Banners and Beautification

The fifth of five responses to the May 2017 bombing of Manchester Arena by scholar, artist, and educator Asif Majid.

In this five-part series of time-delayed field reports, I reflect on my observations of the evolving sociopolitical responses to the May 2017 bombing of Manchester Arena that have taken place over the past year, resonances that have appeared within the city, across the UK, and around the world. All five, the last of which is below and the remainder of which are archived here, lead up to the first anniversary of the attack. The italicized portions of each post are my original thoughts, while the regular text represents my more current reflections. This post, written in the month of the anniversary, entails only my recent thoughts. Much of this is linked to my ongoing research as a PhD candidate in the Anthropology, Media, and Performance program at The University of Manchester.

Since May began, banners have beset Manchester. They are visible everywhere: hanging outside the McDonald’s near the Central Library, outside Manchester Airport, and in Piccadilly Gardens. They are large and plastic, maintaining their structural integrity in the face of awkward and unrelenting Mancunian rain. Invariably, the banners are graphically simple: the phrase “WE ♥MCR” appears in black text with a red heart ideograph emblazoned on a field of white. Smaller versions of the banner also appear in shop windows and on sides of cars with a different phrasing: “I ♥MCR.” Occasionally, the “WE ♥MCR” phrase goes digital, shown on the front of buses whose signs alternate between this phrase and more pragmatic text with the bus number and its destination. Regardless of packaging, though, the message is the same: Manchester stands together.

These banners aren’t new, and neither is their sentiment. After the attack on the arena in May 2017, the phrase emerged as a show of solidarity across the city. It was, as it has been in the lead up to the anniversary, plastered on buses and t-shirts, on storefronts and airports. Statements of cohesion moved from the body of the city to the body of the individual, with thousands getting tattoos of the city’s worker bee mascot in a charity drive for attack victims. To some, however, there is something unsettling about this collective action. Two months after the attack, I had dinner with a prominent Manchester-based theatre-maker from Northern Ireland who couldn’t help but compare a city of tattooed citizens with an army of fervent combatants: “it’s like they’re getting ready for war,” she told me.

Hate crimes against Muslims did spike after the attack, just as they did against Eastern European migrants and Polish communities, specifically, after the Brexit vote in June 2016. Days after the Manchester attack, the far-right English Defence League held a rally in the city center in which they attempted to antagonize Muslims by taking “a bite out of a pig’s head,” as if a xenophobe’s bacon consumption is a problem for the umma. And at the same time, there were heartwarming instances of connection in response to Muslims trying to humanize themselves, such as with vlogger Baktash Noori’s “Hug a Muslim” campaign.

As frustrated as I am by the need for such humanization, my point here is that there is no one narrative. Banners are beautiful sentiments, but they can belie substance. Contentious events bring out the best and worst in people. Underneath every show of unity is the messiness and multiplicity of everyday life.

I can’t help but wonder how together Manchester, or any city, can stand in face of atrocity. Constructing a society is to understand that flaws are part of its existence, imperfections that are debated in the daily interactions that people have with one another. Our public spaces are places of politics, where waving a banner or sporting a tattoo means so much more. It means joining a mass, performing one’s place in the wider infrastructure of the city and the nation. Symbols of unity are just that: symbols. But they point to wider social constructs within which we are all imbricated. Historian Joan Scott said it best when speaking about the evidentiary value of experience to the study of history: “at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted.”

But what of those of us who don’t tattoo ourselves or publicize our loyalties? Where is our place in the public sphere to comment on, question, debate, and challenge dominant narratives? Are those who protest the British government’s failure to fund the National Health Service any less patriotic than those whose thinly veiled institutional racism results in the deportation of thousands of Afro-Caribbean elders to make Britain great (read: white) again? Does kneeling for the national anthem or not saying the pledge of allegiance make someone less patriotic than those that do? Does patriotism even matter? These public shows are political as much as they are performative. One’s absence or presence in performing a certain identity — be it national, religious, political, social, linguistic, or otherwise — is not absence or presence ofthat identity. It is simply a particular expression of it.

And so are the banners and slogans that have returned to Manchester since the beginning of the month. They remember the past. To remember is not only to “recall to the mind by an act or effort of memory” or “retain in the memory; keep in mind; remain aware of,” as the dictionary tells us. It is also to re-member. Or, etymologically speaking, it is to reconstitute a “constituent part of a complex structure.” To re-member is to remake, reconstruct, rebuild. The slogans, the banners, the adornments: all are part of a collective process of tapping into a productive, positive citywide energy, one that takes the blemishes with the beauty. It may not be perfect, but hindsight never is.

Asif Majid was born outside Baltimore, MD. His mother grew up in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria, and later became an avid gardener and public health expert. His father grew up in northern Pakistan as a poetry enthusiast and budding engineer. As an infant, Asif enjoyed playing pots and pans at his mother’s feet, resulting in a lifelong passion for performance that has led him to mosques, schools, churches, cafés, festivals, treetops, concert halls, and community centers. He graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he designed his own major focusing on peace and conflict. Asif then earned an MA with distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, during which time he devised and assistant directed Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage at The Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, for which he is doing an ethnography of devising theater with British Muslim youth. As an educator, Asif has engaged thousands of young people in the United States and abroad through summer programs, Model UN activities, and work at Arena Stage, Seeds of Peace, and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, using online and theatrical simulations to develop their understandings of racism, identity, and conflict.