Monday, September 14, 2009

Parks and Mosques (and more good food)

Today - Saturday, I walked the back streets of my new area trying to locate what appeared on Google maps to be a crowded cemetery beside a large park. The cemetery entrance indicated
it was private and Jewish, open and green although later from the park side the cemetery was an ordered mass of leaning headstones, glinting in the afternoon light. That space sure will be crowded come Yaumul Qiyaamat! The park itself was quite beautiful, full of flowers, tall rustling trees and children playing. A hill rose in the centre providing a vantage point overlooking the neighbouring suburb. The low sun beamed soft yellow light beautifully through the trees behind the sprawling grand houses below.
Black and white couples are a common sight here if not the norm. Not sure if this is still a new phenomenon as I’m sure one or two generations back it would have been problematic. As I waited for the bus (which I discovered later had been held for nearly an hour up by a Manchester United football game) three African girls played nearby. Their hair was neatly parted in radiating lines around their head, the hair plaited into thin parallel lines close to the skull, with the plaited ends forming into anemone type arrangements, sprouting from different places and bouncing as they played. I wondered how long it would take for these kids to sit still and get their hair done!
I was determined to enjoy the beautiful city cuisine tonight after eating a local Turkish restaurant the night before. The menu showed a range of pides and other delectables, but on ordering I discovered most were not available. The lamb I ordered was crispy, tasty and tender. After finishing a full plate however, I felt the heavy weight of greasy lamb fat settling into the pit of my stomach. The coffee I had ordered to follow was weak, and tasted old and flat – but maybe that was because I was gradually getting over my coffee addiction.
Heading into the city for Iftar, I jumped off the bus at Highbury Islington and strolled down the main road passed numerous busy restaurants, checking menus and the amount of alcohol on display. Many mouth watering dishes tempted until, low and barely visible, Arabic letters caught my eye. It was a Persian restaurant, almost hidden from the main road through a low door accessed by a recess in the shop front. Here no alcohol was visible, the restaurant was well lit and the walls covered in runners of red and black tribal geometric tapestry.
I ventured in further to discover soft thick Persian carpets, about a metre across, hanging on the walls. They were very beautiful, for sale and about 500 pounds. The restaurant was Persian and I ordered a delicate rice dish, aromatic and full of citrus peel with finely cut and braised nuts. Hidden within the mound of rice was tender chicken. This was much better than heavy lamb fat!
A cake shop was still open opposite, full of strange looking dishes for a light dinner and platters full of delectable cakes. I chose a vanilla cupcake and bought 4 of the huge meringues – this time swirled on top with light raspberry sauce, and another variety dusted all over with finely cut hazelnuts. These would be my thank you gift for the next Iftar.
I then had to get home. It was now late and busses seemed to be the most direct option. However they were continually delayed. As I began to relax having finally caught the last bus on the way home, there was a loud crunching sound. The bus swayed to a halt, and then slowly pulled over. Passengers leaned out the windows to see what had happened and we all looked around at each other for clues. After another ten minutes the majority decided that another bus would be a better option so there was a mass exodus. I waited at the back of the top deck to see if another bus would come, and saw the bus driver exchanging details with the driver he had collided with and noticed him being pressed with money which he valiantly refused. I briefly thought that I should be a witness to this attempted bribery, but the thought of weeks waiting for a long court case chased that firmly out of my mind. Just as another bus appeared, the bus driver hopped back in so there was a mad rush to get back onto the bus before it left. The driver called out loudly over the mike, asking for witnesses to stand by his assertion that the car had been at fault, eliciting loud discussion between passengers as to who had seen what, while the two busses virtually raced each other all the way back home.
Today I decided to see the local mosques in the area. I realised that I have been walking between 2 and 3 hours a day, locating different bus sites, alternative routes for travel and exploring back streets and main streets. First I located Yusuf Islam's school - Brondesbury Boys High School which was already closed for the day, and found it had changed little from the outside in the past few years. The first two mosques I visited in Brondesbury Park seemed – as with most of them unfortunately – very closed. There was no real sign that any door was open and little indication that visitors were welcome. As I tried unobtrusively to take pictures, I was becoming worried that I might be considered to be spying for some agency, especially considering the recent tension and protests outside mosques that had been covered in the news.
I then visited another two mosques – one of which had an open gate and a laneway down the side. I decided to give it a go! Bravely walking down the side of the mosque I was followed by a number of fellow Muslims who looked at me slightly suspiciously. I enquired innocently – ‘where do the women pray’ – and was gruffly directed further down the alley to another entrance labelled ‘Women’s Prayer Area’. Thanking them I peeked inside but decided against going past the initial vestibule. I chatted briefly with a stall holder outside, trying to assess what background this mosque might have. There was a table full of CD’s with young, black bearded men and small turbans – a type I had not seen before. They appeared to be Pakistani or Bangladeshi rather than Iranian, and although the turbans were reminiscent of Shia mullahs, they were smaller and of a slightly different fashion. Suddenly I heard the azaan as more young men rushed to the salat. I quizzed the stall holder – what salat is this? It was already well after 5.30 pm and my salat times indicated that Asr prayer had begun more than an hour earlier. He explained that this was Asr time for the locals, and then rushed to join the prayers. As I returned down the alleyway I was passed by another attendee who frowned, saying ‘Laa hawla wa laa quwata illa bi illah’ (there is no help or strength save in Allah) – so I guess I really did stand out from their expectations! Of all the local mosques (and apparently there are 8 within two kilometres of where I live), the Central Mosque of Brent was the most welcoming and friendly.
Tonight was another wonderful Iftar with fellow British ‘immigrants’ – friends of my children, who kindly invited me into their homes. It is certainly one of the wonderful aspects of being a Muslim and travelling in Ramadan – even complete strangers feel compelled to offer you their hospitality and fine food, there being so much hassanat in sharing food with others in this holy month, and even more so providing food for travellers. Last night, as I had travelled so far for the Iftar, I was invited to stay the night and dropped back at the station early in the morning so that I could get back in time for work. Sharing the Iftar and then the suhur with this family, their hospitality in providing spare clothes for sleeping and a wonderful bed, along with all of the many tales and discussions that we shared at both of the dinners will be a great memory of Ramadan in Britain.

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