The death work

Those who have just recently discovered that there are lots of Muslim people in the world, and that those Muslim people often feel whipsawed between alienation over western ways and the dodgy seductions of Islamist extremism, need to get acquainted with the work of Hanif Kureishi, who has been writing from the center of this dilemma for decades.

I was introduced to Kureishi’s work through his tart, enjoyably ramshackle screenplays for My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and My Son the Fanatic, the last of which seems downright prescient when viewed in the light of 9/11 and subsequent events. Even when films like Sammy and Rosie seemed to rattle apart rather than come to a conclusion, that was fine — it’s pretty rare to find movies that suffer from too many ideas, rather than too few. Kureishi’s range also goes beyond politics to the poignant emotional shadings of The Mother, an excellent film that ought to be at the top of everyone’s Netflix list. I remember an interview in which Kureishi said two of his favorite writers were Philip Roth and Rudyard Kipling, which tells you a bit about his orientation.

Kureishi has a taste for raw subject matter and pitch-black humor, so when the BBC decided that it didn’t want his short story “Weddings and Beheadings” read on the air, one’s first reaction was, “What did you think you were going to get?” Fortunately, the Index on Censorship has stepped forward, and you can read the story here.The story is a brief monologue written from the point of view of a videographer who, partly out of fear and partly because he can get no other work, makes videotapes of Islamist groups as they behead Western hostages. The BBC pulled it because it didn’t want to cause distress to the family of Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter who is being held hostage in Gaza. While I profoundly hope Johnston is released unharmed, I think the BBC decision is misguided, to put it charitably.

Though the particulars of Kureishi’s story are very up to date, its fundamental concerns are as old as humanity itself. How can people commit horrible acts while still thinking themselves decent? When does the urge to avoid trouble become the willingness to countenance evil as long as it targets someone else? It’s a question we have had to ask ourselves too many times already, and Kureishi’s story finds a fresh way to pose it:

It might surprise you, but we do get paid; they always give us something ‘for the trouble’. They even make jokes, ‘You’ll get a prize for the next one. Don’t you guy love prizes and statuettes and stuff?’ It’s all hellish, the long drive there with the camera and tripod on your lap, the smell of the sack, the guns, and you wonder if this time you might be the victim. Usually you’re sick, and then you’re in the building, in the room, setting up, and you hear things, from other rooms, that make you wonder if life on earth is a good idea.

I know you don’t want too much detail, but it’s serious work taking off someone’s head if you’re not a butcher; and these guys aren’t qualified, they’re just enthusiastic – it’s what they like to do. To make the shot work, it helps to get a clear view of the victims eyes just before they’re covered. At the end the guys hold up the head streaming with blood and you might need to use some hand-held here, to catch everything. The shot must be framed carefully. It wouldn’t be good if you missed something. [Ideally you should have a quick-release tripod head, something I do possess and would never lend to anyone.]

They cheer and fire off rounds while you’re checking the tape and playing it back. Afterward, they put the body in a bag and dump it somewhere, before they drive you to another place, where you transfer the material to the computer and send it out.

Often I wonder what this is doing to me. I think of war photographers, who, they say, use the lens to distance themselves from the reality of suffering and death. But those guys have elected to do that work, they believe in it. We are innocent.

Of course, the speaker is anything but “innocent,” and the story makes a point of penetrating this defense.

Kureishi is in the ridiculous position of getting in trouble for an abundance of talent. Only a born artist would want to tackle this subject; rather than let us stand apart from the speaker and condemn him, Kureishi puts us in the position of considering how far we might let ourselves go down the same road. That the story is genuinely unsettling is a mark of its artistic quality, and for that it is being penalized.

Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian, calls it “sentimental censorship“:

What’s most concerning is that Kureishi’s story was not written with any reference to Alan Johnston – nor, except through morbid speculation, could any have been read in at the time of judging. At least two of the judges, as it happens, have deep concerns about the currently popular genre of drama-doc. So one of the aspects of Kureishi’s story that was admired was that it so clearly created a generic situation from a specific phenomenon. No reader, listener or relative could conclude that the writer was describing any single online execution.

Indeed, what’s most striking – and, for me, honourable – about the story is that it doesn’t concentrate on the hostage or the terrorist, stock figures in fiction who raise questions of ethics and empathy when dramatised, but on the figure of the camera-operator. Kureishi speculates on how a talented, creative young man could have been diverted towards this barbaric parody of art. The story does not remotely glorify or support such actions but asks: how could people do this?

It can reasonably be objected that the relatives of current or past hostages can not be expected to relish Kureishi’s handling of metaphor and irony. True. But can a society fix its stipulations on free speech at a level set by the sensitivities of those most directly affected? Lockerbie relatives must find Airplane unwatchable; those bereaved by car-crashes could not see Top Gear without queasiness. This section of the audience should not watch, but few would suggest that such shows should be withdrawn completely from the schedules.

The Virginia Tech massacre also illuminates this dilemma. A stage version of DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little is about to open in London; Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin remains one of the country’s best-selling books. Both works turn on high-school shootings. Have those fictions become inappropriate because of recent news events? Surely fiction has as much right to explore such terrible contemporary phenomena as journalism has to report them.

If Michael Moore’s school-shooting documentary Bowling for Columbine had been scheduled to run on British TV this week, the immediate instinct would have been to pull it. But I’d argue that the film is now more, rather than less, valid. Obviously, no relatives of the dead should watch it, but they probably have concerns other than channel-grazing.

In times like these, we need to hear true artists like Hanif Kureishi.

One thought on “The death work

  1. Scott Stiefel says:

    “The Body” is also great.
    Maybe they’ll run this now that Johnston’s home free.

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