Christina Patterson: Lessons from literature – and YouTube – in immigrant life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

On the night that Obama was elected as President of the United States, I was reminded of the end of Sam Selvon's novel, The Lonely Londoners. Moses, one of the first wave of post-Windrush Jamaicans in London, is standing on the banks of the Thames, wondering "if he should save up his money and go back home". "Under the kiff-kaff laughter," he muses, "behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restless, swaying movement that leave you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country."

More than 50 years after the publication of this novel – one of the funniest and saddest about the immigrant experience, and still one of the best – it was still mostly "the spades" (to use Selvon's highly non-PC word) who were on the streets as dawn broke. If their smiles suggested their pride that the most powerful man in the world was now black, it wasn't going to stop them from doing what they did every day: getting up before the sun rose, and waiting in the cold and the dark for a bus to take them to the offices, toilets, and streets that they would clean and sweep. "People in this world," as Selvon's character says, "don't know how other people does affect their lives."

If you miss this otherwise invisible army of workers, you can't miss the waiter who serves you in an Indian restaurant. You can, however, treat him as a slave, a joke or a dog. In Zadie Smith's White Teeth, there are some devastating descriptions of what it's like to be treated as all of these – and left, if you're lucky, with a tip of 15p. Samad, a Bangladeshi who has spent his entire life in England "inclining his head at exactly the correct deferential angle", and who rarely glimpses daylight, since he works from 6pm till 3am and spends most of the day asleep, fantasises about carrying a placard. "I am not a waiter," the imaginary placard says. "I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier, my wife is called Alsana, we live in East London but we would like to move north... I am 49 but women still turn in the street. Sometimes." I am, in other words, a human being.

In the 10 years since White Teeth marked this daughter of a Jamaican immigrant as a major writer to watch (and set her on a path that would place her at the heart of the literary establishment), there have been a number of other novels chronicling the harsh realities of immigrant life. Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans is a poignant (and witty) portrayal of the tragicomic mismatch between the conditions of migrant workers and their dreams of a better life. Rose Tremain's The Road Home is a moving account of the struggles of an Eastern European immigrant in London to combat loneliness, hostility and contempt. Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds paints a Dickensian canvas of the interlocking lives of minicab drivers, hospital workers and nannies, and the doctors and lawyers they support.

There are, if you look for them, plenty of glimpses into the lives of people who leave their own country because they don't have enough to eat. These glimpses are, however, largely imagined, since people who are doing several jobs just to pay the rent on their (very often) shared rooms rarely have the time, energy or literary skills to chronicle the experience. And wonderful though all these novels, in these different ways, are, they tend to attract the kinds of readers more likely to agree with Beckett fan Nick Clegg's amnesty on illegal immigrants than David Cameron's cap. (Even the total sales of Smith's bestselling White Teeth are about a sixth of the daily readership of the swan-slaughtering immigrant-loving Daily Mail.)

It's a shame, then, that a YouTube video currently sweeping great swathes of Eastern Europe is only available in what we used to call Serbo-Croat. The video stars Ekrem Jevric, a labourer who left the former Yugoslavia at the time of its bloody break-up and has, for the past 22 years, been working as a construction worker, and cab driver, in New York. Standing, in a suit and sunglasses, against the backdrop of a New York skyline, or sitting at the wheel of his cab, Jevric sings soulfully about the lonely world of the immigrant, a world of "Home, Work – Work". Hailed in Croatia as "the Borat of the Balkans" and in his native Montenegro simply as a hero, Jevric has been surprised by his sudden success. "People," he said matter-of-factly, "obviously recognised what I sing about, the truth."

Immigration is, of course, a vast and complicated issue. In an increasingly globalised world, no country will be able to play host to the potentially infinite flow of people who are desperate enough to leave home for the hardship and humiliations of a life elsewhere. Since about 60 per cent of immigration to the UK is from the EU (and therefore enshrined in law), Cameron's crowd-pleasing cap won't make that much difference. But as we attempt to have what politicians like to call "a debate" about where our responsibilities to the world's migrants start and end, it would be nice if we could remember some of the stories behind the headlines – stories very often of staggering stamina and truly sobering courage.

Several good reasons not to be an Arab

Last week, I got chatting to a young woman on the bus. She'd been jabbering away into her mobile in a language I assumed to be Arabic. "Oh no," she said, when I asked her. "It's Hebrew. But it would be useful to understand Arabic," she added, "because then you'd know when you were in danger."

Perhaps if she'd been wearing the Crimplene suit with pleated skirt, old-lady shoes and wig-plus-pill-box hat that generally marks out the Hasidic Jewish women from my slightly more modern (and slightly more chatty) neighbours, I wouldn't have been so surprised. But this woman was friendly and bright. And she instantly assumed that the sole reason to learn Arabic would be to monitor the ever-present dangers on the streets of Stamford Hill.

This week, I had an email from a "political consultant" in Tel Aviv, telling me that I didn't know how hard it was to "deal with the Arabs". Not the Palestinians, or Hamas, or even Fatah, but "the Arabs". So, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that an Israeli man who had consensual sex with an Israeli woman has just been convicted of rape. Why? Because, apparently, he pretended to be a Jew when actually he was – you've guessed it – an Arab.

When truth goes south of the border

At a time when the assorted racists, fascists and morons who choose, for some reason, to call themselves by the oh-so-anodyne-cucumber-sandwiches-with-the-vicar name "The Tea Party" are hell bent on ousting their "socialist" President, you can see why certain Americans might want to redress the balance. You can see, in fact, why someone like Oliver Stone might want to draw on some examples south of the border to show that caring about poor people can be, you know, quite a good thing.

His new documentary, South of the Border, certainly presents a heart-warming picture of life under the new wave of presidents currently tilting South America to the left. In his cosy chats with Hugo Chavez, Lula da Silva, Raul Castro et al, he demonstrates the great pleasure that countries traditionally controlled by their northern neighbour (or its chosen agencies) are taking in sticking two fingers up to the paymasters of all those coups. Unfortunately, however, he forgets to mention a few technicalities: the human rights abuses, the political prisoners, the slightly blurred line, in certain cases, between democracy and dictatorship.

While no journalist could fail to sympathise with the frustrations of facts obstructing arguments, it takes a foolhardy one to plough on anyway. If Stone was aiming for truth, what he got was fiction. Which isn't at all the same as art.