Last Friday evening following the repulsive terror attacks, we were careful to limit the news in our household, mindful of the fears that might awaken in our 6-year-old.
From Beirut through Paris, and in so many other regions, people were going about their daily lives when horror erupted. Accompanying death were traumatic, chilling sights and sounds imprinted on survivors and transmitted to onlookers near and far.
We began to weigh-in on what to tell a young child: whether to share or shelter her from the news that was, after all, not on our shores. The question of the location raised its head and merits some attention.
The continued pervasive coverage of France’s tragedy is neither surprising nor an insult to other countries or populations that have equally suffered. This is not a competition. In the UK the coverage of 7/7 was intense and on-going for months. Last year the October shooting in Ottawa, Canada saw international coverage but nowhere was this coverage more concentrated and extensive than in Canada.
Paris is an international city; one of the most visited and well-known even to those that have only toured it via films and books. This fact is precisely why coverage of the tragedy here in Canada is more intense than the coverage of similar attacks. Paris is a relatable, familiar location where many of ushave participated in the exact activities, in the exact locations where these events unfolded. Familiarity breeds curiosity. The 2013 Westgate Mall siege provoked blanket media coverage. There have been attacks before and since in Kenya however that assault occurred in an everyday familiar location– a shopping mall – riveting global interest. Paris belongs not only to the French but is a global outpost which many call “home” whether they’ve taken up residence or not. The population of Paris is not simply French but vibrant, massively multi-cultural; where Eid and Diwali are as well-known as Hanukkah or Christmas.
Comfort must overrule the cynicism in the perception of preferential coverage. If anything, the coverage of Paris shines a light on bias and can, if allowed, frame an understanding of life in war zones and build empathy towards refugees fleeing these exact horrors.
So, recognizing that media will be intense and pervasive, does one shelter or share with a child? We all make our own choices as parents but for me open discussion should rule. Parents, families, friends, aunts and uncles are best placed to open this sensitive dialogue even in a selective, imprecise manner. Children, even the very young, are acutely perceptive whether to a news report playing in their home, a magazine, newspaper or iPad story left open. A media-blackout at home cannot control what is overheard on the streets, schoolyards and playgrounds. Far worse than having this delicate, uncomfortable conversation is a child being burdened with almost incomprehensible information from another child who may have been exposed to the horrible details without an opportunity for follow-up and exchange. So we sit with our children and tell them that some people were hurt in Paris and that this has made us and the world incredibly sad. We light a candle and take them to a memorial if they need comfort. We start a dialogue enabling them to come back to us should they overhear disturbing news, have questions or fears. Together, regardless of age, we open that interchange, held in unconditional love: we fumble, we improvise, we speak; we simply do our best to ensure the communication is there for solidarity, empathy and reassurance.
Ivanno Jeremiah & Zubin Varla in Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.
The Nineteenth Century essayist, poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise of Shakespeare. He once said of The Bard;
‘Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place.’
I was reminded of Coleridge’s acclaim as I sat watching The Young Vic’s production of Measure for Measure last week. Even as Coleridge battled crippling opium addiction and debilitating episodes of self-doubt in life, he found joy and freedom in the world created by Shakespeare. He discovered a liberty from his own weak will, and a license to suspend his disbelief in order that he whole-heartedly enter into the dramatic world of the play unfolding before him. He said that incredible or fanciful work would break this spell and bring the ludic performance crashing down and that one must be able to give themselves over completely to the drama. And the writer he identified as the illusionist dramatist par excellence and most suited to this task was, of course, Shakespeare.
There were moments between Angelo and Isabella, Claudio and Isabella, The Duke Vincentio and Pompey et al, when discussions centred on the nature of human virtue, clemency and spiritual and corporal corruption, at such times it was as if I was watching and hearing a divine puppeteer interweaving all the thoughts and feelings of humanity, mixing the conflict between self-preservation and empathy, expounding the collision of desire and morality and underpinning all with a firm and sure depth psychology. Watching Shakespeare at these moments is a special kind of poetry, one that may grant the audience access to an exquisite divinity beyond their normal everyday human experience.
Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Measure for Measure is a rampant, cut-down, boisterous affair. The play moves along at a blazing comic pace, but as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, it never moves too far from the darkness at its centre. Vienna is a city overflowing with brothels, pimps and scoundrels. The Duke Vincentio tells his advisors he’s leaving the city and then disguises himself as a friar and stays within the city walls. He leaves Angelo in charge, an unbending guardian of morality who instantly closes all the city’s brothels and sentences Claudio to death for the act of fornication with Juliet, whom he has made pregnant. Isabella learns of her brother Claudio’s punishment and goes to Angelo to beg for clemency. During the course of their meeting the morally incorruptible Angelo begins to feel lust and desire for Isabella and tells her he will spare Claudio’s life if she should yield to him her virginity. Isabella then goes to see Claudio, tells him of Angelo’s advances and expects that he will face death with dignity. Claudio begs his sister to give herself up to Angelo to save his life, and she refuses as she doesn’t want to sacrifice her immortality, or Claudio’s in the afterlife.
Hill-Gibbins’ and Miriam Buether’s radical exuberant production and design gives us swirling images of blow-up dolls representing the vice and corruption of Vienna, a Kardashian-style sex-tape of Claudio and Juliet, and dazzling camerawork, backgrounded behind closed doors, to show us the dark, ever existing underbelly of a city crawling with debasement and debauchery behind its moral veneer. I’m a fan of this seemingly, de rigour use of camerawork, as it compellingly captures and enhances human emotion, intensity and intimacy. The cast is uniformly strong, with Paul Ready’s cloying, convincing, bureaucratic Angelo and Tom Edden’s turn as an evasive New York Jewish gangster-pimp Pompey, complete with spectacles, suit and baseball cap, my personal favourites.
This thoroughly enjoyable and vivacious production ends with a startling image of The Duke, played by Zubin Varla, not only telling Isabella of his intentions to marry her, but lining up the entire cast of the play in couples, in a desperately awkward and dreadful tableau. This creates a striking image, although the characters may be saved from hell, are they any better off in the strange, mixed-up relationships and marriages they end up in, where they may succeed or fail, and advance through life in an utterly muddled human procession?
My initial reaction to Angelo’s lack of tolerance for the business of prostitution and sex was to think how antiquated that attitude has become in the modern world. Sitting in a diverse cosmopolitan audience in a multicultural London, it’s easy to forget the patrician attitudes and intolerance that exist in other cities and regions. However, the ingenious presence on stage of a couple of dozen male and female blow-up dolls at times piled-high, at others waded through by the cast, and then thrown in discarded fashion upstage, started to put me in mind of a slaughter, the Holocaust perhaps? But then I settled on the fanatical nature of those purporting to represent Islam and calling themselves Islamic State. Intolerance to human desire isn’t antiquated or out-dated, it is a very real and evil threat. The next night that threat would be foregrounded once again in the shocking pictures and stories pushed in a vile centrifuge from the blood-soaked streets of Paris. Intolerance of people trying to live free lives, people in bars and cafes, enjoying rock concerts, massacred by those, identified over four hundred years ago by Shakespeare, who deign to impose their dogmatic views and calcified opinions on innocent citizens. Therefore, once again Shakespeare proves his genius. This thoroughly pagan Elizabethan playwright always manages to remain relevant and timeless in all ages, and how does he manage this? Because, as Coleridge had it, he knew the minutest and most intimate workings of the human mind. And no matter how much we may progress, technologically and scientifically, no matter how much we innovate and evolve, we are still Shakespeare’s humans; coiled and contradictory, floored and mistaken, emotional and desirous.
The Company of Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison
North Kensington is an area of high economic deprivation with stark contrasts in wealth between the haves and have-nots and creeping gentrification. Neighbouring the conspicuously affluent Notting Hill and Holland Park areas, North Kensington is a livelier, multi-cultural area with large Caribbean, Moroccan and white British communities, among many others. It is the bright glow of North Kensington that reflects so well on its neighbouring districts and attracts the tourists. But the growth of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East is having a profoundly troubling effect on the area as geopolitics collides with family life and a simple explanation for the phenomenon isn’t easy to come by.
In recent times North Kensington has gained media attention with a number of high profile examples of recruitment to ISIS. Internet searches for details of these North Kensington individuals provide plenty of macabre coverage and voyeuristic media fascination. A former classmate of two young fighters wrote a piece expressing his shock at seeing his former friends on television and stated his hope that “If someone turned these average teenagers into killers, something can turn them back”.
Identifying what turned these local children in to men travelling to Syria and Iraq in the name of “jihad” is no simple task, and I spoke to a number of people in the affected North Kensington community to find out their views and to try to grasp the extent of how what happens in the Middle East affects the communities left behind. All the names have been changed.
‘Muhammad Ali’, a 50 year-old Somali community leader in North Kensington told me that the ISIS phenomenon is a “cause for concern” in his family and he now keeps a close check on his son’s movements and timetable. He says that he believes ISIS attracts those that are “not succeeding” in the UK, but that there are exceptions to this rule.
Muhammad told me about a local Eritrean who he knew throughout the boy’s primary and secondary schooling who ended up going to fight in Syria. He says the boy used to attend Muhammad’s Saturday school for local youth and he saw the boy struggle after his father died of cancer. On seeing that this young man had joined ISIS, Muhammad says that it was “a shock…the mum was in shock, a lot of distress”.
Like all of the people I interviewed, Muhammad pointed out that the ISIS view of Islam is completely un-Islamic: “You can’t kill a civilian, how many times does this need to be in the Qur’an before they understand it? There’s no verse that allows you to kill Shia or kill non-Muslims”.
Muhammad identifies UK foreign policy as a pertinent issue, seeing the spread of ISIS’s reach to the UK as a spillover from the Iraqi Sunni-Shia civil war that was caused by the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq. This has nurtured a sense of victimization of Sunnis, he says, who often feel like they are viewed as second-class citizens in the UK. “Being told you’re a second class citizen, even if you have a degree in medicine (as his son has) is also a factor. I know we already have to work harder than the English, but ISIS affects the poorly educated, the unemployed, those with criminal records, those affected by the police’s stop and search tactics”.
‘Nour’, a middle aged Moroccan community activist who has lived in North Kensington for 17 years, describes the impact on local communities as “devastating. Parents are suffering in silence.” He tells me that local parents have been unable to get their sons’ bodies sent back from the Middle East, saying that he knows the families of Moroccans, Somalis, Syrians and Iraqis aged between 19 and 26 who have travelled to join ISIS.
Nour connects the appeal of ISIS to the materialistic culture of the UK that is especially prevalent in London. By travelling to Syria, these people are offered “money for clothes, for travel, it is a very sophisticated recruitment drive” in which the economic inequality of life in North Kensington “plays a big part.” The average price of a flat in North Kensington is over £600,000, just under one million US Dollars, so the vast majority of young people have no option but to live at home with their families, often in overcrowded accommodation and without realistic prospects for upward social mobility.
Add to this what Nour describes as “an unreal age where these young people don’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s in the digital world” and the fact that the ISIS recruits are “extremely impressionable” and there is the perfect storm for young people to look for a cause to fight for, to “search for an identity as they develop their personalities”.
Nour is critical of sensational media coverage of ISIS, which he suspects may make the group more attractive, but he stated clearly that he thought that to blame UK foreign policy is “an excuse.” He focuses instead on the UK government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy which he says is “failing to talk to Muslim community leaders. They don’t understand the intricacies and don’t seem to have a clue.” He says that the government should instead facilitate the promotion of “real Islam”.
Nour’s approach chimed with the government and media view that these young people are ‘brainwashed’ in to joining ISIS. But 30 year old British Somali ‘Mustapha Bakr’ asked me the rhetorical question: “Some are already radical, so why does the government label them as ‘radicalised’?” He calls this approach “disingenuous”. By blaming a process of ‘radicalisation’ the government don’t have to tackle the fact that there are UK citizens who are already radicalised and ready to go to war. “People would ask them: ‘what are you gonna do about it?’” Mustapha explains, “and the government don’t want to explicitly say that this (ISIS) is Islam, so they use the narrative of preachers of extreme hate”.
In North Kensington, Mustapha says that ISIS recruits, “from the dole (those receiving unemployment benefits) to the well-educated ones, they get trapped in a small world of wanting to do something. With the social cleansing and gentrification of London, they instinctively link this to foreign policy, such as our military aid to Egypt”.
Add to this the “egotistical thing – ‘I need to be the big boy’ – and the fact that these people can’t say what’s on their mind for fear of being labelled ‘radical’ and you have people with fear and resentment of the authorities in London. Then you have white, British guys fighting with the PKK, supporting the Kurds, and they get welcomed home as heroes”.
I asked Mustapha about the cases he has knowledge of in North Kensington. He says that quite a few people have started by seeing the opportunity to do some charity work to help the Syrians, but they then feel a strong urge to act on the injustice they witness. He tells me about a North African resident of North Kensington, who “definitely wasn’t radicalised. He went to Syria. He was a nice guy, he was well educated. You have to speculate about why he went there. Maybe his friends went. Just like that, he was gone. There’s no conveyor belt, and a common denominator isn’t simple to find”.
Not far away, on a housing estate near Latimer Road underground station, British-born Moroccan father-of-three ‘Zico’ tells me that he has seen people from his estate and a friend of his in Morocco go to Syria.
“We used to see this guy on this estate; he was quiet, educated, about 20. He used to say ‘Salaam’ but would never stop to chat. Next thing we knew he’d made a YouTube video and all the reporters came around here. His mum didn’t even know, she thought he was going off to study in Germany.” Why would he join ISIS, I asked Zico. “You have to have some kind of gullibility, to see Syria as ‘my jihad’ or ‘my way to paradise’”.
Zico also identifies anger against UK foreign policy as a cause – “while you’re in other people’s countries slaughtering their people, there’s going to be a backlash” – and says that a “minority” start with a genuine wish to help Syrians in need but a majority probably see no difference between themselves and British soldiers in Iraq, with “an attitude of take no prisoners”.
Of his former friend in Morocco, Zico tells me he was a successful businessman with a large house, who “left everything and went. He died fighting the Kurds three weeks ago. His three brothers and dad went too. He took his wife. Their daughter was born over there and a week later he was killed, it’s deep. Only one brother is left, plus his mum and son.” Zico saw his friend change over time, becoming more introspective. “I thought he was deep in thought about his shop, but it turns out he was thinking about Syria”.
Zico describes the reaction in Morocco as similar to that in North Kensington. “Parents in Morocco are asking the government ‘why are they taking our kids?’” And he identifies poverty as a motivating factor. “Kids in Morocco are on £3 a day, it’s not enough to survive and the internet’s opened up their eyes”.
Zico’s advice to the potential British ISIS recruits: “Do not bite the hand that feeds you…this (the UK) is the best country you can live in. IS? Sharia law? I don’t think they can handle it really. Here, we have the freedom to do all that, we can live as Islamically as we want. You can’t beat freedom”
“And why choose Syria? You can go and live the Sharia life in plenty of countries. Once you go to Syria, you ain’t coming back.” As the balance of power continues to shift in the Middle East, the North Kensington community is experiencing its impact first hand, and the truth of this succinct statement is all too clear. And while the motivations of those joining ISIS may be difficult to fathom, the tragic consequences are not.