‘Statistics don’t tell the story of immigrants: People do’
After a sell-out performance as part of Alchemy 2014, Immigrant Diaries 2015 returned to the Purcell Room Southbank Centre as part of the Changing Britain festival. Devised and hosted by award-winning comedian and writer Sajeela Kershi, Immigrant Diaries celebrates the immense and diverse contribution immigrants have made to Britain despite the difficulties and seemingly ever-present tensions faced across recent decades. Featuring a different line-up of guest comedians, entertainers and broadcasters, stories are shared of their heritage doing what social and political commentators always complain isn’t done enough – talking honestly, humorously and good naturedly about immigration.
Sajeela introduced another collection of “funny, poignant, ridiculous and sublime true stories of people who choose to live and work on this marvellously multicultural island.” For her own story, Sajeela examined whether multiculturalism actually worked through the eyes of her family and their observance of two sets of rituals from two different cultures, sometimes at odds… With confusion about language (despite speaking 5 languages!) and things like Harvest Festivals, Sajeela said simply … “All we wanted to do was to fit in…”
As host of her own event, Sajeela Kershi holds the whole evening together, opening and closing both ‘acts’ and also speaking personally in between each story. Sajeela is a natural, easy-to-listen to speaker with a very likeable warm personality. One small problem was time though. She, and all the participants/performers spoke incredibly quickly! I couldn’t decide whether this was because of the time constraints of the evening itself, or simply because trying to condense a life-time story into less than 20 minutes in nigh-on impossible! I wanted to hear more from all storytellers, and only two of them had books to sell. It did though feel very young and energised as a result, even though some of the storytellers were nudging into middle age! However it was also clear that many people in the audience didn’t have a clue about ANY of the speakers (including myself) programme notes would have been great as a follow up for those who wanted to find out more. There was an incredible amount of information to assimilate over a very short period of time!
“Immigration is a hot topic for this May’s election, but there is often more heat than light generated when politicians debate it – Immigrant Diaries is the total opposite!” said Sajeela. And so it was!
The Purcell Room is the perfect size to engender a relatively informal, cosy atmosphere for seven very disparate and different people to talk about their experience of being an immigrant in the UK. This is not a ‘show’ or a performance in the traditional theatrical sense. It has elements of theatricality about it because of the nature of the participants. Stand-Up comedians and rock musicians are not backward in coming forward and have an air of ‘theatricality’ about them. But some of the stories were also told simply standing at a lectern referencing notes. So this is different stand-alone kind of performance. It is what it is and it is pretty unique. No histrionics, no strife, no arguing, no ‘you said this, but you didn’t do that etc. etc. Simply mutual respect and appreciation amongst everyone.
Immigrant Diaries 2015 – Special Guests:
Broadcaster Nikki Bedi’s Indian father wanted to be more British than the British. She wanted to be more Indian than Indian, often struggling with a sense of shame as a child. Some very hilarious anecdotes about her father teaching his young daughters Indian swear words in Bombay accents – she still uses them to this day! Niki’s story was quite dramatic as she worked in India and at one point was host of a prime time show that broadcast throughout mainstream Asia. Her most memorable immigrant experience was in Birmingham ‘No BMW – Black/Muslim/Whites’. Nikki finished her story with the quote: “Those ‘rivers of blood’ that Enoch Powell was so afraid of now course through my veins and allow me to speak to you.”
Comedy Actor Daniel Taylor Black heritage (with some Chinese on his Grandmothers side!) remembered how Britain’s race riots shaped his upbringing, leaving different family members with different views on authority. He also felt the fact he wore NHS glasses meant he was never perceived as a threat as he looked so ‘geeky’, unlike his 20/20 vision brother who was constantly stopped and searched. Simple things make huge differences! However, He then experienced ‘reverse racism’ for ‘not being black enough’ and for going to University! Identity – What is it? Two brothers born 8 years apart had COMPLETELY different experiences of growing up simply because “one of us inherited my dad’s crap eyesight!”
Pop and Rock star Aziz Ibrahim took us on a vibrant packed musical journey from Lahore to Longsite, Manchester, retracing his childhood journey with his guitar and no notes. His parents wanted him to be a doctor. He wanted to be a musician, and he was/is, playing with Hot Chocolate, prog rock band Asia (Ironically he was the ONLY Asian in the band Asia!) The Stone Roses and many others. “I related to people through music. I could make the Guitar DO things. There was no concept of race anything…”
The first half finished with Sajeela saying that many immigrants felt they were ‘a square peg in a round hole’. The second half kicked off with Sajeela explaining her teenage rebellion years as the ones ‘finding loopholes in religion!’
The best storyteller of the evening for me was Comedian Inder Manocha. Extremely articulate, poignant, intelligent and witty, he vividly described how ‘unethnic’ he has felt all his life, and how he struggled to relate to his ethnic heritage feeling very out of place growing up “wanting to be white because I loved the arts. I loved theatre…” and the divide between him and his Indian-Iranian grandfather whose sole focus was work, and who never ever showed any emotion because that was a Western thing and also his grandfather believed, a sign of “Those ‘rivers of blood’ that Enoch Powell was so afraid of weakness. “I felt I didn’t belong in my own family. Didn’t feel connected and has spent his whole life fighting for rights to the do the same as white people….” This all sounds quite serious but Inder was the storyteller who connected with the audience more as a performer, telling his story with no notes, great passion and no lectern barrier between him and us.
I knew nothing about MTV Presenter Kristiane Backer’s story whose mainstream media career (based in Germany but broadcasting throughout Europe and the States) was ended when she converted to Islam over a fairly lengthy period of several years. Absolutely fascinating stuff but delivered more as a lecture (which was fine). Her’s is a rather more unusual story and she has written a fairly lengthy book about her conversion which I will read sometime. She described discovering the concept of modesty, and how converting to Islam “enabled me to clear up my act and felt like a liberation!” As this also meant losing her job and career that she had worked so hard for and being castigated by many many people, Kristiane’s story is challenging and it was a refreshing change to hear something so different from an articulate and engaging woman.
Lastly, but not least, Comedian Dave Cohen described how, despite being born in the UK, he suffered from a moronic teacher calling him ‘Big Nose Jew Boy’ and ‘Christ Killer’. As He put it “ “Yes that’s me: Dave Cohen in the library with the lead piping”. Nevertheless he was a successful comedian throughout the 80s and 90s and in 1994 he took on the BNP in Tower Hamlets and Won! He set up a group ‘Stand Up Comedians Against The Nazis’ and scores of comedians descended on Tower Hamlets to “put an end to fascism in Tower Hamlets”. “So many white Anglo Saxon colleagues were prepared to turn up against the BNP, It made me Proud to be British.”
Seven very different Immigrant Diaries, but all very definite and proud to be British. Sajeela urged everyone to support ‘Muslim Jewish Collaboration through JAMJAR: Jews and Muslims Joined Against Racism. And with that she, and they were gone.
There will be more storytellers in the future – sharing their experiences and lives with total strangers. An interesting, enlightening and lovely evening indeed.
Review by Catherine Françoise
Friday 24th April
One performance only
Alchemy 2015 events can be found on this link:
Thursday 30th April 2015