Writer’s note: This was composed on my returning aircraft, the day before the morning of the fourth terror attack of 2017 in Britain. Despite the seriousness of the bomb on a commuter train, I am not going to grim down my essay. If we can’t stay cheerful, then the terrorists have won. I do wish I’d stayed another week, to talk about it.
They say the important part of traveling is meeting the people.
As a tourist staying in “Central London,” where 90 per cent of the London tourist attractions are located, I could see by their outfit that lots people walking around were Muslims. Not assimilated. Not “European Muslims” from the Muslim areas (The Balkans) of southeast Europe. Now, what I could not discern, based on their dress and speech, was whether in their own minds they felt integrated, not segregated. But I doubted it: For example, a block away from my hotel, near Paddington Station, (Yes, there’s a statue of the bear) was a barbershop: On the sidewalk was a sandwich board, listing features and prices, entirely in some Muslim language. Even the prices. In the heart of London.
If I wanted to ask any Muslims if they agreed with American Muslims that Islam means peace, well, how was I to meet one? Because of their religion, I wasn’t exactly going to meet a fellow in an authentic British pub.
There was no pub in my cozy hotel. How cozy was it? The only lift was so small, in width, that if I stood with my hands on my waist then my elbows touched the walls. Lengthwise, between the two sets of doors, I could stand with one hand on my waist, stretch the other arm the length of the cage, and my fingers would be curled touching the other door. And I’m a small guy. Down at the cozy reception counter the night clerk was a pleasant man. I practised my “be friendly and lighten your brother’s load” ethic by always saying hello when I came in for the night and announcing what tourist attraction I had seen that day.
One evening I followed a moped delivery man—they have a huge box behind their seat—to the sidewalk in front of my hotel. I entered, and was leaning my elbow on the reception counter when he came in. He had an extra pizza, he said, giving it to the night clerk. It is vegetarian. Good, said the clerk, so I can eat it. He looked at me.
“Do you want a piece?” I did.
I piped up, “If it’s vegetarian then you can be safe that it’s halal, (kosher) no pork.” I had just discovered the word “halal” the previous night, after finding a book at an Oxfam used bookstore, by a Muslim girl who joins the British army. (Yes, I will read books when I’m on vacation—but I don’t lie on the beach with Daniel Steele) The clerk knew how to pronounce “halal,” saying, “Halal food means how it was butchered, it’s not just pork.”
I wondered if he had time to talk. He said, “If you want to know anything about Muslims you can ask me, I’m Muslim.”
“Great! You can save me a trip. Because otherwise I was going to hike over to a building near the Edgeware tube station. Up on the third floor is a big sign you can see from the sidewalk, for the Arab Human Rights Office… Now I can just ask you.”
Because we were talking so thick and fast, I must confess I didn’t get around to asking such naive questions as, “Do the European and Arab Muslims think American Muslims are traitors to Islam for believing in peace, and for not wearing Burkas the way they do in London?” Besides, I already knew the answers.
We got into religion before we talked any politics. We both follow an “Abrahamic religion.” Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, a major one, and to my hotel friend, “It’s an abomination!” to say that Jesus is the son of God. We shared our strong feelings in our discussion of religion, but I won’t repeat here any confidences that might horrify you. Except—as I put it, we both don’t believe in God having two arms, two legs and a head. And, as my new friend added with distaste, no human bodily functions to our God. Yup.
My hotel friend, who lives in “North London,” father of two girls, whom he is teaching to be able to think for themselves, was emphatic: A believer has to believe in the Koran, (Quran) in every page or none of it. I told him of a public thing I had read about, where leaders of Muslims and Christians had met to discuss things. The Muslims had said they had to go totally by the Koran, so that was that. How sad. If they had met on stage, and if I had been in the audience, and if there had been lineups to ask questions at a microphone, then I would have asked the Muslim leaders whether they knew the concept of “Even the Devil can quote scriptures.” More precisely: If the Bible has a scripture to kill witches, then would Christian leaders have to quote it, and follow it?
My fellow monotheist told me his judgment of westerners, and then explained that for Islam you have to understand the dates of the Koran pages, because they contradict each other. He said Arab words can sometimes have ten different meanings. He said, too, that the Koran is written in classical Arabic, which is not modern Arabic, so again a lot of people don’t know. So yes, there’s a passage that says to kill unbelievers, (Maybe he said it’s “kill them all on sight,” I forget) but you don’t have to go by that. The terrorists go by such a passage, but they don’t know anything about it. They don’t know the context, and “they can be easily misled.” By “they” he meant the average Muslim in Eurasia.
Easily misled. Which leads us to politics. “How brainwashed are Muslims?" I asked “I know they don’t totally believe their clerics, because the mullahs say that Europe is bad, and western Europe the most satanic of all, yet the mid-east refugees go to Europe, and then they mostly go to western Europe.” My friend was old enough to remember when the leaders in his country were saying that western education was bad, that girls didn’t even need an education, were saying so “quite passionately”… yet they were sending their own children to high class private Catholic schools! “Leaders are corrupt” he said. By “leaders” he meant politicians too, not just clerics.
I have read all the books of that Muslim Dutch Member of Parliament. So I was not surprised when this intelligent devout Muslim hotel worker was disgusted with how the European nations treated Muslim immigrants, saying to me, “They encouraged them to segregate, saying ‘come to this country and you will have your own… keep your own… etc. etc.’” He was not surprised at all that they would (clasping his hands to illustrate) “clumped together.” We shared our disgust.
I told him when I was a boy the “melting pot” model meant you wanted to be American, and would be ashamed of being unAmerican, but somehow, when I wasn’t looking, that had changed. This I knew from looking at a book sold in a Canadian college bookstore for U.S. “dormitory monitors,” or “residence advisors” a paid position, where older students in the dorms look after the freshmen. This book advised (no doubt for in case the monitor came from a mono-culture small town) that Americans now believe in pluralism… I don’t know when things changed. Presumably, now they prefer to have little pots of pluralism in perpetuity.
…And so, that was how I met and talked with a real live Muslim in London…
… As for clumping, “30 minutes out from central London” (by the underground train) according to their web site, is the Who Shop, selling Doctor Who official BBC merchandise. I just had to make the pilgrimage.
So I took the tube to Upton Park station. Before going to the shop, I hiked for about 15 minutes in the opposite direction, along a main road, just to see what I could see. Ever seen one of those ethnic stores at a flea market or something, and of course there’s only one, and it’s empty, and you wonder how they stay in business? Indeed. Empty of customers was a store for South Asian clothing, then another, and another… for fifteen minutes. How did they stay in business, so empty, competing with each other? By people clumping, that’s how. Along the way I passed a green Muslim “community centre.” Not a temple.
My London friend had asked with displeasure why Americans don’t let everybody in, because he thought they should have a wider door policy; I told him the quotas are to aide integration. I could have simply used his words, “So people don’t clump.” I remember, as a young man, walking over and sitting with a group of “Italian” young male classmates, and one said, “But you’re not Italian.” Being quick, I answered “But last night I had pizza!” In other words, we were both joking. North Americans, on the whole, don’t believe in living like the folks in the movie Bend it Like Beckham. (I saw the DVD to prepare for my holiday) But immigrants will believe, if their surrounding society of doesn’t know any better.
… I regret that, while on vacation, I didn’t meet any real live “bleeding heart European liberals.” But I never seem to stumble over them in the bar.
Back in Allah’s own country
Footnotes of the Doctor Who sort:
(Deleted for some future post)
~The above mentioned book is by Azi Ahmed called Worlds Apart. (2015) The cover shows her face only one quarter normal, one quarter concealed by a jet black cloth mask, and by half of her face in dark camouflage paint at night.
The army as scary? Maybe to a civilian. An innocent civilian prairie girl, a neighbour in my condominium, who had been to London, told me the London ladies in big black burkas, with a little flapping triangle over their faces, look scary too.
~People overseas regard North Americans as optimistic, even naive, in their trusting of others and their “can-do” spirit. Hollywood movies, say the Europeans, are more prone to happy endings, and to individuals making a difference.
Perhaps it was in this spirit a certain American movie was made. It’s a romantic comedy, where an affectionate East Indian mother is fine with her son being friends with all sorts of races, religions and creeds, specifically all sorts of Indians such as Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. And a blond boy too, on whom the mother paints a red spot. Most of the movie takes place where the young men hang around together in college, with the son chasing an “Indian” (American) girl. Once he sticks his foot in his mouth by saying (I forget) to the girl he he is chasing something like, “That’s as boring as pornography dragged out to the length of a Bollywood movie” His friend later (I forget) says, “You idiot! Now she knows you don’t like Bollywood, and you watch porn!”
So what this movie, so unlike the Beckham one, shows is that Americans don’t always believe in being in a pluralist bubble, with a snobbish dislike and disapproval of their neighbours. Too bad I forget the title. I saw it at the Plaza.