Sunday, October 29, 2006

Eid Mubarak!

Yesterday I went to the Eid celebration in Trafalgar Square with House Negro, Jason and the person with an expired blog.

This is the first year for the Trafalgar Square event and it was a bit of a disappointment. The onstage entertainment consisted mostly of speeches, it was much more of a public rally than a celebration.

The tents didn't offer much of interest either. I hoped for food stalls and instead got a stand selling portable bidets. Yuk!

Thankfully, the crowd offered much entertainment.

There was Britain's tallest Muslim. It's hard to comprehend his height here because the woman next to him was very tall herself.

There was a lot of interesting headgear.

There were these two Elvis inspired dancers who gyrated while a little girl sang a song dedicated to the children of Pakistan.

And there were fund-raising fairies eating burgers. Given the nature of the event, I don't think they'd chosen the best outfits to promote their cause!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

2: When Hakeem met Sally

When I started teaching a new class several weeks ago we began the the first session by introducing ourselves. An Egyptian lady started:

Egyptian lady: Hi, my name is xxxx but you can call me Sally if it is easier for you.

Spanish man: Hi, my name is xxxx.

Egyptian lady: Oh, your name is difficult, can we call you Hakeem?

The whole class laughed and the new names stuck. Life is so easy when people have a sense of humour and are willing to compromise. I was reminded of the different names I've had in different countries.

During the three years that I was in Hong Kong I learnt to respond to ah-Joe, Jo-san, Mr Joe and loaf of bread. My favourite, though, was being called 'handsome boy' by stallholders in the wet market (yes, flattery goes a long way). In Hong Kong I learnt that integration can be a choice. Living in a tiny room in Yau Ma Tei gave me so many experiences that I could never have had in a villa in Repulse Bay.

While I was studying in India I picked up more names including Yusuf, Jogendra, Jo-Jo, Joker and a collection of puns based on translations of my surname. In Hindi/Urdu it is necessary to distinguish between free as in 'buy one get one free' and 'free Kashmir'. I realised in India, however, that integration is also about oppurtunity. Much to the advantage of my language study, I spent most of my waking hours engaged in conversation and was invited to eat in people's homes on a daily basis. Even when I escaped to my hotel room, friends would knock on the door, wanting to come in for a chat.

So it was Indian culture that made my language learning experience so positive. People who migrate to western countries often find things much more difficult. Even my Australian friends in London complain that they don't get chances to make friends with English people. Much harder then for my students who are limited by language. Even if they work, they are usually in low-paid employment where most of their colleagues are also immigrants. All of my students would love to be more 'integrated' than they are. So it frustrates me to hear about immigrants 'refusing to integrate'. These things work two ways.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Integration 1

I've been following the debate on veil wearing with interest. Veils themselves don't deserve this much coverage (hehe), the amount of veil wearers in Britain is not that significant. What interests me is the potential for some balanced discussion on the topic of integration.

I've noticed two levels of criticism of the niqab. The politicians (lining up eagerly to issue their own statements) usually say that veils can make people 'uncomfortable'. One of my colleagues wears a veil and I haven't witenessed it bother anyone. The wet patch in front of her mouth grosses me out slightly but not half as much as people in low slung jeans bending over on the tube (a frequent London occurrence).

At a more extreme level, some people quoted in the media have said that they find veil wearers frightening. I find this hard to believe, particularly coming from the tough types who usually state it. Gosh, imagine what new immigrants make of goths!

It is true, however, that veils make communication more difficult. At a recent work meeting my veiled colleague spoke for several minutes to a group, mostly muslims, from a range of countries. Had all people present been native English speakers there might not have been a problem. Without seeing facial expression and mouth movement, however, most found her too difficult to follow and just tuned out.

There are so many things more worrying and common than veil wearing. Yesterday I saw a girl jump out and yell at a cyclist, almost causing him to go under a bus. A few weeks ago I walked past a bus shelter where two boys were doing a similar thing, jumping out and screaming at anyone who approached, old ladies included.

And in terms of integration, I'm much more concerned that English language learning provision in the UK is underfunded and disorganised. I hate it that immigrants are blamed for failing to integrate as if integration should be a one-sided effort. More on this later...

Monday, October 16, 2006


When I was working in Chungking I loved Ramadan. Every evening, buckets of samosas and huge fruit platters would travel down the elevators for communal fast breaking on the ground floor.

Yet again, I've become caught up in Ramadan without actually doing any fasting. Students in my 6-8pm evening class are fasting and we stop mid-class for them to pray and start eating. Huge quantities of biscuits (untouched by fasting day time students) disappear in minutes and the class becomes much more lively as energy levels rise.

On Saturday we had an outing for students and their families to Kew Gardens. It may have been partly due to the fasting but everyone was much more interested in the edible plants than the decorative ones. Our tour guide mentioned that he had never needed to drag a group away from the allspice plant before.

There was a harvest themed exhibition sponsored by a cranberry juice company. I couldn't help feeling that it was a huge waste and tried to calculate how much 6 million cranberries would cost at Tesco. They had been dumped into a lake to demonstrate how the harvest is done by flooding fields in New England.

I really hope that someone is going to eat the pumpkins and squash on display. My local supermarkets only stock the butternut type and I was tempted to slip some of these into my backpack. With Diwali coming up, I'm thinking of making pumpkin halva.

Actually, it's been over a week since I cooked anything. All I've done in the kitchen lately is write down recipes and wash up. Hooray for guests who cook banquets!

Friday, October 13, 2006


My new Cantonese teacher taught me a hilarious expression today. One of those fantastic old ones that makes you sad to think that it will soon be extinct.

In Hong Kong in the olden days, people were encouraged to catch rats. After catching one you would deposit it in a 'rat box', a squarish receptacle stuck on the side of a 10ft lamp post. I suppose that the rats were then taken somewhere for incineration.

What prompted this little description?

We were looking at the newspaper and spotted a picture of Vanessa Feltz...

...with her tall new boyfriend.

Lamppost and rat box. I love it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Last Sunday I accompanied visitors to a nearby church, a denomination I don't often attend. Unlike many services I've been to in London, it was a very mixed congregation, particularly in terms of age.

Most people seemed quite well to do but there was a one very obviously homeless man sitting a few rows in front of me who mumbled throughout the service.

As time went on his mumbling grew louder. During a very generic, unenthusiastic prayer, 'Lord we pray for all priests everywhere blah blah blah' the homeless man spoke quite loudly 'I don't believe a word you're saying!'. A couple of people looked up but the prayer rolled on.

Following the prayer there was a hymn. Despite the beauty of the song and the large congregation, the singing was a mere whisper. Part way through the second verse the homeless man shouted 'louder!'. His aggressive tone made everyone jump.

There was a nervous fumbling with hymn books and people actually did begin to sing up. I loved it!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Hello Hoodies

I went for a job interview this morning at a senior school in outer London. The place seemed pretty edgy. Gangs of hoodies sat out front smoking. There were swipe cards and turnstiles at the front entrance, is that normal for the UK?

Anyway, the interview was for a job working with students from non-English speaking backgrounds. It sounds like nice work. Unfortunately it's only two days per week so I would still need to look for a third part-time job in addition.

At this stage I should be trying to find one full-time job. Problem is that there are not many around and I'm keen to hang on to my other part-time job which I'm loving. I've become very attached to my class of North African over seventies.

They called this afternoon to offer the job and I accepted. It should be fun... and hopefully good blog fodder.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Was that a question?

Two and a bit weeks ago I checked the net for the review for a Hindi film I had been waiting for. To my surprise there was another film releasing on the same day which I hadn't been aware of. This was strange considering that it was produced and directed by the acclaimed Ram Gopal Varma.

Later that day, I was listening to the BBC Asian Network when a presenter mentioned that the film was having a London premiere. It was to be held the following day at a cinema nearby and RGV would be present for a Q and A session, along with Mohit Ahlawat, the film's lead actor.

I walked over to the cinema immediately in the hope of getting a ticket. There were plenty available and the cost was the same as a regular movie ticket. I expressed my amazement to the guy at the counter. He looked at me like I was a complete weirdo.

When I arrived at the cinema the following day I was struggling to control my excitement. Waiting for the film to begin, I started chatting to the lady next to me, happy to find someone who understood the importance of the occasion.

When it was announced that the director was sick and would not be present we shared our disappointment. As the film started, the star was also nowhere to be seen. Ten minutes into the film, Mohit Ahlawat strode in, sitting just two rows in front of me.

The film was about an honest police officer beating all the corruption out of the Mumbai police force with his bare fists. It was well shot but the plot and acting were terrible. Surprisingly for a RGV film, it was pure masala, an unsatisfying mix of violence, comedy and flesh. To my amusement, Mohit left the cinema for the duration of the sleazy post-wedding song. This may have had something to do with the presence of his family members in the audience.

At the conclusion of the film, my friend and I moved down to the second row for the Q and A session. I was determined to compliment the hero's performance and ask intelligent questions.

As the questions started, I realised that I knew more about RGV's work and Mohit's career than the rest of the audience. Except, that was, for a complete sycophant in the front row who professed his love for Mohit's previous film, a critically-damned flop, which he claimed to have watched three times.

Determined not to be such a suck up, my first question came out sounding harsher than I had anticipated. I mentioned that his upcoming role seemed to be very similar to the two he had played so far. Did he have plans to move beyond the 'angry young man' thing?

His answer was a little curt and I regretted my question.

My friend then expressed her surprise at the number of songs in the film and the inclusion of a wet sari number. Ram Gopal Varma criticises other directors for stuffing their films with unnecessary songs. Did Mohit think that the songs added value to the film? Was he planning to become a regular dancing hero?

The hero professed that he would have liked less songs. He reassured us that he was not about to start dancing around trees. 'Dancing isn't necessary for success' he said. 'Look at Shahid Kapoor. He's a great dancer but his career has not taken off. The necessary thing to success is ability to act'.

I wasn't convinced. Shahid Kapoor has a big Diwali release coming up and he is dating megastar Katrina Kapoor. He's even managed a high-profile kissing video scandal, conservative India's equivalent of the Paris Hilton sex tapes.

Mohit, on the other hand, has starred in two spectacular flops, despite his proud claim that a riot had occured in Andhra Pradesh outside a cinema showing 'Shiva'.

At this point, I made a fatal mistake, forgetting my intention to ask intelligent yet flattering questions.

'Don't you think you are restricting your role options if you don't dance?' I asked.

'I can dance' he barked back, causing the audience to laugh.

I was in shock. I had insulted an idol! How could I repair the damage?

'I suppose I was talking about intention rather than ability' I said.

Then it happened. Silence. He stared at me. I stared at him. He obviously hadn't grasped my meaning. I was burning with awkward embarrassment.

After what seemed like minutes he spoke.

'What that a question?'

'No, no', I mumbled, 'I'm finished'.

Question time finished shortly after. Forgetting my plans to ask for an autograph and photo I ran out of the cinema in embarrassment. It's taken two weeks for me to be able to tell the story...