Summary of the series and links to podcasts

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Recently, our series Representing Muslims in Scotland and the North East came to an end after four successful events. Now I wish to reflect on the events separately and together to consider any interesting themes that have developed. Overall the series was a resounding successful with large audiences and much interest within and outside the University. Peter Cherry and I are particularly happy to be contributing to public conversations about what it means to be Scottish and Muslim, and hope many of the points of discussion raised during the series will continue to inspire debate.

In the first event, Leila Aboulela read from her upcoming novel which is partially set in Scotland. This was very much enjoyed by the audience, many of whom were big fans of Leila’s work. Indeed, one audience member was intrigued by the fact that they could hear Arabic rhythms in Leila’s English reading style. The setting for her new novel signals her continual interest in setting her writing in Scotland, following the lead of The Translator and Coloured Lights. Some topics I discussed with Leila after her reading included the importance of faith in the creation of her distinct writing style, how considerations of gender had developed over her writing career and the relationship between the romance genre and movements between cultures.

Both students and members of the public were moved by Iyad Hayatleh’s poignant reading in the second event. Well known in the UK and worldwide for his moving poetry, Iyad first came to the UK  – which he describes as ‘where no further north exists’ in his poem ‘Fifty’ – from Syria in the early 2000s. After being granted asylum, he was moved to the Sighthill towerblocks in Glasgow, a famous symbol for the UK government’s policy at the time of moving asylum seekers and refugees from the same country to the same area of the UK. Iyad’s reading and answers to Peter’s questions emphasised the importance of the personal in his poetry. Before each poem, he recounted the motivation behind his writing which showed his prowess as a storyteller as well as a poet. Iyad read first in Arabic, then English (with help from Tessa Ransford) and, like Leila’s reading, more than one audience member commented afterwards on the Arabic rhythms in the English readings. It became clear during the event that his creative output and personal experiences are inextricable. Iyad describes himself as Scottish rather than British, which is clear in his poetic output, for instance his poem ‘My New Homeland’ was recently published in the Scotia Nova anthology. Part of his strong connection with Scotland comes from how he has been supported here as an artist. During the Q&A, Iyad described the importance of his involvement with the ‘Artists in Exile’ writing group in Glasgow about 10-12 years ago. His collaboration with Tessa Ransford in Rug of a Thousand Colours is testament to the significance of collaboration in his creative process.

Our last event, a screening of Tina Gharavi’s film The Last of a Dictionary Men, was particularly enjoyable because of Tina’s insightful and witty responses to Peter’s questions. The film follows a young man tracing the ancestry of his late grandfather who was a Yemeni sailor who moved to South Shields to work in the shipbuilding industry. The film is particularly relevant to ongoing discussions about the importance of immigration because of the way it links the history of migration to present day multiculturalism. Indeed, Tina recounted afterwards that in an informal street survey of South Shields, they found that 1 in 4 people had known Yemeni heritage. The narrator concluded the film by polemicising that ‘Multiculturalism can work in the UK. It worked for South Shields. I’m proof of that.’ After the film, Tina discussed in detail her passion for Newcastle, her place within the British film industry and the importance of regionalism within that and her preference for ‘Spike Lee not Mike Leigh’.

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Overall some interesting themes emerged from the talks. A strong sense of local identity was apparent in all our speakers. Both the passion Tina expressed about Newcastle and her creative output that centres around the North East shows how important the area is to her as an individual and a film maker. Similarly Iyad Hayatleh identified as Scottish over British, and in particular he has strong affinities towards where he lives in Glasgow.

None of our guests would define themselves primarily with the label ‘Muslim writer’ first and foremost, which is a very common sentiment amongst writers of Muslim heritage writing about Muslims in Britain. In fact, many writers and filmmakers in wider canons dislike labels as it can feel restrictive as well as give a sense of pressure to talk about that particular subject. However, both Leila and Iyad’s creative work is overtly linked to their faiths. Leila’s famous writing style has showed what she terms ‘narratives of Muslim logic’ and the structure of Iyad’s Rug of a Thousand Colours is inspired by the five pillars of Islam.

All the events gave a sense of the way each speaker has journeyed in their lifetime and how this has contributed to their cultural output. All were born outside the UK and have lived in several different places. Tina’s films often show journeys of different kinds. Her film I am Nasrine features a brother and sister who flee Iran to live in Newcastle. Indeed The Last of the Dictionary Men was spurred by a wish for the journeys that the last Yemeni sailors of South Shields took not to be forgotten. Tina’s family claimed asylum in the UK in 1979 when fleeing the Iranian Revolution. During her Q&A, she lamented how much the asylum process has changed since then and how much more traumatic it would be today. She posed the question, ‘after moving so much – what else could I do but become a film maker?’ Indeed, for Iyad, writing poetry was a form of therapy after moving to the UK. Similarly, during her Q&A, Leila explained how she only began writing once she was in the UK because it gave her a clearer perspective of home.

You can listen to our introductory lecture by Claire Chambers here http://goo.gl/WIy3Nm

You can also listen to Iyad Hayatleh’s event here http://goo.gl/O8JDkz

You can listen to Tina Gharavi’s event here http://goo.gl/gNfMlw

– Written by Sibyl Adam.

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Intersectionality and positionality: why are these important when considering British Muslim literature and film?

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On Tuesday 20th January, we welcomed Claire Chambers to the University of Edinburgh to give an overview of the history of Muslim representations of Britain.

It was invigorating both to have a lecture on a topic so close to my own research, and to give fellow postgraduate students a chance to hear more about my area. The topic of British Muslim writing has obvious weight in the wake of the contemporary global movements of people and horrific events done in the name of Islam both in Europe and around the world. There is an almost continual stream of journalism on these topics. Within and outside universities, I find the reaction to hearing my PhD topic is usually of interest and understanding of its significance, which I appreciate as anyone in the humanities will know how difficult it can be to justify your research to others. But the question is how can we understand this ‘relevance’ beyond the correlation between literary research and global political events?

Of course the genre or category in itself is not automatically accepted by scholars and writers alike. It’s hotly contested as we can see with the title of Chamber’s British Muslim Fictions, a play on the word ‘fictions’ showing us that the genre isn’t clear cut. The category does not comfortably fit into postcolonial studies either, as most contemporary texts have little to do with colonial or decolonising processes, or indeed first generation postcolonial migration.

I would argue that the most exciting part of the area of British Muslim fiction and film (and fiction and film by authors of ‘Muslim heritage’) is how it works intersectionally. ‘Intersectionality’ is a buzz word in scholarly writing for how different ‘isms’ (gender, race, class, religion, sexuality, etc) are linked, as arguably one cannot examine each separately. Avtar Brah calls this the ‘situatedness’ of a group within a wide range of discourses, which is central to understanding how regimes of power differentiate one group from another. Not all theorists agree on this. Jasbir K. Puar, for instance, destabilises the notion of intersectionality on the basis that fixed identity markers are incompatible with the fluidity of people’s identities over the entire course of their lives. Nonetheless, it is still relevant to look at certain types of identity in relation to each other, whilst acknowledging the fluid quality of these attributes.

Possibly because of the pressures on authors and filmmakers of Muslim heritage to engage with social issues, this genre of work is particularly good at asking questions of other ‘isms’ and highlighting the interconnectedness of different aspects of identity and context. In this series, we are focusing on the intersection between national and local identities and religious/ethnic identity. It was important for us to stress this specificity of perspective in an era where generalising about Islam and Muslims is rife. This particular perspective is symbolic of the multifarious and dynamic representations of Muslims in literature and there are many different possible avenues. For instance, both Peter and I work on the particular issues of gender, and these seem inseparable from other aspects of identity such as class and race.

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By the same train of thought, the situatedness of the reader, the scholar and the critic is important. Chambers’ stressed the importance of positionality in her talk by explaining how she came to the field whilst also acknowledging her position as a non-Muslim. This resonates with both Peter and I as we are both non-Muslim and working on literature and film by and about Muslims in Britain. It is clear we have to acknowledge our positions as critics and researchers if we are to avoid the trap of speaking on behalf of minority groups and individuals. But this does not mean that we should avoid studying cultures that are not necessarily ‘ours’, in fact such a claim would render a fair amount of research invalid. Hopefully it evidences how engaging this particular body of work is to researchers of different backgrounds.

You can listen to Claire Chambers’ talk here: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/literatures-languages-cultures/alwaleed/resources/podcasts

Join us on 3rd February at 5.30pm for a reading with acclaimed author Leila Aboulela in the Project Room, 50 George Square, University of Edinburgh.

– Sibyl Adam

Representing Muslims in Scotland and the North-East: A Series of Seminars with British Muslim Writers, Poets and Filmmakers

Authors, poets and filmmakers of Muslim heritage are producing some of the most exciting and politically engaged fiction and film in the UK today. This century’s climate of Islamophobia in the wake of the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, 2013’s Woolwich attack and the more recent case of extremist Muslims from the UK joining the so-called Islamic State, has contributed to a number of British authors with a Muslim background examining issues related to cultural difference, social exclusion, multiculturalism, religion, current geopolitics, migration and national identity with greater momentum. However many British writers and filmmakers of Muslim descent, such as Monica Ali, have also described how events on the global and local scene have placed a burden on them to speak on behalf of their supposed ‘communities’, and to incorporate commentaries on the socio-political ramifications of identifying as Muslim in the UK into their work.

Critical attention towards novels, poetry and cinema from British writers and filmmakers of Muslim heritage has tended to focus on those based in London and cities such as Bradford or Manchester. Whilst this focus reflects both the comparatively larger size of the Muslim population in these metropolitan areas as well as the number of authors and filmmakers working in these regions, it can also render cultural production from Muslim writers, poets and filmmakers living in areas such as Scotland and North-East England into a marginal position. In this seminar series, funded by the University of Edinburgh’s Alwaleed Centre, this balance will be redressed with a public series of readings and interviews, including a film screening, with three acclaimed authors and filmmakers of Muslim heritage, Leila Aboulela, Iyad Hayatleh, and Tina Gharavi, based in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Newcastle respectively. The series will begin with an introductory critical perspective on the history of Muslim representation of Britain from Dr Claire Chambers, University of York.

This seminar series is poised at a historic juncture for Scotland and the UK. Following last year’s independence referendum and the prospect of further devolved powers to Scotland, there has been a widespread interrogation of what it means to be Scottish as well as what it means to be British. In their work Aboulela, Hayatleh, and Gharavi examine issues of Britishness, and the internal hierarchies and relationships of class, gender and ethnicity within this collective identity, as well as the complex negotiation of Muslim cultural and religious identities in the current political climate. By bringing together these three authors and filmmakers at this time, this seminar series seeks to gain a fresh perspective on the frequently fraught negotiation of ‘British Muslim’ identities.

Each event will begin with a short introduction, a reading or viewing of their work, and an interview by current PhD students Sibyl Adam or Peter Cherry. The talks are public – everyone is welcome. There will be a chance for the audience to ask questions at the end of each event.

All events will be in the Project Room on the first floor of 50 George Square, University of Edinburgh.

Claire Chambers – 20th January – 7.15pm, Project Room

‘Muslim Literary Representations of Britain, 1780−Present’

Claire Chambers is a lecturer at the University of York. Claire is an expert in contemporary South Asian literature written in English and in literary representations of British Muslims. Her book British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers was published in 2011. This year Claire published, with Caroline Herbert, Imagining Muslims in South Asia and the Diaspora: Secularism, Religion, Representations. She is currently completing her second book, Representations of Muslims in Britain, a monograph tracing the development of artistic depictions of UK-based Muslims from the eighteenth century to the present day. This lecture is in conjunction with the English Literature Department, who are kindly providing wine after the talk.

Claire’s profile on the University of York website can be seen here: http://www.york.ac.uk/english/our-staff/claire-chambers/

Leila Aboulela – Reading and Q&A – 3rd February – 5.30pm, Project Room

Born and raised in Sudan, Leila Aboulela is an award-winning writer who now lives in Aberdeen from where she has penned three renowned novels, The Translator (1999), Minaret (2005) and Lyrics Alley (2011), as well as a collection of short stories, Coloured Lights (2001), and a BBC Radio 4 commissioned play, The Insider (2013). Much of this output has examined the ways that religious faith, gender and class are ‘translated’ between cultures in trademark elegant and understated prose. Leila has said of her work: ‘I want to show the psychology, the state of mind and the emotions of a person who has faith. I am interested in going deep, not just looking at ‘Muslim’ as a cultural or political identity but something close to the centre, something that transcends but doesn’t deny gender, nationality, class and race.’ Refreshments will be available after the talk.

For more information about Leila and her writing, please see her website here: http://www.leila-aboulela.com/

Iyad Hayatleh – Poetry reading and Q&A – 17th February – 5.30pm, Project Room

Glasgow-based Iyad Hayatleh is a Palestinian poet and translator who moved to Scotland from Syria in 2000. His first collection of poems, Beyond All Measure, was published in 2007 and since then he has collaborated with the Scottish poet Tessa Ranford on a two-way translation project for a book, Rug of a Thousand Colours, with poems inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam. Refreshments will be available after the talk.

For more information about Iyad and his work, please see his website here: http://iyadhayatleh.blogspot.co.uk/

Tina Gharavi – Screening of Last of the Dictionary Men and Q&A – 5th March – 5.30pm, Project Room

Tina Gharavi is a BAFTA-nominated filmmaker and screenwriter of Iranian heritage whose films and documentaries have examined her own experiences travelling from her adopted hometown of Newcastle to Tehran in Mother/Country (2001), recording the history of Yemeni migration to the North-Eastern English town of South Shields in Last of the Dictionary Men (2008) and documenting the lasting impact of American boxer Muhammad Ali’s extraordinary visit to the Muslim communities in South Shields for her 2008 film, The King of South Shields. Her first full length fiction film I Am Nasrine (2012) traced the arrival of two Iranian asylum seekers to Newcastle and gained Gharavi her first BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. Refreshments will be available after the talk.

For more information on Tina and her work, please see her website here: http://tinagharavi.com/

Follow Tina on twitter here: https://twitter.com/Gharavi

Poster advertising the seminar series available for download: Representing Muslims in Scotland and the North-East