By Dan Katz
Following a small — 60-strong — march in Brick Lane, East London, the companies involved in making a film of Monica Ali’s novel, Brick Lane have unfortunately caved in to the protestors’ demand that they stop filming in the area.
This protest is the latest in a number of reactionary, communialist/religious mobilisations aimed at preventing critical voices discussing religious stupidities or backward practices inside minority communities.
The Brick Lane protesters claim Ali’s book portrays them as, "ignorant and unsophisticated". They marched with placards reading, "Stop demeaning Bangladeshis" and, "Stop offending any community by writing lies". They were led by six people holding a banner proclaiming, "The campaign against Monica's Brick Lane film", who led the crowd in chanting "Stop filming", and, "Monica's book, full of slander, full of lies". To achieve their demands the protestors have threatened public book-burnings and have said the protests could turn violent.
Similar protests and objections followed the book’s publication, in 2003.
Brick Lane deals with a young Bengali woman, Nazneen, who comes to England from Bangladesh at the age of 18 for an arranged marriage to Chanu. Chanu is amiable in his own way, but he is more than twice her age, and is pompous, fat and ineffectual.
The book portrays a young woman who is an outsider in London, and her position as a meek, oppressed wife. It is also a discussion about how modern London imposes itself on her, and how she comes to fight to find space and freedom. She turns outwards, learns English and has an affair with a young man. She breaks with her husband and stays in London with her girls when Chanu returns the Bangladesh.
This is a feminist novel and this, it seems, is one reason for the anger at the book’s publication.
The Independent journalist, Johann Hari, asked one of the protest leaders, Abdus Salique, about the reasons for the protest. Hari was treated to a tirade, “Women are not fucking around in this area! Our women, most of them, 99 percent, respect their husbands and respect their tradition.” Hari states that many local women are buying the Bengali-language version at the Brick Lane bookshop. If true, no doubt many local men find it subversive and uncomfortable.
The protests are being orchestrated by some of the local shop-owners and are sustained partly on false rumours. For example, one rumour states that there is a scene in the film which shows a leach falling into a curry — something denied by the film’s makers, Ruby Films.
Abdus Salique continues to Hari: “[Ali] is saying my father jumped from his ship like a monkey, that we are dirty, we are uncivilised!” Hari points out that although it is true that one character in the book does compare people from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh (where most Brick Lane Bengalis have roots) to monkeys, the novel’s most sympathetic and central character, Nazneem, condemns that view. It is absolutely clear that the author does not have this or any other derogatory opinion of Bengalis.
However Bengali – even shopkeeper — opinion is divided. Hari asked Jamal Abdul Quayam, the owner of Taj Stores in Brick Lane about the protesters. He calls Abdus Salique, “a big-mouth who wants publicity,” adding, “It is uneducated people like this who stop the progress of our community.” Amzal Hussain, whose restaurant is few doors from Salique’s shop, says, “I believe in free speech. It is why I love this country, and why many Bengalis do. I would be very happy for the film to be made in my restaurant.”
The problems created by the campaign against Monica Ali’s book is compounded by the spinelessness of sections of “the arts world” and the opportunism of local MP, George Galloway. Galloway has warned us against “alarmist rumours about the [anti-Ali] protests” and that “people have a right to protest.” Germaine Greer has written that she can see the protesters’ point (Greer has been well-replied to by Salman Rushdie and others ). And the film makers have agreed to stop filming.
It is time to stand up against the bigots and conservatives - for free speech and for artistic freedom. If necessary the left and the unions should mobilise to protect artists and authors against reactionary mobs.