I picked up a copy of Brick Lane, thinking it was a book about childhood experiences of Brick Lane, not realising that it was a novel.
As children we used to visit Brick Lane and nearby Petticoat Lane. Although it was known to everyone as Petticoat Lane, that was not the name of the street or the name you'd find on a map. Then it was the Jewish quarter. Loads of clothes shops, which gave the name, though the main interest to us was the street market held on a Sunday. Now there are very few Jews left, the entire area has been taken over by Bangladeshis and the area has become a major tourist attraction for gawking tourists.
The weekend before I picked up Brick Lane by Monica Ali, I was in Tower Hamlets, where Brick Lane is set. At least I think I was in Tower Hamlets, assuming Mile End Road in Stepney and Rampart Street in Whitechapel are in Tower Hamlets. The year before I was in Tower Hamlets for a Housing conference. [see Anarchist Bookfair 2007 and London Social Forum – housing and land rights conference]
Tower Hamlets is one of London's most deprived boroughs, if not the most deprived borough.
One of the things I noticed was that there are few white faces, the entire area seems to have been taken over by Muslims.
A most depressing place.
Walking the streets, I was warned to keep to the main roads and not cut through the estates or through any side streets as it would not be safe and I might not come out the other end.
This is the part of London to which Nazneen comes to as an 18 year old from Bangladesh. An arranged marriage, forced rape by any other name.
A 16 year old girl is shipped out to Bangladesh, another arranged marriage, another forced rape.
Nazneen lives in a tower block, knows only a few words of English, is rarely allowed out.
Her husband is not a bad man, at least he does not beat her, but it is not who she would have married by choice.
This is how Bangladeshis treat women. Or if we are honest, how Islam as practiced, treats women.
We learn of the same ill treatment of women in Afghanistan in The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad.
Åsne Seierstad is a Westerner, she writes from the outside. Monica Ali is a Bengali, she writes from the inside. But the tale is the same.
No matter from what perspective, from what country, it is a shocking treatment of women.
The role of women is simple: to provide sexual gratification for the men, to produce children but only of the male variety and to act as an unpaid slave and carry out all the menial tasks.
The Bangladeshis complain of discrimination, racism, of only getting the shit jobs, on the other hand they are allocated housing, often at the expense of the indigenous white folk who are being driven out, get free education, receive free state benefits, none of which they would receive back home in Bangladesh.
Brick Lane is at times sad, at times amusing. Monica Ali portrays with a wry sense of ironic humour the conflict between family members, between the Bangladeshi community and the local community, the conflict between Islam and modernity.
Monica Ali has painted a very sensitive portrait of the life of a Bangladeshi family living in one of the most deprived areas of London.
All the pity therefore that a handful of Muslim extremists, the majority of whom had not even read Brick Lane, took to the streets to protest the novel, and in doing so became the caricatures of the very portrayals they were objecting to.
Monica Ali writes in a very simplistic style, almost childlike or that of an illiterate Bangladeshi with only a basic grasp of English. It is though a style that has its own charm.
She has been nominated or shortlisted for almost every literary award going and managed to win none.
The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad [see BCID 5598191]
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk [see BCID 5489926]
Brick Lane by Zadie Smith
Synchronicity: Whilst I was reading Brick Lane. I turned on the radio to listen to ‘Front Row’, an awful arts programme on BBC Radio 4. There was a review of the film of Brick Lane, if you can call two people spouting pretentious drivel a review. The premier of Brick Lane was to be at the end of the week.