Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN (# 21)
Yasmin Alibhai - Brown
Born in Kampala, Uganda
Father born in India / Mother in Tanzania
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Indian
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes herself as ‘a leftie liberal, anti-racist, feminist, Muslim, part-Pakistani, part-Indian, part-African and total Londoner, someone who can be depended on to be disloyal to blind interest groups and patriotism. Don’t expect her to deliver any given line - she is a feminist who furiously criticises some forms of feminism, an anti-racist who will always expose black and Asian hypocrisies and oppression, a Muslim calling for reformation, a British citizen who battles for real equality for immigrants and their children ... and someone who always strives to be a very responsible person.’ In the 1980’s, Yasmin was a journalist at The New Statesman and went on to become a regular columnist for The Independent and The London Evening Standard. She has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times and Newsweek, and even for The Daily Mail. She is also a radio and television broadcaster and the author of several books.
Considering herself ethnically South Asian, she was born Yasmin Damji in Kampala (Uganda) to a mother who was Tanzanian-born Indian and a father born in British India (Pakistan) who had moved to Uganda in the 1920’s.
She graduated in English Literature from Makerere University and came to Britain in 1972 where she completed her Master of Philosophy degree in Literature at Linacre College, Oxford in 1975. Yasmin initially worked as a teacher, taking a particular interest in issues affecting immigrants and refugees. She moved into journalism in her mid-thirties. She is married with two children. Yasmin has a passionate love of cooking and good food and the food she cooks now combines the traditions and tastes of her family’s hybrid history. In her book, The Settler’s Cookbook, you’ll discover how Shepherd’s Pie is much enhanced by sprinkling in some chilli, how a Victoria sponge can be wonderfully enlivened with saffron and lime juice, and how the addition of ketchup to a curry can be life-changing!
For a number of years, Yasmin was also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre. She is also a regular public speaker in Britain, in various European countries, in North America and in several Asian nations. Mixed Feelings, her book about mixed-race Britons, was published in 2001 and has won praise from all those who have reviewed it to date. In June 1999, she was awarded an honorary degree from the Open University for her contributions to social justice.
In the New Year’s Honours List of 2001, Yasmin was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, “for services to journalism”. In 2003, in part prompted by her growing republicanism, she returned her MBE as a protest against what she saw as the new empire in Iraq. She has since criticised the British honours system as “beyond repair”. In a recent interview, discussing her republican convictions, Yasmin observed: “The biggest battle is about the Royal Family: the country that still worships the Royals is a childish, infantilised society and a very unequal one. And only when they get rid of the idea of inherited privilege, the idea that some are born to rule, will there be real democracy and a chance of equality. This is a very hard battle to take on because even the most intelligent amongst my friends are stupid about, or unconcerned about, the Royal Family; however, having successfully persuaded my husband who, like me, is now a republican, I know it can be done.”
Yasmin wrote a major article about the dangers of the Taliban only two days before the Al-Qaida attack on the US, and the day after she didn’t hesitate in criticising the US for its hubris. She says what she believes as honestly as possible in writings that always mix the intensely personal with the political. She changes her mind and her views are often unpredictable except on a few issues where she has remained steadfast – immigration most of all. Today, an unholy coalition of the centre left and the right are poisoning the waters even more for asylum seekers and migrants. So, for the descendants of immigrants, the battle for rights has taken on a new urgency. Her articles and her outspoken statements and speeches offend many but her firm moral principles and her consistency on key issues are not only recognised and respected but also widely admired, even in the right-wing press. On a number of Question Time programmes, Yasmin has raised the temperature and has paid a high price for her insolence. On the BBC’s Today programme, Lord Tebbit would not accept that Yasmin could claim to be truly British, that in spite of having a British passport she would always be an outsider.
Asked what she considers to be the disadvantages of being an outsider, Yasmin says: “There are many disadvantages. There are places you want to get to, but you will never get to, and people who are less talented than you will get to those places because they are members of ‘the club’, because they are simply ‘insiders’. I have never, ever, ever belonged to any in-group.” Asked if this was by choice, she replied: “I don’t know; perhaps I am not of that temperament. I don’t belong to a single members’ club. I am offered memberships all the time, but I have never belonged to one. So yes, it is clearly my choice. As soon as I belonged to a club, I would be tempted to break the rules! I want you to understand, I would never ever betray people, but I shouldn’t feel any obligation to protect members of such a club or even members of my own family. Of course, there is a cost but the choice is mine.”
Yasmin continues: “Returning back a little: actually now, after a long time, the very people who used to malign me 10 years ago or more, are showing me a lot of respect. Even the right wing, lots of people in the Conservative Party, The Daily Mail, they’ve got a new respect for me because they know, they really know, that I strive as far I can to be a decent human being. Of course I am human, and while I have no hesitation about changing my mind, I will not wilfully hurt people, nor will I become an insider and run the risk of losing my critical faculties. I think it is much easier for me now than 15 or 20 years ago, because I stayed with it. I think for younger people, for immigrants, and for other outsiders it is quite a good lesson to see that you don’t necessarily have to ‘play the game’. Of course, sometimes we all have to but even then, there are ways that you can still be yourself and do something good with your life.”
“Swimming against the tide is a struggle and my children don’t always like what I do. I also get a lot of terrible eMails and, though I normally don’t reply, I felt I had to the last time I got one because its author told me I should go back to where I came from. In response, I said: “I am so happy I made you angry because it shows that I am doing my job.”
Asked if she perceives there to be advantages in being an outsider, Yasmin says: “I don’t really think in terms of the disadvantages or advantages of being an outsider but, being one, I feel I can have integrity; I don’t have to do things which don’t feel right to me. Of course, sometimes all of us have to do things which we don’t wish to do and, almost without exception, I feel bad when I have to do that. Because, in the end, pretending to be something that you’re not feels much worse than being yourself.” Yasmin paused and then continued: “The other very important thing is, I do live in a country that is still open to rebels, even now; it is built on rebellion, and it is built on the idea of decency. It’s very hard, and the state can come down hard on you, but there is no other place, especially London, which gives me the feeling that I am free.”
“If I had a choice, after coming all this way, I would most certainly choose to be an outsider again but I would like society to value outsiders a bit more. I am not a complete outsider, of course; by now, I am a bit of an insider too because when I say, ‘Listen ...’, everybody gets a wake-up call. I remember when I said that there was corruption in Britain; people thought I had committed some terrible crime, because in Britain we hardly ever use the word ‘corruption’ when we talk about our own people. Corruption always happens in Africa, in India, in Belgium - somewhere abroad - and we seem to be blind to the corruption of power all around us. We have in many ways become too comfortable.”
It is to be hoped that Yasmin will continue in her quest, supporting the good and creative forces in Britain and the world in general but, above all, continuing to challenge the destructive, demagogic forces around us and the growing corruption that corrodes politics and poisons every aspect of our lives.
Yasmin’s book, The Settler’s Cookbook, is part personal memoir, part history of the Indian migration to the UK via East Africa, and part exploration of the author’s East African Indian roots, through the shared experience of cooking.
Interview Date: 11th July 2013
Updated: 6th August 2013
Yasmin's comprehensive biography, most of her articles, a blog, a list of events and a bibliography, including a fascinating food blog, can be accessed via the following link:
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist who has written for many leading newspapers and is now a regular columnist on The Independent and London’s Evening Standard. She is also a radio and television broadcaster and the author of several books. She describes herself as an outsider: “a leftie, liberal, anti-racist, feminist, Muslim, part-Pakistani, and ... a very responsible person”. She would, however, like it if society valued outsiders a bit more. She is a well-known commentator on issues relating to immigration, diversity and multiculturalism. Yasmin writes what she believes as honestly as possible and her writings always mix the intensely personal with the political. She changes her mind, and her views can be unpredictable except on a few issues where she has remained steadfast – immigration most of all.
Photography: London 11th July 2013