The Settler’s Cookbook, by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, is the story of the thousands of Ugandan Asians who had to leave their homes in the era of Idi Amin, woven together with the life story of this one individual, and her life’s story punctuated or held together with special foods and recipes. “A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food”
I picked it up from a library display, even though I did not then recognise the author’s name as a columnist for the Independent newspaper, attracted by the story of someone from a different world – and lured by the recipes, though I shall probably never cook any of them. As I glanced through the recipes, each tied to a person or event in Yasmin’s life, I remembered my mother-in-law, who seemed to remember every meal she had eaten on every special occasion. Also how hard it was to cook in her kitchen when she was convinced her way was the only way to do things. I did pick up some tips and techniques, but, years later, I remain intimidated when making “her” potato salad. Here I thought she was being a Jewish Momma and find she was being Indian; maybe it’s universal!
Xenophobia is a more damaging universal. Rochdale, when I lived there in the late 60s, was not a welcoming place for Asian immigrants, whatever their background and needs. Is “Paki” a term of abuse as bad as the american N***** which cannot be used any more, (though F*** seems empty of offence to most people.) Certainly I winced at the way the term was thrown around back then, especially by children who were being “carefully taught/ Before it’s too late/ To hate all the people/ Your relatives hate”. In Warwick in the 40s, we had an Indian lodger, who cooked fierce curries on a gas ring, to the delight of my brother and me: he experienced instances of verbal abuse which I overheard in adult conversations, but I was too young to pick up much. Now things seem a bit easier, though it may be that my experiences, being anecdotal merely, do not show a pattern. At its worst though, bad as that has been, we have not seen here the dispossession, torturing and murdering that Amin, and others like him, have wrought on residents of different tribes or races. The book has horrible history of the nightmare of that regime in Uganda, and we know it has been repeated and is being repeated in other places. Alibhai-Brown also says that Amin did worse things to Africans than to the Asians.
Our first neighbours here were Asian- we are still in touch- she born in Oxford and he immigrating from Pakistan. Our daughter and son-in-law are immigrants to Britain, though our grandson was born here. This is a typical pattern, but as they are white, no-one thinks of them as immigrants. I, of course am an immigrant in California, where I was once assured by an anti-immigration acquaintance, “We don’t mean you, dear”! But by and large neither the UK nor the US is welcoming of immigrants, especially poorer people and refugees.
How can we both form and keep a sense of who we are within our personal history, without turning against those who are different. Why is that so difficult? Are we still murdering chimpanzees when meeting another troupe?
The story of the East African Asians like Yasmin does show, among other things, how our sense or who we are is so tied to our roots. She describes how she has felt the lack of roots in her own life: little knowledge of her ancestors or where they lived, a mostly absent and unsupportive father, a religion which she re-appropriated consciously in building who she is in England today. When revisiting Uganda she was so unhappy she could not stay. You can’t go home any more. Her first years here were a sad episode of re-adjustment that fit what we know of immigrants’ dilemmas, but her the story is felt as well as known by a reader when grounded in one person’s experience.
So much of who we are is a result of our family and experiences when young. We may think we are not imposing our views, religion (or lack of), and values on our children but we fool ourselves. We are fish who don’t become aware of the water we are swimming in.
As adults, we can accept or rebel against our personal history, but it is in a particular milieu that we become the human beings we are. A human cannot live in isolation. Feral children seem to remain feral. Was it Heidegger who said that we become human only in community? So how hard it is to take that away from people, and how hard to have to live stripped of it all as a refugee.
We need to know who we are and have a sense of our own value. We also need, desperately need, in today’s world, to enjoy all the other ways of being human and other cultures around us.
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Qur’an -Sura 49:13)