By Ishtiyaq Shukri
At 01:20 I join the queue on Bell Yard outside the Royal Courts of Justice in Central London where, at 10:30, Prime Minister Tony Blair will appear before the Hutton Enquiry into the death of the British Government’s weapons expert, Dr David Kelly.
At 09:30, I am issued with ticket number 45 and at 10:25 I take up my seat in courtroom 72. Here, along with approximately 150 other members of the public, I watch a live video relay of the Prime Minister’s testimony from adjacent courtroom 73.
At around 13:10 I leave the Royal Courts and make my way to Waterloo, south London. During my walk across the Thames River, I contemplate the events of the previous 12 hours.
But then I am stopped by two policemen in the main concourse at Waterloo Station and politely asked to step aside. I co-operate. One officer takes up his position in front of me, the other behind.
At this point, some background is pertinent. I am a 35-year-old black South African and a graduate of the University of the Western Cape. It is my instinct to brace myself, because, as Dr Dre rapped, ‘I’m still not loving the police.’ So when the officer in front of me produces a notepad and asks me for my name which he then spells down a microphone, I produce a notepad of my own and ask him for his. But he will only give me what I think he calls his collar number, 411LX Brixton. I also make a note of the time, 13:32.
My notes of the incident record that Officer 411LX then asked me to confirm that I had been to the Hutton Enquiry. I do, pointing to the public nature of the event and my surprise at being held to account for my participation in it.
411LX concedes my right to attend the enquiry, but points out that although he was himself not present, he was acting upon information passed on to him by his colleagues. According to this information, my manner in the queue during the night as well as during the proceedings suggested that, in the current climate, I should be followed and stopped for further questioning. 411LX spells my name more deliberately into his microphone for a second time and then turns to me to ask what I thought of the enquiry.
I say that while I have many thoughts on the enquiry, my attention was now more focussed on what was happening to me. 411LX is very polite and asks me to bear with him. He reports that I was sleepy during the proceedings. I say that it had been a long night; many others in the courtroom where sleepy too. 411LX asks me what time I joined the queue. I express surprise that he doesn’t already know this, given the accuracy of the rest of his intelligence.
411LX tries to reassure me, to make me feels less singled out. He explains that several people had been followed from the proceedings and were being stopped for questioning. But I don’t take comfort in this knowledge. My mind is racing. I acknowledge that 411LX is just doing his job and express surprise that I should be followed while I was just doing mine. 411LX doesn’t ask what that is. Instead, he spells my name into his microphone for a third time.
My work is literature. I study it, I read it carefully, and I try to write about it in a manner that is scholarly. My mind leaps to my current preoccupation, a novel which was published in 1988 and which, I would argue, is the most politically pertinent piece of contemporary English fiction.
Starting with the explosion of a hijacked aeroplane over London, and exploring the themes of migration and asylum, it also proved to be remarkably prophetic portrayal of, to quote 411LX, “the current climate.” I regret that this novel continues to be largely unread, not just by those who wanted it banned, but more particularly by those who campaigned in favour of it. I am of course referring to The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie.
Though myself an initial supporter of the text, I have become more cynical of the liberal camp which blindly supported its right to be published while duplicitously using Muslim objections, for the most part viciously caricatured in media coverage, as a pretext for launching a vilifying attack on Islam. I have also become disillusioned with Mr Rushdie himself, whose hawkish views in support of the war in Iraq I have found perplexing. But this is another matter, for however disillusioned I might be with Mr Rushdie, I continue to applaud the achievement of his magnum opus, for in it, he conceives a character who constantly challenges me in the context of my life in Britain: Salahuddin Chamchawala, an Indian migrant, forces me remind myself of myself: “I am a man to whom certain things are of importance: rigour, self-discipline, reason, the pursuit of what is noble without recourse to that old crutch, God.”
And now, with 411LX hovering in front of me and his colleague looming ominously just out of view behind, I need, more than ever, to remind myself of who I am. I am an educated and informed black South African. I opposed the war in Afghanistan. I oppose the ongoing war in Iraq. I am shocked by my resulting ability to harbour extreme thoughts and the solace I find in isolationism. At times I resolve to leave Britain. Why should I continue to pay taxes to a government which will wage illegal wars against the wishes of its electorate with impunity? But, like Salahuddin, I am a man of reason and intellect. It is my duty to restrain myself. To this end, I queued through the night in Bell Yard to participate in a public forum and to interact with what remains of Britain’s democratic processes.
But that, I suspect, is not how 411LX and his colleagues see me. I consider what they might see. I am wearing, a blue shirt, black jacket and grey trousers. Nothing unusual. At three o’clock in the morning, I regretted that I wasn’t wearing more, but was very grateful for the added protection of one accessory I always have on me and which, I now speculate, has led me to be singled out for “further questioning,” a kefiye.
I also consider my “manner” in the queue. I was quiet. Once it was light, I read the papers I had brought along. I had rehearsed what I might say should I be approached by the media: I am here as a South African because I would like Lord Hutton, Tony Blair and the Kelly family to know that the world is watching this enquiry and that we anticipate its outcomes. I hope that Lord Hutton will protect his enquiry from becoming as ineffectual as British enquiries that have gone before, not least of all, the Scott enquiry into the Thatcherite Government’s sale of arms to Iraq, because, Dr Kelly, his family, and the future of the free press in Britain deserve better. I would also hope that from this enquiry would come an enquiry into the war itself because that is what the British electorate and the people of Iraq deserve. But when it came to it, I preferred to remain anonymous and like ticket holder number 47, avoided the cameras.
In 1982 Mr Rushdie challenged the rebuttal that “Britain isn’t South Africa…Nor is it Nazi Germany. There are no pass laws here […] and Auschwitz hasn’t been rebuilt in the Home Counties. I find it odd, however, that those who use such absences as defences rarely perceive that their own statements indicate how serious things have become. Because if the defence of Britain is that mass extermination of racially impure persons hasn’t yet begun, or that the principle of white supremacy hasn’t yet been enshrined in the constitution, then something must have gone very wrong indeed.”
But however much things may have moved on since then, it is apparent that there are still those in Britain who know what it means to “see the screw tightening” even though the Prime Minister in his evidence pleads ignorance.
Arriving at Israel’s Tel Aviv Airport with a kefiye can lead to interrogation. But thankfully, Britain isn’t Israel. I am aware that under new anti-terrorist legislation 411LX now has the power to arrest and detain me without charge, as used to be the case in apartheid South Africa. But Britain isn’t South Africa. And we are all aware how in Zimbabwe, just talking to the media can lead to arrest. But Britain is definitely not Zimbabwe for it would seem that here, it is avoiding the media that might raise the suspicions of the security apparatus.
It is nearly 24 hours since I joined the queue in Bell Yard, and tonight, in the warmth of my own home, I reflect on those with whom I waited in the cold queue last night. I would like to thank ticket holder number 46 for informing me that during the night he was approached by two people asking who I was. I am grateful to ticket holder number 44, a regular attender at the Hutton enquiry whose willingness to share his newspapers and whose knowledge of the proceedings and location of toilets made a long night more bearable. And to all those other unknown fellow queuers whose numbers I don’t know but who, if I’m to believe 411LX, were followed from the Royal Courts and stopped for questioning, I wonder what might have become of you. Auschwitz has not yet been built in the home counties, yet I will speculate that the perceived common denominator amongst us is what might one day mark its inmates.
But while tonight I am pleased that I went out to engage in the democratic process, because it allows me to continue to remind myself of myself, I am deeply concerned for those Salahuddins out there whose mosques are raided, whose sons are detained without trial, whose leaders are marked for death, and whose countries are invaded and occupied, for I suspect that under the pressure of such relentlessly tightening screws, some amongst them may well choose less tolerant role-models.
And to 411LX, I do not underestimate that you know far more about me than I will ever know about you. But I am not entirely without knowledge. I have seen the likes of you before, in a country at the other end of the African continent. There was a time when your counterparts there camped permanently outside my university campus and there were days when they entered it with force. While you were polite and professional, it is my conclusion that, like those campus raiders in apartheid South Africa, you work for frightened men who, in sending you after me, demonstrated that, despite your increased powers to interrogate and detain, you also have a remarkable capacity to clutch at straws. A tip: an undercover mujahid intent on sabotage is unlikely to go to the Royal Courts of Justice wrapped in a kefiye.
And finally to those frightened men whose most wanted men are still at large, consider carefully that you are eroding the civil liberties at home which you claim to want to instil abroad. You are laying the foundations for Auschwitz in the Home Counties. No doubt, you might scoff at the thought, but I can’t take comfort in such dismissive scorn. I grew up down the road from the world’s first concentration camp in Kimberley, South Africa. You probably don’t know about it; I am often dumbfounded by how little the British know of their own history. So let me remind you of the Long Street Camp. It was designed to imprison the destitute wives and children of Boer guerrilla fighters during the South African War. It was conceived by Lord Kitchener in your Empire, refined by Hitler in the Reich and has always been to me an example of what a British government is capable of when it decides to tighten the screws.