Month April

  • Selling impossible dreams

    This article was just published in EMEL magazine.

    Yes, it’s true, you too can be perfect. L’Oreal can give you the perfect hair, Oil of Olay can give you perfect skin, and Ralph Lauren can dress you in the coolest clothes.

    You too can be like the perfect models in their adverts. You just need to believe in the dream, and oh yes, cough up a few pennies to buy the products. Thick glossy hair created by L’Oreal products, demonstrated by Cheryl Cole. Smooth wrinkle free skin under your eyes courtesy of Oil of Olay, as seen on model Twiggy, and a hip outfit demo’d on skinny models at Lauren.

    Cole spends up to £200,000 per year to achieve her beauty, of which hair extensions are a regular cost. L’Oreal don’t feel it is misleading for her to promote their products even though their shampoo could never give the look of Cole’s extension-enhanced hair. The Advertising Standards Authority said this level of deception was acceptable because for two out of the thirty seconds of the TV advert, in small writing, it indicates that ‘some’ extensions may have been used. Twiggy’s advert for wrinkle-reducing eye-cream had all her under-eye wrinkles airbrushed out in post production.

    Ralph Lauren's model looks impossibly ridiculous

    Ralph Lauren’s model had been photoshopped so that her head was bigger than her pelvis. When criticism of the adverts was posted online, their lawyers sent round threatening letters to silence the critics. 

    The beauty industry justifies airbrushing because it claims it is selling a dream. But their products are sold based on a deception and incapable of delivering the advertised airbrushed perfection.

    These are con artists – people who set out to sell a product to meet a state that has been manufactured to be unattainable. And con artists have always existed.

    Yet we are deceived today into believing this perfection is attainable through a number of more modern tools. We have a more visual culture now, where images visualise on giant billboards the perfection that our lives ought to be. Of course, those lives are airbrushed and carefully staged, impossible for the products to deliver against. However, because we can now actually see the utopia that the products will turn our lives into, the impossible dream reaches a new dimension – suggesting to the believing innocent eye that the impossible is in fact possible.

    But the bigger problem is this: selling dreams that can never be realised is now sanctioned. Corporations have now established as legitimate ‘right’ to sell impossible-to-achieve dreams.

    The financial sector sold things that were never real, products that were derivatives of products and not real actual things. We were told this was good for us and for our economy. But what was sold was so vapid and intangible that it took but a blink of an eye for it to disappear. No wonder ordinary people with ordinary common sense were left baffled as to where did all the money suddenly go? The boom was built on fluff that never existed and as soon as one part of the manufactured dream was exposed as an ephemera, the whole thing vanished in an instant.

    Political parties are doing the same – they create a brand like “Broken Britain” and then ‘solve’ it with their own branding and puff. The Conservative party will solve Broken Britain with Big Society.  It’s all just so much upper case branding, and so little real product.

    Even extreme religious leaders sell the ‘dream’ of paradise to persuade innocents into killing themselves and others. They say: it’s us or them, and then offer a solution of violence and criminality, where the death of innocent people is airbrushed out of the equation, and utopia is created from an act of violence.

    We’ve institutionalised the legitimacy of selling a dream that can never become reality. In fact, selling dreams has been made to seem to be a good thing because shopping for a dream life is supposedly in the interests of consumers. We’ve been told that what consumers want most is to buy into a dream. No matter the hollow feeling that’s left when failing to achieve perfection from oversold products.

    We’ve been told that the fluff and stuff is important in creating our dream lives. Fluff is not fulfilling. And aspiring to something impossible simply results in heartache.

    Our institutions are condoning selling ephemeral intangible fluff, rather than real things that will make things better in real terms. But it is to producing and selling real things, that can achieve real outcomes, based in reality, that we must return.

    continue reading
  • Discovering Britain’s Biggest Untapped Market – Muslim Focus

    Tomorrow afternoon at the London Book Fair, I will be chairing a seminar to explore the ‘Muslim market’.  I think it will be incredibly insightful, and refreshing for one of the world’s great book fairs to consider a growing market both in the UK and globally that is hungry for ‘Muslim’ writing. Personally, I think ‘Muslim focus’ can mean a number of things: subjects that have Muslims at their heart, like Zeitoun, or Guantanamo Boy; or Muslim writers, or that may speak to the stories of Muslims that are otherwise unheard. Of course, my own experience in writing Love in a Headscarf was to find publishers who could believe that the kind of story that a Muslim woman wanted to tell, that didn’t fit into an ‘alias’ or a pre-existing ‘mould’ was worth telling, but could also be commercial.

    For me, I think the biggest challenge for publishers who genuinely want to nurture Muslim writers, as well as appeal to Muslim readers, is to allow voices to tell their own narrative, rather than handpicking writers that fit a pre-existing idea of what it means to be Muslim. I think Robin Yassin Kassab is a fabulous example of Muslims telling their own complex-shades-of-grey-human-resonance stories from Muslim eyes in his book The Road From Damascus, whereas personally I thought Monica Ali’s Brick Lane was unbelievable and inauthentic, although of course it was a runaway commercial success.

    Anyway, for tomorrow’s seminar, the joint organisers are DIPNET (Diversity in Publishing Network) and MWA (Muslim Writers Awards). And the panel members will be:

    Anna Perera, author of Guantanamo Boy, published by Puffin, was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Award.

    Farahad Zama, author of the Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a Richard & Judy and Daily Mail book of the month, short listed for Best New Writer of the Year at the British Book Awards and Best Published Fiction at the Muslim Writers Awards.

    Dr Claire Chambers, a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Leeds Metropolitan University, specialising in literary representations of British Muslims. She has published widely in such journals as Postcolonial Text, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature and The Journal of Postcolonial Writing.

    continue reading
  • Should Marriage be Political: Marriage, realism and rugs (from the Guardian)

    This was published today on Comment is Free in response to the question they are asking “Should marriage be political’

    Marriage, realism and rugs

    Marriage is not just a bit of paper, But it needs a clear contract at its foundation and the state should make this easier

    Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It’s an agreement that two people will create and build a relationship together. Is that unromantic? Maybe it seems that way because we think of contracts as regulating things like house purchases, business transactions, loans and financial agreements.We like – in fact we demand – strong binding written commitments when it comes to the inanimate things in our lives. So why don’t we take the same approach to the agreement that is probably the most important thing in our life and will have the greatest impact on us – the relationship with our partner?

    The “piece of paper” is the written representation of the agreement between the couple based on a level-headed discussion between the two individuals who are coming together. Relationships can easily be derailed without a clear understanding of things like how the couple will approach finances, shared life values, how to deal with in-laws (or simply outlaw them), where in the world the couple wants to live, what working arrangements, who will stay at home to raise children (if anyone) or even if each of the two want children at all.

    This more substantial meaning and agreement that ought to go into building a relationship is absent in today’s popular discussion about marriage – or any long term marriage-type partnership. It may not surprise you to know that I’m an advocate of marriage, but I believe that the same clarity of agreement should apply to all intimate relationships. Many of today’s relationships are all about falling in love and achieving the dizzy heights of romance. And love and romance are great – I wrote a whole book about searching for them called Love in a Headscarf. However, side by side with feeling “that feeling” the wider framework of agreement that I mention above is mostly unclear and un-spelt out in the grammar of the relationship. The piece of paper ought not to be symbolic but rather it should be an important verbalisation and written commitment – a document – of the aspirations and understanding of the relationship.

    The Imilchil Marriage Festival takes places in a Moroccan village in the Atlas mountains every autumn, where bachelors from the surrounding area will come to see a range of bachelorettes that want to get married. I’m generally ambivalent about the idea of marriage markets, but the way that these women set about engaging in a relationship and empowering themselves in it is pertinent to our discussion here. They will weave a rug in the run up to the event, incorporating various symbols which represent what they are looking for in a marriage. A line of camels represents a taste for travel, a row of mosques might indicate an interest in religion. The rug with its myriad of symbols represents her aspirations for her marriage. As the bachelors are introduced to the bachelorettes, they inspect the rug to see what kind of marriage the woman has in mind, so that the two of them have a shared perspective on life and a common understanding of the relationship. In later years, if the wife feels that her husband is not honouring their commitment, she just points to her rug to remind him of their agreement. I believe that the husband ought really to have his own rug too so there is a shared understanding of the relationship. In essence, the rug here is the ‘bit of paper’ that we dismiss so easily.

    The state’s role in the marital contract is the same as with other contracts – to help the parties to manage the contract by offering a context which is conducive to the contract, and to intervene and resolve the breakdown of the contract in the most suitable fashion. Traditionally this was managed by the support structures of families or religious institutions, both of which were there to help the couple build and manage their relationship. But the influence of both of those has now diminished.

    However, Cameron’s approach is wrong because it treats marriage as an arrangement which is about children. What we need from politicians is not tax breaks, but better institutions to bolster relationships. Why not have guidance available from relationship centres. We don’t have innate relationship skills – we have to learn them. We have “family planning” for our sex lives; what about relationship planning for our emotional and personal lives?

    continue reading
  • Looking for Muslim playwrights – is this you?

    The prestigious Royal Court Theatre is looking for aspiring Muslim playwrights, as part of their ‘Unheard Voices’ work. They say:

    “The Royal Court is running an 11-week playwriting group starting in May 2010 to develop and nurture the next generation of young Muslim writers.  Each weekly session will involve sharing ideas, reading and talking about plays and writing exercises.  You will work towards writing a new play, which we will read in consideration for production here at the Royal Court. “

    It sounds like a fantastic opportunity, and anyone who has thought about writing for theatre should definitely apply. All you need to do is pull together at least 10 pages for the submission and get it to the organisers by April 16th.

    You can see more details, and how to apply here:

    continue reading