Holding Something to Tell You, Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel, I am reminded of present-day London (a place frequently visited since the early 1990s). And before I have even started reading it, I feel excited about the opportunity to marvel, again, over the sprawling, teeming and eminently colourful cauldron of cultures and ethnicities into which that grey city has turned over the last 50 years or so. It occurs to me that the persistent and otherwise reprehensible economic inequalities which created this and other unique mixtures of cultures, peoples and world views (so doing by giving rise to the phenomenon of immigration) might have something to show for themselves, after all.
If not for the pressing need to seek out greener pastures in the north and the west of the world – with Indian Muslims-cum-Pakistanis like Kureishi’s parents settling down in the suburbs of London, for example – people from the east and the south (or originally from the east and the south) would not have been able to leave their mark. And you only need to conjure up a few names – I think of Reza Aslan, the Persian American scholar, of the great Palestinian American Edward Said, of the Egyptian British Tarek Ramadan, and novelists like Amitav Ghosh, Mohsen Hamid, even Kazu Ishigiro – to realise just how significant and wide-ranging that mark has been on literature in English – for one arena on which immigration has had a bearing.
Immigrants affect not only the language and literature of the West but also virtually every aspect of life in those places where they set up new homes. And conversely, thanks to immigration, they have (directly or indirectly) invited the original residents of their newly adopted countries to take on the wonders of their own distant lands, as it were – culturally, linguistically, artistically and through travel – something Westerners do in ways that range from a broader minded resumption of, to a self-consciously rigorous break with, the legacy of colonialism.
Nor can the scope of what might be termed the immigration effect be underestimated. The intellectual benefits of immigration and the multiculturalism to which it has given rise go far beyond the wider range of cuisine now available in most cities.
And that is because works of universal relevance like Kureishi’s do more than engage with the tensions and discrepancies incumbent on the mingling and clashing of races. Multiculturalism broadens the scope of human consciousness, not only by forcing the individual to have multiple loyalties but also by opening up, within a given society, pockets of variety, difference and exchange. So that it becomes possible for a white Englishman, if they so desire, to live as a Pakistani for a while. Kureishi’s London is a place of deviance and excess, but in his characters’ fascinating self formulations – “English I am,” says Karim, the subversive artist hero of The Buddha of Suburbia, “though not proud of it” – there is tremendous scope for the emergence of a human being with access to the full spectrum of human achievement, from the refinements of Mughal arts and crafts to the urban insurgencies of Hip Hop.
And it is in this sense that I appreciate anew my life in Abu Dhabi, spent among Westerners, Ethiopians and South Asians as well as Arabs. If being here does not enrich my perspective on people, nothing in God’s world will.