By Enayat-Ullah Ahmad
Something struck me the other day whilst flicking through Facebook. I don’t have many white friends. Hell, I have around 20, from a list of 450. Damn. There’s a common conception I feel amongst many English people and non-Muslims in general – that Muslims ‘don’t mix’. Are we really that bad?
I think it’s important for members of the Muslim community to make that extra effort to integrate, but recognise it can be difficult at times. Like on my Law course for example. For a while I had a problem; every time I’d be invited out by my largely-white tutorial group, it would either be to a pub or a rave of some sort.
After having waited a few months, and in my determination not to appear anti-social, the first opportunity I got to extend my hand in a seemingly halal social context, I did so. Having trimmed my already tiny excuse for a beard down to size, I turned up to Covent Garden tube station. 6.45pm. Not used to seeing me ‘out’, I got a few genuine smiles and one or two funny looks. The plan was to eat out at a restaurant called Leon. First stop though, was Oddbins, to stack up on beer and wine of course.
“Ready fer a good piss-up maaate?”.
“Erm no (smiling nervously). Sorry I don’t drink”.
We got to the dinner table and I was sticking out like a sore thumb already. Slowly but surely, everyone would become ‘tipsy’. I was in a corner trying to make conversation with the guy on my left, who, in all honesty was making an effort too. Could we talk politics? Sports? Music? Nope, it was never ending drunken stories all round. “You know in third year, I got so hammered I fell out of a balcony”. Hmmm. I tried desperately to think of something equally as fun to talk about but slightly more relatable. “Err so how did you find last week’s equity tutorial?” A ten-second response later, it was back to the drawing board for me. A good talking point would have been football. Everyone likes football. What never really helps though, is that I know nothing about the game. My friends tell me I’m sad, don’t worry.
You would have thought I was out with a bunch of Sun-reading builders. But no, these guys were ridiculously smart. Firsts from Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and all that. But things weren’t quite working. I could always get better conversations out of them during tutorials and lunch breaks.
So what is it that distinguishes this bunch from the non-Muslims I consider good friends?
I think it’s all about what you have in common. My closest non-Muslim friends, with exceptions, are either: 1) the left-leaning socialist type, 2) those with an appreciation for religion in general, and 3) those from Immigrant families. These categories of course aren’t mutually exclusive. With group one, they’re passionate about the same socio-political issues I’m passionate about. They understand why I get so worked up when I watch the news and see the Middle East burning; together we vent anger constructively through grass roots activism. The second bunch are great in that they understand what it means to be bound by the rules of religion; be they Christian, Jewish, Sikh or athiest, I never get patronizing smiles from them every time I mention the fact that I’m not really the clubbing type, or that I’m not so good with the intimate sex talk. We regularly compare one another’s beliefs: fair enough each of us is secretly trying to convert the other, but it’s all good, as they say. We all learn heaps. With those from immigrant families, whether they’re black, brown or purple, they all know what it’s like to balance two cultures together, and at some point or another have felt sorta left out in society. Further to this, with my being British-Pakistani, there’s usually extra overlap with South Asians; second languages, family-traditions, cricket, and most importantly – Bollywood.
Alongside helping me re-enact filmi dialogues more accurately, hanging out with the people I’ve just described provides enlightenment in various forms: social, political, cultural, and religious. In fact, I much prefer the company of the above categories than many of my Muslim friends. Spending my earliest years in Bradford and having my secondary educaiton in Slough -not to stereotype, but – the Muslims I’m used to are the cannabis smoking rude-boy type with French crop haircuts, hideous chains and baggy jeans, who’ve convinced themselves that Scarface REALLY is their favourite film. The only political discussion you’ll get out of this lot will revolve around conspiracy theories. You know, the ones in which everything from crop circles to passing wind is attributed to 1) Jinns, and 2) Freemasons. It does eventually leave you wanting more from life.
I get the impression that in some respects it was a lot easier for our parents to integrate back in the day. I mean, all those years ago society was more kinda Christian. Nowadays though, every one’s got Richard Dawkins fever. Mention anything even remotely religious and you get people looking at you as if you’ve got “THE EARTH IS FLAT” written across your forehead. Spirituality is a big no no. And if you’ve got a beard you can forget it; in the eyes of many you might as well be a hijacker. Sadly, I feel things will worsen in time to come – well certainly if there’s no revolution in modern British culture (and of course foreign policy, though I’ll save that for now). If I were an optimist though, I’d envision a UK in which people, believers and others, were better at finding common ground; I’m sure we’d all learn that we’re not so different.
Getting back to my Covent Garden story: it kinda ended there. I ordered my falafel wrap, knocked it down, tried my luck at a few more conversations, and then decided to leave. I can’t say everyone was unhappy at my departure, but hey, I tried! I guess that’s the most important part.
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