London calling

Lyndall Stein
7 July 2010

On Friday I saw my great friend Shahidul Alam, the eloquent photographer and campaigner, in the street, rushing as ever -  based in Dhaka but passing through London, on a multitude of duties, to speak on culture and migration at a conference in East London and connecting, encouraging, incubating, and engaging – a true world citizen, wandering the world advocating for great photography and pointing his intelligent finger in a friendly but sharp manner at those who dare to portray the majority of our world as the ‘other’ the poor and needy -  as supplicants.


And now here - the steady crushing of the hopes, needs and humanity of this ‘other’ - in our own community, how is it that those who seek ‘refugee’ have become ‘asylum seekers’? changing the sense of us offering ‘refuge’ - to the ‘outsider’ seeking something from us. How is it we no longer want to portray ourselves as offering refuge? Instead we  must fight off those who seek to take something from us, that refugees/asylum seekers are ‘beneficiaries’ who ask and do not give.

This absurd and dehumanising system was created by the last government and is due to be intensified by the present coalition. It prevents refugees working and making a contribution, punishes them by denying them basic human rights and even appropriate legal representation, the recent bankrupting of the Refugee and Migrant Justice Service, through overdue payments from our government, are clear evidence of this.

And London? This wonderful rich city - our vivid culture, excitement and possibilities - all fuelled by wave upon wave of people - washed upon our once welcoming shores, by cruelty, brutality and prejudice – the Huguenots honoured now, the Jews recognised now, the South Africans at last in charge of their own destinies, welcoming hosts of the world’s football dreams - always grateful for the warm embrace of our own dear London, which became the nerve centre of their  struggle. Oliver Tambo revered leader of the ANC for over 25 years - found peace and safety in Muswell Hill, London!

Our beautiful and complex city, it’s warm, global heart still beats, despite those who try to build a wall around our grey seas. Last night hearing the joyful music of Congolese band Zong Zing, led by the great guitarist and master musician - Feeston Lusambo,  revered in his homeland, who has now lived in London long enough to feel safe. Not a ‘seeker’ but an asset to us, our good fortune to have his talent and music in London. But what about B… an exceptional artist also from the Congo, kind of a Congolese answer to  Jeff Beck or Dave Gilmour, denied security, the right to work - the recognition he deserves as a great artist turned into an ‘asylum seeker’ trying to get something out of us - the ‘other’ the ‘outsider’.

We walked back from Hackney, along the canal, hearing only voices in the deepening night, from where? Polish? Czeck? Romanian? All the glorious panoply of our golden city - paved with the rich culture of our world.

And my friend Shahidul - despite the hold ups at immigration - the beard and the name cause problems - even if you are a distinguished master of photojournalism - despite his righteous anger at the way our system works – he still likes London. Lucky for all of us!  And of course he has family here, a sister who worked as a GP for 30 years, and weren’t we lucky to have her as well? And by the way what about our transport system? Oh, and what about the Giuliani quartet? And our poets and writers, the thinkers, Freud? Marx? Whatever you think of their politics, London called them all.

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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