by Asmaa Soliman
Alaya and I set off to explore Edgware Road, the main Arabic street in London. It is full of restaurants, cafes and shisha bars. It is a very lively street that is always busy and full of noise. You can hear Arabic music almost out of every cafe you pass by and you feel a bit like being in a Middle Eastern country. As soon as we get off the bus I realise that many gazes are directed towards us. They are mainly men who are sitting outside the cafes and restaurants talking to one another and watching people, especially women passing by. So, how will we do this I thought? Having an Egyptian background and being familiar with the culture I know that generally in Arabic culture once a girl approaches a man it often means that she is interested in him. This is especially the case when they see that the girl is herself Arab. As I wear the headscarf and look Middle Eastern I know that I can be misunderstood as an Arab girl who starts a conversation with an Arab man.
I look at the first café that we see and I can feel that most of the men who are sitting there want to chat up. We walk further to the next café but I also feel rather uncomfortable. I share my thoughts with Alaya who is English-Italian and funnily enough she is totally aware of it as she lived in an Arabic country for a long time. We both think that we have to find a good strategy to deal with this challenge. We have to appear seriously and avoid any kind of misunderstanding. So we walk the street up and down looking for Arab men that are not busy gazing at women while they pass and that would not get us wrongly. After 10 to 15 minutes we finally decide to go to Costa Café and try our luck there.
We arrive at Costa and walk up to the 1st floor. I ask Alaya to find a table and sit down while I get us something to drink. Before going down I could notice a friendly smile from a young men who was sitting on his own working on his laptop and who once seeing us takes his bag off the chair as a gesture of kindness. I say to myself this seems to be a man that we could talk to when I come back. I see that Alaya sits next to his table and I walk down. About 5 minutes later when I come back with the coffee the scene changed already. I see Alaya sitting next to the man on his table chatting with him. I think, wow that was quick! So I join both of them and Alaya introduces us to each other adding that the young men is stronger in Arabic than in English. He is very happy to know that I am originally Egyptian and that I speak Arabic. So we all start a conversation, mainly in Arabic as it is more convenient for him. We talk about different things, about what we do and what we study. We present the project to him and ask whether we can interview him. He is very polite and agrees to be interviewed even though we find out later that he was actually sitting on his laptop to get some work done.
So Munir is 38 years old and is a journalist and editor for a company in the Middle East. He has been living in London for the past couple of years and is originally from Al-Ahwaz. Asking him about his identity Munir replies by saying that he identifies first as a human being, followed by his Arabic identity, and thirdly his British Muslim identity. In his eyes
different sects are just a way to Islam, but Munir doesn’t see it as essential to have a sect. In fact, he is against the idea of different Islamic sets. He sees religion as “akhlaa” which means good character rather than a particular affiliation or group identity. To be a British citizen means to have work and security says Munir. There is respect as well as openness towards religion and culture in Britain, which makes up an essential part of Britishness according to him. He didn’t experienced racism in Britian and in his opinion it is rather an exception.
He does not see any hostility towards his Muslim identity. Munir explains that this is completely different from his experiences in Alahwaz where Arabs are completely discriminated against.
Even though we finish the interview we continue chatting about his work. He introduces his work to us in more details inviting us to write articles for his news website. He is impressed by Alaya’s Arabic skills and offers to teach her. He says that he feels that she will pick up the language very quickly. He interestingly insists that she wouldn’t only be good in Arabic but also in ‘being an Arab’ herself. He is very keen to get our numbers and we exchange contact details. He wants to know what we do specifically in London, whether we are planning to stay and with whom we are living here. If I am honest I am still not quite sure whether he only talks to us for the interview. Nevertheless, he is a very polite man who agreed to spend more than an hour talking to us, which we both really appreciate.