Voices: 30 Questions for Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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.

'Simplest recipe' from Alibhai-Brown's highly acclaimed book, "The Settler's Cookbook"

'Simplest recipe' from Alibhai-Brown's highly acclaimed book, "The Settler's Cookbook"

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.

___________________

Copyright, Simerg.

Please visit the home page, www.simerg.com

Recipe published with the kind permission of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

8 thoughts on “Voices: 30 Questions for Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

  1. Like many left wingers, Alibhai-Brown forgets a few things:

    1. President Bush liberated Shias in Iraq from a vicious tyrant.

    2. Perhaps she should go to her birthplace and help her countrymen achieve rights, democracy and freedoms!

  2. The more I’ve heard Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s comment on matters of faith, the less impressed I’ve become. For example, consider the following response by her in the interview:

    “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!”

    First, besides the fact that insulting Muslims is specifically and clearly frowned upon in the Qur’an, why does she use such offensive language?

    Second, every Muslim, was offended by the cartoons, yet for some reason Yasmin is not and further thinks those who were upset are basically fools because “God and the Prophet are more powerful than pathetic cartoonists and writers.”

    Just to clarify the matter from a Muslim’s perspective on the cartoon issue I quote from remarks made by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Evora University Symposium* in Portugal on February 12, 2006:

    “I should also mention here the headlines of this past week – which chart the widening gulf between Islamic and Western societies. Here the culprit has not been military action or diplomatic failure but the power of media images – deeply offensive caricatures – which have profoundly offended one billion four hundred million Muslims around the world – including myself.”

    Many other comments by her reflect a shallow and superficial understanding of the forces which are at play in the world.

    * For complete remarks made by the Aga Khan, please see http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=106291

    • Upon reading Anon’s comment regarding Yasmin Alibhai-Brown it is obvious that your viewer is not at all familiar with the columnist’s writings in “The Independent”. Ms. Brown is outspoken and vocal about many issues, and need not be told not to use offensive language.

      In fact, she is not using any offensive language – her concerns are, as I understand, more directed towards the furious few who expend a lot of energy in their outcries, sometimes in a violent fashion, against anyone who is deemed to malign Islam. I do not think assassination threats and the like do anything to present a good picture of Islam.

      I share Anon’s concerns that all Muslims were offended by the caricatures.

      But in saying “God and the Prophet are more powerful than pathetic cartoonists and writers.”, Yasmin is not implying that all who were upset are fools. Far from it. I too was offended by the cartoons but did not think along these lines about myself, at least.

      • With respect to “rent-a-mob-Muslims”, I said it insults Muslims and is a deregatory characterizion. Perhaps you find it complimentary?

        With respect to “God and the Prophet are more powerful than pathetic cartoonists and writers” she implies there is no need for anyone to get in a huff and a puff about the cartoons as God and the Prophet are far above the cartoonists, in any event. If not kindly explain what these words mean to you in the context she used them.

        With respect to her other writings, being outspoken does not mean being immature. I said I was less and less impressed by her — it is my opinion not a debate. For example, to me “I don’t do inter faith stuff” is an immature comment both in style and content, you may feel otherwise.

        Similary in the video for which she was interviewed her comments about Ismailis were wrong and demonstrated a shallow and superficial understanding of Ismailism, as I had said but seems to be missing from my post*. One would think that someone as public as she would exercise extra restraint and care when characterizing Ismailis so as to ensure one does so correctly.

        Editor’s Note

        * In Anon’s original post, the opinion about Ms. Brown as being “shallow and superficial” was given without any context or any reference to the video (The Aga Khan and the Ismailis), so that specific statement was removed. It might be more appropriate for Anon to submit his/her views about Ms. Brown’s understanding of Ismailism at the film maker’s blog http://agakhanfilm.blogspot.com/

  3. To add to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Alkarim Jevanee, Mansoor Ladha and Ali Velshi, I would like to mention Zain Verjee from Kenya – who is currently co-anchor of CNN International’s morning program CNN Today and World News with Don Riddell based in the network’s bureau in London (see http://www.cnn.com/CNN/anchors_reporters/verjee.zain.html for her profile). Prior to joining CNN in 2000 she worked as a newsreader on Kenya Television Network, in Nairobi. I live in Toronto and watch the news regularly. There are quite a few young Ismaili Journalists and News Anchors like Farrah Nasser, Omar Sachedina, Hussein Madhavji, Zain Meghji..and maybe more that I do not know about.

    All Ismaili journalists – keep up the great work you are doing. We are proud of you.

  4. An interesting exchange with Yasmin whom I met twice, once at Makerere University Students Reunion in London and the second time at the Midlands Art Centre (MAC), in Birmingham where she gave a solo performance based on her biography and personal memories. She is someone I have a lot in common with. She is a journalist, I am a Peace Activist found in rallies, demonstrations, political meetings, you name it! I do not find many Ismaili brethren in these. I ask, has any of the readers been to Palestine at least 3 times and has continued to support their issue? I have always admired this outspoken journalist from our Ismaili community. We can play a positive role in today’s media of the West, which tends to belittle Islam, by showing an alternative interpretation we follow under the guidance of our present Imam.

  5. There are several Ismaili journalists in North America. Among those who come to mind are Aly Velshi with CNN and Mansoor Ladha who worked for Edmonton Journal and is a regular columnist of Calgary Herald. He was also publisher of two weeklies, Morinville Mirror and Redwater Tribune on the outskirts of Edmonton, which he ran for 25 years.

    • My question to Ms. Alibhai-Brown was specific as to who she knew. But thank you, Mr. Ladha, for noting Mr. Velshi’s and your name among the Ismaili journalists. In addition, there are several others based in Toronto, Vancouver and in the CNN team. I wonder how many there are world-wide.

      I have referred to Mr. Mansoor Ladha in my own Profile and Personal Reflections page because I remember him from his days at “The Tanganyika Standard” (later “The Standard”, Tanzania, which was then renamed as “The Daily News” in 1971 or 1972). His interview with His Highness the Aga Khan, published in the late 1960s or may be 1970/71 was interesting. I know it was after the 1966 Arab-Israeli war.

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