The Invisible Muslim, part 1



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’.

The Night A Thief Showed Me Freedom

We were at a restaurant in Soho, one of those brightly-lit places with stylish wallpaper that lures designers and their ilk into this grimy crease on London’s streetmap, in which creep junkies, tourists in sunhats, reckless rickshaw riders, jazz joints and telephone boxes so filthy they make you clutch your mobile like a prayer book.


S and I had been friends back in sixth form; she was about the only person I’d stayed in touch with since then, and had later moved to London herself to work. There is always something slightly giddy about meeting up with old friends. Each successive year intensifies the conversation you eventually have, compressing the changes into a solid mass, studded with events.

For my part (I’ll let her tell her own), I’d had my second child, got divorced, and fallen in love. See what I mean? So much upheaval and transformation – both painful and wonderful – condensed into one sentence. What is even more amazing is that after those potent little phrases pop out, with the shock and laughter that ensue, it feels like you can talk about anything, fluidly, easily. The stopper is wrenched off and the most intimate information pours out.

So engaged we must have been in our conversation that when it came to pay the bill, and I discovered a dusty corner where my bag should have been – right beneath my feet – I realised that it could have been an hour before that a thief had sneaked in the door and somehow (“Perhaps they used a crutch”, the policeman suggested afterwards) made off with my shoulder bag. It was a busy night. Soho is like that. The consolation, at the time, was that the restaurant owner said she’d let us off the bill.

We walked S’s bike, ticking, through the throngs of people getting progressively more smashed until we found a police station – checking the bins, fruitlessly, along the way, in case the thief had dumped the important stuff (i.e. my passport).

The police station was just closing up as we arrived, but an earnest, shortish man in uniform led us down to the basement where the graveyard shift was coming to life in order to make the report. Oh, that basement. If the theft alone wasn’t enough to deter me from visiting Soho again at night, the photos of criminals papering the walls along with details of what they were wanted for (dangerous dogs, rape, drug dealing, arson, assault, prostitution, mugging…) certainly would.

But like the dramas of the recent past that we had just been pondering over our wild mushroom risottos, this little drama, in comparison, was quite hilariously small. The immediacy of it brought our patience and good humour out in their most rarified forms. We must have sat for nearly an hour in that bunker of criminal terrors, listening to the amiable banter of the other policemen and being offered berry-flavoured tea, before strolling out – me significantly less encumbered – into the crisp night air.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

I remember it as being a summer night, but logically it must have been sometime in April. Yet the sense of lightness was pervasive and strong. It spread to my feet, which still had their shoes on; to my hands, which were now freed to swing about instead of anxiously clutching at a bag full of important documents; to my head, mercifully still not processing all the boring bureaucratic details of getting an emergency passport in the two days I had before my flight back to Spain.

In a strange sort of way, moments like these make me happy to be unfortunate. Crises are never so critical when you take away the stress of thinking about them. It’s just another situation that need to be dealt with, like mopping up a spilt juice or lump of porridge thrown by a toddler exercising her triceps.

Generosity surfaces when a friend is in trouble, too. I borrowed S’s phone to call ahead, and she lent me her Oyster card with just enough on it to get where I needed to go. (Thankyou S!) Then a friend of a friend, who I’d never met, came to meet me at the Tube station. I suppose it was hard to mistake the one person getting off the train without any personal belongings.

What made it all the more blissful was arriving at a Sufi gathering among delightful people, singing and drinking tea and eating Turkish delight into the wee hours. I had sailed from central London to the outskirts, to a dark recess of Tottenham, constantly amazed at how little I had to worry about now that everything had gone. What else could anyone take?

That was when I realised how much of a strain it is having objects, possessions, and especially gadgets, most of which are supposedly meant to make life easier.

How much more stressful is life when you are constantly having to check beeping machines dangling from your person? Or clutching at bags containing collections of mainly useless things in case someone makes off with them, wanting the two or three useful bits and throwing the rest away? How much grief is spared when those scenarios are not imaginatively played out, recurrently, like scenes from a bad, made-for-TV film in which the actors aren’t getting paid? (See this previous post for more on that.)

And once I was reunited with my kids a few days later, my secondary realisation was that I spent a lot of my time with them in much the same way as I had been attending to my supposedly helpful possessions. “Oh, my son just beeped” – “I think she’s running out of batteries, better get home and put her on charge” – “WHERE ARE MY – oh, there they are” etc. etc.

There is so much unnecessary anxiety surrounding possession. Once you bust the notion that anything is actually yours in the first place – especially a human being – then the issue becomes more one of maintenance. There are steps needed to be taken to get from situation A (passport stolen/kitchen window broken/someone on my car seat) to situation B (emergency passport is reissued/kitchen window is fixed/car seat is clean). It ends up getting done at some point. The steps involved aren’t that painful, really.

The stress in the middle comes from believing that something is YOUR PROPERTY, and therefore you should get enraged or upset when something happens to it. If, instead of freaking out when ‘something goes wrong’, you pause and consider that nobody is dead (unless they actually are – in which case there’s not much you can do anyway), and everything passes, including horrible family moments involving swearwords, spitting, hitting, excluding, crying, breaking toys, slamming doors and all the rest, then it is easier to feel free.

It is genuinely possible to be a mother and shrug your shoulders when someone has a minor wound, and even to discipline the offending child while remaining calm and practical. I have seen it happen. It sounds out of this world, but it is true.

My usual reaction, on the other hand, is to yell. Or groan. But – and here’s where the patient, non-attached mother has a better time of it – if you can pause and observe dispassionately, is having a hissy fit really going to achieve anything? Generally it does little more than cause headaches, give me a sore throat, deepen frown lines, hurt little ears and send kids into a sulk.

More to the point, though, what is causing that volcanic feeling in the first place? POSSESSION. IT’S MINE. In the case of having a mum-fit, THE FAMILY AMBIENCE IS MINE. I have envisaged it, read dozens of parenting books, and spent years cultivating it. Therefore, IT IS MINE. When it all goes pear-shaped, something has been stolen from me. I have lost control. The image of a perfect family that I have been dreaming of is gone, and now I am clutching after it as if it were a phantom purse, recently snatched by a serial scumbag.

As confessionals go, this might not be so enjoyable to read – especially if you hear yourself shrieking at your kids frequently, or saying incriminating thing your parents used to say to you. The good news is this: THERE IS FREEDOM AT THE OTHER END OF THE CRISIS.

When our baggage is too heavy, we instinctively want to rid ourselves of it – and sometimes it’ll break a few greenhouse windows as it goes down. But there is lightness, too, and that is the important thing. Detaching yourself from the concepts of who or how your kids (or you) should be creates room in your being for a lot of joy. That makes for a much more beautiful experience of parenthood, and of life.

In short, travel light. It’s not worth paying the lockers along the way.