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Bringing soul to the city

Why a Birmingham-based urban arts collective connects with youth in the Persian Gulf.

Last Monday, Soul City Arts - a Birmingham-based organisation delivering “arts interventions” throughout the UK - hosted Def Jam poet and Stanford University professor Mark Gonzales and Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadeh for an evening of poetry at Rich Mix theatre. Between their verses, questions ranged from the US election, the Occupation, the Syrian uprising and the plight of indigenous Americans.  I discovered that Soul City Arts, despite being relatively unknown in London, has an international following and its artists are lauded by the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah, Jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss and the Arts Council of England.  The organization have collaborated with photographers like Henry Chalfont and Peter Sanders, poets like David J and Lowkey and with institutions like Birmingham’s Rep theatre, British Museum and V&A.  The secret to its appeal according to founder and artistic director, Aerosol Arabic, is “spreading the love to the younger generation through a combination of street art and civic duty.” Aerosol Arabic (real name Mohammad Ali), is known for his unique fusion of graffiti art and Islamic script and symbols.

The message of Soul City Arts has spread to the US, Australia and, interestingly, the Gulf.  Why would super rich Gulf patrons need an inner-city arts collective interested in poetry and graffiti?  Was this just a case of buying cultural kudos?  Christopher Davidson’s latest book After the Sheikhs, have shown how Gulf countries invest in Formula 1 racing, football tournaments, art galleries, universities and have stadiums emblazoned with their name in order to shape the cultural and intellectual landscape. As an example Davidson mentions the generous donations of Gulf families to British universities like Exeter, Durham, LSE, Lampeter, Oxford, Cambridge and even Sandhurst. Whilst no strings are attached, there is always the risk of self-censorship. After all it’s hard to criticize the patron who is funding your department.  But Soul City Arts does not fit that bill.

But why would its rich patrons take interest in an organization that concerns itself with urban regeneration? One answer lies in the medium of communication; ‘high art’ found in UAE’s Louvre does not connect with a generation raised on MTV Arabia. Graffiti arguably does; it is one of the fastest growing mediums in the Middle East. In Palestine it is the expression of choice; in fact Hamas runs night classes for its artist and used its communicative power to savage their opponents during the Oslo peace process.  In Tunisia the work of graffiti artist like El-Sid made national headlines. Malu Halasa, a specialist in resistance art, has shown the importance of graffiti in the Syrian uprising. This trend, though somewhat muted, is also found in the Gulf.  In Dubai, anonymous artist have used graffiti to great success. British graffiti artists like Tom ‘Inkie’ Bingle and Banksy have also attracted attention in the Gulf. But the problem is that their counter culture art doesn’t always connect with the malaise of the Gulf country’s citizens.

“The truth is”, says Aerosol Arabic, “the Gulf is dealing with social problems that we deal with all the time. I guess that’s why we are getting more calls from there”.  The formula that Soul City Arts have used to engage with young people in inner city Birmingham is being utilized by Gulf countries to deal with the cracks exacerbated by the Arab Spring. Davidson points out that for forty years Gulf countries have been giving their citizens subsidies to buy their acquiescence and inadvertently creating a culture of endemic indolence. This coupled with declining hydrocarbon resources has created deep social problems and contradictions. Whilst some Emirati citizens suffer from power and housing shortages a prince is carving out his name onto an Island. The aptly named Hamad’s folly is visible from space. Whilst Islamist parties are coming to power claiming to remove corruption; their own countries are consuming alcohol, trafficking prostitutes and investing in gambling in greater numbers.  Whilst human rights abuses continue in the occupied territories Gulf countries are strengthening their contacts with Israel. However, with oil subsidies becoming increasingly unsustainable, these contradictions are becoming harder to swallow.

The new generation, accepts government handouts as a birth right, not as generosity from its ruling families. In the UAE many choose to be voluntarily unemployed due to its generous state welfare benefits. According to Davidson there are 12, 000 Kuwaiti nationals waiting for public sector jobs to be created for them.  Idleness, it seems, is also creating devils; in the case of Saudi Arabia it has lead to security threats. Many Saudi citizens arrested for terrorism offences were unemployed. The Arabian Gulf in general is suffering from unprecedented social problems like joyriding, traffic offences and crime.  Drug and alcohol abuse are no longer taboo subjects and are openly discussed on TV. Whilst draconian laws do exist to curb the worst excesses there is recognition that youth engagement is paramount. This is where the small arts organization from Birmingham comes in; Soul City Arts speaks to a generation used to good living but in need of some soul. Thus, when the Omani government commissions Soul City Arts to pimp out a ride to several hundred young people obsessed with fast cars, it does so not only to emphasize road safety but also to address a much deeper problem: the malaise of a generation raised on government handouts.

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis