What does it mean to be a Palestinian father?*

by Dr. Nazmi Al Masria, Dean at Islamic University of Gaza


Almost no Palestinian in Gaza have slept well over the last two weeks, especially parents who care about their children’s mental, psychological and physical safety. I am one of these parents who have 5 sons and one girl. To have 6 children is the average number of a Palestinian family in Gaza.

Last night, while I was sitting with my 9-member family, including my wife and my father, 94 years old, a heavy rocket fired by an American-made Israeli war plane leveled one of the houses located about 200 meter away from my home and damaged unknown number of neighboring houses. My house was shaken for seconds and some of the windows were smashed and my car alarm system was sounded.

Looking at the terrified faces of every member of my family and trying to comfort them and ease their fears, I hugged the youngest son and exchanged smiles with them all. But it seems that the deafening sound of the aerial bombardment triggered a series of comments and questions that are challenging to every Palestinian father and mother. Their questions revolved around two major questions that need volumes to answer well.

  • What does it mean to get your home destroyed in seconds?

  • What is the mental, physical, social, psychological and economic suffering of such collective punishment on thousands of families in Gaza?

Feeling under powerful stress and unlimited worries fostered by the 24-hour buzz of drones, the continuing random of artillery shelling of homes and the Israeli policy of escalating destruction and killing of civilians, I began to encourage my youngest son, 8 years, Kareem to start release some of the questions in his mind.

In a whispering shaky voice, Kareem began shooting questions that many Palestinians Parents face daily and nightly:

  • Dad, what will happen to us if an Israeli war plane throws a bomb on our house?
  • Dad, what will happen to us if our home is bombed? Will we all die, dad? Then, he adds,
  • Dad, I don’t want to die like the other children killed by the Israelis. Dad, I don’t want to lose some parts of my body like the children I saw on TV.
  • Dad, if some of us survive the Israeli bombing of our house, where shall we go and where to sleep? What will happen to my bedroom?

After receiving such agonizing and heart-burning questions, I hugged him tightly and kissed him on cheeks, head, hands, understanding his fears resulting from his fresh memory of the 4 children killed who were playing at the Gaza beach and to the three children killed in their home.

I turned to my 16-year daughter who fired these questions in an insecure voice full of worries, distress and fear.

  • Dad, why do the Israelis target houses full of innocent people?

Surely she remembers a series of Israeli strikes that have killed more than 45 families in their homes, especially the latest two Israeli air strikes which killed 35 members of two Gaza families within hours:

The first bombing leveled a four-story house in the southern Gaza Strip killing 25 members of Abu Jamaa family – including 19 children – gathered to break the daily Ramadan fast together. This is the highest toll for one family in a single airstrike since this policy has been in effect since the beginning of this dirty aggression on Gaza.

The other crime happened when Israeli artillery shells bombed the house of Siyam family in Rafah, southern Gaza, killing 10 members of the Siyyam family, including 3 children- the youngest is 8-month baby.

  • Dad, why do they kill so many children and women?

Definitely she knows the up- to-date figures so far: 161 children, 66 women and 35 elderly were killed among the 632 victims of the war against Gaza.

She is also aware that about 50% of the 4010 injured are 1213 children, 700 women and 162 elderly men as mentioned by the Ministry of Health at 02:30 on Wednesday 23 July 2014.

  • Dad, it is summer school holiday, ok, we are reluctantly forced to accept being imprisoned in our home and not to enjoy our holiday. But why does every Palestinian family feel unsafe even inside their homes and bedrooms?

Commenting on this, she added: no place, no home, on body is safe in Gaza. The Israelis bomb everything: homes, hospitals, clinics, schools, ambulances, mosques, media/press offices and car, private businesses, taxis, water treatment facilities, greenhouses etc. Then she asks:

  • Dad, what do they want from us?

Trying to answer her question by herself, she said in a sad and depressed voice: They have been occupying us and confiscating our freedom since 1967. They have been besieging us for more than seven years where we are not allowed to leave this big prison called Gaza. We cannot visit other Palestinian cities like Jerusalem Bethlehem or Hebron, or travel to any other country.

In less than seven years, they launched three destructive and terrifying wars against the besieged poor Gaza. Dad, what drives me so mad is deaf ear the governments of almost all countries pay to such war crimes and violation of human rights. This silence encourages Israel to commit more collective punishments and more war crimes and more destruction of homes and families.

In a very depressed and hesitant voice, she added, “Dad what frustrates me and saddens me is that the Israelis always talk about PEACE!!!


*This article was also delivered aloud at the demonstration against the ongoing strikes against Gaza in Edinburgh Sat 26th July. 

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First GRAMNet workshop ‘Migration and Intimate Life’

By Dr Francesca Stella*, Workshop Co-organiser

The first GRAMNet workshop ‘Migration and Intimate Life’, co-organised by Francesca Stella and Marta Moskal, was held at the University of Glasgow on 18 June 2014. The workshop was born out of our shared interest in the topic of migrants’ personal life and relationships: Francesca will be running an ESRC-funded project on the experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual migrants from Eastern Europe (with Dr Moya Flynn), while Marta has worked extensively on migrant children and family migration. The aim of the workshop was to bring together researchers, voluntary and public organisations, grassroots groups and practitioners associated with GRAMNet to explore their different perspectives on the formation and transformation of intimacy in the context of migration. Alongside the showcasing of academic work on the topic – particularly the work of GRAMNet doctoral and early career researchers – it was also a platform to share research findings and insights from practitioners’ work, to stimulate discussion, and to identify shared interests and scope for future collaborations.

It is widely recognised that migrants’ intimate lives are often under scrutiny, and that their legitimate presence in the host country can be dependent on, for example, their family status or on the vetting of their personal history, particularly in the case of asylum seekers. With the new 2014 Immigration Act, migrants’ intimate lives have come under more intense scrutiny in the UK. In light of the new legislation and of the increasing politicisation of migration, we wanted to share insights from researchers’ and practitioners’ work on how migrants ‘do’ intimacy, family and personal relationships, and to identify discrepancies between migrants’ practices and legal/policy definitions of family and intimacy.

The workshop attracted 55 registered participants. We were pleased to see a mix of academic researchers, representatives of voluntary and public sector organisations and grassroots groups (including Rape Crisis, Refugee Women’s Strategy Group, Scottish Refugee Council, Social Audit Network, Prince and Princess of Wales Hospice Glasgow, Scottish Immigration Law Practitioners Association (SILPA), Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), Red Cross and Department for International Development). Academic researchers were affiliated to a range of universities from Scotland (Glasgow, Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian, Edinburgh, Queen Margaret) and England (SOAS, Plymouth, Manchester Metropolitan, Manchester University and Leeds).

Speakers addressed a range of related topics on the day, including: the role of social networks and solidarities in migrants’ lives; trust and conviviality in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods; experiences of intimacy among Zimbabwean migrants and asylum seekers; how sexuality informs decisions to move for Eastern European lesbian, gay and bisexual migrants; and the impact of family separation on Polish migrant children. Our two keynote speakers, Dr Naomi Tyrell (University of Plymouth) and Dr Daniela Sime (University of Strathclyde), talked about their research on the impact of work mobility on migrant children and on Eastern European migrant children’s peer and family relations. One session focussed entirely on arts methods for public engagement; speakers talked about the use of testimonial theatre to share migrants’ life stories in a transnational context; a project based on experiential workshops to engage with migrant communities; and cultural institutions’ uses of migrant cultural heritage to facilitate multicultural dialogue.

One session remains in our memory as the most compelling, emotional and challenging of the day. Focussed on the experience of asylum seekers and refugees to commemorate Refugee Week, the session involved Beverley Kandjii and Angeline Mwafulirwa, representing the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group, and Tanjeel Maleque, a solicitor from SILPA with experience of dealing with cases of family reunion and of LGBT asylum. All speakers talked about the gruelling experiences of asylum seekers and refugees, and of the difficulties they face in claiming a truly private life, in developing intimate relationships and in proving persecution where this occurs in the private sphere of intimate relations. They are faced with the constant scrutiny of their personal lives, lack of choice in housing arrangements, destitution, racism, sexism and homophobia. The discussion that ensued pointed to the importance of spaces where practitioners, activists and academics can come together to share insights and work towards meaningful change; however, it also raised questions about our limited power to influence migration policies and home office practices.

The day ended with a session on how to take forward ideas for future collaborations and creative engagements, based on a facilitated consultation exercise. This will shape the second and final workshop, which will take place in November (date TBA – more details will follow soon). We look forward to our next meeting and welcome suggestions for the next workshop and ideas on future collaborative activities participants would like to develop.

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the University of Glasgow (New Initiatives Fund and Robertson Bequest).

*Francesca Stella can be contacted at: francesca.stella@glasgow.ac.uk
Marta Moskal can be contacted at: marta.moskal@glasgow.ac.uk

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Three people in a room: ethical interpreting in healthcare

By Dr Ima Jackson, Project Co-investigator*

New GRAMNet research on Interpreter mediated health encounters provides a practical online free education tool to support and increase learning for those who participate.

20 years ago, a nurse might spend their whole career without ever needing an interpreter. But in some areas in Scotland, interpreting is now a daily requirement. As one colleague said, “It can be difficult to know if you are saying the right thing”. Clinicians generally aren’t taught about interpreting; migrants often don’t know what to expect, and interpreters themselves may be language-proficient, but they are not necessarily trained in health or ethics. They might be doing health one day, legal work the next.

The issue involves complex, three-way relationships, and there has been some progress, such as Greater Glasgow and Clyde setting up its own “bank “ of interpreters, but we still have some work to do. We think that the complexity of interpretation is one area where everyone benefits from some formal training, rather than a kind of well-intentioned but ill-informed muddling through. Similar views were reflected by a range of health professionals, migrants and interpreters at the end of project dissemination event at Glasgow Caledonian University School of Health in December 2013.

This event promoted a new resource for health and social care interpreting which has been developed by the Project Team through an SFC AHRC Healthier Scotland knowledge exchange research grant and The British Council for a project which investigated the experience and skills of those involved in interpreter mediated health encounters in Glasgow.

In Scotland, as in many other healthcare systems, there are limited opportunities for migrants, interpreters and health professionals to learn about interpreting in health as they are experienced by all three participants. Historically, and the literature and policy changes reflects this, one or two of the key participants’ experience has been investigated but rarely all three participants at the same time.

The research

This study reviewed the academic and policy literature from each perspective and then participants from each of those perspectives were interviewed individually or in focus groups. The results from analysis of their recounting of the experience were reconfigured into filmed scenarios. The films don’t represent any individuals’ experience but emerge from the total analysis.

Unlike other research projects, whose findings can sometimes be inaccessible for its targeted audience, the films can be viewed by any individual by accessing them on a computer or in public places such as hospital or GP waiting rooms, or more formally within facilitated tutorial and lecture groups.

Why films to spread the results?

Why did we film the output of our research? For a few reasons: because these encounters are dramatic; because we are learning from the participants; because we wanted to make our work available to everyone with an interest in this process- and also because there are no simple answers. The films allow people to experience the issues, and draw their own conclusions.

The films also helped our drive to make the outcome of the research immediately useful. They work politically and demonstrate through film, the seriousness of these issues in modern healthcare. A maxim of film-making is “show not tell”. We applied that principle to our filming… “when you watch it, you really feel it”, and the politics and the potential for inertia fades away. Producing a film based learning tool out of academic research is a mechanism which directly interacts with current health policy as well as migration and health politics. Through dramatising the interactions in health interpreting it highlights the potential effect of shifting from face to face interpreting to telephone interpreters.


We really hope these films will help people to make better use of the potential for interpreting to transform rather than limit health and social care encounters. We hope the films offer practical help to colleagues who may increasingly have found themselves needing interpreters, even though this was never part of their practice before.

By examining and then dramatising the dynamics of the experience of interpreting, we hope that everyone can gain: community interpreters may gain increased respect as they demonstrate their professionalism; patients benefit from the pitfalls of interpreting being recognised and managed (rather than being blamed on them); and care providers gain a sense of the potential for interpreting to empower understanding, rather than be a drain on resources and in doing so support the learning of our future health and social care providers, educators and interpreters.

*Ima Jackson is an experienced clinician, lecturer, researcher and project manager and has spent most of her career working with marginalised groups: initially pregnant women in the poorest parts of London and Glasgow, and in more recent years with refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants in Scotland. Her research interest is in migration, in particular transnational workforce issues, ethical recruitment processes, migrant health and healthcare infrastructure needs and gendered migration policy

The Project Team

Principal Investigator: Prof Alison Phipps
Post Doctoral Research Associate: Dr Teresa Piacentini
Co-investigators: Dr Ima Jackson, Dr Niamh Stack, Prof Kate O’Donnell
Non-HEI Partner: Tanveer Parnez (BEMIS)

Film Team

Dr Katja Frimberger
Simon Bishop


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Using theatre to explore the themes of the project*

The project Narratives of Social Change: Supporting Sustainable Action through Creative Multiliteracies unites research staff at the University of Glasgow with educational professionals from Glasgow City Council. The aim of this project is to support teachers to use children’s literature to explore themes related to the concept of citizenship such as migration, identity, culture, and social justice. The first phase of this project has produced a series of workshops. This article, written by Julie McAdam, describes the second of these workshops, which has used theatre to explore the themes of the project.

During the second workshop we decided to use theatre to explore the themes connected to the project. The idea for using theatre was based on the work of Augusto Boal, who drew on the work of Paulo Freire to write Theatre of the Oppressed.

The theatre workshop build on the metaphor of mirrors, windows and doors explored in the previous workshop using artefacts and provided us all with a space to see and feel emotions related to ourselves and others. The dramatic action was based on the wordless graphic novel The Arrival by Shaun Tan and took us all on a journey that we did not quite expect.

Why did we use theatre?

I wanted to incorporate theatre for two main reasons, the first is because Boal (2008) describes the use of theatre as a new language. He says ‘By learning a new language, a person acquires a new way of knowing reality and of passing that knowledge on to others.’ (2008: 96). So my thinking was that by adding theatre to our repertoires, we would all be involved in communicating using a new language begin and in doing so we could create and discover a more complete picture of what we know about issues connected to language teaching and language learning. The second reason was linked to Boal’s ideas that theatre empowers and changes people, (this differs from traditional Aristotlean theatre that allows the characters to think and act on our behalf). With Boalian theatre, we all take on a role and get involved in the dramatic action, try out solutions and plans to take the action forward (2008:97). This provided a further link to the project aims because our embodied action at this stage might allow us to feel more prepared to carry out social actions in our everyday lives and move towards social change in our classrooms.

What we did?

I had to work with the Director and together we decided on a narrative for the Tan character to use in order to explain why we were all in the same room. We provided everyone with a set of instructions beforehand explaining what and why we were using Boalian theatre. We marked the entry into the drama by gathering in one room and moving collectively into the space designated for the drama. On entering the new space we met the character who was dressed to look like the main protagonist on the front cover of The Arrival and was introduced as a visiting teacher/academic. He called himself Tan and did not speak any English, which put us all in the position of having to interpret the meanings he was making. He carried a suitcase and used the artefacts in the suitcase to help provide more information about himself and his speciality. He then went on to tell us all about his speciality and used some diagrams to help explain. To conclude the session he asked us for some practical advice connected to living and working in Glasgow.

What happened next?

After the session we all returned to the original room for tea/coffee and a discussion of the workshop in terms of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The Actor and the Director accompanied us and together we explored the ways in which the metaphor of mirrors (knowledge of self) , windows (knowledge of others) and doors (taking social action) related to our roles as teachers working with new arrival children in Glasgow’s classrooms. We were all surprised by our emotional response to the activity and our apprehension at taking part, as well as the ways in which the activity allowed us to explore some of the everyday assumptions we make with new arrival children. In our discussion we explored issues related to empathy, control, language learning, and knowledge of language, identity and intercultural competences …

Boal, A. (2008) Theatre of the Oppressed, London: Pluto Press.

*For the newest developments about this project, follow Sustainable Glasgow: Narratives of Social Change, where this article was originally published on the 15th of April 2014.

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camas veiw

View from Mull. Photo: Matt Smith.

Poppy Kohner reports back from the GRAMNet post-graduate research trip to Camas, Isle of Mull.

I cannot tell you the real story of the GRAMNet trip to CAMAS.

I cannot tell you because not only was the experience so unique from one person to another, but also because it is impossible to describe; the kind of pedagogies in practice at Camas cannot be reduced to language. It felt as if we were engaging in a conversation without words – a rare treat among the busy daily routine of university life.

khalid final

Khalid and The Camas Cottages. Photo: Poppy Kohner.

Camas, on the South West coast of the Isle of Mull, is part of the Iona Community, and a place where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can go to experience what it is like to live relatively cut off from taken for granted amenities, to connect with nature, do exciting activities such as rock climbing and kayaking, and take part in the day-to-day workings of community – such as eating together, tending to the garden, feeding chickens, cleaning toilets and washing dishes.

On 17th May 2014, GRAMNet sponsored sixteen of us who are researching, teaching or working in personally and politically charged topics to visit Camas, and join in the community there.

Our story started when we arrived in the pouring rain to walk 1 km along the rickety and muddy path to the Camas centre. Sam, the youngest member of our group at nearly fifteen months old travelled in comparative comfort in his buggy, protected from the rain and strapped into a wheel-barrow with bungee ropes in a make-shift sedan chair. For the rest of us, getting absolutely drenched and wind-swept was the beginning of a process of stripping off the layers of city-life which build up over time in the concrete metropolis where we normally dwell.

No electricity, no phone connection or sometimes even no hot water made us appreciate the little things; like warm homemade scones in the morning; the subtle changes in light as dusk sets in; or simply a cup of tea and a seat by the wood burning stove in a candle lit room. These invisible layers from the city which continued to be shed over the three days on Mull represented individual casings of resilience, protecting us from the busy and hyper-stimulating rhythms of the city.

At Camas, helped along by exercises set by the friendly resident volunteers, and an Augusto Boal Theatre of the Oppressed workshop given by Isabel Harland from Govan and Craigton Integration Network, we opened ourselves to being vulnerable to each other, willing to take the responsibilities and risks which community and discovery depends upon. This relationship between vulnerability and resilience was explored in a workshop delivered by Nina Murray from the Scottish Refugee Council, which concluded in an exercise asking how can PhD research fulfil political goals, and be communicated back to research participants and wider audiences with impact and integrity, with the potential of contributing to policy or social change.

ketso 2

Ketso workshop! Photo: Matt Smith.

Becka Kay, representing GRAMNet, showed us the possibilities of Ketso as a tool for Participatory Action Research, which, she reminded us is more of an approach, than a method. This kind of sensitivity and care for how we conduct research also reflected the way in which people shared the space together on Mull, and will hopefully continue to make ripples in our ongoing PhD projects, and beyond.

For outdoor activities we split into two groups – half the group went kayaking on the eiree salt-marshes and around the beautiful pink granite formations of the coastline, to float in the evening sun, and the other half went wild-walking over bogs, meadows and rocks, with the two groups swapping over the next morning. On arrival to the sandy-white beach over the hill, some people jumped into the cold sea, as others drank hot chocolate.

On the last night, we sat around a fire in the roundhouse as a thunder and lightning storm brewed overhead. Reflecting together on our time at Camas, one of the volunteers echoed Becka’s workshop on Participatory Action Research when she told us that such an experience of community, spirit and relationship with nature that we had at Camas is not an exceptional episode to keep as a memory, but an approach to life.

Enlivening and remembering the connections between mind and body, life and work, and between the self and supportive research collectives, creates all sorts of cumulative creative possibilities for how and why we research, and in what ways we choose to step into the future.

nina mull

Nina mulling things over. Photo: Matt Smith.

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Greenfingers: Human-rights documentary and the filmmaker’s perspective

By Gary Marshall, documentary filmmaker.


In the summer of 2013 I directed Greenfingers, a short documentary which follows Ako Zada – a human rights activist and engineer from the Kurdish region of Iraq – during his transition from asylum-seeker to refugee. The purpose of the film was to explore a period in the asylum cycle, which I felt was overlooked in both academic research and filmmaking circles. Furthermore, I hoped to find a contributor who could provide a glimpse into the realities of life as a refugee; an antidote to the misinformed stories perpetuated by certain media outlets. In this blog post I will discuss how the film came to be, the production experience and reflections on the process.

Greenfingers began as a rebuttal to my Grandmother’s negative view of asylum-seekers. For years I have attempted to argue that people who seek asylum are fleeing life threatening situations in search of sanctuary; not on a mission to exploit the welfare system. I decided that a film which could engage in ways that facts and statistics do not could be the best medium in which to illuminate this point. As the concept evolved it developed into a piece of research and concluded as a short observational documentary. It became an opportunity to both fulfil the requirements of my MSc in Documentary Film Practice and to argue a point with my Grandmother; someone whose beliefs concerning asylum-seekers reflect a significant voice amongst any immigration debate.

My intention was to begin at the juncture where an individual had received leave to remain in the UK and thereafter, observe the step into the unknown. I was fortunate to find a contributor and now friend, who was honest, passionate and willing to allow access to their journey. When I embarked on my search for participants I spoke to UNITY – a drop in centre for asylum-seekers – who allowed me to sit on their sofa and talk to people who used their service. Eventually, I met Ako – an individual who was trapped in the asylum system after repeated refusals. That was, until early June when a positive decision on his case was reached. At this time we discussed the idea of making a film and our journey began.

Before production commenced we discussed the merit and justification of the filmmaking process. This seemed a necessary action due to the various ethical issues involved with such a film. In the broadest sense I was concerned about representation. Representing Ako as an outsider to his experiences, as well as objectively representing the process without either of our judgments becoming the agenda of the film. Whilst true objectivity is neither achievable nor desirable, we both agreed that filming this journey was relevant and beneficial not just for ourselves but for future audiences.

Earlier in 2013, I had made a film about a young farmer from Somerset. Whilst possessing its own challenges, it was a more simple process. I had the contributor’s consent and with that came access to his life and surrounding environment. With Greenfingers there was a constant difficulty in finding suitable locations. We made an attempt to record in his hostel room however we did not make it past the entrance. I was denied access and warned that it was best to leave before my equipment was stolen. On one occasion, one of the security team warned Ako not to bring female friends to the hostel – it was in their best interest not to be around men recently released from prison. Though this advice may have been sensible it was a moment of realisation that Ako’s situation was far from resolved. This was upsetting for Ako and difficult in terms of filmmaking. It forced us to film in public spaces that do not necessarily feel natural to Ako’s everyday life. Ultimately though, I believe it turned into an advantage – having to wander around Glasgow became symbolically important for the absence of a place to call home.

In the midst of such a complex and delicate situation it was difficult to make editorial choices as to what information was most relevant and necessary for the film to progress. I did not want this film to preach to the choir. I wanted to make it accessible to a wide audience, perhaps people sympathetic to my Grandmother’s opinion, whilst retaining a sense of the complexity of the situation. It was for this reason that I chose to narrow the focus on Ako’s quest for accommodation and to structure the film around two important meetings related to this struggle.

For me, the most powerful scenes are those where Ako has a chance to reflect on his experiences and contemplate his future. They are the glimpses into Ako’s internal world which, I hoped, would reveal somebody who has endured an extraordinary journey yet retained the same basic desires that all humans can relate to. The need for roots, a home, expression and identity are present in all of us.

I felt that it was essential to balance such reflexive scenes with footage that gave a sense of the linear narrative. The motivation to include scenes where Ako speaks with his advisers, was not only to offer a sense of time and place to the audience but to highlight the confused bureaucratic situation Ako found himself in. It was during these meetings that I was acutely aware of the challenging processes that a refugee must navigate in order to be accepted as a functioning participant in society.

As I was writing this post, the Glasgow Commonwealth Games committee issued a press release regarding their intentions to demolish five out of the six Red Road flats. Aside from immigration politics, this seemed a crude act in the name of celebration. However, what made this idea more inappropriate is that one block is still inhabited by asylum-seekers. The content and language of the press release indirectly highlights the manner in which people who flee danger, not out of choice but out of fear for their life, are still presented as faceless, unworthy victims. Descriptions of these buildings as ‘symbols of the past’ present an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the fact that one block is still the home of contemporary residents. As a group, these residents were disregarded and ostracised from ‘Glasgow’s regeneration’ – potentially having to stand by as the buildings that surround them were razed to the ground.

Thankfully the plans to demolish the Red Road flats have now been withdrawn, but this incident served as a reminder of why I made my film. For me, the most salient message of this mismanaged event is the necessity to utilise film (and other mediums) to encourage empathy and provide a more human perspective on the range of experiences refugees endure. My Nan is stubborn and at 87 I never expected her to change her mind but I hope that Greenfingers and films like it can stimulate debate based on truth, not on the extreme and isolated stories that make it to the papers all too often.

Gary Marshall is an Edinburgh based filmmaker who graduated with an MSc in Documentary Film Practice from the University of Edinburgh.

Greenfingers is an official selection for Fuse Film Festival and goNorth Film Festival, as well as being selected for Videotheque at Sheffield Doc/Fest. In addition to Greenfingers, Gary has made another short film entitled The Land, I Farm. The Land, I Farm is also an official selection for Fuse Film Festival and goNorth Film Festival, and has been selected for BBC Three Fresh Online.

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Statues in the park are not just figures from the past

Statues in our public parks tell us much about the British sense of identity, argues Dr Andrew Smith.*


Empire is everywhere in Britain, even if it is rarely noticed. Our parks are a case in point. When I walk through Glasgow’s central park, I pass repeated symbols of Victorian imperial glory resting in what has been called ‘prominent obscurity’.

First there is Thomas Carlyle; then the Earl Roberts; and next a memorial to soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry killed in the Boer war.

The obscurity is real enough. Who passes Thomas Carlyle and recalls him as the author of a racist polemic against the abolition of slavery, or as the man who complained of the ‘squalid apehood’ of poor Irish immigrants?

Fewer still are likely to know that the young Roberts wrote home to report enthusiastically on his involvement in the suppression of India’s 1857 rebellion, the execution of rebels and his expectation of how this would lead to his early promotion.

While these histories are obscure, the statues are very prominent. Their stern material presence imparts to the carefully ordered landscape of the park much of its atmosphere of historical grandeur. The park is an important space that helps form Glasgow’s civic identity, yet its mood still reflects this imperial self-regard.

Empire is not only everywhere in Britain today, but is everywhere in Britishness as well – as Miranda Carter has recently argued. Stories and visions of empire, both prominent and obscure, continue to inform how we conceive of British identities.

This is true, it should be said, in Scotland as well as in England. Only recently has a concerted public discussion about Glasgow’s historical involvement with the British empire started to develop in earnest.

It bears insisting that this is a question about the here and now. Exploring the dynamics of ethnicity today and in Britain’s more recent history – as the developing research of CoDE is doing – requires us to be particularly attentive to the ways in which ethnic or national identities are treated as things which ‘step forward’ out of the past.

In that respect the writing of history is about more than reporting past events, but often has the effect of saying who ‘we’ are supposed to be today. The word ‘our’ in ‘our history’ always does its work in the present: it makes an implicit claim about who we are (or should be).

Take, for example, John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. Darwin’s study was first published in 2012 and in paperback last year. It was widely praised, described by Linda Colley as ‘the best single volume guide’ currently available to the British Empire and its legacies. The praise is well-deserved: Unfinished Empire is a work of exceptional scholarship, elegantly written and deftly organized.

Nor is it merely an apology for imperialism: it acknowledges the violence which frequently attended imperial expansion. It is frank about the economic self-interest which drove such expansion.

Yet Darwin refuses the claim that imperial relations, practices or ways of thinking rebounded to any significant extent on British domestic society, or on the British sense of self. These things were too “shadowy”, he says, for British society to be “decisively influenced … by its engagement with empire”.

Nor, Darwin argues, can we trace the roots of contemporary racism in Britain back to the imperial period. Such racism, he claims, took hold elsewhere. It was largely a feature of the Raj after 1857 and of the settler colonies such as Australia where the “racial exclusion of ‘others’ was the vital corollary of the nation-building project”.

But this argument seems to me profoundly ambiguous. It leaves open the interpretation that there really was something about those ‘others’, some quality of difference, which made it necessary for them to be excluded from these ‘new Britains’, if the latter were to become effective nations. At the least, it implies that national identity is unable to accommodate such differences.

It is precisely this assumption of a self-contained national or cultural identity which explains Darwin’s view that the empire had no significant effect on domestic British society. He reiterates in his conclusion: “Britain was not in any obvious way a product of empire. …Its English core was already an exceptionally strong and culturally unified state… Imperial attitudes entered Britain, but only (like the tea-drinking habit) after they had been suitably anglicised.”

Darwin is able to tell the story this way partly because of who he chooses to quote. Almost without exception the voices we hear are of white British movers and shakers – with occasional critics – of empire. Darwin doesn’t simply endorse these views, yet there is no whisper of a long-standing population which was not just British – not just ‘suitably anglicised’ – but whose history crossed the seemingly ‘unbridgeable gulfs’ of culture and ethnicity in empire and which lived out the possibility of being British and more than British at once.

Empire was not just a process involving the ‘global expansion’ of something called ‘Britain’: it also created and necessitated encounters and relationships that expanded Britain and Britishness from the inside.

Darwin doesn’t fail to criticise British imperial activity, but his story has the effect of pulling from the fire of history an untarnished contemporary ‘we’ – we, the British, still despite it all, that singular thing: ourselves.

The ethnic and cultural diversity of Britain that CoDE is investigating is the product of centuries. It could be argued that in important respects it is the default condition of any nation and of any national identity.

An important part of the Centre’s work may be to allow various communities to cast new light on the ‘prominent obscurity’ of empire in Britain’s public spaces and conversations.

Another will be to explore the ways in which diversity – its history, the stories which are born of it, as well its contemporary living out – reveals the extent to which there is always more than one way of being Glaswegian, Scottish or British.

*Dr Andrew Smith is a senior sociology lecturer at the University of Glasgow and a member of the ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), which is based at the University of Manchester. This article was first published by Manchester Policy Blogs: Ethnicity on April 24, 2014.

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