“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” – George Orwell
The man wearing a penguin-shaped beanie rhythmically beat the cardboard box with an empty Lucozade bottle, the other blew into a poorly harmonica connected through a cord to a megaphone to amplify the sound. They sat on the cold floor directly beneath the bus shelter, busking. Having just bought some groceries from Al-Kawthar, a quintessentially claustrophobic Arab convenience store, I now stood waiting at the same bus stop with mama, positioned directly beside them. People nattered away as they awaited the bus, some cracking jokes with the non-English-speaking buskers, others weaving through the crowd to offer their spare change. In the midst of this flurry of activity, I, some may say rather self-indulgently, ranted away to mama about how a purported ‘first-world’, developed country of this calibre could harbour such a flagrant manifestation of poverty. If you’d prefer to see for yourself the ruins I speak of, take a 10-minute stroll down Kilburn High Road around midday next Saturday.
The sad truth is that last Saturday afternoon, all was in order. Status quo: check. Impoverishment is the order of the day, served to those deployed at the bottom of the literal and metaphorical food chain. Mama responded the way she always does when I succumb to this mood: who said life is fair habibti (darling)? My mother has seen her share of pain and injustice, so I thought it best to recoil back into my reflections inaudibly. That is until two blue-eyed men in jeans and backpacks silently approached the men on the floor, towering over them. “Can I see your I.D.?” The makeshift buskers dropped their scraps and stood up, handing over some form of identification, taking silent glances at each other as one of the men scanned their I.D., the other pulling out his walkie-talkie and sharing a ‘joke’ with a colleague on the other end of the line: “we got ’em”. Predatory; as though he’d just caught a fish for that evening’s impending supper. By this point, the rage was too much to bear.
A few minutes had now passed, and the walkie-talkie-gripping officer (pictured, in the navy hoodie) stared at the buskers with a smug, racist smirk that emanated from the depths of his veins. He clearly lived for moments like this. “You’re both under arrest for begging on Kilburn High Road”. The buskers said nothing. I eventually worked out that the person on the other end of the walkie-talkie was another covert patroller doing the discreet MI5-style surveillance rounds. This third officer was stationed on the opposite side of the road, standing beside a telephone box, suspiciously hiding something. That something, it turned out, was another man. Handcuffed, I presume his crime was also poverty.
I stood, frozen and incapable of processing the disdain. It is humiliating enough to have to sit on the cold streets of a foreign country and rely on people’s passive generosity to survive the day. Being arrested and criminalised for it is a whole new level of degradation. “Yasmina, the bus is here!” Mama snapped me out of my daze of disgust. Feeling utterly helpless, I reluctantly trailed behind the crowds. As I walked past the buskers, the penguin hat-clad arrestee spoke his only words to the officers throughout the entire episode, attempting to explain his predicament: “…no money, no food, no job…”. Needless to say, his captors didn’t bat an eyelid. Blank faces. Heartlessness must be your forte for that statement to completely dodge your conscience. As far as they were concerned, they were ‘just following orders‘: cleansing the streets.
Meanwhile, the masses scrambled onto the 98 bus as though the world was on the verge of an apocalypse. Amidst the ensuing hysteria ahead of me, a man about my height donning a purple beanie stood to my left and asked me if the men about to transport the buskers to Wembley Police Station were immigration officers. “They look like undercover policemen to me, chasing after the poor and jobless” I replied, desperately holding back tears. He asked me if I was from ‘here’. “I was born here, but I’m Iraqi”, my sorrow now transforming into an irate bitterness. He nodded, and I returned the question. He had arrived here from Brazil last May and is currently learning English. Appearing concerned but unshaken by what we had witnessed, the man’s smile restored a sense of transient peace in me for a moment. We both eventually managed to squeeze onto the bus, but the Poundland bags obstructed our close proximity and ended our brief encounter.
For the five stops I saw through on the 98 before disembarking, I cried. Painfully. Tears soaked my hair. I did not care who was looking at me. The man I had just spoken to sent a few glances in my direction and probably thought I had issues. Maybe I do. Maybe I need to get a grip. Maybe this is the human condition: ugly and brutally inhumane. My thoughts all shared a theme that I can’t articulate as anything other than scandalous. Why do people from all over the world give up everything to flock to this country, to displace their native tongue with English, the semantics of imperialism? Why is it that a man from Brazil has travelled 8,963 kilometres to the United ‘Kingdom’, uprooted himself from the land that birthed him, his culture and family, to live on processed Iceland food and learn someone else’s language? Why is Kilburn High Road literally brimming with homeless souls? Why does this godforsaken system treat the vulnerable with such absurd criminality? How can this ‘Kingdom’ so easily get away with pillaging the world, then demonise and enslave the victims in the aftermath of her bloody conquests? Our motherlands, from Iraq to India, are destitute, exploited, and broken. Our families had no choice but to flee from the colonial shackles, yet it is with a tinge of irony that here, the Establishment would gladly have the public perceive us as the settlers, stealing jobs, infesting streets, diluting their manufactured ‘British-ness’. They robbed the daylight out of Kabul, and now they wonder incessantly why we’re here. We are the downtrodden, hardly surviving on the subsistence-level offerings this construct makes us labour tooth and nail for. If those who are so bothered by immigration want to get to grips with why we’re here, the riddle has more to do with how many homelands the British Empire has raped than the fact that we gluttonously want a slice of the sophisticated English pie. Every effect has its cause.
A relative recently advised that I end my posts on a ‘happy’ note. I pledged that I would but I wish to break this pledge in favour of frank reminiscence. Who am I to be sat here sugar-coating the very blatant and shameful reality on the ground: that we live in a country, and indeed a world, where homelessness, unemployment, and being on the cusp of starvation, striving for the crumbs of the crumbs, is a criminal offense. Whilst it may have soothed the souls of all who read this had I painted a scene of uplifting optimism, that sentiment hasn’t surfaced on my radar since Saturday. Our uncompromisable obligation must be to reverse the animal conditioning which has emphatically succeeded at wiping out our moral compass, to humanise humanity. It may not transport us to the belly of euphoric happiness (in the trivial sense of the word), but it will impress upon us the hard truths that we let slide all too easily. There are two men locked up in a prison cell right now for having nowhere to seek refuge in except a concrete-floored bus shelter in a land far from their home. That should bother us beyond comprehension. That should reduce us to tears.
Feeding, housing, and affording a dignified standard of living to each and every person is not unrealistic by any stretch of the imagination. We have the means. That, there is no doubt; there are at least a couple of trillion dollars floating around the world, albeit consolidated in a very minute number of hands. As for the will? Non-existent would be a substantial understatement, but we have the power to (re)calibrate that. We could also do with installing a police force that chases after HSBC tax evaders, the Westminster establishment’s paedophilia rings, and Tony Blair, rather than catching out homeless buskers. With their uniform visibly on. In any case, I leave you with Tupac Shakur, because he said it better than I ever could:
“I feel like there’s too much money here. Nobody should be hitting the Lotto for $36 million when we got people starving in the streets. That is not idealistic. That’s just real. That is just stupid… There’s no way that these people should own planes and these [other] people don’t have houses, apartments, shacks, drawers, pants. I know you’re rich. I know you got 40 billion dollars, but can you just keep it to one house? You only need one house. And if you only got two kids, can you just keep it to two rooms? I mean why have 52 rooms and you know there’s somebody with no room? It just don’t make sense to me. It don’t.” – Tupac