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Love is all there is, and the human flesh

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo   |   17 June 2017   |   1:30 am


“FED with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means,warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer…?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”

As he often is, Shakespeare was right once again about the human condition, 400 years ago, voicing Shylock’s sentiments about how a Jew hurts, bleeds, heals the same way as a Christian.

As wide a berth as we feel may be between us and the ‘other’ the truth is we hurt, bleed and burn the same way. The problem is we often focus so much on our differences to see what unites us: our weak, fragile, perishable human flesh.

Before we go into any further detail as to what Shakespeare’s Jew in The Merchant of Venice has in common with the Muslims of the Grenfell Tower, let me whisk you over to Istanbul, a city of 18 million housed in mainly high tower blocks.

In the late ‘80s a TV show, ‘Bizimkiler’ (‘Our Own’) became a huge hit running every Sunday for 13 years, reaching peak popularity between 1988 and 1995, the very time span I spent in high school, so it was a joy to tune in every Sunday to keep up with the apartment block living of middle-class parents Şükrü and Nazan Başaran and their son Ali who was the same age as me and their neighbours in their apartment building from the busybody porter Cafer to the crazy cat lady Ayla.

Recently helping my mum move back into her apartment following rebuilding as part of the city-wide urban transformation and tuning into the Whatsapp group formed by the residents who were constantly in touch regarding the building work, with discussions on anything from the radiator fittings to where to get the most affordable curtains, I had the chance to reminisce on the apartment building living.

There is always a busybody who wants to know what wall paint Number 4 chose to when in July the newlyweds in Number 12 are going on holiday, always a manager who takes charge and guides everyone in the direction of the most affordable curtains or the most reliable carpenters, there is always the introverts like my mum who only speaks when spoken to and only when absolutely necessary, and there is always the one that nobody likes. In the last apartment building we lived in it was the unfriendly German woman who hadn’t bothered learning a single word of Turkish despite living in the country for 15 years, in this building the resident who put an obstacle every step of the rebuild until she managed to secure a hefty payment by the contractors.

Now imagine such living arrangements in a cosmopolitan city such as London. Let us just imagine Grenfell Tower. The one which housed 600 people, the one which burnt to ashes in the early hours of 14 June and kept smouldering for hours after, the one that claimed at least 17 lives, with 74 people in hospitals, 17 of which in critical condition, and dozens of people, some children, still unaccounted for.

A quick peruse over the names of the missing and the dead read like the United Nations: the 12-year old Jessica Urbano, a mother of three Nura Jamal, 27-year-old Italian architect Marco Gottardi who had moved to London just three months ago with girlfriend Gloria Trevisan to seek work, Sudanese mother-of-two, Rania Ibrham whose last communication with friends was “Guys I can’t get out’ on Snapchat…

There is no excuse, in the year 2017, that 24-storey tower block can go up in flames within hours and cause such devastation. There remain many questions with regards to fire safety instructions distributed to residents telling them to stay put in their flats in the event of a fire, the lack of sprinklers, the feeble fire alarms, the reportedly flammable cladding panels, or how a tower block which survived decades can burn to dust despite £8.6 million refurbishment project. And yet, as in the aftermath of any tragedy, there is still hope, a tiny sliver of sunshine amidst the ashen darkness.

In communities fractured by Brexit, traumatised by the recent terror attacks, puzzled by the impending coalition and the Brexit discussions, could Grenfell Tower be a charred totem of all that unites us?

Speaking to the papers on Thursday morning was Layla Caulfield, a blind 51-year-old who lives opposite the tower. “ I heard everyting,” she said, “There were little children screaming, ‘help me, help, please help me’. One guy screamed when he jumped. My son said he was on fire. There were people inside shouting, ‘We are going to die’. I could hear the explosions from the gas going pop, pop, pop. There was a father shouting that he had a baby and could not get out. He was shouting, ‘help me, help me.’”

The truth is, despite the party we vote for, the God we pray to, the language we speak, we all scream the same, hurt the same, bleed the same, burn the same. It is our weak, fragile, perishable human flesh that unites us. That, and love. Love and kindness of strangers that rally round in the aftermath of such tragedies, to raise funds for the victims, offer food, shelter, clothes, wi-fi, words of kindness, and if nothing else, a shoulder to lean on.




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