London Is Open
By: Megan Patel
March 18, 2017
“#LondonIsOpen”—the hashtag hypnotically flashed over and over on a screen in London’s iconic Trafalgar Square as people around me grumbled, “We get the message already!” London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, launched the campaign “#LondonIsOpen” to send the positive message that London is open for business because it is not only comfortable, but also proud of its diversity. However, the true sign of London’s diversity was not the indoctrinating campaign, but rather it was the grumbling people around me. People were speaking in Farsi, Hindi, Dari, English, Spanish, and Urdu.
So why had thousands of Londoners (amongst which I proudly include myself) braved a rainy, cold afternoon to gather together in Trafalgar Square? This was Mayor Khan’s idea of a “positive protest.” Mayor Khan decided to screen The Salesman, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, the night of the Oscars to protest President Trump’s travel ban. This ban prevented Farhadi from attending the Oscars, even though The Salesman was nominated for best foreign film, which he eventually won.
The Trafalgar Square protest was unlike any other I had ever attended. Instead of echoes of rallying calls, there was silence as people intently watched the movie. Instead of people marching and standing together in unity, people lounged on their blankets. Instead of people bringing posters, people brought snacks. However, the pervasive sense of unity, resilience, and love was just as strong as what would have been found at a more traditional protest.
Before I left for London, everyone told me I was going to love Britain. And how could one expect anything less from a country with chicken tikka masala as its national dish? Even a preliminary glance around London shows that multiculturalism is woven into London’s cultural fabric. It seems like every other restaurant is a curry house, at any given time you can hear at least three different languages being spoken on the street, and grocery stores don’t have “ethnic” aisles—rather, chapati sits comfortably with bread and egg noodles share shelves with spaghetti. Of course, eating curry and being able to respect someone’s identity as a Muslim, refugee, or immigrant are completely different things. London, and in a broader context the United Kingdom, is still dealing with the implications of Brexit, a rise in reported hate crimes, and what it means to be British. There is a history of imperialism and racism that must also be reconciled.
Yes, London is battling its own demons, not to mention what seems like a global rise in hateful rhetoric. However, I feel optimistic. A few months ago, on inauguration day, I was standing in line for a Picasso exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. There was an elderly British lady behind me who bonded with me over our shared love for Italian culture. Soon, the conversation shifted to politics, and she asked me what the atmosphere was like in the United States after the election of President Trump. Her sister lived in the United States and reported that everyone was elated. So I told her that this was an incredibly nuanced question. Many people I loved were afraid. There had been a rise in hate crimes, and I feared for the safety of my friends who identified as immigrants, South Asian, Muslim, undocumented, and LGBTQ. I told her that almost half of America had voted for President Trump, and half had not. I explained that upon taking office, I hoped President Trump would work towards healing our deeply divided country and use his position as leader of the United States to send the message that the key to making America great was not identifying parts of the populations as “other” because of their sexuality, religion, or race. She responded by saying I should be happy to have a president like President Trump.
We eventually parted ways, having ended our conversation on the quintessentially British topic of the weather. However, the damage had been done. It became harder and harder to concentrate on Picasso, as images of those I loved started whirling together with images of President Trump. I felt alone, as people around me chattered, oohed, and aahed. Suddenly, someone tapped me on my shoulder. It was a lady who had been standing in line with me. “I overheard your conversation while we were in line, I just wanted you to know I’m going to the Woman’s March. I hope to see you there,” she said. With that, she smiled warmly, and walked away.
I was worried that my time abroad would isolate me from the people and political issues I cared about. I was worried that I would lose the support system I had cultivated at Georgetown. I was worried that no one would understand my fear as everything and everyone I loved was under attack. But the events of the past few months have taught me to never underestimate the powerful bond of humanity that connects us all. Human beings possess the beautiful capacity for radical love. And it is this ability of ours that is our saving grace, connecting us to people and experiences thousands of miles away. This radical love brings thousands of people together on a rainy afternoon and compels strangers to comfort other strangers in museums. I am confident that though the future may seem bleak at times, love will prevail.