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Purity (all artwork by Nafeez Ahmed unless otherwise stated)
9th May 2017. 8.23pm.
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I’m sitting on the sofa, in my flat in London, typing away at my MacBook. My daughters are watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix while they eat their dinner. My wife is putting our baby son to sleep in the bedroom.
I glance out the window, up at the sky.
November 1998. 2.00am.
I’m sitting alone in my bedroom. Tears are streaming down my face. I stare out the window listlessly at the road. I just want to get out of this place. But I can’t. There’s nowhere to go.
Almost everybody who works in media knows that journalism needs ‘fixing’. Something about journalism is broken. But we cannot fix journalism until we understand exactly what it is that’s broken about journalism, and why. The problem is that while we know a lot about what’s broken, ‘how’ and ‘why’ are questions that most journalism institutions are unable to meaningfully answer. I started off writing as a kid. When I was supposed to be doing my A-Levels (that’s high school for you Americans), I was bunking off.
But I wasn’t hanging out in the mall, smoking in the park, or chilling round the block with my mates. No. I was in the library.
I was a vociferous reader. I read everything I could find: on philosophy, politics, religion, spirituality.
And I wrote to keep track of what I was reading. Voluminous notes. Some of these spawned further reflections, and led to tangential writing projects.
I was on a mission.
For whatever reason — troubles at home, teenage angst — I felt a burning need to make sense of life. And conventional education in school didn’t seem to cut it.
I’m not sure what set me on this course of curiosity and discovery.
I know I had a sense of confusion and alienation about the way the world works from a very young age.
My earliest memory of this was my emotional response to TV adverts by charities trying to raise money for poor people in Africa. I think I was about eight or nine.
I remember the internal tension of cognitive dissonance. Why were so many people in Africa living in such dire extremes of poverty, while we were living in relative comfort?
My axiomatic sense was that this situation was just plain wrong. The children shown starving on TV, half naked with bellies inflated from malnutrition, hadn’t done anything wrong, could not have done something to deserve being born into such conditions.
Yet for some strange reason, no one around me really seemed to find the situation all that unacceptable. They lamented it, but it wasn’t something that particularly troubled them. And this tacit acceptance of the inevitability of injustice troubled me more.
I remember deciding while staring at the TV that when I grew up I’d do something about it.
Another episode of awakening was the genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia. I was around 17. I had been watching the news of the war quietly for the last few years.
None of my peers seemed too bothered. I remember finally speaking about it, hesitantly, over the phone to my best friend. I explained how crazy it was that the UN was doing nothing to help these besieged families. What kind of world were we living in? Wasn’t there something we could do?
“Well, you’re right, but I kind of feel that right now we shouldn’t really be worrying about stuff like that,” she told me. “We should be having fun.”
My mouth was agape, but I had nothing to say. Maybe it was my Muslim identity that made the Bosnian war seem closer to home for me than so many of my friends.
Either way, the sense of dissonance was growing.
Later that year, we went on a family trip to Bangladesh, visiting the capital, Dhaka, and the village of Cilete. I had visited before, but going as an adolescent came as a shock. I saw firsthand the reality of devastating poverty.
Hundreds, thousands of children, roaming around broken, muddy roads, amidst shit and rubbish. Of course, there were adults too, but mostly I remember the kids. I remember them coming up to me when we were shopping for jewellery and clothes.
I remember the casual callousness with which they were treated when they came up to us, begging in desperation — a flick of the hand, to remove the pesky pests from soiling the vicinity. Their poverty, and their sheer numbers, had made them ‘Other’ — beyond saving, beyond compassion. Irrelevant.
Many years later, these memories would come back to haunt me when I found out that my uncle, Aftab, a leading political science professor and activist in Dhaka, was shot dead in the face at point blank range by a gunman who had broken into his flat.
The murder was merely one in a string of assassinations of teachers and activists that had wracked the country at the time. Shortly after, my young niece, whom I’d never really had a chance to know, died of a degenerative disease. My aunt had sunk into depression. She, too, died shortly after.
I remember them fondly. When I was just a boy of around 4 or 5, we used to live with them in our first home in Gants Hill. They used to babysit me. Now, there is barely a trace of them, except perhaps in my dim memories, and my uncle’s writings.
These episodes coalesced and increased my determination to understand how these grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty, violence and calm, could co-exist in one world, and to change it.
Of course, there was the context that when I was quite young my father had been made redundant from the large accountancy firm he’d worked for, due to corporate downsizing. The job loss had wrought a massive dislocation inside our relatively well-off middle class family.
We remained relatively well-off, but not without trauma. My dad had become depressed and was unemployed for a long time before he managed to get back on his feet. He started his own practice and at various points won smaller roles at smaller companies, but never earned at the levels he had before.
The financial impact and the new demands on my mum, who went on to work as an English teacher in a school in Tower Hamlets, turned their quietly strained marriage into an everyday apocalypse of a relationship. My mum and dad are first generation Bangladeshis, and the marriage had been arranged in a highly traditional fashion (my mum hadn’t even seen my dad before they were married off), so things weren’t exactly a bed of roses from day one.
The stresses and strains of keeping up with the Joneses led the situation at home to deteriorate to what felt like unbearable levels.
Then my dad had a simultaneous heart attack and stroke.