Short story first published in ‘The Terrier’ magazine in Winter 2003
“Mutual toleration is a necessity for all time and for all races” – M K Gandhi
In the village where I grew up the only coloured faces were white ones. It was the same in my primary school and at the Grammar school. So racial prejudice was never really an issue for debate. It simply didn’t come up. Similarly, the only religions that I was aware of were Roman Catholic and Church of England. As nobody seemed to bother much about either, religious prejudice was also never an issue. The only significant cultural difference was the one between rich and poor and, since I didn’t know any rich people, cultural prejudice wasn’t an issue either. We were all in the same boat. Such a good start in life made it difficult for me to understand what all the fuss was about when racial, religious and cultural issues were raised later in life. My view was that such differences really were rather unimportant just so long as nobody tried to force their values on me. In 2001 they tried.
Away from home, at College in the 1960’s, I began to encounter people from different backgrounds. There were Nigerians with strange scars on their faces, West Indians and Asians who called me ‘love’ in a Yorkshire accent as they took my bus fare. I remember a Greek Cypriot whose native tongue was broad cockney. There were others from Canada, Germany and Sweden, all speaking English far better than some of the British students, particularly the Geordies who everybody struggled to understand. There were Welsh and Scots and Southerners and Scousers. The most laudable group were the Indian waiters in the Curry House who must have had their tolerance stretched to the limit by rowdy, drunken students invading their establishment at closing time. I met people from all over the country and, seemingly, from all over the world. Some rich, some poor, some black, some yellow, some white and some of every shade in between. Some were atheists, some were religious. Some were Tories, some were Labour although I don’t remember many Liberals. It was a new experience for me and I was fascinated by this mingling of races, religions and cultures. However, none of them invited me to invade Poland, nor forced me into an arranged marriage nor suggested that I have my foreskin surgically removed. None of them slaughtered goats in the street, nor tried to blow me up with car bombs, nor abducted me along the white slave route to sell my arse down the Barbary Coast. Conversely, they all seemed quite normal and friendly. They gave me no reason not to like them.
The problem was that they were all removed from their home environment and I never really took the opportunity to get to know them on any other level than within the context of my own priorities of sport, drinking and having a good time between lectures. I could see all our similarities quite clearly but I missed an excellent chance to gain a greater insight into those racial, religious and cultural variations that made them interesting. After leaving College and returning home to work in the almost clone-like world of the white, working class, Protestant and rural north-west, it was a long time before that opportunity presented itself again. Until I met Yousuf in the late 1980’s.
The connection came through work for the County Council. Yousuf was a local businessman, solicitor and community leader and he owned a property that the Polytechnic wanted to rent to set up new Art and Design facilities. I had to meet him to inspect the premises and negotiate terms.
Negotiations usually follow an unwritten pattern of events. The initial meeting to inspect is just a fact finding and sounding out exercise where you measure up the accommodation, note its features and try to sell yourself to your adversary on a personal level – as experienced, professional and knowledgeable. You try to build up a rapport with him whilst simultaneously trying to weigh up his character and abilities, probing for weaknesses which you can exploit to get a better deal and, essentially, looking for clues as to what kind of a deal he might have in mind. You then retire to consider your findings, research your valuation and prepare a strategy to try and screw him down to a favourable deal at the second meeting. When agreement is reached, you instruct the lawyers to complete the documentation and get on to the next job. Professionals want to spend the least amount of time possible on reaching a settlement. It’s usually just business.
Yousuf was about ten years younger than me, around thirty at a guess. It was hard to be more precise as his features were hidden behind a well-groomed beard and moustache. Despite those, I judged him to be quite a good-looking man. He was polite, well mannered and very assured. Smartly dressed in a dark suit and expensive looking black overcoat, he certainly gave out the appearance of being a successful businessman. Amongst his well-spoken words I could detect no trace of an Asian accent. Never having had to deal with anyone from the Asian community before I was curious to find out if there was to be any variation from the usual pattern of negotiations. It seemed not. As we wandered the Mill taking measurements and poking into its extremities, we began the process of sizing each other up. Yousuf was probing and perceptive with his questions but equally he was responsive to most of my enquiries. He amused and entertained me as he met my attempts to measure his qualities with a wry smile and an obvious glint in his eye. He was going to enjoy the contest. Although he didn’t give too much away about any prospective deal, he was quite open about his background and personal circumstances. He also seemed genuinely interested in me as a person. This was a little bit of a new twist in comparison to the usual superficial encounters of the standard negotiating process. I found myself liking him.
Although English by birth, his parents were originally from Pakistan. However, his wife was from India, which seemed unusual to me, but I assumed, without any other information, that perhaps his was an arranged marriage. I didn’t ask – it seemed too rude to enquire on such a short acquaintance. Family seemed very important to him and I learnt that he and his wife and children all lived with his parents and his brother in a large house near to the Mosque. Yousuf and his family were Muslims and I formed the impression that he was quite an important man in his community, although not from any boasting on his part; he seemed quite a modest man.
He was responsible for investing money on behalf of the Asian community. Apart from the responsibility, this was not as easy as it could have been because religious beliefs prevented his investors from paying interest on loans or receiving interest on investments. As a solicitor, Yousuf had to find ways of investing the community money and that of his own within these restrictions, which was why he had an interest in property – he could pay and receive rents without a problem. He told me about the difficulties that they’d encountered when building the Mosque. During fundraising to meet the development costs the Muslim Community had approached the Borough Council for help. The Borough Council had offered to make a loan at a favourable interest rate. Although appreciating the gesture, it had to be politely refused. In response, the local Council, with a surprisingly enlightened gesture, had made a grant instead. I felt that in relating this incident, Yousuf was subtly making sure that I knew that he might have to take a similar hard line in the negotiations with me if I was to make any unacceptable proposals. There was that glint in his eye and that wry smile. On the other hand, I gleaned from it that he needed the deal with the Polytechnic to obtain a sound, secure tenant who would pay the rent without fail because his investment options were limited if he wanted to earn a return on his capital. So we sounded each other out and inched towards a second meeting where the real business would be concluded.
As I found myself warming to Yousuf, I felt that he was beginning to like me too. He was interested in matters outside the deal. He asked questions about my life, my family, my career, my interests, all in a manner which seemed to come from a genuine wish to find out more about a way of life that may have been significantly varied from his own. I felt that there was something different about Yousuf, that there was something special about him – an air, a manner, a wisdom beyond his years. I sensed it but I couldn’t be more precise than that. As we concluded that first meeting he suggested that, when I was ready to talk figures, he would take me to lunch at his expense. I explained as politely and as diplomatically as I could that, as a public servant, I had to be careful about maintaining the perception of professional ethics. Therefore, no matter how innocent the offer, I could not accept any gifts from him, not even a free lunch, whilst I was involved in negotiations with him. Being the gentleman that he was, he accepted the position gracefully and suggested that when we eventually concluded the matter, with the lease signed, sealed and delivered, he would repeat the offer and then it could be perceived as a personal arrangement – clearly divorced from the business in hand. I could see nothing wrong with that suggestion and we parted after setting up the arrangements for the next meeting. I fully expected him to forget about the invitation once the deal was done.
We had the second meeting and matters progressed satisfactorily. Agreement was reached on the main details. Yousuf took a hard line on the rent that he wanted and I began to appreciate that, although younger and less experienced than me, he was not going to be a pushover. We agreed to differ on the rent and parted again, with me offering to sound out my client to see if the Polytechnic was prepared to move further towards a settlement. The lunch was never mentioned.
By means of a couple of telephone conversations over the next week or so, Yousuf and I compromised on our original positions to reach a mutually acceptable rent without needing to meet. The process had more or less followed the standard pattern. Apart from the odd telephone call to check on the progress of documentation, I had little further contact with Yousuf. I fully expected that the usual outcome would result – that, unless we had another deal to conclude, I would see no more of him after the event than I would expect to see of any other business contact. I was wrong. A week or so after the lease was signed he telephoned to invite me to lunch as he had promised. He was obviously a man who did not make such offers lightly. However, instead of suggesting that we dine in some restaurant in the town centre, he invited me to come and dine at his home. This was a little unexpected but welcome nonetheless. I was quite pleased that I seemed to have made a sufficiently agreeable impression upon him to warrant this privilege and, to be honest, I was curious for the experience.
The house was a large, three storey detached structure set in its own plot. The Mosque was only a couple of streets away and much of the area around provided housing for the Asian Community. However, Yousuf’s house was significantly superior to the average dwelling, being in an area of predominantly two-storey red brick terraced houses typical of the town. It confirmed my impression of his status within the Community. He showed me into his home with his usual good manners.
I was made very welcome. His wife and his parents were introduced to me. His brother was to join us soon. Only his children were absent, being at school. I felt like an honoured guest. They had obviously discussed me and again I experienced the light, polite probing that I had encountered in my earlier meetings with Yousuf. It wasn’t difficult to figure out that I was an object of some curiosity, that a visit from someone from my background was just as interesting to them as they were to me. We were anxious to learn from each other, the only difference being that they had extended their hand and made the gesture whilst I had made no effort other than to accept.
I learnt little about Asian culture from the interior of house itself. Although tastefully decorated and furnished, it was not significantly different from any other English house that I might have entered, including my own. I don’t know what I was expecting since Yousuf was English and living in England, but English decorations and English furniture were not adding to my knowledge. However, there was one piece of furniture that caught my attention, although not for its Asian qualities, since it had none. Dominating the centre of the lounge was a large, majestic looking and highly polished dining table. It had two straight sides and a rounded protrusion at each end, creating the shape of an extended oval. It included some understated carving around its edges and was supported on solid, round legs, which continued the carved theme at a lower level. It had a deep lacquer finish and the reflection from the surfaces hid the original colour and grain from casual inspection. What I could tell was that it was dark and magnificent and probably very valuable.
I expressed interest in its origin and Yousuf acknowledged my interest.
“You are admiring Gandhi’s table” he stated simply.
For a second I was stunned by his reply. Whatever it was, it was not Indian in origin.
“Do you mind?”
Acknowledging his consent I crossed the room to examine it more closely. Yousuf smiled his wry smile and his eyes glinted in their usual way. I observed him glance at his wife and she was smiling back at him. They found my interest and puzzlement amusing.
“You are pulling my leg? Yes? …You are joking with me? Yes?”
I was no expert on tables but I could recognise English styling when I saw it. I was no expert on Gandhi either but I had retained enough about the great man, although only from the rudimentary coverage in history lessons at school, to know that he had lived a simple life with little thought for possessions or wealth. There was no way that Gandhi would have owned such an imposing and expensive item. It just didn’t fit with his image.
“Gandhi never owned this table?” It was a statement and a question.
Yousuf was still smiling and enjoying the moment.
“No. Gandhi never owned that table. But he did sit and dine at it, or so I believe.”
We walked the few streets to the Mosque whilst Yousuf’s wife stayed behind to arrange the meal. As we walked he explained about the table.
“Did you know that Gandhi came to this town in 1931?”
I shook my head, admitting that I only had a superficial knowledge of the great man.
“One of his great successes was to organise a boycott of the purchase of British cotton cloth by the people of India. The export of cheap cotton cloth to India from the industrial cotton mills of Britain was killing the spinning and weaving carried out by hand by workers in India. In 1931 he came to London to the Round Table Conference on Indian Independence.”
“Was that the round table in your house?”
My impatience revealed my ignorance. Yousuf smiled.
“No, that is just an expression for ‘holding talks together’. After the Round Table Conference he travelled up here to tour the cotton mills. By rights the British cotton workers should have turned on him as the boycott had caused great unemployment in the Mills. But, do you know? Such was his greatness, that when he explained to the workers why he had organised the boycott, how they were so much better off than his people in India, they welcomed him with open arms.”
As we walked, we passed other Asians in the terraced streets, coming out of corner shops, standing in doorways or crossing the road. Everyone we met seemed to know Yousuf and acknowledged him as he passed. I was observing something I hadn’t seen for a long time. It reminded me of how it had been in the village where I had grown up and how different it was now. Many generations of each family living in the same house instead of splitting up and moving away from each other, life being lived on the street instead of behind twitching net curtains. Everybody knowing and greeting everybody else instead of only knowing their immediate neighbours. I felt a little envious and somewhat nostalgic. Somewhere along the line my culture had lost all that feeling of community and it wasn’t for the better.
“The table came from the boardroom of one of the large mills in the town. When the building was sold the contents were auctioned off also. I heard about the table and went along to buy it. I believe this was the table that Gandhi dined at when he met the mill owners. It is a piece of history.”
The Mosque was unique within the town. Not only was there nothing like it as a structure, with its dome and minarets and obvious eastern styling, but it was the only end-terraced building that was built at an angle to its adjoining terrace. The Community had bought and demolished the end of the terrace and built the Mosque to face east towards Mecca, thus cranking the end of the terrace out of line with the rest of the street. Again it was a credit to the persistence of the Community and to the enlightenment of the local Council that the traditional building line had been varied to meet the wishes of the residents.
Yousuf explained the basic etiquette and we removed our shoes in the entrance. The Mosque was surprisingly busy compared to my expectation, based on my limited observation of Christian churches, which, to my knowledge, generally remained empty except on Sundays and even then didn’t get too crowded. What was more surprising was that everyone knew Yousuf, as young and old alike greeted him warmly and politely. It was far friendlier than the cold, reserved and usually self-conscious atmosphere of the standard churches of my experience, with their whispered prayers and their strained hymn singing. Clearly Yousuf was a well-known, well-liked and well-respected member of this congregation and its members were not afraid to demonstrate their affection for him. Religion of any kind, as such, had no value for me. However, this was the insight into those cultural differences that I had sought to experience, with the added bonus that I was also learning more and more about Yousuf as a person and about his position within the Community, which added to the interest.
Gandhi’s table was laden, seemingly to breaking point. There were no clear spaces except for the place settings. I had never seen so much food, and of such unusual variety, for so few people. I hardly recognised any of the dishes but the wonderful smells and sights mingled with the thoughts in my mind as I wondered how we were going to get through it all. I have to confess that my experience of eastern food was limited to the odd Indian curry and the occasional Chinese take-away. It wasn’t dislike of the cuisine which caused that situation, merely laziness from sticking to the tried and trusted. Yousuf’s wife had prepared a feast and there was no way that I was going to do it justice, but my stomach was willing me to try. Gandhi had never seen a better meal when he had dined at this table and, judging by his lifestyle, he would never have attempted it, not even after recovering from his longest fast. I, on the other hand, had no such qualms about accepting Yousuf’s generous offer to sit down and help myself from the vast array of unusual but delicious selections of sweet, sour and spicy foods available. I was an honoured guest and to not give it my best shot would have been an insult to my host.
We slumped in the lounge chairs after leaving the table and talked whilst the meal settled inside us. Yousuf ‘s family and I had hardly made any impression upon the great spread. Really, I just wanted to settle back in the chair, close my eyes and doze off. The combination of the good food and the pleasant surroundings were completely relaxing, but good manners prevented me from taking advantage of my hosts. If I had slept I knew that they’d have said nothing about it out of politeness. I resisted the temptation. We talked about many subjects; about his parents’ life before they came to England, about how he and his wife met, about his businesses and particularly about Gandhi. The table was a constant focus for that subject. Although of a different nationality and religion to Gandhi, Yousuf made no distinctions when expressing his admiration for him. I had no reason to disagree and every reason to learn more. I stayed for as long as I could, until forced to return to work.
That was the last time that I saw him in person. I had no more business to conclude with him and within a few months I had secured a new job in a town about fifty miles to the north. I thought about Yousuf and wished that I had returned the hospitality, but distance intervened and new challenges absorbed my attention. It’s funny how you relate to people, particularly on first meeting. I’ve heard it said that strangers sum each other up within the first few seconds of any first meeting and those first perceptions never change, with any subsequent contact being used only to confirm that first impression. Whenever I thought about Yousuf I remembered the feeling that I had formed upon first meeting him – a feeling that I had been in the presence of someone special. Maybe it was down to my lack of contact with alien cultures, or the closer social contact than that usually experienced through business or maybe it was some deep rooted psychological fascination with Gandhi’s table that had warped my perspective. Maybe there was something wrong with me. I kept thinking about it. Why did I keep thinking about it? Self-analysis was never my strong point so I shrugged it off, but it kept popping back into my mind. Why had I formed that impression? It did worry me.
I had put more effort into getting to know Yousuf during the short period that I had known him than I would normally have put into getting to know any other business acquaintance. The pattern of negotiation had certainly been conventional but the extended social contact – going to his home, meeting his family, visiting the Mosque – had been far and beyond previous limits. I began to question my own motives. Had I been over compensating for his race? Surely I had done it with the best of intentions? If I had been racially prejudiced I wouldn’t have gone at all – would I? Had I gone to prove I wasn’t prejudiced? Was it a deliberate act of positive discrimination? Oh god – if it was, was that patronising and insulting? Or yet – was I really prejudiced inside and trying to hide it by an outward show of integration? Was I trying to deny it to myself or, even worse than that, was I succeeding in denying it even to myself so that I really was prejudiced but not even aware of it?
On bad days, the thought spiral ran down and down into even deeper layers of self-doubt. Why did I think these things? Was I normal? Did other people think these things? Was I going mad? I knew that I had contained such thoughts all my life, that they were part of the normal process of self-examination. They used to bubble up to the surface like air pockets escaping from molten tarmac on the roads in the long, hot summers of my childhood, but once on the surface they would dissipate into the atmosphere if I left them alone. Now they assumed a greater frequency and intensity and the atmosphere was becoming filled with them, so I couldn’t ignore them. It was the closeness of the contact with Yousuf that had heated the pitch, pushing up more and more air from pockets that had previously lain relatively undisturbed. I was addressing issues in my mind that I had never bothered to satisfactorily answer before, or even admitted to being there most of the time. They had been there all the time, suppressed, hidden, untested but they had never before needed resolution.
On good days, I thought the opposite. I made positive statements to myself. I’d done what any normal person would do. I’d simply accepted an invitation from a pleasant bloke who had made an unusual offer. How many other business acquaintances had ever invited me to their home – none that I could remember? I’d acted out of common courtesy. I’d simply gone to satisfy my curiosity – to learn what I could about a different race, culture and religion. That was the action of a reasonable man; it was fair, open-minded, and honest. There was no motive for prejudice. On those days I could convince myself that the world was a wonderful place. All issues were resolved. The pitch lay cold and hard and solid. Eventually the good days won. I just suppressed it in my mind and got on with life. But it never went away completely.
On the 11th of September 2001 two passenger jets were deliberately crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. I watched the scenes on a television in the office. When it became clear that fanatical Muslims had perpetrated the atrocities, I had one of the bad days. So did every reasonable person in the world.
In the days following the disaster I studied the television news coverage. It was impossible to escape it. When not watching it or reading about it, everyone discussed it. Opinions became polarised, fears became exaggerated, prejudices hardened. I heard views and doubts and questions raised by others that mirrored my own or differed from them completely. I realised that thoughts on racial, religious and cultural differences were just as commonly exercised in the mind of everyone else as they were in mine. I was neither mad nor alone. We might all be at different points in our understanding and tolerance and the extremity of our acceptance or the depth of our prejudice, but we all thought about it from time to time. I also learnt that it wasn’t prejudice to think about it, it was only prejudice to act on it. Thinking and questioning it was good. All that thinking and questioning that I had done in my own mind since meeting Yousuf was part of being conscious, of being alive, of being normal. Flying jets into tower blocks was abnormal. That was acting upon it. That was prejudice. Gandhi didn’t say we had to stop thinking about it, just be mutually tolerant. But thinking about it had a limited value. Talking about it was better. Even those who now advocated extremely prejudiced views, with the current advantage of shock and horror in their armoury, could be engaged in healthy debate. Out in the open you could work on your prejudices and theirs. Previously such views would never have been uttered. Kept inside they lay unresolved, like mine. Previously only the extremists and the fanatics dominated the conversation. Now the ordinary majority wanted their say and they were taking full advantage of the opportunity. It was fine to talk about it and in talking we rationalised it and took some of the fear and ignorance out of it. At least for me, some good came from it. Mutual toleration was a necessity. It just needed a disaster of world–wide scale to get us talking about it.
It was during that time that I saw Yousuf again. He appeared on the evening news on national television in his position as Secretary General to the Muslim Council of Britain. He had done well in his role as Community leader and had been elected to office by delegates from over 300 affiliated Muslim organisations from across Britain. All Muslims were under pressure as a result of the actions of the terrorists. Mutual toleration across the races was a dire necessity like never before. At such times true leaders perform to their strengths. On that day, the 19th of September 2001 he said:
“ Now is the time for all Muslims to show the world that we stand for justice. The pursuit of justice is the Islamic ideal and Muslims must be in the vanguard to secure justice for this crime against humanity.”
My instincts had been right. There was something special about him and I was pleased that I had recognised it all those years before. I hoped that he had sat at the table to compose those words. Gandhi would have been proud of him.