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'From Outside In: Refugees and British Society,' Nushin Arbabzadah

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"From Outside In: Refugees and British Society"

Nushin Arbabzadah (ed.)

Arcadia Books | April 2007 | ISBN 1905147147

 

Nushin Arbabzadah's collection of memoir, fiction and poetry offers a unique insight into what it means to be British from the perspective of the newly arrived.

The refugee experience is multifarious, involving different races and nationalities as well as a spectrum of attitudes and reactions towards both the new land and the newly landed. Through stories from around the world and From Outside In weaves the complicated web that makes up the experience of escape, exile and new life elsewhere - from national and personal histories, to hybrid identity, to raised hopes and failed expectations.

Below: poet George Szirtes speaks from an in-between position that is neither British nor Hungarian; author Miroslav Jancic from the former Yugoslavia writes - in English - about the contradictions of ethnic and national identity and the fears of having joined another nation composed of smaller ones; and an anonymous Kosovo Albanian child recounts saying goodbye to the land of her childhood and stepping onto the shores of a new land.

With thanks to Counterpoint, "the cultural-relations think-tank of the British Council".

***

Acclimatisation

By George Szirtes

One minded one's manners those days. The fork
turned discreetly downwards, raking and spearing,
and chewing with mouth closed, despite mischievous
hints to the contrary. England was a cloud under
which one learned the dangers of interfering
in other people's business. A distant thunder
strung the roofs together as if by metalwork
and teachers in schools tried terribly to forgive us

our trespasses. We worried away at the lawn
like blind men learning the alphabet, listened
to the grave consensus of Butskellite heads
sprouting from their collars, took energetic
part in quiz-games where ladies glistened
in sequin and varnish, heard frenetic
voices by wrecked aeroplanes in a cold dawn
huddling in frozen grey-blanketed beds.

We also misheard: puncher for puncture,
wicked for wicket. They were comical times,
learning fixations and the twelve times table,
the inordinate lengths short trousers could go to,
the proper droop for socks, the sound of door chimes,
the hell-hole of pet shops. Sometimes we were slow to
pick up a hint, to smile at the appropriate juncture
of a given conversation, were too often liable

to solecisms of an almost terminal sort.
But God and our teachers forgave us. Meanwhile there were
the consolations of Ealing comedies,
the Daily Herald and all that wonderful Britishness
to keep us going. My mother drank her
black coffee with mountains of cream. We grew less
strange by the month. The days grew short
as did our affections. Soon we were anybody's.

 

***

Citizen yes, but British?

By Miroslav Jancic

Ever since I've arrived in London, a nice indigenous lady keeps inviting me to tea and asking me if I've found peace of mind here. Politely and with gratitude I regularly answer, "Yes," meaning no, of course not. No one who has lost his homeland can be calm again, anywhere, ever.

I met her in the besieged Sarajevo where she was working as a charity representative. When I was granted British citizenship, I telephoned her. She invited me to come to tea at once. Following good Bosnian customs on the road to my sponsor I bought a bottle of whiskey.

Whilst preparing the tea she asked me how I felt now that I had become a British citizen. I smiled, I believe, her way, and answered that the citizen bit surely suits me more than the British part of it. To be recognised as an ordinary citizen, wherever, has been my goal from the moment I had to leave my country, where the nationals are first class citizens and the rest are just a minority. But it's not that I don't appreciate being a kind of British. On the contrary, even before I dreamt of becoming a Briton, I admired British culture, philosophy, science, the brighter side of Great Britain's history, and last but not least her language. So it wouldn't be hypocritical on my part to say that I'm proud of holding a British passport.

As we were sipping at our tea she couldn't help asking me about the reservation she had noticed in my uttering the attribute British. I explained that being ethnically mixed myself and coming from a composite nation - two composite nations as a matter of fact, the Yugoslav and the Bosnian - that doesn't exist any more, I was a little bit anxious about a similar third one I was supposed to belong to now. What if I was infectious? The lady moved from her seat and I tried to comfort her by suggesting that although in the resistance against globalisation people worldwide want to be free and tend to return to the basics called ethnicity or religion, I wasn't worried much about Great Britain. Here, the traditions aren't aggressive and the ongoing devolution isn't the decentralisation we had in Yugoslavia, which later led to anarchy. Though we also used to say it can never happen to us! Would you feel better as an English citizen, the lady asked me. I had to laugh the way I laughed in my pre-British days. Impossible. This would be a contradiction of terms, I said, trying to tell her about the difference between ethnic and territorial nations. What I most like about the British is that they have fulfilled themselves as a nation; they have conquered all one could conquer and as such they have no pretence towards any one and so they don't need reinforcement from people like myself.

Welcome to the club, anyway, she said to which I said thanks, even though we apparently had different clubs in mind. At the end of the tea chat I admitted that I felt like a whiskey, which was a trace of my Bosnian origin.

Postscript, May 2003

In the meantime the war in Iraq has emerged and yesterday on television I saw a man carrying a slogan: ASHAMED OF BEING BRITISH. I felt the same. I called my English friend at once and asked her whether she had seen the banner. She said yes and then she said that she too was ashamed of being British. How could one feel any different in days like these?

***

Goodbye Sister

By an anonymous Kosovo Albanian child

A decision was made between me and my mum. She felt it would be safer for me to leave. We sat down together to talk about it. We cried a lot. We both decided not tell my little sister until the day I would leave because she was too young to understand and we thought that it might hurt her.

It was in the afternoon. We climbed into the back of the lorry. We were told that we could sit anywhere in the lorry and the driver would tell us when to hide. There was no light inside; the darkness felt strange. It was cold. No light for five days. Sleep was difficult. We were constantly tired, wanting to sleep but fear kept us awake. We never knew whether it was night or day. Sometimes we heard voices. We did not understand their languages so we did not know what country we were in. Every time we stopped the fear increased. We wondered if we would be caught and what would happen to us. I thought they would hear the beating of our hearts; it echoed in our heads.

I could see mum thinking how to explain it to my little sister. I kept looking at my mum and waiting for her to say something. She was about to say something and I looked her in the eyes, but she couldn't say it. I knew she couldn't say it because it is too hard to explain a situation like that to a little girl. In mum's eyes I could see sadness. She changed the subject and said to us that we should always love each other: "You haven't got a father. It is very difficult to live without one and there will be a day I will die, so you will have to live without a father or a mother." I knew why mum said all that but my sister didn't understand at all.

We left without even giving our sisters a cuddle. I remembered two stories...

A woman was pregnant and she was walking to her home. Some people stopped her on her way and beat her up and then they cut the baby away from her with a knife.

In my town there lived a family who were cooking soup. Some people broke into their house and asked them if they had any meat in their soup. They said, no, there was no meat in it. The strangers killed their son, cut him up and put some of his flesh in the soup. They made the parents eat the soup.

Mum and my best friend's mum had a conversation. They chose the date and they told us about it. We didn't tell anyone else. Our mums gave us some money and we left for the nearest country. Houses were burning; the streets were full of people moving from one town to another town. It seemed that we were unlucky.

The hardest part was the hunger and being thirsty. We had eaten most of our food but knew we had to try not to eat everything. We only ate one thing each day. Only one drink each day. We were weak through hunger and our mouths were dry. On the fifth day the lorry stopped, the doors were opened and the driver told us to get out.

They used to come to our house and sometimes even break the door. If we asked them why, they said, "For fun!" We were not allowed to go to a normal school. We were not allowed to build our own school. My mum and the other parents were not happy because we were growing up without education. I went to a private school, three days a week from 9 am to 12 pm. I learned the basic things.

The driver closed the doors again. I looked at his watch. It was 2pm. England. We had arrived. There was hardly any light. We were on a motorway. The driver told us to walk along the road, then we would get some help. We followed the road. Finally we saw some light; it was a petrol station. It was the first of November; the start of a new life.


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