Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Love: one way to bridge the cultural chasms

Britishness changes each time families come together in marriage
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The Independent Online

I became a mother-in-law on Saturday, which is a rite of passage especially if you are of the freedom generation. I felt exhilaration, disbelief, soaring happiness and a set of disorienting feelings of both mortality and immortality, distance from and intimacy with the events unfolding, events I would never have imagined happening when I was in my twenties.

My new daughter, Elizabeth, a solicitor, is radiant, fair, lovely. This English rose from the rolling fields of Cheshire, married my exceedingly handsome barrister son (Asian mother speaking here), born of Ugandan Asian exiles whom fate landed on these shores in the early Seventies. Six years after I arrived, in that bleak year 1978, in that bleakest of months January, my Ari was born. In that same year Margaret Thatcher made her infamous comments about Britain being "swamped" by alien cultures. I was breastfeeding him when the furore broke. I have never forgiven the woman for crashing into my hopes with those crude, small Englander prejudices.

Ari never knew those raw times. I think he believes I exaggerate the hostility we faced. Yet here we are now, near Wilmslow with its golf clubs and Jaeger shops, in a 17th-century Unitarian chapel, guests waiting in the pews, as English as you can get, big hats, feathers, morning suits and grey ties. Quite a lot of admirers of the Iron Lady are in the crowd, including some of my old Asian friends who are devoted Thatcherite capitalists. Others are dressed in loud colours, extravagant saris and shalwar khameezes, ballooning west African garb, outlandish really for that small and simple church. My son thinks I have orchestrated a sartorial culture war. He may be right.

I never knew this before, but Unitarians are as inclusive as Christians get. Jeff, a Californian with a resonant voice and an open heart, conducts the service. He quotes Chinese and Apache wisdoms. Still, it feels slightly peculiar to be at a white wedding not as a guest but sitting in the front, the Muslim mother of the groom (who is an atheist, he says) with my own English husband the best man, our 12-year-old daughter a bridesmaid in a pink-lilac dress. The organist plays. Elizabeth enters with her proud English father John, and she takes our breath away. Her white dress is long with a train, her hair is crowned with a delicate ring of flowers and silver leaves. She looks like Guinevere. We have seen the movie, now we are in it.

The hymns are mouthed by my relatives who have rarely been inside a church, my 85-year-old mother looks lost but happy. Gran, on the other side, is beaming, too. I've been given a turn in this ceremony which is gratifying and scary. Scariest of all for the people who don't know me but have heard of my strongly flavoured views. Will she denounce George Bush or start reciting the Koran? Jeff announces I am going to read from Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese poet philosopher. It is an unspoken thing. They don't want me to misbehave here in the heart of Middle England. I don't. Not really. I talk about our journey to this country and the struggles. (My best friend from the US says later: "Only you could make an immigration speech at a wedding") I read passionate couplets by Rumi, the Sufi poet. Then I tell Elizabeth she is henceforth our "amanat", our precious. She has already been in tears many times, and I set her off again.

Later, at the reception in her family home, a farm with small lakes, peacocks and horses and rose gardens, we celebrate. The roast suckling pig is discreetly kept away from the Muslims. My son is completely embraced by his in-laws, warm, fun folk. I now cry with gratitude.

Often when such mixed marriages happen, it is the Asian side which dominates. This time, it worked the other way - we have entered the culture of Cheshire. So I make my peace with a piece of Middle England. As Simon Fanshawe writes in his new book, The Done Thing; "Weddings allow us rituals that confirm our interdependence on one another. Vows made in front of others are a confirmation that we live in a world where there is more than one of us."

I am newly struck by this as I read the noxious little booklet just produced by the Government to be ingested and obeyed by incomers who wish to become British. It tells them to buy rounds of drinks in pubs; to accept only a benign version of imperial history, to greet their neighbours "in a friendly way". Meanwhile the Government's laws and regulations punish new arrivals and incite hatreds against them.

Britishness changes each time families come together in marriage. This is integration of the intimate kind, the deep sort. Love is one small way we close the gaps, and the chasms between peoples.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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