dirty pretty things

Survival: The Enigma of Diaspora


Why would a young man or woman strive to leave their country for another place? What did they expect to find in that other place? How is it that that other place has, in their imagination, taken on the verdancy, the ethereal perfume of paradise?  These things roiled together and burst when I saw Stephen Frears’ 2002 film, Dirty Pretty Things.


On the 4th of November 2014, I received a call from my half brother who, having been impressed by my writing, was sending me a laptop to encourage me. The laptop didn’t arrive Owerri until the 20th of that same month. For bureaucratic reasons, I wasn’t able to pick up the package until the 6th of March the following year.

The laptop turned out to be a fairly new Dell lnspiron N5010 laptop formerly being used by my half brother. Apart from a few softwares,  it was practically empty except in the ‘Videos’ section where I found the square facsimile of a camera film. Below it was the inscription: ‘Dirty.Pretty.Things’

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I thought at first it was one of those video clips that were supposed to be funny, given its smirky, perhaps even indignant, title.

I clicked on the video and was suprised to see a much younger Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Olusegun Olatokunbo Fadibe, an illegal immigrant doctor from Nigeria, working as a taxi driver by day and as a hotel receptionist by night. We see him navigate through life, trying to escape the clutches of the London immigration, in a hostile nightmarish society, full of other transient immigrant figures from all over the world, in which he must strive to survive.

Here, in the vast maze of London, he meets Senay (played by Audrey Tatuo), a North African immigrant who wants to join her cousin in New York. Her view of her place in London is as a means to achieving total freedom and well-being. New York, then, for her, is a mythical place, an earthly paradise where all her strivings seem to be geared towards. When Mr Fadibe tells her that he had been to New York she asks him if it is true that ‘they put light in trees, the police ride white horses’ and so on. She is also suprised that someone who had been to New York could ever leave it. She asks him why he left and he replies: “It is the African story.”

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At this point he does not want to shatter her paradisiacal myth of New York. Senay, to him, seems like a baby unable to understand deeply the significance of her mundane situation, seeing only the surface. Yet her naiveté is somehow what makes her not only vulnerable but also able to make firm decisions about her future. While Senay first comes across as timid, she gets, over the course of the movie, bolder and more assertive with her opinions. She is important to Dr Fadibe whom she habours illegally in her apartment. His presence in her house contains her insecurity—Senay’s mother had been an alcoholic—and his abscence gives them leeway to wreak havoc.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s role is a subjective one: one in which his passionate portrayal of Dr. Olatokunbo’s life, majorly, as a political exile in London not only comes across as cinematically real but also as a lived experience. The basics of this experience encompass the total aggregation of the immigrant narrative: of individuals escaping oppressive regimes at home, of families seeking peace away from war-torn homelands, of people seeking the promise of better life by following the myth of immigrant success; it is a narrative that span diverse geographical locations, from the forests and savannahs of sub-saharan Africa to the hot deserts of Arabia to the communist states of the Orients to the divided Balkans.

In the vast immigrant underworld of London, diseases and immigration sharks continue to harrass the hopeless immigrants whose response is borne out of a fierce striving to survive in a world intolerant of their existence. This is why they must survive among themselves, using, as the saying goes, what they have to get what they want. While trying to achieve their ‘wants’, they must serve the society they are in, work menial jobs and remain invisible. Olatokunbo’s reply to the buyer of Sneaky’s kidney when he comments on never having seen their faces before during these shady transactions is extant: “Because we are the ones that drive your cabs, clean your rooms and suck your cocks.”

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Olatokunbo’s medical background—his past, as it is—never hides itself, following him everywhere like a shadow. A group of immigrant blacks who had caught syphilis or gonorrhea are helped by him. Similarly, in the Baltic Hotel where he works at night he is concerned by what he encounters daily—and particularly disturbed when he discovers a human heart in a toilet bowl. Sneaky, the suspicious hotel manager, tells him that customers do not only pay for board, they pay for privacy to conduct certain personal businesses. The hotel might as well serve as a microcosm of the larger world where the transient movement of humans are tenuous one mustn’t concern oneself with who comes and who goes, if one wishes to stay long.

Perhaps Olatokunbo’s predicament is that of a doctor: in spite of the off-handed advice he gets from all who had come to this immigrant wilderness before him, he cannot disabuse himself of that clinical concern for people’s welfare. The case of Shinti, the Somali immigrant, is particularly harrowing. This is why Sneaky is confident of blackmailing him into his human parts racket, confident that Olatokunbo, with his accent and Nigerian identity, cannot make a decent living in London from decent means.

As it turns out, a shady business has been going on in the hotel for sometime: Sneaky has been engaged in exploiting the immigrants’ need to achieve permanency in diaspora: the immigrants allow themselves to be deceived into selling their kidneys in exchange for passports. Few of them survive the hack job performed on their bodies to get the prized kidneys. This is how Sneaky makes his money.

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Expectedly Dr. Fadibe is disturbed by this. Curiously, he believes himself to be beyond involvement in such inhumane racket, believing himself to be guided by certain principles. But Dr. Fadibe’s virtuousness is louche. For a man who is accused of murdering his wife, the uncertainty is all too obvious. Guo Yi, his Korean friend, tells him at one point, “There is nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man”. To survive in the immigrant underworld one cannot afford to have principles and virtues. Virtues are for comfortable people, not for people whose desire to survive are weighed against their need to accept compromises.



Of course this isn’t the first of Ejiofor’s movies that I have seen, even though I am not much of a moviegoer. Ejiofor’s role in Half of a Yellow Sun is assertive, clear-cut, loud and domineering—one of the few, doubtless,  whose talents shine in the movie despite its unforgiveable flaws. His performance in 12 Years A Slave is equally affecting.

Teju Cole, in the essay ‘Red Shift’ in his book of essays, Known and Strange Things, commented, ‘Few things are more mysterious than someone else’s favourite film. To hear it named is to be puzzled. You appreciate its merits but not how it can be preferable to all others. Perhaps your favourite film isn’t the one that you like best but the one that likes you best. It confirms you on first encounter and goes on to shape you in some irreversible way. Often, you see it when you’re young, but not too young, and on each subsequent viewing it is a home to which you return.’   Dirty Pretty Things may not be a perfect movie,  certainly not a Titanic, but the sibilant sequence of scenes struck a chord—something lineal and ostensibly visceral which I can only trace back to a lot of familial happenings in the 90’s and 2000’s. One here appreciates T E Lawrence’s idea of man as a peripatetic wayfarer, as one who, like Fergus in Peter Behren’s The Law of Dreams, must continue to move in search of an elusive resting place.

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In the end this is their desire, everyone’s desire: to leave. The yearnings and aspirations of all immigrants is the reason why they do outrageous things that seem to sever the thick curtain of principles they must have set for themselves. In all their engagements they must never lose sight of their yearnings, their ultimate need to exist, to keep moving till they get to a final resting place. Perhaps this is why, trying to brush away Senay’s desperate love of him, Dr Fadibe tells her: “For you and I there is only survival.” For him love is a luxury, something to avoid and dissimulate in such a fleeting world.


Chimezie Chika has been published in The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Aerodrome,  Praxis Magazine,  among other places. He writes from Owerri.

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