Friday, 18 March 2016

Comfortable In Cultural Skin

I like living here, in England. I have sometimes been tempted to emigrate, to live my life abroad, but the inducements of sunnier climes, cheaper houses, bigger salaries, smaller tax liabilities - or whatever - are easily outweighed by the dread of exile from my beloved cultural environment. It’s not that other cultural environments are necessarily inferior (although, in my estimation, some certainly are); it’s more that they are not “mine”. Nor is my preference born of ignorance: having lived abroad for extended periods, travelled quite extensively and been raised by a foreign-born mother I have acquired a degree of perspective sufficient to realise that England is not an exemplary paradigm. It is, however, an impressive work in progress: multi-faceted, difficult to define and changing all the while. Wherein its attraction lies: it presents opportunities for improvement and reasons to be hopeful for its future enhancement. Strictly speaking I am, therefore, a proponent of the process rather than the finished item.

What I’m talking about is cross-cultural fertilisation, without which there is no progress. Some regard the process as a dilution or contamination of values they hold dear - ISIL springs to mind and, on a less tragic scale, those who want the UK to cease to be a part of the European Union - and so it is. But is any culture so precious that it should assume itself to be perfectly and fully formed, above refinement, improvement or humanitarian corrective reform? All things must change. This morning, for example, I had cappuccino in a pub. The traditional pub may have had its day - many have closed - but the principle of a public house remains sociologically important, so adaptation is preferable to disappearance.

Halifax town centre, when I first arrived there last Sunday evening, seemed to present a face I would expect to see in a typically, once-prosperous, northern manufacturing town coping now with reduced circumstances. I walked through a deserted and cheaply-built 1980s shopping precinct which had been hurriedly patched into a segment of land hard up against the earlier, grander, ornamented stone buildings, morose monuments to past civic and commercial pride. The prospect of finding a place to eat in relative style was not promising - Subway, MacDonalds, Burger King - but persistence paid off and I found a Turkish restaurant (immigrants to the rescue!) where I enjoyed a Mediterranean mezze, a glass of acceptable wine and service with a smile. I was in town to catch a concert not, as you might expect, of brass band classics, but of Palestinian songs, held in an historic chapel which is in the process of refurbishment as an arts centre.

The exotic sound of Arab music appeals to me - perhaps my ear is tuned in to it as a result of early exposure - but I also like the fact that I don’t understand the words and am unlikely, therefore, to be distracted from melodic reverie by trite lyrics. The singer was Reem Kelani. I had previously heard her singing with the ex-Israeli jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon on his Exile recording, a pointed demonstration and celebration of their cultural affinities. Listen to her opening the first track and you get some sense of how it is possible to communicate profound anguish regardless of whether you understand the words. The expression of suffering needs no translation.

But the concert that night comprised a more light-hearted collection of traditional songs and she, fresh from a programme of music workshops in schools, enjoined us all to clap and sing along. The Halifax North Women for Palestine in the front row embraced it enthusiastically, I less so. But afterwards I bought dates and a bottle of olive oil from the stall as a token, but practical, gesture of economic and cultural exchange.

No comments: