Sunday, June 18, 2006

What divides Britain?

It's not religion, nor is it race. It's class, class and geography. This we see in the Observer's two-page spread on how their intrepid young female Muslim reporter (yes, I think Nick Cohen just came) spent a whole month in "the community the 7/7 bombers came from", also known as Leeds.

The first thing that strikes me is the month. It's not long enough for anything truly epic, and Leeds is not far enough from London to make it necessary to stay there a month if you weren't planning anything on the scale of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. For the record, trains leave London King's Cross every half hour for most of the day, usually on platform 6. If you get the fastest, you can make the trip in under two hours. Farringdon Road is 15 minutes away if you insist on walking silly fast like me, and Beeston is a similar time by bus from Leeds City station. You do not need a satellite phone, antimalarial drugs, a car marked TV in gaffer tape, or ex-SAS security advisers called Nick.

But the whole tone of the article is that Leeds might as well be Afghanistan.
The housing was grim looking but far more normal than the menacing streets I expected. Maybe I had envisaged eerie gothic pathways with shuffling clerics spreading words of hate. No, it was all drab but very normal.
You think? Eerie gothic pathways with shuffling clerics? Leeds, for some reason, attracts Goths, but this is ridiculous. Perhaps she was thinking of Fred Trueman, or Keith Waterhouse? Tha mun laik wi t'gangling-iron, young'un!

Wearing a headscarf was daunting at first. The last time I had covered myself was more than 10 years ago. However, in Leeds city centre you realise that shop assistants look at you acceptingly if your head is covered. Wot? But after the first week, I was at ease with the whole female modesty thing. And it certainly got me respect from the boy racers in Beeston.

I made my way to the centre expecting it to be run-down and shabby. Instead I found a vibrant and colourful building in what used to be a church. Notice boards advertise Pilates classes, Muslim women-only gym work-outs, police drop-in sessions and a sign advertising cut-price car window tinting. It was slightly surreal - this could have been any community centre in Britain, yet this was Beeston.
As already assumed, Leeds is actually between Camp Abu Naji in Maysan province and Lashkar Ghar, so any vaguely British signifiers must be astonishing.
I smell cooking and see plates of chicken curry and dal for £2, dished out by two women. I chat with one of them in Bengali: 'I have a daughter at university. Why don't you move into our house? Your mother will be worried that you are not eating enough,' she says. I was sent away with a container of second helpings.

Next day I go back for more. I am approached by a young headscarfed woman with betel nut-stained teeth. She asks if I'm from Bangladesh. There are two types of people who ask me 'where I'm from' - people from the Home Counties and in Beeston.
And in Feltham and Southall and Hounslow and Crawley, all of which are much closer to her hometown of Reigate than Leeds. Closer, that is, in anything but status. In fact, this is an obvious thing for a working-class Muslim from west Yorkshire to say to someone who shows up speaking Bengali - it's not a majority-minority language in Yorkshire, as it is in the South-East. Not to mention the London/estuary overlay.

Still, if you're short of a quote, why not ask a heroin addict? After all, we live in a society of equal-opportunity scaremongering.

For someone like Imran the bombers were more than neighbours - they were his mates. As we drive around, he lowers his voice and says: 'Don't look back now, but that lad carrying the blue carrier bag was taken to Paddington Green [police station in London] because they thought he had something to do with the bombings.' As I turn around I see a youth wearing a cap disappear into a house.

Imran is about 6ft and quite heavy-looking. He is unshaven and has a big square diamond stud in his ear. He looks much older than his 28 years. 'I was on heroin and I used to deal but I've been clean for the past five years,' he says. 'My mates helped me. I was taken to another mosque, and while the others prayed my teeth were clattering as I went cold [turkey].'

The boys who helped him get off the drug included 'Kaka [baby] Shehzad Tanweer. The Aldgate bomber was a good friend of mine,' Imran says.

He goes a bit quiet and says: 'Kasme [promise] you're not secret service?' I promise and he continues: 'He wasn't a bad lad, you know.' Both Tanweer and Khan were part of the 'Mullah Crew' who helped local boys to get off drugs and embrace Islam again.
Quite a story.
Anti-media feeling runs quite deep in this part of LS11, and I grow used to hearing about the intrusion....

There were cases of revenge, however. Local boys made one Jewish journalist from Dallas cry by telling her the bombings were Israel's fault. 'I felt sorry for her. Those lads had a field day.' Other youths sold made-up stories to journalists.
Surely not. But then, who needs to?
I leave shortly after seeing a blonde woman eating a chilli burger, a red kidney bean sliding down her cleavage. I wonder if the students would be shocked to know that many of the cabbies here live in Beeston and are Muslims. I see two communities separated by a few miles and a whole mindset.
I'm sure they wouldn't be shocked in the least. In my opinion, it would be difficult to spend a month, especially as a member of an atypically taxi-taking group like students, in West Yorkshire without becoming aware of Pakistani taxi drivers. But what do I know? I wasn't a student at Leeds University, unlike Urmee Khan. Perhaps the student body really hadn't noticed any Muslims at all. Or perhaps it's just bullshit.

Strangely enough, despite all the frantic beatup, the horrors remain hidden behind the net curtains of respectable society as a spark is set to the foundations of civilisation that will in time rock them to their core, or whatever. In fact, there are even the ultimate trope of Guardian Newspapers Ltd. multiculturalism, or alternatively the cosy liberal consensus that betrays us all, depending on partisan alignment - that's right, brown people in England football strips.
On Saturday, England play Jamaica in a friendly ahead of the World Cup finals. In Beeston, England flags flutter sporadically on the streets. The TVs in most houses are tuned into the match. There's suddenly a round of cheers. England have scored again and a young Asian man shouts out of the window to a young woman in a sari. 'Meena, you've got to come and see this, Crouchie's stupid dance - a right goal fest!'.... I look around and see people of what seems like every race and nationality - black, Asian, white, Indonesian, you name it. Many are wearing England shirts. There was an Asian dad telling off his three boys. All four of them have on identical football outfits.

I admit I was surprised to see little Muslim girls running around with their faces sporting a red and white St George's flag, as they eat pakoras [an Indian dish] and bright blue ice lollies...

During the afternoon, the boys disappear to watch the football, and I remember the pride with which a friend of Imran's had told me: 'We've bought air horns for the England games!..
Please, enough with the football kitsch. I remember vividly the Bradford Mela in 2001, two weeks before the race riot - exactly the same stuff could have been written, with slightly less football, and without the sunshine because it was one of those Bradford days when the sky looks the same colour as the soot on the mill chimneys. Yes, it's good news, but it doesn't actually add that much to public knowledge.

So, eventually - the conclusion. Is this really a pathetic sham? Or is the Melanie Phillips/Eurabia crowd talking dangerous nonsense?
Beeston is in fact much bigger than those four individuals, and so is Islam.
Glad we cleared that up. That's the sound of Pulitzer spinning in his grave.

More seriously, beyond the fisking, it strikes me that this article gives me the same feeling of queasy astonishment as I have reading the Europe-as-Nazi-cum-Communist hellhole pundits; the feeling that these people have absolutely no feeling for, or knowledge of, the places they are babbling about, and none of the intended readers care. It should not be necessary to spend a month on GNL expenses to discover that Beeston is a roughish working class suburb with a reasonable social fabric.

What would be far more interesting to find out would be why it began there precisely.

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