 1980s, at the height of British activist involvement in the struggle against the apartheid in South Africa, the percentage answering in the affirmative would have made double figures. Needless to say, the use of terrorist violence as part of the political process is a very complex issue. Naturally, Phillips addresses this point. How could he not? His programme not only begins and ends with references to violent acts (either past or imminent), but references to it run throughout the entire forty-seven minutes. Phillips begins, ‘There are many opinions swirling around as to why some Muslims would support violence against their own country -’ hold on a moment. Where has this come from? There has been no reference to Britain in the questions they have shown us. Could the former Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (previously the Commission for Racial Equality) be misrepresenting data to discredit a minority community in Britain? I grew up with Trevor Phillips. He was the face of tolerance and a shared humanity against stereotyping and slurs. This simply isn’t possible.
Phillips’ next question is nothing short of chilling. ‘But is there’, he asks, ‘any difference between the minority who sympathise with violence acts and the majority who don’t?’ Martin Boon is only too keen to ‘give us a handle on what they might be thinking’. Despite only 4-6% of respondents expressing ‘sympathy’ with ‘terrorist violence as part of the political process’, Boon feels able to extrapolate the following conclusions: ‘not believing that you belong to Britain, not having that emotional attachment is one thing that somewhat correlates with it.’ It is perhaps worth mentioning here, that 83% of respondents to this very survey answered yes to the question, ‘Do you feel you belong to Britain?’ In spite of this, Boon feels confident to assert that, ‘If, as a Muslim, you don’t have a desire to integrate into orthodox British society or indeed you want to practice a more fundamentalist Islamic lifestyle, or even submit to sharia law in this country, all of these things, all of these attitudes, to some extent explain why some people might move down that path towards violence.’
Cue Phillips’ call out for a policy of ‘active integration’, a ‘muscular approach’ that he believes will stave off the peril of this ‘nation within a nation’. We must abandon ‘live and let live’, he warns us – a policy that might otherwise be called tolerance and one could argue, is the very cornerstone of liberalism – and in its place ‘reassert the liberal values that have served our society so well for so long’. By this point, I’m ready for a gang of Active Integrationists to start flexing their muscles on the streets of Bradford, forcing residents to take tea with ‘non-Muslims’ living on the other side of town and demanding that they hang posters of British judges in order to prove their dedication to British legislature. But no, ‘active integration’ amounts to little more than capping ethnic intake of schools to 50% (without mention of any reform to faith schools) and obliging local councils to publish data on the ethnic make-up of social housing. Gosh. After watching forty seven minutes of What British Muslim’s Really Think, I was starting to believe we had a serious threat to domestic security on our hands. Phillips himself tells us that reversing the harm done is ‘something that may already be too late’. So is the solution really just to redraw catchment areas and get council tenants to fill out ethnicity questionnaires?
Far from gaining insights into What British Muslim’s Really Think, this programme reveals what Trevor Phillips Really Thinks, which is rather shocking. Elsewhere in the media Phillips claims multiculturalism is a failure. But on the contrary, even within the high-density, lower-income communities covered by this survey, 83% of those questioned feel they belong to Britain. The same percentage believe they are treated fairly within the British system. Far from indicating a failure of integration in Britain, these answers suggest it has been going pretty well. In fact, we should be proud of the integration we have here – and for that matter, of Trevor Phillips for playing an important role in making it happen. What the survey may have helped us to understand more fully, if it had chosen to, is how we could be doing better. One useful addition might have been to ask whether programmes like What British Muslims Really Think have an impact on integration that is positive or negative.
I can only assume the next programme Phillips will make with Paul Copeland and David Modell for Juniper will look at, let’s say, What British Hindus Really Think, or indeed, What British Jews Really Think, or perhaps What British Jamaicans Really Think. If they are intending to make a programme on What British Non-Muslim Women Really Think, I can be of no help whatsoever as the premise is so preposterous. But this British woman thinks that ending a tolerant attitude towards one section of British society will inevitably begin a slide into intolerance towards all communities. This is not an assertion of liberalism, it is a very worrying attack on it.
I went to Calais yesterday. It’s quite hard to describe how it feels looking across areas of land that were home to so many people and, in three days, are now bare. In the southern part of the camp, where the bulldozers were still dumping the contents of people’s makeshift houses into dumpsters, reminders of the community that once inhabited this patch of scrub land lie strewn across the mud and turf.
However, beside the entrance, iconicised by Banksy’s ‘London Calling’ artwork featuring Steve Jobs with a sack on his back, no trace of human habitation remains. Bulldozers move slowly, combing the earth as if preparing the foundation for a new construction. But having seen the life that was there before I can’t help feeling instead, like they are covering up a graveyard of lost souls.
Where are these people now? Some are in the huge, white containers that sit like industrial storage boxes behind barbed wire fences and a moat. Despite the displacement of an estimated 2,000 people this week there are still 600 spaces available. Entry is by palm print and many people are concerned this will constitute registration in France, although the authorities deny it. I watched as figures move from box to portaloo and back again. One man sits with his back to the wall in a container with one wall removed, presumably to create a communal gathering space. Instead, this lone, dark figure huddled against a white, sterile background reminds me of a patient in a mental asylum.
The middle of the camp still remains. The Women and Children’s Centre is functioning, the church, the library and the school are all in tact. I spoke to Solomon who built the church and who I met on one of my previous visits. Solomon is from Ethiopia, very tall and very strong with a bright white smile and a scar across his eyebrow. Apparently the French judge in the appeal case ruled that only non-inhabited structures could be destroyed and the communal spaces must be spared. But huts were torn down anyway, so he doubts the church will remain standing for long.
Solomon asks if I would like to join the community meeting taking place in a large tent just beyond what used to be the Syrian section. At the start of the meeting the young woman in charge asks us all to observe a minute’s silence for a Sudanese man who had died of a heart attack in his tent a few hours before. After the meeting, I followed two of the community leaders, both Afghan, to where the funeral was taking place.
French riot police stood in front of the entrance to a tent where his body had been washed in accordance with Muslim burial traditions. We stood for a while in the bitter cold, the North Sea wind lacerating our faces and our hands, and waited for something to happen. More and more people arrived to pay respects but nobody could enter the tent. And then a group of men started talking in Arabic, some Middle Eastern, some Afghan, some African, and finally it was decided that a prayer should be said. Everybody cupped their hands while a prayer was recited and then put their hands to their face. We slowly peeled off as a hail storm began gathering apace, and I thought about how profound that moment was.
The French authorities have been organising buses to take residents to other camps around France. However, according to NGO workers who are trying to co-ordinate alternative accommodation, few seats on the buses have been taken. Most people have walked out of the camp in the same way they walked in: with a small bag and the whisper of another place they might seek refuge.
When I was in The Jungle at Christmas and then again briefly on 7th January, the mood was light. Restaurants were busy and shanty-town businesses were popping up all over the place. The majority of people were trying most nights to get to Britain and for many, the agony was palpable. But during the times in between there was a community wrapped around them.
Young Brits were coming across in droves, often with nothing but an overdraft to sustain them, some to build plywood huts so that people wouldn’t die of exposure, others to cook, sort donations for the distribution vans that would arrive at scheduled times each day, teach English or to proselytize on behalf of their God. Some went to play music or to take photos. Others went to talk to people, record their stories so that what was happening could be related to the outside world. Now all this has gone.
Looking through my photographs, I notice someone had scrawled across the Banksy piece, ‘Because Worthless’. It must feel like this to those who have been displaced yet again. But, having visited The Jungle five times since last September, I can honestly say that people didn’t feel worthless in there. Like the funeral for the dead Sudanese man, people showed up: to give food, to share warmth or to impart happiness, however short-lived. What happens to these people now though, is really hard to know.
Christmas was fast approaching and in the whirl of present buying, Christmas Day co-ordination, catching up with friends, boozy Christmas parties and over-eating, I had an overwhelming urge to return to The Jungle. Some of the students we taught in September still hadn’t made it to Britain, although more than half had. From whatsapp conversations with those still in the camp, I sensed a slow descent into despair.
However powerless one feels to bring about change on a policy level – or to even know what that change should look like – I saw how small acts of individual kindness can help those who are losing hope, and how much this matters. I noted in a post that I wrote on Facebook at the time, how many foreigners, particularly Brits, had traveled to the camp to help, how alive the energy was, and how I felt the true spirit of Christmas surrounding me.
Last time I was there, Salma and I had popped into the Ethiopian Coptic church, a substantial plywood structure enveloped in white tarpaulin with wooden crosses rising up above the skyline of the camp. The church had been built by Solomon, a tall, broad Ethiopian with a very white smile and a scar across his eyebrow. Solomon was the community leader for the Ethiopian and Eritrean community, attending meetings and speaking on their behalf. Solomon also maintained the church, which served hot meals on Holy Days to anyone who walked through the gate.
I wanted to show Christmas through the prism of this church and enlisted the remaining students – Saleh, Naeem and Mohammed from the film course, along with a friend of mine from London – to help me film. In fact, the Facebook post precipitated a donation from another friend in London and suddenly, we were able to provide gas cooking stoves to families; pots and pans to women; tinsel and baubles so Kurdish children could decorate the Christmas trees outside the church; throw a Christmas dinner for the Syrian boys who, like Saleh, Naeem and Mohammed, were under enormous mental strain; and give a donation towards the Holy Feast that would be happening on the orthodox Christmas on 7th January.
As ever, our central meeting place was the café and again, Maru’s face lit up when we walked through the door. Over the three days we were working in the camp, I had the chance to sit down with Maru a few times and check in on where he was at. The plan to go back to Afghanistan was dead. Too many Afghans were streaming into the camp with stories of renewed fighting, ISIS encroachment, and massive civilian casualties.
‘If I go back I’ll have to join a group’ Maru confides ‘Taliban or Daesh or a tribe. Now everyone must join a group’.
Speaking to people about Maru’s dilemma, his conclusions seem about right. At twenty-two years old, Maru is a good age to be a fighter.
But what would he be fighting for? Watching Maru as he glides effortless around the café, smiling at people as they come in, serving cups of tea, I imagine the boy working in his father’s tractor shop, happy to run errands, taking it all in so he could manage the business when the time came. Often Maru would join a table for a while, sit down with the customers as he did during our film making classes, follow the conversation with concentration, laugh along with the jokes and impart information when asked. Maru had a good grip on what was happening inside the camp. Foreigners – like myself – would go to him for information. Most people knew Maru by name.
Now that returning to Afghanistan was no longer an option, Maru and I discussed what he might do next. At the time, about three hundred people in the camp had given up trying to board trains to Britain. Like everyone else, they had their own story and their own unique reasons. In Maru’s case, it is because he worked illegally in Britain for almost four years and spent three months in a detention centre when he tried to return after traveling to Italy to renew his papers. These papers allow Maru to live and work legally in Italy.
‘Why aren’t you in Italy then, Maru?’ I exclaim
But Maru spent eighteen months in Italy and had been unable to find a job. He looks me squarely in the eyes,
‘There are fifteen million Italians working in Europe because there are no jobs in Italy, Alice’
I contemplate this fact.
As I do, my mind begins to whirr.
‘How about France?’ I declare. ‘If you registered in France, you could stay here, in Calais, which is close to Britain. You have lots of friends who would support you. Everybody loves you here, Maru.’
In my head I saw a vision of an Afghan cafe, nestling in one of the peeling shop fronts that line the trading streets of central Calais. Apart from the occasional Bar Sportif, tucked away among semi-uninhabited residential streets, there seemed few places to sit and chill-out in the middle of town. I imagined the lilting sounds of Pashtun music and the scent of hubbily bubbily drawing the locals in. Having a drink in a bar one evening, just off Calais’ Boulevard Lafayette and hosting a distinctly local clientele, I fall into conversation with a man called Doudou from Cote D’Ivoire. He had lived in Calais for over twenty years and had never experienced racism. Now people crossed the road.
‘The people here are scared’ Doudou tells me ‘They feel threatened. But it was never like this before’
Could the people of Calais overcome their fear? Would an influx of hard-working, gentle tempered, and grateful people enable this shabby transit town to regain some of its lost maritime glory, eluded to in the grand mercantile buildings still scattered around a town now cloaked in drab conservatism.
Maru considers the idea of staying in France. The internet connection in The Jungle gets weaker every time I go. I’m aware from trying to research options for the students how much time it takes to source accurate information. But a group of French lawyers have set up an information point in the camp and are giving free advice. Maru decides to ask them. I give out the final Christmas presents, large boxes of chocolates to the two or three volunteers who have been living and working in the camp for the past six months, as well as a box for Maru and the guys at the café, before taking the last train back to London and arriving home at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Two weeks later and I’m back in the camp. The original plan had been to attend the orthodox Christmas Day Feast at the church, but a call has been put out for media to cover the situation in Dunkirk as the conditions are extreme and those working there can no longer cope. I contact the woman running the camp, a Brit called Maddie Harris, who Secret Garden festival before volunteering in Dunkirk, where she had been for over four months. On Maddie’s Facebook page I see photos of a smiling young woman dressed in fairy costumes larking about with her friends. When we meet up in the camp at Grande Synthe, Maddie looks at breaking point.
I have traveled over with a friend called Emily, and on the way we collected Saleh and Mohammed from The Jungle. Immediately after liaising with Maddie, we start filming and taking pics. The camp is populated by Iraqi Kurds. Most are young men and families. In the communal mess tent, we run a quick-fire cell phone filmmaking class. The boys then head straight to their tents to film the conditions in which they are living. This film features Maddie and includes footage shot by these boys, Hamoo, Hama and Marewan.
While dropping the guys back at The Jungle, I clock in with Maru. The conversation with the lawyers didn’t go well. He expression becomes despondent when he recounts the experience. The legal system around refugees means that once your fingerprints have been taken in one country, you cannot then register anywhere else. I ask to see Maru’s documents: if he has full refugee status then he can legally work anywhere in Europe. But the Italian authorities have given him travel documents, so Italy is the only place Maru can legally work. Sitting opposite him now, I notice his teeth are starting to brown. He smokes almost constantly, the cheap brand of cigarettes on sale in the camp, and his skin is tiring. Perhaps it is because he is recalling time in Italy or in Britain, living in detention, or perhaps because he is consumed with thoughts of home, but I have never seen Maru looking so down.
‘I used to be organised’ he tells me ‘I didn’t used to smoke’
Sitting there with a cigarette in my hand, I’m astonished at his fortitude.
‘I had a plan’ he continues ‘I knew where I was going. Now I don’t know what to do’
I remember the Pashtun code of ethics – the Pushtunwali – which includes a dedication to perseverance. I ask Maru to tell me his story after leaving home. He lights another cigarette and begins
‘I got to Turkey and sold – I don’t know the word in English…’ he describes the item to me. It is handkerchiefs. ‘Yes handkerchiefs – on the side of the road. The police would drive up and we would run. I did that for five months but it was too dangerous and so I went to Greece’.
Later, when I ask what the most frightening part of his journey had been, he immediately recalls the boat trip from Turkey to Greece.
‘I’d never seen a boat before. We have no sea in Afghanistan. Many people die on the boats. While we waiting, all the hairs on my head, they were up’
Upon arrival in Greece, Maru was arrested and put into a children’s camp. The children were not allowed to leave the camp and there was no schooling, other than in the Greek language.
‘I was with Iraqi, Kurdish and Iranian children. We lived in containers, like the ones they make here in The Jungle. There was a TV , a bed and a small playground with some grass’
I’d visited the containers in The Jungle, newly erected by the French authorities to house around 1,500 inhabitants of the camp. Huge, white, industrial boxes – they sit surrounded by wire fences and a moat. Through the mesh it is possible to see people moving silently from box to Portaloo and back again. They look like miniatures in a game of whitewashed Lego, the containers towering above them like metal warehouses devoid of colour and life. One man sits in the corner of an open box, huddled, looking out.
Surrounding the container site, the make-shift huts of The Jungle are filled with humans sharing space together: sitting around a fire talking; taking cups of tea in tents; standing aside while others step across the narrow paths that line the muddy thoroughfares. In the containers people are warm and dry. But seeing this man sitting as he was, alone against the sterile wall of a white metal box, I shivered at the prospect that, quite soon, he might go mad.
Maru stayed a year in the Greek children’s camp and then he ran away.
‘They said they would give us papers. But no papers ever came. We thought they are waiting for us to become eighteen and then they will send us back home.’
Through regular contact with his uncle, Maru knew it was not safe for him to return home.
In Thessaloniki camp in Greece, Maru lived in a tent with thirty other men: Albanians, Romanians, Kurds, Iraqis. There was no shower and the camp was very cold. Looking at pictures of the camp on the internet, the conditions seem frighteningly similar to Dunkirk. All thirty of the men pooled their money and fed each other. They cooked using wood from the nearby forest
‘At 4am or 6am every night the police would come and check our papers’ Maru recalls ‘They would arrest the people without papers and put them in prison for a week. When you come out of prison they give you papers for a month. After that month was over, they arrest you and you go to prison again for a week. Then they give you another month. It just keeps happening like that’.
I’d read about ordinary Greeks handing out tea and food to refugees sleeping in Victoria Square in Athens and I asked Maru what the response was from the local population.
‘If they saw you, they would report you to the police and you would get arrested’.
Maru lasted two months. Then he took a boat to Sicily, where he was arrested by the Italian border police. They took his fingerprints and his destiny in Italy was sealed.
Again, Maru found himself living in a container, except this time they were allowed to leave the camp from 8am until 8pm. From time to time, Maru would embark on the four-hour walk to town. I asked him what he did when he finally got there. He shrugs
‘Sit in the gardens for a while. Then walk back’
And so Maru spent another year of his adolescent life sitting in starched iron containers, unable to cook, but with access to showers and toilets: the interminably slow drudge of wasted days while he waited for his papers. However, Maru did take advantage of the language classes that were offered to him, and learned conversational Italian. When a year later, his documents came through, Maru began job hunting.
Going from shop to shop, he offered to work for any wage, however low. In Naples, Rome, Venice and Milan he tried to get work, but there was no work. In February 2012 he traveled up to Calais and got himself across to Britain. It was while working illegally in Britain that Maru’s mother back in Afghanistan fell ill. Through doing sixteen hour shifts, Maru was able to send money back for her medical care.
‘I thought your mother died in the fire?’ I ask Maru, confused
‘My father married twice’ he tells me rather awkwardly, conscious this is not common practice in my culture ‘This was my other mother.’
It didn’t seem appropriate to ask if this was the biological one. When Maru left Britain to renew his documents in Italy, he was arrested coming back. The UK police put him in a detention centre for three months and then sent him back over the border. He arrived in Calais to the news his mother had died.
‘ I couldn’t hear anyone for two days’ he tells me, recalling that time ‘That was when everything changed.’ He holds up the smoking cigarette, ‘That was when I started this and when I start to think about dying.’
‘Come on, Maru!’ I exclaim, ‘You’re young. You can’t think about dying!’
‘Maybe its better to go back and die in my country. I do not have life here’.
My mind is spinning. There has to be a solution. Maru has been running for so long, he has nowhere left to go. As we said goodbye I promised to contact some Italian friends to see if they had any advice. Although he was mentally fragile, Maru was secure within the extended family of the café and of the camp. He had a bed and food everyday. I was comforted to know that, at least for now, he would be safe.
The next thing I hear, The Jungle is being demolished.
I go over the find out what’s happening. I’m on my own this time and Maru takes me round. The southern part of the camp has been razed, everyone is nervous. Those flashes of joy in human interaction are gone. I’ve never seen the camp look so grey. It was as if the heart had been ripped out of it.
‘Maru, are they demolishing the café?’
‘Yes’ he replies. ‘They will destroy all jungle’
I’d been talking to Italians about Maru and the general consensus seemed to chime with his experience: Italy is not a good place to find work if you are a refugee. But it’s crunch time and Maru needs to move on. My mind searches. How does a twenty-two year-old boy build a life in Italy when he knows no one and the employment market is shut off to him? How does he make friends? How does he create a network that can support him? How does he wrench just a little bit further that tiny gap that could open up a job? More importantly, where will he sleep?
‘In the park, I think’ he answers.
I see this hopeless boy, brown tar staining his front line of teeth, features sunken even deeper, and I wonder how long he will stay alive.
An idea hits me. ‘Why don’t you go to language school in Italy, Maru? Get your Italian up to speed and meet people while you’re there.’
He laughs sympathetically, ‘I have no money anymore’
And so begins the campaign to send Maru to school. With the help of an Italian friend, we’ve found a language school that runs courses for six months. Maru can enroll anytime and one of the options is to live with an Italian family. This feels like the best way of helping him to make friends.
To date, Maru is still in the jungle. The café was torn down yesterday and he is sharing a hut with a friend in the northern section of the camp. He has the flu, but a volunteer brought over medicine for him today. He expects to travel to Milan this week.
It’s always hard to know whether any good will come from charity. But in this case, I believe it will give Maru at least a chance. If you felt able to help contribute towards fees for the school and accommodation so that Maru can spend three months studying Italian in Milan, the link is below. As I said before, I truly believe that human beings have the power to support each other through dark times and sometimes, that can be all that is keeping them afloat. From time to time, all that is keeping them alive.
I first met Maru in The Jungle camp in Calais, where I was running a grassroots filmmaking programme with Syrian refugees. He worked the café where we gave classes. Although he was constantly bring us tea when we asked for it; candles to light the table around which we discussed cell phone filmmaking; emptying the ashtrays that were filled up by the smokers amongst us and, when the time came, arranging our lunches; I didn’t notice him much at the start. He had a certain gracefulness that responded to our needs with discrete self-assurance. Although Maru was at our beck-and-call, you felt like a guest rather than a customer being served. This seemed to appeal to many of the foreigners visiting the camp, who featured heavily in the stream of people coming in and out the café. We all felt looked after, and the programme came off well.
Occasionally, Maru would sit down and join the class. His dark brown eyes focused hard on what we were saying. Sometimes he would smile along with the other students, or laugh. His elegant bone structure and the tone of his blushed-brown skin distinguished him from the Syrians. He was more Indian somehow, or Central Asian. I fact, Maru is from Afghanistan and he is Pashtun.
Back home I researched Pashtun history and their culture. Made up of more than sixty tribes, the Pashtun are described as a race of warriors. Most come from the mountains of the Indus and the Hindu Kush. Some are nomads, others Ambassadors: Pashtuns can be found throughout the social and economic spectrum. But what unites them is the practice of Pushtunwali, a code of ethics that includes hospitality and protection to every guest; the right of a fugitive to seek refuge, and acceptance of his bona fide offer of peace; the right of blood feuds or revenge; bravery; steadfastness; righteousness; persistence; defense of property and honor, and defense of women.
On the third day, a police blockade prevented us from entering the camp and we were re-routed across the stretch of scrubland to the east of the camp. When we finally arrived in the café two of the students, Saleh and Abu Waleed, were waiting for us rather pissed off. The others had gone back to their tents and dwellings: 10am was an early start after spending the night walking six hours to and from the Eurotunnel in the hope of making the perilous crossing to Britain. While Saleh and Abu Waleed left to collect the other students, Maru brought me a cup of tea and together we smoked a cigarette. I asked Maru to tell me where he came from.
‘Baghlan Province’ he replied, ‘In the north, in the mountains, by Pakistan’.
Maru fled Baghlan Province in fear of his life. He didn’t tell me why – at least not yet. But he did explain that Taliban fighters were coming over from Pakistan to the villages and living there. In attempts to take these men out, American and allied bombs were killing scores of civilians. The situation was very dangerous. But it wasn’t from the American bombs that Maru was fleeing.
As he gazed out, glazed eyes, thinking of his people and his country, I sensed how homesick Maru must be feeling. He left Afghanistan in 2008 and has been running ever since. He was fifteen then. Now he is twenty-two.
The heavy drums and playful pipes of Afghan music constantly filled the café, along with smells of shisha pipes and fruit tobacco. The tent was skillfully constructed and beautifully decorated, with pieces of material used as wall hangings. Some were shower curtains, others towels emblazoned with large floral designs. They gave the sense of being in a bedouin desert camp. Artificial flowers hung from the heavy wooden poles that supported the roof: bunches of yellow daisies, pink peonies bursting out. Sheepskin and carpet had been laid across a raised step, where men removed their shoes and sat cross-legged smoking shisha pipes and taking respite from the mud and dirt of the camp. Tables were covered in plastic tablecloths, some gingham, all brightly patterned and wiped meticulously by Maru after every guest. While sitting inside the cafe, our moods lifted as our heartbeats followed the rhythm of the Pashtun.
Later, I found this film on Youtube, shot in Baglan Province, of men and boys sharing vitality in the pleasure of sharing music. I particularly love the expression on the face of the child to the left, who sits worshiping the older boy as he sings and plays the drum with the skill of an oil painter.
This was the life that Maru had lived before members of the Taliban came from Pakistan and began teaching in the local school. As Maru accompanies me to the Women and Children’s Centre, where he recommends I use the Portaloos as they are cleaner than the others, he tells me a little of his story. Back home in Baghlan Province, most villagers were farmers. Every year they harvested cotton, watermelon, grapes, pomegranates. Some owned sheep and would bring four or five hundred to auction. Businessmen would source goods from the capital and sell them in markets and small shops: clothes, shoes, home appliances, kitchenware. Trade was healthy. Community gossip, Muslim holy days and Pashtun rituals provided entertainment and moments of joy. The Pashtun are noted for their commitment to the value of embracing pleasure. Women married young, rich men often had two wives and children were educated at school in the afternoons. Within the complex configuration of familial and communal relationships, life in the village was simple. Maru saw his future working in his father’s motorbike, bicycle and tractor shop in the city, which he would inherit when is father died. At that time, he tells me, his main ambition was to be a nice person. Sitting opposite me in Calais refugee camp now, Maru tells me he just wants to stay human.
In the morning, Maru would accompany his father to mosque and the two of them would make their way to the city where Maru would help to open the shop. Maru’s father was a successful man: he owned land in the village as well as the shop. Maru saw his father’s passport once, filled with stamps from Syria, Lebanon and Russia. At lunchtime Maru would leave the shop to go to school. It was an Islamic school and initially, lessons were taught by local people. But then members of the Taliban came to teach and the anti-governmental rhetoric started.
‘They wanted to make a fight against the government’ Maru tells me.
But Maru and his father had little problem with the government. The president was a Pashtun statesman called Hamid Karzai, who was trying hard to make it work. But these Taliban guys were on the path of jihad.
Never do Maru’s eyes light up more than when he talks about his people, the Pashtun. Hamid Karzai is an elegant example, dressed in traditional clothes: the embroidered shalwa kamize and long sleeved cotton shirt hung over baggy trousers, his distinguished hat. The Pashtun often wear turbans tied in such a way as to indicate tribal identity. Many of the men who frequented Maru’s café wore these hats and turbans. They entered swathed in robes that surpassed the degradation of the camp. Their hats, expertly made to withstand cold, reminded me of photos of Pashtun fighters in the 1980’s taking on the Russians and winning. Their faces are kind, paternalistic and yet at the same time, etched with lines and crevices of ferocious strength.
Soon the Taliban teachers began approaching Maru’s father and insisting Maru join jihad. But his father refused. No one will ever truly know the reasons for what happened next. Perhaps to make an example of him, perhaps to instill fear into others, the Taliban burned down Maru’s family home with his father, his sister and his mother inside.
The Pushtunwali code of ethics dictates that death of a family member must be revenged. As this would fall to Maru, the chances of the Taliban killing him first were great. Knowing the danger he was in, Maru’s uncle took him immediately away and told him to flee to Turkey. So it was that Maru embarked on the long journey through Iran. He was fifteen years old.
This is a short video is about a young man who did join jihad after being brainwashed at school in Syria. Maru was never brainwashed, but this would quite likely have been his fate.
The last day of the training programme fell on the Muslim celebration of Eid. Traditionally, Eid is when people give presents. With all the determination of the human spirit, men walked through the camp handing out slices of bread to passers-by. Others called the muezzin, the tinny yet expansive call to prayer. In the café an enormous man, with the stature almost of a giant, whirled in with a large cardboard box which he dropped with a loud thud behind the plywood counter. The students and I were sitting at the low table, drinking tea after sharing lunch. We all assumed the man had stolen the box from one of the distribution vans. But seconds later, with the help of Maru, the man was passing Eid gifts across his gigantic arm span to men waiting outside the door.
Outside the Afghans had wired up a battered speaker and the same pulsating rhythms of the Pashtun villages rang out. In a break from teaching, I wandered outside and saw the men were dancing, just like they must have done in villages since they were little boys. With every movement of their bodies and every clap of their hands, they praised their God together.
‘Can I film?’ I asked Maru. There was a lot of anxiety around revealing identities and many lived in constant fear. But he smiled and said ‘Yes. They are performing. They will be pleased you want to film’.
A month later, I returned to the camp. This time it was just me and the interpreter, a sassy Egyptian woman called Salma who was keen to visit the Syrian students still stranded in the camp. Reading my diary entry for that day, I came across a reference to Maru. ‘In the café we are greeted by Maru and the guy who cooks. I was so cheered to see their faces lighting up as we walked in. It was a really heartwarming feeling and I felt good about coming back. Consistency is important. Somehow it reaches somewhere very deep inside humanity’.
Like old friends, Maru, Salma and I sit down together and take a cup of tea. We all light cigarettes. Maru sweeps up an ashtray and empties its contents in the bin, wipes and gently and places it between us. He then gives us the update on the camp.
As I hear about the constant new arrivals, the lack of showers, the pressure on the toilets and the building that continues everyday, I wonder what it must be like to spend your adolescent years in refugee camps. While the rest of us are turning gradually from children into adults, Maru has been surviving on his own. When I ask how it felt to be surrounded by strangers for the last seven years, he smiles and replies,
‘When people live the hard life, they love each other. Everyone needs a friend in dangerous places’.
It was at that moment I recall deciding to be Maru’s friend. It wasn’t the pity of a woman feeling shocked by exposure to the heartbreaking conditions in which these decent people were being forced to live, although that was very much inside me. It was instead the realisation that human beings have the power to support each other through dark times and sometimes, that can be all that is keeping them afloat. From time to time, it is all that is keeping them alive.
Each time I visited The Jungle after that, I saw Maru. I would ask him how he was, try to help him figure out his options. At this point he was considering returning to Afghanistan, and finding his young brother who was hiding in Kabul.
Back in Calais this weekend I met the men on hunger strike. At the start of the strike, they sewed up their mouths and I was shocked upon meeting them to watch the restricted movement of their lips as they talked. They are Iranian Kurds who, like everyone in The Jungle, have their own stories. But the aim of the hunger strike is not to force an improvement in their own living conditions. Instead, it is to give the people of The Jungle a voice to engage with the French and British Governments so that solutions can be found for the thousands of people still living in the camp and, since the demolitions, in 10-15 smaller camps around Calais and Dunkirk.
The men are based in ‘Jungle Books’, a functioning library and school before the demolitions destroyed the surrounding cafes, shops and homes. Now this colourful shed is huddled next to the Church and Information Point in a wasteland of abandoned possessions: socks, toothbrushes, pots, a tube of face cream, an umbrella. Looking over the 800sqm southern section of the camp – once a lively shanty town now razed to the ground – I can’t help remembering stories of the Barbarian Invasions.
When I meet the men they are welcoming. They sit on mattresses laid across a third of the floor-space. The other third is reserved for people’s shoes, which they remove as they enter, and a table housing juice and water. Each man’s body is responding to the starvation in a different way. One is now so pale that his skin looks almost green. Another has a permanent sweat across his brow. Another, large red bags beneath his eyes. A steady stream of people enter, hugging the men, sitting for a while. A young British woman has assigned herself their carer. She brings them cups of liquid, which they drink between their stitches through a plastic straw.
The men have held meetings with the Prefecture of Calais. Their demands include: better and safer living conditions for people in the camp, an end to police violence against the inhabitants, and for Britain to process asylum claims in Calais. However, the Prefecture has made continuing discussions conditional on the men moving into one of the giant, industrial containers that now feature in the camp. But the men refuse to do this. They say it will cut them off from their supporters, and from channels of communication with the outside world. Access to the container park is through palm-print recognition, and security is tight.
This is the film we made that day in ‘Jungle Books’. It was edited with the help of the young man who appears in it – Sasan – along with fellow hunger strikers, Ismail and Mohammed. The music comes from the mobile phone of the young Afghan interpreter, and critique was given by two British women who were visiting the men in solidarity while we were editing.