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The Battle of Brick Lane


Rant by Self-appointed Community Leaders

Brick Lane, East London - home to many of Britain's Bangladeshi communityThe hotly anticipated demonstration against the filming of Monica Ali's novel in East London was in fact a ragbag collection of short-tempered, middle-aged men.

A small group of middle-aged Bangladeshi men staged a demonstration in Brick Lane, East London, on Sunday to protest against the film adaptation of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. But this so-called ‘Battle of Brick Lane' was not so much a battle as a rant by a group of self-appointed community leaders who have been given disproportionate attention in the media and unfounded power to dictate what can and cannot be said by authors and filmmakers.


Ali's novel tells the story of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who is sent to London for an arranged marriage, but who later cheats on her husband with a radical young Muslim. Ruby Films is producing a screen adaptation of the novel - but following protests by local residents, the police advised the production company to continue its filming elsewhere. What started out as a local dispute then became a national news story, with Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie engaging in a battle of words in the pages of The Guardian.

Protesters argue that Ali's book stereotypes Sylhetis, who make up 95 per cent of Britain's Bangladeshi community. The new campaign was launched by Abdus Salique, a local businessman who, according to the Guardian, warned that books may be burnt at the Sunday protest. He also reportedly said he could not guarantee deterring ‘the fringe elements' from becoming violent. In the event, Sunday's demo was something of a damp squib.

Sunday is the busiest day of the week in the Brick Lane area: cafés, bars and market stalls are buzzing with young, trendy east Londoners while Bengali restaurant touts vie for market-goers' custom. By noon, there was still no sign of all those angry, book-burning Bangladeshis whom journalists assured us would descend on Brick Lane from all over the country to express the pain that Ali has apparently caused them.

Most market stall owners I spoke to seemed clueless about the plans for the demo. Some had heard ‘something about some book or film'; others didn't know what I was talking about. When I asked some young Muslim men who run a stall at the market to inform people about Islam if they knew when the demonstration was starting, they told me I was in the wrong part of London - the protest against Israel was taking place in Marble Arch, they said.

Finally, the manager of Vibe Bar on Brick Lane revealed that, according to the police, there would be a demonstration at the top of the street at 3pm. With three hours to kill, I went for a drink with Ash Kotak, a playwright from North London. He explained why it is imperative that writers and artists stand up in public and oppose the censorship that follows from protests such as this one against the filming of Brick Lane.

‘This is the third incident in a year when artistic expression by Asian artists has been suppressed', said Kotak. ‘First there was the closing down of the play Bezhti, then the cancellation of the Hussain exhibition at Asia House, and now the on-location filming of Monica Ali's book has been stopped. The message to British Asian artists is that we're not 100 per cent welcome here because we are not allowed free speech. Instead, we have to ask permission from our communities. In other words, if I chose to write against my community, I have to first ask for their permission to do so. It is outrageous that this is happening in Britain today.'

Full story published by Spiked