Last night, Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar for his film The Salesman, but did not attend the 89th Academy Awards show to claim his prize. He stayed away in protest against President Trump’s travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including his own. A few hours earlier a cold, damp Trafalgar Square was packed with thousands of people watching a special screening of the movie, an event put on by London’s Muslim mayor to demonstrate that Britain’s capital intends to remain open to the world.
The formal powers of London mayors are not as great as they should be, but holders of the office do have considerable power to make a noise. Sadiq Khan’s noise about The Salesman was exactly the kind Brexit Britain and the world needs to hear. His five-minute speech introducing the film provided a short, sharp and clear reminder of what could be lost if the fearful mentality that fuels Trumpism and the Ukip-appeasment strategy of Theresa May’s government is not challenged and checked.
Welcoming men and women, young and old, people of every faith and none, he said, “We have people here from all around the world. We are a city open to talent, we are a city open to creativity and we are a city open to people. Whether you are from Iran or Iraq, whether you’re from Streatham or Shoreditch, whether you’re from Lebanon or London, you are welcome”. To cheers, he declared that the capital stands in solidarity with Farhadi and “all those who face discrimination because of their nationality, their faith or their background”. He added: “At a time when people are talking about building walls, we should build bridges.”
It is standard practice for London mayors to embrace and endorse the city’s kaleidoscopic ethnic and cultural variety, praising it as a source of social and economic strength. Even Boris Johnson, the Brexit poster boy, signed up to this consensus during his eight years at City Hall. So established has this stance become that “celebrating diversity” can sometimes sound like a cliche, a convention so routine that it risks being drained of strength and meaning.
Khan’s Salesman speech did not break new ground, unless you count his crowd-pleasing, transatlantic barb “President Trump can’t silence me”, but that wasn’t its purpose. The context in which he made it fuelled his reiteration of London’s beauty as a cosmopolitan world city with new resonance and urgency.
When the idea of travelling to Trump’s America sends a ripple of foreboding through even me, a white Englishman, it was good to be reminded of the predicament of others who really do have cause for anxiety. With some rubbing their hands at the thought of London becoming the shrunken, suspicious, closed-in capital of a nation retreating into diminished isolation, it was comforting to hear its political leader speaking up for its best and most precious values. London is open. Let’s keep it that way.