The decision by Parliament to sanction the removal of citizenship of those who are considered to be some form of threat has left me wondering as to the nature of what it means to be ‘from’ the UK, and what it means for someone to be forcefully removed from a country they may have been born in. Would the removal or mine or anyone else’s citizenship result in the loss of any aspect of our Britishness. But then…what is Britishness? Reflecting on my family somewhat confuses the issue.
Family gatherings at my in-laws in Cardiff are always a surreal affair. What strikes one immediately is the identities that go into the family formation. I have Pakistani and indigenously Welsh brothers and sisters-in-law (one Geordie), nephews and nieces who are quarter-black, quarter-white, half-black, half-white, half-Pakistani…the permutations simply are too difficult to keep on top of.
What is particularly striking about my entry into these family gatherings; is the ribbing that takes place against anyone travelling from east of the River Severn. I am continually reminded (ad nauseam), that this family is Welsh, and the plethora of Welsh paraphernalia that my children receive on their respective births, is a reminder that they very much consider the Welsh half of my children their more prominent identity, despite them being born and raised Londoners.
Not that being born in a particular place necessarily means anything, I sometimes hear my son use the word ‘lush’ to describe his pleasure at seeing something he likes – a Welshism if ever there was one. The same five-year-old has also been previously caught chanting ‘Caaaardiff’ and ‘Peter Odemwingie’, no doubt taught to him by his uncles and cousins, all of whom bleed blue of the Cardiff Bluebirds – yes Vincent Tan – it is still the Bluebirds and not Red Dragons, no matter what colour you change the kit to (or at least so I am told by the hardcore fans I stay with).
One of my other brothers-in-law happens, like me, to be a born and raised Londoner. He thrives on the England v Wales battles and discussions that take place, particularly when the rugby is on. To be honest, however much I enjoy the banter during such occasions, I find it difficult to express the same degree of jingoistic pride that is exhibited by my west-of-the-Severn family members. For me, the whole concept of identity is so much more complex that I find it difficult to place my stock in ‘English’.
Being born to Pakistani parents, both of whom were migrants to the UK, I grew up with a distinct concept of what Pakistani values and culture were about. In fact, I would very much say that in my earliest years, even my concept of religion was much more defined by being a Pakistani, than it was by Islam itself. A key example of this, is the fact that like most Pakistani boys growing up as a second generation, we learnt to read the Qur’an in Urdu, not Arabic. Hence why so many of us had to later in life go through the painful process of trying to retrain our mouths and throats to be able to make the distinct sounds that are required for its correct reading, sounds which were not only alien to the language of our parents, but which were in fact alien to our culturally formed vocal physiology. Up until this very day, it is still a struggle to pronounce the letter ‘ayn perfectly.
Some schools of traditional Islamic jurisprudence teach that you don’t stand for people when they enter a room. However, the Pakistani in me lights a fire under my chair or seat when I see a person older than myself enter a room at a number of different gatherings. The same culture instinctively forces me to displace myself from my chair and sit on the floor when an older person does not have a seat. These are things that were taught to me by my parents through their culture. They were not taught to me through reading manuals on Islamic jurisprudence or having been schooled in the UK, but directly through the learning of culture that my parents brought with them from Pakistan.
Does this mean that my culture is Pakistani? Does it necessitate that I fail the Tebbit test? Which, by the way, I do happen to fail – after all, my fascination with cricket stems from a time where you could either follow England and have the likes of Devon Malcolm, Phillip DeFreitas and Chris Lewis to look up to, or you could support Pakistan and look up to Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis…enough said really.
Well and truly though, how do we define what our identity is? I was extremely fortunate growing up. My mother began a business making homemade kulfi (Asian ice-cream) that is now served in at least two Michelin-starred restaurants in London– that business permitted my brothers and I to go to a private school in south London. There I had the opportunity to excel at education and sports having played squash for Surrey at a county level.
Quoting schools and sports however seems more like a confessional from an Alcohol Anonymous meeting…I’m not convinced that this is the way to understand who I am. There is something deeper that means that not only do I have an English identity, but that whatever I try and do, I really cannot escape it.
It is then with humour that largely I find the best example. However hard I try, I cannot for the life of me joke in Urdu or Punjabi the way that my Pakistani brethren can. While I am in Lahore, I watch my cousins and uncles joke with one another, their hand movements, gesticulations, intonations, just everything about the way they tell the joke smacks of authenticity and perfection. When I try to do the same thing, the joke falls flat, because my pitch is wrong, or I didn’t twist my wrist in the right way that somehow makes the Punjabi joke seem so much more perfect on delivery.
What I do, however, do very well. Is English wit. This is a part of me that I cannot remove. It is purely instinctive and an aspect of my character which has led me to a great deal of trouble, particularly where a sardonic remark was completely unneeded, and yet the words evaporate from my tongue without any control as soon as I open my mouth. For me, it is in humour, that I find one of the ways in which I find my inescapable Englishness. Well that, and the fact that when I arrive in Lahore airport, I’m inevitably the last person to reach passport control as I’m too busy being courteous and letting others pass or actually waiting in what I perceive to be a line.
This is not the end of the identity story though. For on top of these quite intrinsic cultural identities that have assisted in forming my character, I have wilfully superimposed yet another identity, and that is of being an observant Muslim. For the most part, there is no contradiction between the three, and so happily live my life in a happy balance between them. However, on occasion, there are times when my Islam regulates the other two in a way that I may not have previously held back. So for example, one of the excesses of youth is perhaps a little too much overindulgence in bawdy humour or being profane, my Islam has assisted me in regulating that language by removing it from my vocabulary. All of the same jokes and words are still there, and on occasion the instinct to let loose on someone who probably deserves it, but my Islam speaks to me and tells me to hold my tongue, that despite any cultural acceptance, my spirit should not indulge.
This applies equally to my Pakistani sense of identity. Extended families play a major part of our every day lives, particular on major occasions such as weddings, Eids, births and deaths. For those who practice Islam within my family a little different than the way my parents and siblings do, sometimes issues of contention can occur. We are sometimes invited to parties, where the traditions being practised, stem directly from Hinduism, practices which I believe I cannot take part in or witness. Yet, Islam requires that I maintain the ties of kinship, so to snub the wedding household of a family member, in order to protect my individual belief, becomes a point of personal conflict. What usually ensues, is a whole series of convoluted ways in which we can share in the joy of the wedding functions, without having to compromise on what we believe to be important aspects of our religion.
Identity is not a single construct. For those coming from migrant communities who have been born and raised in the UK, there are a great many layers of identity formation which not only sit alongside one another, but at times come into conflict with one another as well. As the UK government has recently increased its powers to remove citizenship, we need to reopen the debate about what it means to be British, and who can be included or excluded from this country. The assumption that there is a monolithic value system or identity that can be adhered, fails not only in its theory, but fails the richness that has been brought to all of our communities.
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