An open forum discussion at A Wave of Dreams Arts Lab in Kings Road, St Leonards on 30th October entitled Tolerance, Migration, Identity featured three panellists with truly global experience of migration issues. 

Patrick Altes, a visual artist whose show Tolerance (previewed in HIP Issue 138) adorned the studio walls, was born in Algeria in 1958 but left for France aged four with his parents as pieds noirs refugees at the conclusion of the War of Independence. Brought up in the Paris suburbs, he spent two formative years immediately after school teaching black students in apartheid South Africa, and several in Ecuador before settling in England with a post at the University of Brighton. 

S.I. Martin, a professional writer with a series about to be made by the BBC from his historical novel featuring black soldiery in the pre-Napoleonic era, is the son of Windrush-era immigrants to London from Antigua. He described how, as products of a British Empire that was supposed to turn into a Commonwealth of Nations, they – and he – had found full integration barred by their “blatant physical otherness”.

Nadene Ghouri, a journalist with many years of experience as foreign correspondent for the BBC and Al Jazeera, had an Afghan father and Yorkshire mother, and is now married to a New Zealander. Her language skills and cross-cultural background have opened opportunities for reporting migration issues across the world.

It became apparent that each of the panellists identified themselves essentially as migrants. Such identification would have been for their parents in each case a matter of objective fact and necessity. For them, however, it has been much more a matter of identity choice. 

Altes said that his parents embraced French identity when they arrived in Paris from Oran, and he was brought up to do likewise, though experiencing some prejudice for his accent and tanned colour. It was his return to the African continent as a young man that “sharpened my social and political consciousness”. Since then he has moved between South America, Algeria (where several of his artworks are permanently exhibited) and Britain, his style of art imbued with African and aboriginal influences, and feeling politically aligned with countries on the receiving end of colonial oppression.

INCREASING POPULISM AND XENOPHOBIA

Ms Ghouri described herself as a “British patriot”. But having reported at close hand on the trends towards increasing populism and xenophobia in both Trump’s America and across modern Europe, and seeing close parallels with the rise of Nazism and Fascism in the 1930s, she let slip that she was intending to move to New Zealand “before it’s too late”. (Though a woman in the front row of the audience later pointed out, when the discussion was thrown open, that she had first-hand experience of race discrimination in New Zealand too).

Martin declared, with a trace of irony, that Central London, where he lives, is “immaculately tolerant – a bubble…If there is to be a Gotterdammerung I’ll take my chances here”. He also said that, though he has been back to Antigua a number of times, “each successive return stressed my sense of unbelonging”.

Asked when he thought Britain would elect a black prime minister, he said what was certain was that he or she would be “from the right”. The first Jewish PM, Disraeli, had been a Conservative; the first woman PM, Margaret Thatcher, likewise: “the qualification for being accepted is the denial of self”.

It’s an interesting observation, but begs some big questions. Candidates who assert their racial origins, gender or other identity badges as principal qualifications for advancement are unlikely to gain the support of a surrounding democratic majority who don’t share them. Migrants who pride themselves on a lack of assimilation may have the same problem. 

A fourth speaker, Gonzalo Alvarez, from the local United Nations Association, had joined the panel during the discussion. He pointed out, with reference to UN statistics, that of the nearly half a billion migrants across the world, both international and internal, the vast majority are seeking refuge from intolerable home conditions, and would prefer to return home if they could. So perhaps did the parents of each of the panellists. For second and subsequent generations, the identity questions persist, but the answers seem to be more complex and various.


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