Elif Shafak on ‘The Politics of Fiction’

It has been difficult to find time to sit down and write on here. The past few weeks have been charged with tasks, appointments, classes, and projects which I am completely dedicated to and thankful for. Yet, I have neglected a few of the things which truly keep me ticking on the inside! It’s time to refocus, gather my energy and start re-funnelling it into the more personal and intimate areas of my life. Hence, my first post in a while!

Late last year, I followed my good friend to a hidden bookshop at our university, in which we got talking about books and authors we enjoy. He told me about an author who he admires immensely – Elif Shafak. After watching her TED talk on ‘The Politics of Fiction’, I couldn’t keep it to myself. If you have a few minutes, please watch, and enjoy.

One is NOT like the other: The aftermath of Charlie Hebdo.

It took three days and 20 deaths to see the siege which engulfed Paris come to an end. ‘Ironic’ cannot begin to describe the sequence of events which followed Stephane Charbonnier’s or ‘Charb’s’ illustration in his last edition of Charlie Hebdo. The killing of journalists, a caretaker and a policeman at the satirical publication on Wednesday, in addition to subsequent shootings and hostage-takings over the next two days, shook not only Paris, but those in solidarity around the world. This attack on outspoken proponents of democracy has been denounced by all, excluding the network of extremists who claim to be fighting in the name of Islam. But how can this violent cause be conflated with a peace-loving religion? With regards to the murdered police officer, Ahmed Merabet, how can it lead to the killing of those with whom you wrongfully and insultingly associate with?

Last Sunday’s ‘Marche Republicaine’ saw almost 4 million demonstrators including 70 world leaders proclaim ‘we are not afraid’, most notably through the adoption of ‘#JeSuisCharlie. Yet, almost as quickly as the ‘#JeSuisCharlie’ hashtag emerged online, so did criticisms towards it. What many expressed after the killings was that Charie Hebdo, despite being a satirical magazine, used this label to disguise underlying racism and Islamaphobia. Although the magazine’s illustrations are devoid of political correctness often provocative, as widely remarked by journalists and the late Charb himself, all sectors of French society were targeted equally by the magazine.

We cannot eliminate the issue of culture: France is a country in which freedom of speech is exercised as fully as possible. It is no coincidence that a British equivalent of Charlie Hebdo does not exist in the mainstream; it certainly would not live to compete with Charlie’s forty-four year presence in the media. Aptly, the famous Voltaire quote: ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but i’ll defend to the death your right to say it’ has been adopted by many and reflects the respect that societies around the world express towards the freedom of expression, despite the controversy surrounding it. Undeniably, the images depicting the prophet Mohammed were offensive and in bad taste. However, it in no way justifies confrontation to this extent. That is not Islam.

A principal concern of the French population, Muslim and non-Muslim, is the potential ‘amalgam’ which is anticipated to follow. I, along with most, fear for the plight of the Muslims who may find their position in French society in a vulnerable state. Already, ‘revenge’ attacks against mosques and innocent Muslims have taken place, only serving to heighten religious and cultural tensions, and add fuel to the fire of ignorance. Blaming the majority of followers of Islam is both irresponsible and vilifying.

In contrast to #JeSuisCharlie, ‘#JeSuisAhmed’ has also been been used to voice the heroism of the murdered policeman who many remarked was ‘protecting a magazine which made fun of his religion’. The hashtag also marks the position of Muslims and non-Muslims alike who, although sympathising wholeheartedly with victims of the attacks, do not accept the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo.

Over the days following the killings in Paris, pictures on the French news channel ‘France 2’ showed measures taken by teachers to educate and debate with students on the implications of such an attack. One picture which struck me was of a teenage girl weeping, overwhelmed by what she saw as a ‘war’ breaking out. What the peaceful protests have shown yesterday, today and I hope tomorrow, is that we are not at war in terms of deadly weapon against deadly weapon. Right now, we are fighting with our pens and pencils, defending our right (to the death) to use them, and to exercise freedom of speech.

In the same vein of democracy and freedom of expression, it seemed contradictory to exclude Marine Le Pen’s ‘Front National’ from participating in Paris’s upcoming national unity rally. However, this was a <em>very</em> welcome contradiction, and it spoke volumes: while Le Pen could use the attacks to further her political agenda, her ability to do so is being restricted. The core-rattling events witnessed over these past few days nearly always engender a strong unity and nationalism within the affected country, and it is reassuring to witness that, publicly, Islamophobia has no place in it. Privately, however, we must not be under the illusion that ‘unity’ is our reality – it is not. Europe is a deeply fractured continent, and, as the Pegida movement in Germany shows, Islamophobia is a profoundly rooted problem which governments and citizens must actively work to rectify.

Beyond these protests however, we also cannot ignore the wider issue of extremism, its advocates, and the dangers it presents in the future. It has been said that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is a French equivalent of September the 11th; one of the most poignant illustrations published as a response to Wednesday’s attack is a symbolic representation of 9/11. In it, two green pencils stand upright, with a plane heading towards them. Given the comparisons made between the two era-defining attacks, it is yet to be seen whether the cause of action which follows Wednesday’s attacks will mirror that of 9/11.

In proclaiming ‘Je Suis Charlie’, supporters are standing in solidarity with the principles of a publication which fully exercises freedom of speech, as well as its victims and their families. Yes, the magazine is polarizing, and often as ‘nasty’ as it proclaims itself to be. But ultimately, the freedom of speech – this ‘pillar of democracy’ – is one which we must defend our right to exercise. Journalists of Charlie Hebdo cannot be blamed for their deaths, for such extreme defensiveness can never be justified – and certainly not in the name of Islam.

Notting Hill Carnival 2014

Sunday 24th and Monday 25th of August saw the annual Notting Hill Carnival descend upon the streets of west London. And unfortunately on Monday…..so did the rain. Nevertheless, I decided I might as well head out and see what went on.

I have to say that due to the rain doing the most, I did not enjoy myself as much as previous years however, that was in no part due to the actual carnival – it carried on as normal. Who says that a little rain should get in the way of a good party?

After arriving at Notting Hill Gate tube station at around 1:30pm, I could tell that the crowds would not be deterred by the weather – the carnival pretty much started on the tube platform. After heading out of the station and following the flow of people heading towards Portobello road and beyond, I realised that I must have missed most of the floats. However I managed to catch the general gist of this year’s event on film, and compiled the clips the give you a taste. Enjoy!

Uganda’s Anti-Gay Laws Are An Affront To African Values, Not A Part Of Them

The anti-gay law passed by the Ugandan president Yoseweri Museveni is just what it says on the tin: homophobic. However, embedded in illogical arguments for his signing of the bill, David Bahati – a Ugandan politician who was present at the signing of the bill – attempted to justify for the reason that it is a transgression to ‘African Values’. All of this unfolded on a recent episode of Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’.

What emerged as problematic – and for two main reasons –  was his adoption of the phrase ‘African Values’ to legitimise his stance and policy. As it stands, homosexuality is considered taboo across many parts of the continent however it is certainly not illegal in all African states, including Cote D’Ivoire, Benin and Niger. Across the continent, views surrounding LGBT rights cannot be said to reflect the same legal or social and cultural positions. For this reason, I failed to understand exactly what Bahati referred to as African values in relation to homosexuality.

The first issue presented itself in the way that Mr Bahati painted the entire continent as a homogenous and bounded space, standing directly in opposition to ‘western’ values. He further justified his claim of homosexuality as unafrican in claiming that ‘it is a threat to our values of a family between a man and a woman’.

Secondly he further justified his position in forwarding the notion that homosexuality in Africa was and is a product of western influence, branding it a ‘new form of colonialism and social imperialism’. Indeed, as it later emerged, Bahati was shown to be historically inaccurate and ignorant.

The input of Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian gay rights activist who fled from the country due to death threats, fuelled the debate. A crucial point that was raised was the question of priority: in what capacity is homosexuality harmful, and are there not more pressing issues for the Ugandan state to tend to? Is this not a ploy to appear as though the state is in control and able to ward off threats in order to shift the spotlight from state misconduct? The anti-gay law appears to be a populist one, no doubt due to the widespread transmission of homophobic values across Uganda, resulting in public opinion becoming dominated by this discourse.

Another of his claims lay in the idea that homosexuality is a negative influence on young boys, however Bahati’s belief that being gay is a choice is again, inaccurate. Exploration into ones own sexuality is an aspect of growing up, and in a society where the free expression of sexuality is repressed and attenuated, this part of self-discovery appears misconstrued and offensive to the values of Bahati and his allies. Indeed, homosexuality is not new to Africa, nor is it a western influence.

Prior to the colonial encounter, same-sex activity and third sex groups existed across the continent, and were criminalised as a result of the homophobia embedded in Victorian beliefs. Among numerous and often untold examples, the 20th century anthropologist Evans-Pritchard observed the existence of ‘boy wives’ among the Zande of Zaire, while the existence of transgender and third-sex individuals in South Asia were not regarded as threatening to social values.

Ultimately, the notion that homosexuality is ‘unafrican’ is invalid: the principle reason being that human sexuality is inherent and transcends regional and cultural norms. One last point I would like to make is the importance of recognising that this very notion of Africa as bounded, isolated and diametrically opposed to other societies, especially western ones, is in itself a construct of colonial thought and reasoning. Cultural norms exist, but the extent to which they dictate individual cases should be questioned. African values also exist and are based in ideals of unity, integrity and respect – but these are also ideals shared in many other parts of the world – and it is for this main reason that I believe Mr Bahati’s misuse of the term to be an affront.

Influencers Film

I will forever be in love with this film! It covers everything from our interest in pop culture, to the importance of family, the rise of social media platforms and new ways of communicating with each other. Not to mention, a little bit of style. The visuals are so appealing; it is a beautifully edited piece of work! It has been a long-time source of inspiration: anytime I lose focus, I turn my eyes to this and it never fails to remind me of my dreams and ambitions (maybe that sounds a bit weird). Nonetheless, I hope it can do the same for you :).