Friday, 8 August 2008

Comparisons and Likenesses

I do wish people would stop describing the worst areas of our country and communities as “like Beirut”. Areas which are constantly suffering from anti-social behaviour and criminal activity are often referred to in this way. A newspaper report tells us that residents in the Page Hall area of Sheffield say that they are living in a “hell hole which belongs in downtown Beirut, not 21st century South Yorkshire”. Note - not even just Beirut, but downtown Beirut.

Now I am not for one moment suggesting that Page Hall is not experiencing serious problems (as are many areas, with the numbers of incidents increasing) There are reports of appalling behaviour, with partying till all hours with loud music, people living far too many to one house to be either healthy, safe or legal, car racing, rubbish being thrown on the streets and into others gardens and other totally unacceptable ways of living within a community. They are particularly despondent and despairing that the efforts that were put in last year with Sheffield in Bloom have been wasted, and they feel destroyed mentally and physically. Understandably. I empathise with them and hope that the multi-agencies that need to be involved in these issues, according to police sector commander Andy Barrs, get moving extremely quickly and sort out the situation as soon as possible.

I am concerned, though, at the labelling and comparisons that are made and reported in the paper, which will no doubt already have been passed on, and furthered the impressions and misconceptions of a place that I am sure, none of these people have been to.
The families named as causing the anti-social issue are Slovakian. My geography may not be perfect, but I am sure I am correct in stating that Slovakia is in Central Europe. It borders the Czech Republic and Austria, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary. It’s largest city and capital is Bratislava. Beirut, however, is the capital of Lebanon, a country in the Middle East (sometimes now called Western Asia) and it’s borders are Syria and Israel.
Ok , I can hear you saying, we don’t need a geography lesson, either. But my point is that if you are going to liken something to something else - be it an area, country person or whatever - then at least make the likeness appropriate. Not only do Slovakian people not generally live in Beirut, but “Downtown Beirut” in 2008 is as far removed in similarities to Sheffield’s less fortunate areas than it is in miles. (or kilometres, if we want to be precise on both sides)

In 2004, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire stated that anti-social conduct was making people feel like they lived in Beirut. “If they feel like they live in Beirut, they won’t care one bit that we are stamping out gun-crime” he announced. I went to Lebanon that year. I lived in and experienced the poorer towns south of Beirut – and yes, poor there can be really poor. I returned again the next year and whilst I saw many guns, carried by army personnel and the police, I never once feared that I would be shot, just for the sheer hell of it, by a gang standing on the streets. The terrible wars were over by now and so I had no fear of snipers either. Or of being stabbed as I emerged from a cafĂ© or strolled on the beach. Beirut has it’s less affluent parts and it’s richer parts, as do all cities in the world, and during the war untold damage was done. But it was the same in Sheffield during the war here.
Today “Downtown Beirut” is a major world tourist attraction. It has a multitude of fine buildings, marbled plazas and fountains and as many top class restaurants, cafes, theatres, and entertainment as anyone could wish for. It also has beautiful beaches kept clean and tidy, and no one stays at home after 6pm in case they get abused on the street by a teenager.

The situation in Page Hall and many other areas in this country is deplorable. But don’t liken it to Downtown Beirut as the comparison just does not work. It also perpetuates divisive thinking and community and racial disharmony – which surely is what we are trying to prevent.