In the post comes a copy of Hanif Kureishi’s Collected Essays. I am ‘in conversation’ with Kureishi on the final night of the Festival of Asian Literature, an event I am very much looking forward to. I interviewed him three years ago for my book From Fatwa to Jihad, and what he said then still resonates today. So, I’m using this as an excuse to rerun that interview.
‘NOBODY’, HANIF KUREISHI SUGGESTS, ‘WOULD HAVE THE BALLS TODAY TO write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it. Writing is now timid because writers are now terrified.’
Like Rushdie, Kureishi is a writer who came of literary age in the 1980s, exploring the fraught relationship between race, culture, identity and politics in Thatcher’s Britain. But where Rushdie had been born in Bombay and his work deeply shaped by the politics and culture of the subcontinent, Kureishi was born in Bromley, in south London, attended the same school as his hero David Bowie (although not at the same time), and his work is infused by the sounds and rhythms of the capital.
The writer Zadie Smith recalls as a 15-year-old reading The Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical first novel, published in 1990. ‘There was one copy going round our school like contraband’, she says. ‘When it was my turn I read it in one sitting in the playground and missed all my classes. It’s a very simple pleasure that white readers take for granted: I’d never read a book about anyone remotely like me before.’ Kureishi’s characters were not like traditional depictions of Asians either. They were as cocksure, streetwise and sexually charged as Kureishi himself. ‘I was a Paki’, he says. ‘My family were Pakis. So there were lots of Pakis in my work. There were no representations of Pakistanis in films or novels in those days. At least not Pakistanis that I recognised.’
Even more than Rushdie, Kureishi became a talisman to a new generation of Asians who were kicking out not just against racism but also against the conventional image of what an Asian should be. Kureishi’s work, the writer Sukhdev Sandhu recalls, transformed the way that both he and his white friends saw what it meant to be Asian. Asians ‘had previously been mocked for deference and timidity. We were too scared to look people in the eye when they spoke to us. We weren’t gobby or dissing.’ Not so Kureishi’s Asians. ‘Kureishi’s language was a revelation. It was neither meek nor subservient. It wasn’t fake posh. Instead it was playful and casually knowing.’
Kureishi hit the mark with My Beautiful Laundrette, his 1985 screenplay which told the story of a gay love affair between bored Asian teenager Omar and working-class white lad Johnny, set against the backdrop of racism and recession in 1980s Britain. It was shocking, sexy and funny, and quite unlike any other ‘ethnic’ film. But in detonating all manner of cultural assumptions, it also upset the traditional narratives of immigrant life. Sandhu recalls how his father beat him up after he persuaded his family to watch the film on TV. The teenage Sandhu knew nothing about the film, except that it was about Asians. ‘The night it was on TV’, he wrote, ‘I swept the carpet, prepared snacks — some Nice biscuits and a mug of hot milk each – and sat my parents down’. But the nudity, gay sex, immoral Pakistani businessmen and drug smugglers disguised as mullahs did not go down well. ‘Why are you showing us such filth?’ Sandhu’s father yelled, his fists flying. ‘Just as well we never got to the scene where Omar and Johnny start fucking in the laundrette,’ Sandhu wryly observes. ‘My father was right to be appalled’, he added. ‘The film celebrated precisely those things – irony, youth, family instability, sexual desire – that he most feared. It taught him, though it would take years for the lesson to sink in fully, that he could not control the future. And control – over their wives, their children, their finances – was what Asian immigrants like him coveted.’
It was not just Sandhu’s father who took umbrage. Three years beforeThe Satanic Verses, Kureishi’s screenplay incurred the wrath of Islamists. ‘There were demos in New York against it’, Kureishi remembers, ‘organised by something called the Pakistani Action Group. About a hundred people, all men, all middle-aged, would turn up every Friday to demonstrate outside cinemas shouting “No homosexuals in Pakistan”.’
What particularly upset Kureishi’s critics was his refusal to play along with the idea that Asian writers had to treat Asian characters with respect and to present them in a good light. ‘I am a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani’, the landlord Nasser tells his white sidekick Johnny in Kureishi’s screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette when Johnny protests that, as a non-white, Nasser should not evict a black tenant. ‘It was a new idea of being Asian’, Kureishi says, ‘not the traditional notion of victims cowering in the corner. I wanted to show that Asians were not all progressive or nice – so I had an Asian as a vicious Thatcherite.’
But the idea of victimhood not only proved highly seductive, it also helped to create strange bedfellows. ‘It was the first time that I remember the left and Muslim fundamentalists joining hands’, Kureishi recalls. ‘Islamic critics would say, “You’re saying we’re all homosexuals” and “You shouldn’t wash dirty linen in public”. And the left would say “You should be standing up for your community” and “You should not attack minority communities”.’
Despite Kureishi’s brush with Islamism, he never saw The Satanic Verses controversy coming. ‘I first read The Satanic Verses in proof copy. I didn’t notice anything about it that might rouse the fundamentalists. I saw it as a book about psychosis, about newness and change. The 1980s was an age of fusion—in music, in food, in literature. The Satanic Verses was part of that postmodern fusion.’ Even when the protests began against Rushdie’s novel, he did not take them seriously. ‘The demos against My Beautiful Laundrette fizzled out. I thought the same would happen with The Satanic Verses.’
Kureishi does not even remember the book-burning. ‘It didn’t register’, he says. ‘Only with the fatwa did it become clear how serious and dangerous it was. It seemed mad to imagine that someone could be killed over a book. I was flabbergasted. How could a community that I identified with turn against a writer who was one of its most articulate voices?’
The fatwa was traumatic for Kureishi, and not just because he was, and remains, a friend of Rushdie’s. ‘It changed the direction of my writing. Unlike Salman I had never taken a real interest in Islam. I come from a Muslim family. But they were middle class – intellectuals, journalists, writers – and very anti-clerical. I was an atheist, like Salman, like many Asians of our generation were. I was interested in race, in identity, in mixture, but never in Islam. The fatwa changed all that. I started researching fundamentalism. I started visiting mosques, talking to Islamists.’
Six years after the fatwa Kureishi produced his first major post-Rushdie work. Set in 1989, The Black Album tells the story of Shahid, a lonely, vulnerable student torn between liberalism and fundamentalism – between Deedee, his lecturer and lover, who introduces him to Lacan, sex, Madonna and Prince (the title of the novel is borrowed from a Prince album), and Riaz, for whom all pop music is decadent and who teaches Shahid how to pray, fast and submit. Rushdie celebrated his existence ‘in between’ cultures. Shahid was terrified that his ignorance of Islam ‘would place him in no-man’s-land’. At a time when ‘everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a woman, gay, black, Jew – brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn’t be human’, so ‘Shahid, too, wanted to belong to his people. But first he had to know them, their past, and what they hoped for.’
Two years later came My Son the Fanatic, a short story, later turned into a film, about the fraught relationship between Parvez, a Bradford taxi driver who dreams of material riches and of ‘fitting in’ to British culture, and his son, Ali, who turns to Islamic fundamentalism to find a sense of moral order and belonging. ‘I love England’, Parvez tells his son. ‘They let you do almost anything here.’ ‘That is the problem’, Ali replies.
The fundamentalists in Kureishi’s stories are not first-generation immigrants, bemoaning a world that has been taken from them, like Sukdev Sandhu’s father or the New York protestor’s against My Beautiful Laundrette, but their children, yearning for an Islam they have never known. It is less a clash of civilisations than a war of generations. The first generation desires material prosperity, the second seeks to fill a spiritual void. ‘I have a belief’, Shahid’s father says in The Black Album. ‘It’s called working until my arse aches.’ When Ali confronts Parvez about his drinking in My Son the Fanatic, the father explains ‘that for years he had worked more than ten hours a day, that he had few enjoyments or hobbies and never went on holiday. Surely it wasn’t a crime to have a drink when he wanted one?’ Ali insists it is and accuses his father of being ‘too implicated in Western civilisation’.
‘The fundamentalists I met’, says Kureishi, ‘were educated, integrated, as English as David Beckham. But they thought that England was a cesspit. They had an apocalyptic view of the future. They lived in a parallel universe. They had no idea what life would be like in an Islamic country but they yearned for everything sharia. And they had a kind of Islam that would have disgusted their parents.’ Kureishi recalls visiting the house of Farid Kassim, one of the founders of the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir. ‘Four women brought in the food. They came into the room backwards, bent over, so we could not see their faces. I have never seen that anywhere else.’
The Rushdie affair, Kureishi believes, transformed not just his own work, but also ‘the very notion of writing’. The fatwa ‘created a climate of terror and fear. Writers had to think about what they were writing in a way they never had to before. Free speech became an issue as it had not been before. Liberals had to take a stand, to defend an ideology they had not really had to think about before.’ How have they borne up to the task? ‘The attacks on Rushdie showed that words can be dangerous. They also showed why critical thought is more important than ever, why blasphemy and immorality and insult need protection. But most people, most writers, want to keep their heads down, live a quiet life. They don’t want a bomb in the letterbox. They have succumbed to the fear.’
Taken from From Fatwa to Jihad, pp198-202