Graveyard shift

The construction of a museum of tolerance in Jerusalem – on the site of an ancient Arab cemetery – h

"You can't build a museum on the bones of our grandfathers and call it the Museum of Tolerance," Mustafa Abu Zahra told me, as we walked round what remains of the largest Arab cemetery in West Jerusalem. Beyond the trees and the stone tombs that cover the southern half of the cemetery, we could see the white metal fence that enclosed the construction site of a project that has aroused fierce opposition in the six years since its inception. Even its name seems a mockery of the spirit of religious co-operation that the city of Jerusalem - so central to the adherents of three related faiths - is supposed to represent: "It's not about tolerance or love between nations,' said Abu Zahra. 'It's about the violation of a sacred site."

I'd met Abu Zahra at his shop in the Musrara quarter. When I arrived, customers were drinking coffee in the front, and Abu Zahra was receiving visitors at a desk in a storeroom piled high with sacks of rice and tinned goods. Yet he is not just a shop owner and businessman: he is also mutawalli, or guardian, of Mamilla Cemetery. When his guests had left, he drove me round the walls of the Old City to his diminishing realm, amid the air-conditioned shopping malls and upmarket hotels of West Jerusalem.

The journey took only five minutes, but it exposed some of the cultural contrasts that inform the debate about Mamilla's future. Abu Zahra's shop sells everything from figs and spices to cornflakes and cleaning fluid, but once we'd left the market stalls and crowded streets around Damascus Gate, we found ourselves in a very different part of the city.

Mamilla used to lie on the edge of the impoverished no-man's-land that divided the Israeli and Jordanian sections of the city, but since Israel conquered and annexed East Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967, it has become a prime piece of land. Jerusalem's best-known hotel, the King David, is 200 metres up the hill; the Waldorf Astoria group is investing $100m (£60m) in another luxury hotel on the street that runs along its southern border. The American consulate in West Jerusalem and Mamilla Mall lie within sight of its gates.

It is probably not surprising that Mamilla's paved avenues, dusty paths and open spaces have gradually been eroded. In 1958, ten years after the state of Israel came into being, its western half was appropriated for Independence Park, and in 1964 a multi-storey car park was built on its northern edge. Yet it is the plan to build the Museum of Tolerance where the car park used to stand that has piqued those such as Abu Zahra, who sees it as nothing less than an attempt to erase the history of the Arab presence in Jerusalem.

The Museum of Tolerance is being developed by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC), an "international Jewish human rights organisation", named after the renowned Austrian Nazi-hunter. It already owns the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the Tolerance Centre in New York; in 2004, it inaugurated the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem at a ceremony attended by Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California and the son of an Austrian policeman who joined the Nazi Party in 1938. The celebrity architect Frank Gehry designed a flamboyant building in steel and glass, but the initial phases of ground-breaking and construction unearthed several hundred skeletons.

Religious and civic organisations demanded that the SWC abandon work and seek another site. The waqf, or religious trust, which is responsible for Mamilla, petitioned the high court to stop the building work, as did a human rights organisation representing three Jerusalem families whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery. In February 2006 the court issued an injunction, and work stopped for two years. But on 28 October 2008 the high court ruled that it could resume, and placed the onus on the Muslim authorities to accept the SWC's offers to reinter the remains elsewhere, clean up the modern Muslim cemetery to the south of the site and establish an appropriate monument to those who were buried there.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the SWC, claims that "all citizens of Israel" - Jews and non-Jews - would be the "real beneficiaries" of the decision. "Moderation and tolerance have prevailed. The museum . . . will be a great landmark promoting principles of mutual respect and social responsibility," he says. Others point out that the SWC campaigned for 15 years to remove a Carmelite convent from the grounds of Auschwitz, arguing that nothing should be built on the "single largest unmarked human graveyard in history", and say Mamilla should be accorded similar respect.

Rabbi Hier says the comparison is "ludicrous", not least because "the Arabs" did not treat the site as a cemetery when it was a car park. He maintains that the religious leaders of the Muslim community have ruled that the site was mundras, or abandoned, and says that in 1946 there were plans to build a university on the land. But critics say he has misread the nature of such schemes. According to Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a professor of geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is one of the leading authorities on the city's recent history, they were "curiosities" that were never likely to be implemented.

Shattered stone

Besides, what the Mufti of Jerusalem might once have sanctioned is not the point, Ben-Arieh says: what matters is the way in which Israel is treating an important Muslim site located within its sovereign territory. Gershon Baskin, an Israeli Jew who runs a joint Palestinian-Israeli public policy organisation called Ipcri, recalls the reaction when Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and discovered that many graves in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives had been damaged or destroyed.

“Imagine the outrage if the Palestinians were building a Museum of Tolerance - or anything else - on what was once a Jewish cemetery," he says. "Would it matter if the cemetery was not active and in use since 1948, or that it was being done legally?

“The Wiesenthal Centre project in Jerusa­lem is a disgrace to the Jewish people, the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. Shimon Wiesenthal would be turning in his grave if he knew what is happening in his name."

When construction at Mamilla resumed, several months after the high court verdict, hundreds more skeletons were exhumed and transferred to a mass grave. It wasn't possible to see what was going on behind the high white fence that sealed the perimeter of the site, but the British artist Sarah Beddington filmed from the windows of a nearby building for a video installation that featured in an exhibition called "The Other Shadow of the City".

Abu Zahra estimates that Mamilla is now a tenth of its original size, and the erosion of its borders is still going on. Recently, a section in the south-eastern corner of the cemetery, beyond the deep stone basin called Mamilla Pool, which was often used as a water source for armies besieging the Old City of Jerusalem, has been fenced off as a workman's yard, and the Jerusalem Municipality has begun storing rubbish bins in the south-west corner.

Even the few remaining graves are not safe: many of the headstones have been defaced or destroyed. "They have eliminated every stone here that has the name of the man inside, because they don't want anyone to claim them," says Abu Zahra. He believes that if the museum is built, it will not be long before the rest of Mamilla is appropriated by developers. "They will find a way to take more of the land, and step by step they will destroy the cemetery."

As we walked, he pointed out the shattered headstones of some of the tombs and translated some of the inscriptions on the few that remain intact. There was one commemorating the death of the "deceased martyr Ameen Abdelmo'ti Abu al-Fdel al-Alami, Sheikh and Imam" who died in 1346AH or "after Hejira" (AD1927), a reference to the Prophet Muhammad's journey from Mecca to Medina in AD581, which marks the beginning of the Islamic age.

Some people claim that Mamilla has graves dating to the era of Salah ah-din (or Saladin), who drove the Crusaders out of the Holy Land and recaptured Jerusalem, though archaeologists suggest most of them are no more than 400 years old. What no one disputes is that it contains the graves of sheikhs, imams, scholars, military leaders and members of the city's most important Arab families. "The name means 'a piece of heaven on earth', and it was a great honour to be buried there," says Raed Duzdar, whose ancestor is buried in the south-east corner of the plot, overlooking the site of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Ahmad Agha Duzdar was the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem between 1838 and the early 1860s. In 2005 the Turkish consulate helped Raed Duzdar renovate his grave. The tall, white stone, engraved with a red star and crescent and inscriptions in English and Arabic, was destroyed a few weeks later. All that is left of it is a few fragments of shattered stone.

Duzdar does not know who committed the act of vandalism, but he blames the authorities that allowed the SWC to develop the northern part of the site. "The government and the municipality say they're preaching tolerance, but they are allowing this ugly thing to be done to us in Jerusa­lem." He says that the sanctity of the cemetery is eternal. "No religion would accept the destruction of graves. It's very sinful."

Project stalls

Since the high court's verdict, Baskin has come up with various plans to stop the project. He was a signatory to another suit filed at the high court, claiming that the Israel Antiquities Authority, which prepared the site for construction, had misled the court about the number of burials it unearthed. Baskin has tried to persuade the Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, and his predecessor Ovadia Yosef, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to declare the site "unclean" because of the remains disinterred in the construction process.

Yet Baskin never held out much hope that any of the suits would succeed and began to fear that the museum was a "done deal". Yet last November, it seemed there had been an unexpected reprieve - work on the site appeared to stop, and the announcement that Gehry had left the project seemed to confirm it had begun to falter. The SWC maintains that it has spent the past two months removing pipes from the site. However, it has conceded that it is redesigning the project "to reflect today's world economic realities"; the budget has been cut from $250m to $100m, and the size of the complex has been halved. Rabbi Hier says that the SWC already has half the funds in place, and it will soon be holding a competition to find an Israeli architect to redesign the museum.

Gehry has denied that his decision to quit was prompted by "perceived political sensitivities", and Rabbi Hier refuses to acknowledge the anger over the destruction of Mamilla, saying that SWC members intend to "refocus all of our energies on bringing to Jerusalem, and the people of Israel, a project of crucial significance to its future". Baskin believes it will be a disaster if the rabbi succeeds, and yet, in some ways, the damage has already been done - no matter what happens next, the SWC will not be able to reinter the human remains dug from Mamilla. Nor will it be able to undo the offence it has caused the likes of Abu Zahra with its ill-considered attempts to spread "a message of tolerance between peoples".

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the NS

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile