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London, Covent Garden market, Venchi Gelato shop, people outside. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The book we really need this week

The book we really need this week

London, Covent Garden market, Venchi Gelato shop, people outside. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As the world reels from the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and the rejuvenation of fundamentalist Islam, the writer Sarfraz Manzoor offers an essential guide to the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in times of hectic change and of new pressures upon our pluralist society

Even if you haven’t encountered his fine journalism over the years – and if you haven’t, you’ve been missing out – the chances are that you know Sarfraz Manzoor. He’s the guy whose story, and love of Bruce Springsteen’s music, inspired Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 movie, Blinded by the Light.

Based on Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock’N’Roll, the film made exuberant use of classics by the Boss to chart the coming-of-age of Javed, a young British-Pakistani Muslim, in 1980s Luton. Acclaimed on initial cinematic release, it became a staple of home streaming during the darkest days of lockdown – combining, as it did, a well-plotted exploration of British cultural diversity with a relish for the emancipating power of music.

Sarfraz Manzoor, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen and Gurinda Chadha at the Premiere of “Blinded By The Light”

This week, Manzoor returns with They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong About Each Other (Headline). It would be an important book at any time, meticulously addressing the vexed question of Islam’s relationship with secular society, the West in general and Britishness in particular. Published in the week that fundamentalist terrorists reclaimed control of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and parliament debated Britain’s readiness to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees to these shores, the book is now, unexpectedly but undoubtedly, an even more essential manual for a bleak historic moment.

There are, of course, already shelves full of books that tackle the abrasions, real and imagined, between Islam and British values. What distinguishes They – which draws its title from Kipling’s poem We and They – is its granularity and its candour.

Two Muslim men kneel and pray during a Black Lives matter march through central London, June 2020

With his reporter’s hat on, Manzoor has put in the hours as interviewer and pavement-pounder, talking to Britons (Muslim and non-Muslim) all over the country about their experience, anxieties and aspirations. This means that he is fully alive to the nuance and contradictions of his chosen subject: the fact that an individual Muslim he talks to could be both a member of an extremist Islamist organisation while working as a sex therapist for men with HIV; the self-awareness that makes Manzoor recognise that his own decision not to eat pork or non-halal meat, or to drink alcohol, may, paradoxically, be “an indication of nervousness rather than confidence about my right to say I am Muslim”; the irony that it is often religious ignorance that leads young British Muslims to embrace jihadism and that “rather than fearing a stronger Muslim identity, it might be the very thing that helps protect young Muslims from being radicalised”.

Honesty is the book’s second pillar. Manzoor makes no attempt to sugar-coat the problems that he is addressing – quite the opposite – and, though he has plenty to say about right-wing bigotry and lopsided media coverage, this is emphatically not a book about victimhood. 

Women buy balloons for their children as they celebrate the festival of Eid in Southwark, London

He is especially good on the perils of segregation or social “encapsulation” as it is often described – understandable, he observes, as a pattern of living among first-generation migrants such as his parents, but much less so as a way of life for their descendants. In this respect, he is a persuasive champion of schemes and individual actions that lower the barriers between different communities and allow basic human collaboration to melt away inherited habits of mutual suspicion.

Even then, however, he cautions against too glib a definition of what, exactly, constitutes integration and recognises that one form of secession can easily be replaced by another. “I live in north London,” he writes, “and the vast majority of my friends – if not all of them – share the same broadly liberal worldview: they read the Guardian, they listen to BBC 6 Music and Radio 4, they own the same cookbooks by Yotam Ottolenghi and Anna Jones and discuss the same Netflix shows… In my present world they could refer to anyone who takes their children to eat at McDonald’s.”

Sarfraz Manzoor with his wife Bridget

Having married a non-Muslim white woman, Bridget, in 2010, Manzoor finds himself tackling, day by day, the very questions that lie at the heart of this book. Why is his daughter anxious about her skin colour and what should he do to comfort her and make her feel pride in her identity? Is he right to favour a stricter style of parenting than does his wife, and does that difference reflect class or culture? He celebrates the “enlarging and intoxicating vision that implied that our children were blessed rather than cursed to be the product of two cultures” – but he does not flinch from the challenges implicit in this vision.

Eschewing lazy mantras, hashtags and prohibitions upon debate, They sets out instead to make its reader “occasionally feel uncomfortable”: an admirable objective in any pluralist society, where progress depends precisely upon such moments of recognition and the civilised negotiation of the difficulties that arise between and within communities (and within individuals, too, who face divided allegiances to the promptings of past, present and future).

Families celebrate Eid Ul Adha in Southall, West London

It will not surprise anyone familiar with the core compassion of Manzoor’s writings over the years that he settles on a guarded optimism. “At times it has been tempting to succumb to hopelessness,” he writes, “to accept that the divisions are too wide to bridge. But I cannot yield to despair – as the father of two young children I have to believe that a better future is reachable, to believe Britain can still be a promised land.”

Having read They with tremendous admiration, I think he is right. It is exactly the book – personal in tone, courageous in vision – that we need at a moment of global shame, apprehension and frayed moorings.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Watch

The Chair (Netflix, 20 August)

Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman’s sharp six-part series takes as its setting one of the cultural warzones of the 21st Century: the American university campus. Sandra Oh (so pivotal to the success of Killing Eve) excels as Dr Ji-Yoon Kim, new head of the English department at Pembroke College. How to deal with the department’s decline and all the daily pressures of modern university life – seriously exacerbated when a video of one of the professors, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) performing a Hitler salute in class, creates a social media storm? The series takes these and other social justice issues seriously, while finding space for romantic plotlines, screwball banter and even entertaining sight gags. Worthy of your time.

Minamata (selected cinemas, VOD)

Exiled from the Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts cinematic franchises, Johnny Depp goes back to his roots as a character actor in this adaptation, directed by Andrew Levitas, of the true story of legendary American photographer W. Eugene Smith. Past his best, Smith is compelled back into action by reports of mercury poisoning in Japanese coastal communities and the appalling illnesses caused by the neglectful conduct of the chemical corporation Chisso. As ever, Depp is at his best playing a damaged, inward-looking soul in search of some sort of redemption. Bill Nighy is terrific, too, as Smith’s boss at Life magazine, Robert Hayes – permanently exasperated by his wayward friend but never quite able to lose faith in him.

Nine Perfect Strangers (Prime Video, 20 August)

Based on Liane Moriarty’s bestseller, the latest eight-episode series from the team behind Big Little Lies tackles head-on the power, manipulations and charisma of the wellbeing industry. In the upscale Californian retreat of Tranquillum House, the diaphanous guru Masha (Nicole Kidman) welcomes nine guests to – what exactly? The ensemble cast is remarkable, including Michael Shannon, Luke Evans, Bobby Cannavale, Regina Hall, Tiffany Boone and Manny Jacinto. Every resident brings a backstory of pain and loss. What remains to be seen is what Masha – think Gwyneth Paltrow as Bond villain – has planned for them all. Nicely sinister, always engaging: the perfect middle-brow weekend watch.

Read

Thinking Better: The Art of the Shortcut – Marcus du Sautoy (4th Estate)

As Oxford’s Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science (succeeding Richard Dawkins), Marcus du Sautoy has combined a career as a world-class mathematician with outstanding work as an ambassador for science and the scientific method. And – boy – do we need such ambassadors right now. His latest book is an extremely readable exploration of the shortcut, its role in human history and its intellectual underpinnings. As ever, du Sautoy stretches out a hand to the reader with engaging stories, wit and a lucid writing style. 

Afterparties: Stories – Anthony Veasna So (Grove Press UK) 

The death of Anthony Veasna So from a drug overdose in December has – as this remarkable collection of short stories shows – deprived the world of a writer of awesome potential. His milieu, broadly, is the world of California Cambodian Americans, depicted in a style that So himself described wryly as “post-khmer genocide queer stoner fiction.” The landscape is bracingly contemporary – set alight by the tech revolution, but haunted by the traumas of the past (every grandma in the community is said to have been “a psycho since the genocide”). The cavalcade of characters makes you imagine So maturing into a Dickens or Damon Runyon for the AI age. The wit that curls through these pages also fills you with a longing for the first novel that will never be. A must-read, albeit one laced with a sense of tragedy.

The Right to Sex – Amia Srinivasan (Bloomsbury)

This debut by Amia Srinivasan – Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford – has already been hailed as a significant book in the development of feminist ideas, the philosophy of sex and the politics of the body. It abounds with intellectual provocations, ambivalences and confrontations with nuance (Srinivasan writes, for example, that “no one is obliged to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also who is desired and who isn’t is a political question”); and this is one of its greatest strengths. Also appealing is the powerful sense of a style of scholarship that draws heavily upon the experience of teaching – explicitly so, in the case of the essay “Talking to My Students About Porn”. Srinivasan’s intellectual fearlessness suggests to me that she will play an increasingly important role in public discourse in the years to come. A must-read, whatever your preconceptions.

Listen

Donda – Kanye West (20 August – probably?)

The release date of Yeezy’s tenth studio album has long been a matter of agitated speculation – probably by design. It was expected to drop on 23 July, and then 13 August… and is now, in theory, due tomorrow. But then again, who knows? Originally entitled God’s Country, the record is now named in honour of West’s late mother, Donda, and features collaborations with Jay-Z, Pop Smoke, Lil Baby, the Weeknd, and Jay Electronica. From his presidential bid, to the latest manifestation of his religious beliefs, to the empire of merchandising he has built up, the rapper has shown yet again how keenly he understands the role of suspense and choreography in modern entertainment. Talent alone is a necessary but no longer sufficient basis for the kind of global star power to which this singular performer aspires.

Exiles – Max Richter

Recorded in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2019, the German-British composer’s new album is a compilation of tracks, the thematic core of which is a ballet score inspired by the Libyan refugee crisis of 2015 (a theme which has once again become pressingly topical as thousands of Afghans desperately seek sanctuary from the Taliban). “I’m a European,” as he told the Guardian. “These kinds of transnational problems call for collaboration, they call for a fundamental working together, and a rethinking of what boundaries and borders even mean in 2021.” What makes Richter unique is that his musical virtuosity is full of a spirit of political engagement but is also hauntingly familiar from popular culture (‘On the Nature of Daylight’ featured – perfectly so – in last Sunday’s penultimate episode of Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale). It is no cliché to say that there is nobody quite like him.

Loving in Stereo – Jungle

This August has, like Churchill’s pudding, “lacked a theme”: a time of half-emancipation from the pandemic, in which taking a holiday has involved the bureaucracy of buying a house, and businesses across the land have played the hokey cokey of half-returning to work. So thank goodness for Jungle, the west London duo of Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, who have, undaunted, gone ahead and delivered a soundtrack to a summer that never quite was. An unabashed hymn to clubland, with a distinctly Eighties dancefloor feel, Jungle’s third album features guest spots by Bas and Priya Ragu, and by a choir on “Keep Moving” – all of which augurs extremely well for their four nights at Brixton Academy next month. 

Explore

There’s still time to see Michael Longhurst’s tremendous revival of Nick Payne’s Constellations (Donmar Warehouse at the Vaudeville Theatre until 12 September). Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey alternate with Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd in a play which – literally and figuratively – presents human connection as a strobe-like series of pulses, set in multiverses of infinite possibility. What could have been an irritating exercise in pop science draped showily over art, is, in practice, a triumph – using the uncertainties of quantum physics to dramatise the doubt and capriciousness of love, life and death.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs Getty Images, Dave Allocca/StarPix/Shutterstock, Entertainment One Films, Eliza Morse/Netflix, MGM/United Artists, Made Up Stories/Hulu, Marc Brenner/Vaudeville Theatre