Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the only non-white columnist in the UK, writes columns for The Independent, among other newspapers, as well as makes frequent appearances on BBC TV’s popular Dateline London program. She is the author of a new book The Settler’s Cookbook. Here are her responses to some of the questions Simerg asked her.
Simerg: You have received many awards and honours for your contributions in journalism and film making and advancing social justice. In 2001, you were appointed as an MBE (Member of the British Empire) but you returned this honour two years later for Britain’s participation in the Iraq War. Tell us how strongly you felt about the invasion of Iraq?
Yasmin A-B: Nothing has made me feel more outraged and ashamed than this war and how we went into it – breaking international law. It was the lowest point for my nation.
Simerg: Are actions such as the one you took in returning the honour useful in any way? Do they have any impact?
Yasmin A-B: Of course they do – they say that Asians are not obliging little colonials any more. That we have morals and courage. It gave me strength.
Simerg: The former Prime Minister Blair, who supported the United States involvement in Iraq, is now engaged with inter-faith issues. How well do you think he will do?
Yasmin A-B: His partiality to the state of Israel and self-importance makes him totally unsuitable for this role.
Simerg: What benefits do you personally see in inter-faith dialogues?
Yasmin A-B: I don’t do interfaith stuff – that is for others and some of them do good work. I’m political and fight for equality for all.
Simerg: You produced a film on Islam a few years ago. Tell us something about this film and what you were trying to portray.
Yasmin A-B: That was a long time ago – but it was on diversity in Islam and our right to live our lives as we choose without religious dictators.
Simerg: As a (Muslim) journalist, how do you feel about the way Islam is portrayed by the media in Britain and Europe and generally in the Western World.
Yasmin A-B: It is getting better, at least in the UK – where Muslims have a presence and others write about them or broadcast views that are fair and diverse.
Simerg: Certain sectors of the Muslim population have reacted in a very angry and violent fashion to the cartoon issue? Do you feel this is appropriate?
Yasmin A-B: These rent a mob Muslims should instead fight for democracy and rights in their countries. God and the Prophet are more powerful than pathetic cartoonists and writers. What a waste of energy and outrage!
Simerg: You are an Ismaili Muslim and mother of two – one twenty eight and the other much younger. What kind of challenges do they face here in the UK being Ismaili Muslims?
Yasmin A-B: They will need to be politically engaged and fight against those who want only one kind of Wahabi Islam.
Simerg: When you reflect about the fifty two years of Imamat of His Highness the Aga Khan, what do you most admire about him?
Yasmin A-B: He is an enlightened leader who understands secular as well as religious needs of people in the 21st Century.
Simerg: You were interviewed by Shamir Alibhai for a documentary about the Aga Khan. What did you think of the documentary?
Yasmin A-B: It was excellent.
Simerg: Did you always wish to become a journalist, and briefly how did you acquire your taste for it?
Yasmin A-B: I wanted to write, and got into it in my thirties. I am the only non-white columnist in this country.
Simerg: Of course you are more of a columnist, than a reporter. You write for The Independent, the Evening Standard and you appear on BBC Dateline with other fellow London based reporters working for other newspapers from around the world. What do you enjoy the most, or does each media offer its rewards and challenges?
Yasmin A-B: I love it all. Column writing is the best; though to be paid for my views is wonderful.
Simerg: How excited were you by President Obama’s election? In view of his very positive overtures to Muslims, do you think he will be able to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East?
Yasmin A-B: Our hopes are many and I was over the moon when he was elected. Real politics will make some changes slower than we would like. Palestine is one such problem.
Simerg: What specific points in his Cairo speech impressed you, and what did he miss out on?
Yasmin A-B: It was a very good speech that laid US arrogance to rest. I worry, though, about the way he said people should not criticise other cultures. We must always do that.
Simerg: Have you visited Canada, and what do you think of the country generally?
Yasmin A-B: It is an admirable country and its commitment to diversity is real. But there is too much accommodation with some Islamic demands like Sharia law – thankfully defeated in Ontario.
Simerg: Name one book you would highly recommend for youth and one for adults?
Yasmin A-B: There are too many books to choose one.
Simerg: What is your son engaged in? Journalism? Does your daughter want to follow your example in journalism?
Yasmin A-B: My son is a barrister and my daughter wants to be an engineer.
Simerg: Have you been in situations where you had to report about an important event that was unfolding before your eyes?
Yasmin A-B: No.
Simerg: What might you say was one of the most embarrassing moments in your career?
Yasmin A-B: Meeting Prince Charles and his then mistress soon after I had criticised them both.
Simerg: How well is The Independent doing financially and in terms of circulation figures?
Yasmin A-B: It is hard at present.
Simerg: How many pieces of column do you think you have written in total? Which one or two generated the greatest response? Have you ever had to retract a statement you have made in a column – for example through an apology?
Yasmin A-B: I have written over two thousand columns – the one I will always treasure is the one which said Taliban was a danger the day before 9/11. I apologised to war veterans after refusing to wear the remembrance poppy the year we went to war in Iraq.
Simerg: What is your favourite newspaper (besides the papers you write for)? Who are among your favourite columnists?
Yasmin A-B: The Guardian and Observer. I read various people – Deborah Orr is one favourite.
Simerg: You wrote a book that was released recently, “The Settlers’ Cookbook” and a Sunday Times journalist wrote that it is a joy of a book.
Yasmin A-B: This is a very important book- it tells our story sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously. I am very proud of it.
Simerg: Was this book in the making for a long time?
Yasmin A-B: I wrote it after my mother died three years ago. It is in her memory and my children so they know who they are.
Simerg: Is Ismaili cooking – particularly East African – from your experience somewhat different from the cooking of other Indian communities?
Yasmin A-B: Yes, it is very different and wonderfully so.
Simerg: Would you say Indian food is healthy, in general?
Yasmin A-B: We are learning to cook and eat more healthily.
Simerg: What is the simplest recipe from your book that you might recommend someone who doesn’t like cooking or says that he/she doesn’t have the time to cook – something that will inspire us to take up cooking.
Yasmin A-B: My mum’s Coconut Dhal. (see recipe above – ed.)
Simerg: Which is your favourite dish in the book and what is your favourite restaurant?
Yasmin A-B: Zanzibari prawns, it got me my lovely Englishman; and my favourite restaurant is The Gifto Lahori Kebab House in Southall.
Simerg: Finally, would you recommend journalism and writing to other Ismailis?
Yasmin A-B: It is a fabulous career, but you will not be rich. Influential, though.
Simerg: Who are some of the other Ismaili journalists that you know and get to meet?
Yasmin A-B: Only one other, Alkarim Jevanee, an arts writer.
Please visit the home page, www.simerg.com
Recipe published with the kind permission of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.