with Irna Qureshi

What do you think of when you think of Bradford? Bradford is a city where a number of small, but hugely impactful, events have led to the creation of an urban myth embedded in the British and international consciousness. Carefully crafted by the media, every new story emerging from Bradford adds to this legend.

When journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown tweeted from the inaugural Bradford Literature Festival in May 2015, she referenced an event dating back a quarter of a century, that marks the point from which all Bradford myths stem: ‘The city that burnt The Satanic Verses’. The event defined our city as the absolute centre of conservative Muslim culture in Britain. The ideal place for fleeting visits by journalists to pick up horror stories, and to measure the pulse and gauge the temperature of collective Muslim feeling.

But it was the second part of Alibhai-Brown’s tweet that is of significance: ‘Hosts a fab @BradfordLitFest.’ Bradford is a city of many stories. And the Bradford Literary Festival is creating and telling new ones.

That the 1989 Rushdie affair still looms large is significant. Not only did it mark the first time a post-Windrush ‘racial’ minority community redefined itself according to its faith, it was the first time a minority Bradfordian community had catapulted the city onto the media world stage. Bradford wasn’t the first site of protest in Britain over the publication of The Satanic Verses; the book had already been banned in several countries including South Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nevertheless, images of bearded men denouncing Salman Rushdie, and setting fire to his book in the centre of Bradford, were seized on by the media and beamed around the world. This one event, and the media response to it, has shaped all subsequent narratives about the West Yorkshire city over the intervening twenty-five years.

Paradoxically, the event also marked a moment of new confidence among Bradford’s Muslims, who felt invested enough about their lives in the UK to seek a voice and representation in a way the previous generation never had. The generation before belonged to the pioneer phase of migrants, hailing mostly from rural Pakistan, who regarded their stay in Britain as temporary, clinging instead to the idea of Pakistan as a spiritual and cultural homeland through their belief in the ‘myth of return’. Thus campaigning for change or civic rights had seemed irrelevant to them.

For the second and third generations of Pakistani Muslims in Britain, the Rushdie affair represented a coming of age. For the first time in their lives, they realised the power of collective voice. The ensuing global protests and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, imposing a death sentence on Rushdie, felt like victories in which they had played a significant role. It evoked a connection with other parts of the Muslim world – a sense of brotherhood – where all stood united against one common enemy.

What the Bradford Muslim community failed to recognise at the time was that the impact of the image of a burning book, unprecedented in Britain and evoking as it did uncomfortable memories of the Nazi bonfires of 1933, symbolic of the repression of freedom of expression, as well as a death sentence on a writer, would cast a long shadow into the future. It would seal Bradford’s reputation as being full of backward, violent, religious fanatics.

The stigmatisation of British Muslims, which had its precursor in the Ray Honeyford affair that had rocked Bradford’s education system in the mid 1980s, accelerated at a national level and the perception of Muslims as the inherently subordinate, if not pejorative, ‘other’ began to gain ground. Up to this point, everyone hailing from the Indian subcontinent was referred to as ‘Asian’. Now, in order to distance themselves from Muslims, some in the Hindu and Sikh communities began to differentiate themselves either by faith or nationality.

The Rushdie affair led to the proliferation of Muslim organisations at both local and national levels. It also produced the community leader phenomenon in the media, whereby representatives of these institutions were sought out and groomed as spokesmen – assumed to be trusted figures, authentic in religious practice, and empowered to be the bridge between communities. This become a double edged sword used both by those within the Muslim community who wanted to give their voice an authority it may not necessarily have, and by the media to represent views that fitted their storyline rather than the reality. It also contributed to Muslims misleadingly being viewed as one bounded community; impenetrable without the help of mediators. Thus there arose a unitary narrative representing Bradford’s 129,041 Muslims as one homogenous group, which not only obscured individual complex realities, but ignored the different ethnic, sectarian and doctrinal approaches, differences, contradictions, conflicts of interest and changing motivations. This skewed approach to Bradford’s Muslims epitomises how Muslims across Britain are now regarded.

The next chapter in the tale of Bradford came in 2001– a year marked by disturbances in a number of northern towns, including Burnley and Oldham. However, predictably, it was the unrest in Bradford involving around 1,000 youths from across the city’s different communities that entered the national consciousness. Due in part to earlier riots in Bradford in 1995, and compounded by the post-Rushdie narrative, the events of 2001 were reduced to simplistic reporting that played on the unforgettable televised pictures of the Rushdie book-burning, bolstering the image of a loutish and intolerant community of Muslims. Even though it was widely accepted that the northern riots were triggered by social and economic factors and provocations by the far-right, analysts, quick to explore a religious motive for the disturbances, identified Islam as the principal driver.

The 2001 riots occurred just three months before the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Whilst unconnected, the proximity of the two events generated a watershed moment; the collision of an international event with a local one. 9/11 resulted in Muslim allegiance coming into question, and merged with the heated debate sparked by the riots about the alleged lack of integration of Muslim communities and the incompatibility of their cultural beliefs with British values. This led to increasingly intense scrutiny of British Muslims and Bradford again became the natural choice for the media and policymakers to gauge the temperature of Muslims nationwide. That the perpetrators of the London bombings of 7 July 2005 hailed from Beeston and Dewsbury, both located on Bradford’s doorstep within West Yorkshire, and one of the bombers being Bradford born, served only to reinforce this focus.

In the new national narrative about home grown terrorism, Bradford is, as ever, conspicuous. In June 2015, Zohra Dawood along with sisters Sugra and Khadija abandoned their husbands, and travelled with their nine children to join their militant brother in ‘Islamic State’ in Syria. A few months later another Bradford family, including five children, also disappeared, allegedly making the same trip. Now Bradford was being associated with the Islamic State. However the fact is that Bradford actually has very good race relations. Although the far right English Defence League continue to make an annual pilgrimage to the city, in the hope of sparking violence, the only response it has received are thoughtful counter-protests organised by all the communities working together. The riots may have put Manningham on the national map, but the disturbances also marked a turning point in community relations, with all communities in Bradford determined to ensure that the events would not be repeated.

Bradford rose to prominence during the nineteenth century as one of the greatest manufacturing cities of the Victorian Empire. It was the city’s industry that made it a popular destination for immigrants; for over 150 years, it has embraced diversity. Bradford was nicknamed ‘Worstedopolis’ for making ‘worsted’, a fine wool fabric used in top quality clothing. Although the British textile sector fell into decline from the mid-twentieth century, the different communities in Bradford are a living testament to the central role immigrants played in creating the yester-year might of the British economy. The Bradford population swelled from immigration initially by Irish workers and Jewish merchants in the 1800s, followed by South Asians in the post-war boom period of the 1950s, to Eastern European workers after expansion of the European Union and now includes the largest Roma community in the UK.

Although numbers have now dwindled to 299 according to the 2011 census, during the 1820s and 1830s Bradford was a focus for Jewish German immigration and, in the early nineteenth century the Manningham area was known as the Jewish quarter. In 2013 when the 133-year-old Bradford Reform Synagogue, a Grade II listed building and the oldest Synagogue in the north of England, was faced with closure it was rescued by donations from the Muslim community. Bradford’s Synagogue Council has recently appointed its first Muslim member.

The Bradford Literature Festival, of which we are the founders and directors, has deliberately sought to wrest back control of the city’s identity by highlighting these bonds of faith. That is why we programmed a Jewish strand as part of its Bradford Heritage events. It is also why we decided to hold the festival’s very first Sacred Poetry occasion, in September 2014, at the city’s last remaining synagogue. The Sacred Poetry event offered an uplifting celebration of divine music and verse from across the religious spectrum. It featured Islamic spiritual poetry, taizé (a form of Christian meditation) and musical shabad kirtan recitations from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Rudi Leavor, chair of the synagogue, was invited to recite prayers to open the event, along with participation by Atar Hadari, a renowned local Jewish poet.

This is not to say we have completely freed ourselves from the past. The Bradford Reform Synagogue is in the Bradford West constituency that garnered national headlines after electing the radical left-wing politician George Galloway during the 2012 by-election. Just weeks before the inaugural Sacred Poetry event, following a spate of violence between Israel and Palestine, Galloway declared Bradford an ‘Israel-free zone’ where not only Israeli goods but also Israeli citizens were unwelcome. Although Galloway’s comments ran contrary to Bradford’s reputation as a City of Sanctuary, and led to the politician being questioned by police after complaints that his remarks incited religious hatred, the media’s attention threatened to yet again reinforce the negative image of Bradford’s Muslims. While Atar Hadari had been contracted by the festival long before, these developments threatened to pull the festival and the Israeli-born poet into the media maelstrom that Galloway had created. In the event, the Sacred Poetry event succeeded in generating positive headlines for Bradford.

The Bradford Literature Festival, now regarded as the city’s flagship event, was created as a response to the lack of relevant cultural offering for those who wished to step beyond the lazy racial stereotyping of Bradford as a mono-cultural city. It also stemmed from a desire to re-write the Bradford narrative and showcase the richness that a genuine melding of cultures creates. The festival therefore celebrates Bradford’s cultural, architectural, faith and literary heritage; the city’s status as the world’s first UNESCO City of Film and its designation as a City of Sanctuary.

We are also building upon a proud tradition of cultural innovation. Bradford was one of the earliest centres of Indian film screenings for the South Asian community in Britain. During the 1950s and 60s, immigrant mill workers travelled from as far away as Newcastle and Sheffield to Bradford to catch an Indian film on their day off. During the 1980s and 1990s, Bradford was one of the few cities to host the revolutionary bhangra day timers; club events where thousands of young Asians whose conservative parents disapproved of mainstream British nightlife, would dance to live bhangra music during the afternoon – when they were thought to be at school or college.

Bradford also spearheaded the European Mela scene thirty years ago. The Bradford Mela was feted as one of Europe’s largest multi arts festivals, attracting international audiences of over 200,000 in its heyday and is still talked about. The mela was symbolic of, and synonymous with, the first generation holding onto the ‘myth of return’ in which life in the UK was viewed as an extension of life ‘back home’. The mela prioritised the preservation of cultural identity over promotion of social integration, and this was reflected in the cultural programmes it hosted.

Bradford today remains at the forefront of pioneering cultural movements. This time, however, the cultural context has changed. The second, third and fourth generation have a different identity to the first generation. Their identity, unlike that of their parents, is no longer rooted in South Asia. Instead their roots are British but they remain culturally attuned to South Asia, and this is reflected in the culture they want to experience. Any new cultural movement therefore requires programming that creates events acknowledging the fluid and shifting nature of this multi-layered identity. A celebration of this shift in identity politics is also important given the rhetoric around immigration and otherness now present across the UK as a whole.

Therefore, the latest cultural innovation to come out of Bradford is a festival, which while it reflects and responds to the different communities that make up the city, also brings all the communities together. With cultural literacy at its heart, and a distinct, diverse and dynamic brand of programming, Bradford Literature Festival offers an exploration of race, faith and culture through a celebration of literature, history and the arts. The events inspire civic and community pride and act as an important reminder that migrants – whether settled or newly arrived – along with the indigenous community, have a role to play in building a city. The festival is unique in that the voice of each community is viewed as being equally valid and relevant and it has therefore successfully reached audiences that traditional literature festivals do not. As such it is relevant not only to Bradford’s different communities but also to Britain.

This is the first literature festival, out of the 250 held in the UK, to be programmed by two British Muslim women. The unique cultural space that the festival occupies, and its ethos, is a reflection of this. Previously cultural programming by the South Asian diaspora has in the main focused on heritage, while programming that is deemed to be for all communities has come from mainstream white middle class arts professionals. Thus programming where the cultural leadership comes from a minority community and yet represents all communities is a new concept, and a reflection of the energising transformation in South Asian cultural identity.

The festival can address cultural literacy because we, the festival directors, to use anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s term, regard ourselves and thus programme the festival as ‘halfies’. This enables us to focus on both the cultural fusions and the richly distinctive cultures that make Britain the country that it is today. It means that we bring the same cultural confidence to curating events about the Brontës or Byron as we do to Ghalib or Iqbal. This position, perfectly balanced at the cusp of two cultures, and equally at home in both, also enables us to confront the ethics of representation. The Arabic word for trust, amanah, also has a deeper and more profound meaning; it is the moral responsibility to fulfil one’s obligation to both God and other people. This cultural background, and the lived experience of being ‘othered’, also brings an awareness of inequality. Having seen how the Pakistani Muslim community is represented, and British Muslim people are talked about from without, we are committed to delivering authentic experiences that reflect from within the different communities we work with.

We want to create a neutral ground where people can discuss differences and engage in open, honest, unfettered dialogue about the challenges faced by society. The festival’s current affairs strand enables discussion of emerging contemporary issues in ways that are constructive, provocative and insightful.

The ‘war on terror’ is just as much a war of ideology as of weapons. It is a war whose ramifications have reverberated through Bradford society. As festival directors we felt that this was a narrative that Bradford, and its Muslim community, needed to own rather than issue an apology for. The festival, therefore, has unflinchingly addressed the key issues pertaining to this debate.

The 2015 festival coincided with the ten-year anniversary of 7/7 and a strand of events related to 7/7, radicalisation and ISIS was programmed. These addressed the current discourse through events such as ‘The War on ISIS Explained’ and ‘Sectarian Warfare in the Middle East and its Global Consequences’. They also asked open and searching questions about what lessons, if any, had been learnt in the last decade by the Muslim community and the government.

One of the greatest national concerns of our time is whether or not Muslims can be trusted. With each new atrocity committed in the name of Islam around the world, this question grows louder. In response, the festival brought together leading writers, commentators and politicians in events, such as ‘Muslims and Trust’ discussing can the state trust Muslims and can Muslims trust the state and ‘Religious Intolerance in Contemporary Britain: How do rising Islamophobia and Anti-semitism reflect on British Values?’ This enabled issues to be discussed in the open rather than in closed groups, either within communities or bureaucracies.

We also devote an entire strand of programming to spirituality and mysticism. Encapsulated within the Sufi Poetry weekend is a core message of universality. Contemplative and inspirational in tone, the strand melds and explores eastern and western spiritual influences using mystical poetry as a cornerstone. From the Mathnavi of the thirteenth century Iranian mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi to the eighteenth century Songs of Innocence by William Blake, it focuses on the commonality of religions and influences that transcend national borders. It also incorporates Sufiana Kalaam, a form of mystical Sufi poetry in Punjabi and Urdu recited at the shrines of Sufi saints. The oral transmission of this has remained strong, and is part of the everyday idiom and proverbs of the Punjabi language still in use in Britain today. Used as a form of oral intercultural literature, Sufiana Kalaam resonates with much of the South Asian diaspora and offers great potential to build community cohesion and impact on literacy and engagement in Bradford’s Pakistani community.

The festival uniquely employs culture to address education, economic engagement and cultural regeneration. More than a quarter of Bradford’s population is Muslim and amongst school children this figure rises to 40 per cent. With a growing population, and every other live birth in the district now of Pakistani origin, this demographic is set to change even further. Bradford schools have been consistently poor in their performance with two communities being disproportionately affected – white working class boys and Pakistani families, both from the poorer, deprived areas of the city.

One of the drivers behind creating the literature festival has been a passionate belief that education has the power to change people’s lives; that literacy holds the key to empathy and compassion, health and wellbeing, and economic and cultural engagement. So a main aim of the festival is to engage children with books by creating excitement around reading and literacy in a manner that is relatable and accessible. The other imperative is to take literacy into the home by showing parents that literacy does not have to stop at the classroom door. Creating appropriate content to enable this to happen, across all communities but particularly for those from a deprived background, is one of the cornerstones on which this festival has been built.

The other key issue in the city that has affected every community has been that of economic regeneration. Bradford has been trying to regenerate for years but each time it has stumbled. At this moment in time there is a sense of renewed hope that the city is on the cusp of a fresh economic start. The launch of the long anticipated Broadway Shopping Centre potentially heralds a renaissance for Bradford. After much of the area was razed to the ground more than a decade ago to make way for development, the proposed shopping centre was abandoned amid the recession. With the loss of the city’s nerve centre, and the subsequent proliferation of pound shops, the derelict site poignantly become known as ‘the hole in the heart’. From this a new £260m shopping centre has now emerged. The development comes on the heels of Bradford’s new public space, City Park, the largest urban water feature in the UK boasting one hundred fountain displays, transforming the heart of Bradford.

Economic regeneration, of course, is not viable if people refuse to come into a city because of fear or the myth that has built up around Bradford. Bradford is a rich district; what the city needs is a mechanism to pull people back in so that they can see that beyond the myth lies a beautiful, vibrant and, most of all, welcoming city. Inspired by one of the world’s most successful literature festivals, we wanted to create a Hay of the North, a destination festival that would facilitate cultural restoration to complement the economic regeneration. The richness of the communities in Bradford, hailing from so many different parts of the world, enables the creation of a truly international festival that can attract people from the district, the Yorkshire region, the rest of the country as well as internationally.

The nineteenth century literary siblings, the Brontës (Anne, Emily and Charlotte), are one of Bradford’s major attractions. Their novels, such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, are synonymous with  Yorkshire’s unspoilt, dramatic moorland. The festival celebrates their legacy and influence in the Brontë Heritage Weekend. In doing so it aims to attract an international audience and promote the idea of the home tourist thereby furthering the city’s tourism agenda. This is also an opportunity to re-engage local audiences with their literary heritage, including the South Asian/Pakistani diaspora, who may not have engaged with the Brontës and the environment in which they wrote. Ironically, the lived experience of the Brontë sisters is not dissimilar to that of Pakistani girls living in Bradford today. Therefore, even if language may at first seem a barrier, in fact the novels are culturally relatable.

The festival was created from the desire to realise a vision. As Bradfordians, as mothers bringing up young girls in the city, as women experienced in dealing with the media, we were acutely aware of the Bradford narrative. We wanted to shatter its stranglehold. We know that unless we are seen we are invisible. We thus want to create a different narrative to be seen and heard. Literature – open and uncensored – is the ideal way to address this. There is no idea that is espoused that does not find itself into the written word. There is nothing in the world that cannot be found in a book – therefore, there is nothing that a literature festival cannot tackle. Literature encompasses the world; it covers every culture, every creed and is always at the forefront of progress.

The Bradford Literature Festival is the new thinking for Bradford.

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