Denied the Pleasure of Life

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Review of 'Dreaming and Scheming', Hanif Kureishi, Faber and Faber £8.99

This collection by Hanif Kureishi is divided into two parts--'Politics' and 'Culture and Films'. The latter section records how Kureishi's films--'My Beautiful Laundrette', 'Sammy and Rosie Get Laid', 'My Son The Fanatic' and 'Intimacy'--got to the silver screen. Kureishi says that he wrote 'My Son The Fanatic' as a response to the 'fatwa' on Salman Rushdie after the publication of 'The Satanic Verses'. Most of the protests against it took place in the northern towns now stalked by the BNP. As Kureishi observes, the media caught the images of anger and book burning, but little else: 'Few commentators noticed that the objections to "The Satanic Verses" represented another kind of protest. In Britain many young Asians were turning to Islam, and some to a particularly extreme form, often called fundamentalism.'

Kureishi, noted for the hedonism and sexual adventures his characters indulge in, could not understand such an austere outlook: 'It perplexed me that young people, brought up in secular Britain, would turn to a form of belief that denied them the pleasures of the society in which they lived. Islam was a particularly firm way of saying "no" to all sorts of things.'

The idea advanced by the Islamists, that there was 'too much freedom', troubled Kureishi. But he reflected on this phenomenon, and in his essay on 'My Son The Fanatic' he shows why Islam has an appeal because the promise of the 'West' that lured immigrants from the subcontinent has been unfulfilled--people's lives have been brought down by exclusion, racism and discrimination. In his writings Kureishi has more of an understanding of the roots of the present revival of extreme forms of Islam than a lot of commentators. He does not like the creed of the Islamists, but he also does not lump all people who follow Islam together. As he says, 'Perhaps the greatest book of all, and certainly one of the most pleasurable, The One Thousand and One Nights, is, like the Koran, written in Arabic.'

The first half of this book looks at questions of race and religion from Kureishi's own experience. I recognise the descriptions of his early life in Bromley, Kent, with his worldwise, frustrated writer of a father, reflected in that excellent television series 'The Buddha of Suburbia'. I liked the descriptions of Kureishi's visit to urban Karachi, with his rich uncles looking disdainfully at the slow ragged decline of the 'mother country'.

His essay on a 1980s visit to Bradford is sharply observant, with its descriptions of poverty and segregation, the rise of separate religious schools and the drive of the 'New Right' (as it was called then), which recast Muslims as cultural inferiors and outsiders. Kureishi shows that the people who did the thinking for the BNP were those such as Ray Honeyford, the Bradford headteacher who attacked the value of his own Asian pupils and their parents, as well as John Casey, the right wing philosopher who advocated that the status of black British citizens be altered 'so that its members became guest workers' and who wrote that, 'The great majority of people are actually potentially hostile to the multi-racial society.'

I enjoyed 'Dreaming and Scheming'. It would be nice to have some more of Kureishi's reflections on society. His worldview has something important to offer us.