Victoria Park panorama, Lawrence Fredric White (Wiki Commons)
Taking my kids to the V&A-designed playground at Victoria Park this morning, where toddlers in swim nappies braved the indecisive English weather to splash in a trickle of water pumped into a sandpit, I was sitting on a rock to watch my children climb the wooden castle when a girl of about one stumbled up to me, grabbing my knee to steady herself, and stared earnestly into my eyes.
Her brother seemed embarrassed; smiling, he tried to coax her away, back to her pink Disney princess toy buggy, with the blonde haired, blue eyed, gormless-looking dolly sitting in it. He spoke to her in Arabic; both had tumbles of black hair, and a skin tone that I found hard to place on my Mental Map of Ethnicities: perhaps Sudanese? Or Southern Egyptians?
There was another sister, who wore a vivid purple satin dress with a flowered sash, unusually festive for the sandpit, where my son and his friends were exploding damp sand-balls off each other’s shoulders. She also seemed particularly excited, amazed even, at this place. At some point I realised that they did not speak enough English to talk to the others, only speaking Arabic to their mother (a pretty, round-faced woman in a brown hijab and jilbab, or long tunic coat) to to each other.
Then I noticed that in the process of doing my best impression of an exasperated mother (why is it I can’t stop doing that impression sometimes?) I was yelling out the names of my kids and their friends – all of which were Arabic. I might have imagined that the mother’s ears pricked up, looking out for the Muslim-named children, but it seemed as though they did.
The peculiarity of the situation struck me. A couple of white, English-looking people, shouting Arabic names to their equally white, English-looking kids…without a means of communicating fluently with a Muslim family right beside us who probably would have been glad to have been able to communicate with someone there. Did the mother or the children think we’d just given our kids those names because they were fashionable that year? Beyoncé, Travis, Chantelle…Muhammad, Sakeena, Jamal…
And did our kids understand that they had something in common with these other kids, playing alongside them silently, their wide eyes reading the playground and all the sandcastles and plastic watermills like a sort of field trip to England?
I started hunting for a pretext to practice some of my (rather limited) Arabic with the mother. Spoken Arabic is always the bugbear of classroom students – and me perusing a dictionary or bouncing grammar questions off my friends’ heads doesn’t even count as a classroom lesson. ‘As-salaamu ‘alaykum an…er…afham…‘Arabiyya…er…shuayya shuayya!’ Not the scintillating conversation I’d like to have, but I’ve started worse in other languages and still received warm responses. There is something about the language barrier that has always made me want to scale it.
Aerial shot of Victoria Park by Bald Boris (WIki Commons)
But the family moved on before I got a chance to ask where they were from, if they were holidaying here, if they liked Victoria Park/London/all that smalltalk stuff, if they needed any help with translation, what their kids’ favourite games were…In any case, I wouldn’t have been able to ask all those things.
And who knows what their response would have been? Wondering why my friend and I weren’t wearing scarves? I’d avoided the SOAS Islamic Society like the plague for the first few years of my time there out of fear of being judged; when I was eventually lured by the smell of free iftars, in my fourth and final year, I noticed how many people there dressed like me: with the subtle veil of normalcy (well, relatively speaking). I had wanted to kick myself at prejudging the ISOC as being so judgmental.
How many beautiful connections had I missed out on because of my avoidance tactic? It is so hard to know how you will be taken, accepted, rejected, treated as a kindred spirit, scolded, looked after, criticised, hugged; but the years are proving to me that the worst of it happens very rarely, and the best of it happens more often than you realise.
Probably the greatest fear of randomly speaking to other Muslims is the unavoidable fact that I will never be one of them – at least, not in the sense of their homeland, their food, their customs. Language seems like one of the only ways, bettered only by praying in jam‘a, that I’ve really felt a part of a Muslim culture other than my own, English micro-culture. It’s a bit of a pathetic fear, though. I’d rather focus on this wonderful filament that connects us.
Only a few days previously, I’d been in the exact same spot, being alternately drizzled on and sprayed with sand, when I’d seen a group of Bangladeshi women strolling their kids and buggies through the park, some hijab’ed, some nijab’ed. And the sight of one of them, dressed entirely in black with only her eyes showing, sent a shiver of fear through me.
I have never had to wear a face veil, and always thought it would feel suffocating; but a new friend, met this summer, relates that growing up in the city of Medina, girls looked forward to being able to wear a niqab, as this was what grown-up women did. It was like owning your first pair of high heels – equally impractical, and yet so deeply ingrained into our understanding (in the West, at least) of womanhood that it feels like you’re hopelessly conservative if you don’t wear one!
But, as I am beginning to see, there is so much I still fear about my own fellow Muslims. The papers must be getting to me.
P.S. A very funny new animated cartoon from Pakistan, Burka Avenger, takes the idea of this fear and turns it on its head; the term ‘ninja’ couldn’t be more apt!
This post is part of a forthcoming series of reflections, ‘The Invisible Muslim’.