“Where have you come from today, sir?”
The bald middle-aged officer in a blue uniform casts a suspicious glance at me from behind his crescent shaped glasses before flicking through the pages of my passport.
“And what’s the purpose of your visit to the UK?” he says, without looking up.
“I live here, sir. I have an indefinite leave to remain in the UK.”
The officer nods but doesn’t stamp my passport. He places it in a machine that looks like a scanner and stares at the monitor in front of him. I want to tell him that I’m not particularly proud of my ten-year old Afghan passport; my date of birth – to be exact, the year of my birth – is wrong, showing me to be one year older than I am and to be honest, as I approach my forties, this bothers me greatly. My personal details are clumsily handwritten in Farsi and English and I often get comments about my ten-year-old photo. Airport staff have problems reading the words, identifying the passport number and the Expiry Date. But these amusing exchanges always end with a polite joke and smiles.
“How did you receive your indefinite leave, sir?” asks the officer.
It’s an effort to stay calm. I’ve never been asked this question before. The officer keeps gazing at his monitor, as I explain, in frightfully bad English and half-eaten words, that I’ve been working legally in the UK for more than five years.
“Wait here, please,” says the officer and leaves the counter with my passport in hand.
A minute later, he returns with two plain clothes officers with badges hanging from their necks. The officer in the blue uniform stamps my passport and hands it to the men with badges who guide me into a small room.
“We’re police officers,” says the older man, as he sits down behind a desk. “We would like to ask you a few more questions, if you don’t mind. Please sit down.”
The younger man, whose jaw moves as he chews gum, stands by the door, his arms folded across his chest.
I sit on a chair placed before the table and smile as a mark of consent.
“You are from Afghanistan, is that correct?” he asks, going through the pages of my passport.
“Yes, sir. I am,” I say and grab the chair’s handles to stop my hands from shaking.
“You have been to Pakistan. Twice since last year.”
“Yes. To visit my parents.”
“Do they live in Pakistan?”
“No, sir. My father had to undergo surgery in hospital there and I had to be there to help them.”
“Do you know a lot of people in Pakistan?”
“What kind of people?” I ask, struggling to overcome my anxiety.
I offer a smile.
When the officer looks me in the eye without answering my question, I realize I had better give him a straight answer.
“No, sir. I don’t know many people in Pakistan. I have been there twice to help my father with his treatment as he doesn’t speak English.”
I answer more questions about how I ended up in the UK, about my job and what I like and dislike about London and the United Kingdom.
“We apologize for taking up your time,” says the officer. “Our job is to question a random selection of passengers who enter the United Kingdom. We are entitled to do so within the power handed to the police by the Terrorism Act of 2000.”
“Of course. I understand.”
The officer places a small card in front of me and asks me to fill in my details and my home address. “It is possible that a police officer may visit you at your home. This is just a formality and I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” I say with rising confidence as the man hands me back my passport and I set off towards the exit.
* * *
Small talk with taxi drivers is an inevitable part of any journey. Take for example the Middle East, particularly Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan. You can bet you will end up in a full-scale political debate, owing partly to the fact that the taxis pick up more than one passenger. Here in London my driver is a dark skinned young man, perhaps in his mid twenties, and overweight. He has a burly neck and shoulders; beefy hands clasp the steering wheel. He is trying to prove to me that we are fellow Muslims (You can take a Middle Eastern out of the Middle East but you can’t take the Middle East out of him)
“The Muslims need to be united, brother. We say we are all brothers but they’re only bloody empty words, innit? If we were united, would the Americans and NATO dare to attack Afghanistan, or Iraq? Allah says in his Holy Book that Muslims will one day take over the whole world and Allah’s promise is not a false one, brother. What He says will happen, innit? But it will happen at the right time. When we have the capacity, brother, and the ability to run the world. We will get there, Inshallah, we will.”
I ask him if he’s ever been to his country.
“No, brother. I was born here. But Inshallah I’m planning to visit my country this summer. I want to marry a God-fearing Muslim girl from my country and bring her here.” He chuckles.
“Inshallah,” I say.
He reminds me of my little brother, Abdullah, who lives in Afghanistan and the major sigh of relief breathed by the entire family when he, very recently, told us his secret; that he wanted to marry his girlfriend. Even the idea of Abdullah, whom we had nicknamed Akhund Bachcha, the little Mullah – on account of him being a much stricter Muslim than the rest of the brothers and sisters – having a girlfriend, was hilarious. The last time I’d seen Abdullah was the day he’d come to say goodbye to me in Kabul Airport when I left Afghanistan for the United Kingdom; he was a seventeen-year-old teenager with a thin beard and a large nose, dressed in dark Afghani clothes with a long tunic and a white turban, neatly bound around his head. He’d conformed to the Taliban’s dress code imposed on all of us. Indeed, Abdullah believed in their way of life and often defended the Taliban’s harsh practices.
“They are the true Muslims,” he’d say.
A year later, in October 2001, when the US-led coalition forces attacked Afghanistan, Abdullah triggered a major crisis in the family by insisting that he wanted to join the Taliban to defend his country against the infidels. Luckily, the war – well, the initial stage of war – didn’t last long and by November that year, there were no Taliban around for Abdullah to join.
It was my mother who first told me the news of Abdullah’s girlfriend.
“He’s changed a lot,” she said happily down the phone and laughed at my jokes about how the little Mullah of the family had finally come to his senses.
At the age of twenty-seven Abdullah was a well-dressed man who shaved every day before going to work and was very much in love with his girlfriend.
“At least, he won’t become a crazy fanatic,” added my mother.
I take out my wallet to pay the taxi fare. The driver refuses my money.
“Be my guest,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say. “But could I please have a receipt?”
“Sure, brother. How much you want me to write?”
“What do you mean?”
He looks at me awkwardly. “I mean, you’ll be reimbursed, innit?”
“Oh, that… No, no. Just thirty four pounds, please.”
* * *
My wife hands me a piece of paper and helps me put on my coat. I have an appointment with Mr. Anjem, my nine-year old son’s teacher. Bilal has been bullied by the other kids ever since he told them he didn’t know what the word Halal meant. My wife has already spoken to the school headmaster about the matter and been advised that Mr. Anjem is the person we should speak to.
Mr. Anjem rises from his chair and comes forward to shake my hand.
“Welcome, brother, welcome,” he greets me warmly as he guides me to a chair.
I had not imagined him with a trimmed beard, white skullcap and round wire glasses. He seems keen on maintaining the appearance of a good British Muslim. Mr. Anjem begins by telling me that he has taken special interest in the matter of Bilal and assures me that he is fully aware of the nature of the problem.
“We are proud of the diversity of our school. Mashallah. We have pupils from all sorts of different countries and cultural backgrounds; Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians and even a few from North African countries. Children learn a lot more in a multicultural environment. But this can be challenging and our practice is to resolve such difficulties by involving the parents.”
“I understand your point, Mr. Anjem. But Bilal says he has been bullied because he didn’t know what Halal meant. Apparently, other children have secretly nicknamed him the infidel’s son.”
“Yes, brother, I am aware of that and I personally warned the boy who’d come up with that nickname. However, I’m particularly glad you are here so we can discuss how to come up with a long-term solution. We have, Mashallah, a lot of Muslim students. They all attend the local mosque an hour or two per week where they learn about their religion. The courses are totally free of charge and the Imam who organizes these courses is a highly qualified individual. They learn about their prayers, ablution, fasting, Islamic values such as Halal and Haram. I’m sure Bilal Inshallah would benefit greatly from attending the mosque with the other children.”
I can’t decide if his proposal is outrageous or a big joke. I remain calm.
“Mr. Anjem, with all due respect, wouldn’t it be more beneficial from an educational point of view if the children were taught to respect different beliefs? I’m sure there are non-Muslim pupils in the school as well and they might not have any idea of Islamic teachings such as Halal or Haram…”
“Oh, there are certainly non-Muslim students here,” Mr. Anjem cuts me short. “But that’s a different matter. The Muslim students aren’t expected to know about Islam. But, you see, brother, Bilal is a Muslim, Mashallah, and I believe the other children were surprised to see that he eats sweets, which contain gelatin. That’s precisely why I think attending the courses in the mosque will be greatly beneficial to Bilal. He’s a kid. He doesn’t know what Halal or Haram is.”
“But Mr. Anjem, those are exactly the types of issues my wife and I don’t want our child to be exposed to at his age. We would prefer Bilal to learn about Islam and other faiths for himself and to make an informed choice, should he one day feel he needs to have a religion.”
Mr. Anjem’s stare lingers on my face. “But, brother, what if he chooses to be a Jew?”
“I don’t see why I should be worried, Mr. Anjem,” I say and stare back, somehow enjoying his offended frown.
He removes his glasses and wipes the lenses with a tissue.
“Well, then I assure you we will do our best to deal with all the cases of bullying at the school, including Bilal’s.” He replaces his glasses on his nose and leans back in his chair.
“Thank you Mr. Anjem.” I rise from my chair and extend my hand. “That’s all I expect.”
* * *
Mr. and Mrs. Baktash are the first Afghan neighbours we have visited since we moved into our new flat two months ago. They have five children and live in a huge four-bedroom house with front and back gardens. Mr. Baktash greets my wife and me at the door and pulls Bilal’s cheeks. We are led into a spacious reception room, lavishly decorated with fine Persian rugs and brightly coloured curtains. Mr. Baktash keeps his hand on his chest and doesn’t take a seat, a finely crafted Italian armchair, before my wife and I are settled on the large matching sofa. Mrs. Baktash takes Bilal to the adjoining room to join the other kids sitting in front of a huge TV. On her way back to the room, Mrs. Baktash brings us tea and biscuits and sits next to her husband.
“There are not many Afghans in this neighbourhood,” Mr. Baktash says before adding that they have been living in the area for almost seven years. “Most Afghans live in West London. We used to live in Harrow as well, before moving to this house.”
I overhear my wife telling Mrs. Baktash about my job.
“Oh, that’s great,” says our hostess. “Not many Afghans have an office job. At least, I don’t know many. Mr. Baktash used to drive a taxi. But you know how low the pay is in such jobs, and the worst part is that the government cuts your benefits if you work. So we are much better off if Mr. Baktash doesn’t work and we live on benefits.”
Mr. Baktash asks me when I came to the UK.
“About ten years ago.”
“Oh, that’s almost the same time as us. Which route did you come?”
“Did you come through Turkey, or Belarus?”
“Oh. No, I didn’t come…” I pause and try in vain to find another word for illegally. “I… I came… I was offered a job in the UK, my current job. I didn’t have to come through Belarus or Turkey.”
“Really?” Mrs. Baktash exchanges a surprised look with her husband.
“Yes, I applied for a job in London, was accepted after the interviews and they gave me a work permit.”
“I didn’t know that was possible,” exclaims Mrs. Baktash. “Did you?” she asks her husband, who shakes his head. She goes on: “We went through so much pain. We spent thousands of dollars. We paid smugglers to help us cross the borders, from one country to another, sometimes on train, sometimes on buses, and even on foot. Which country was it where we had to cross the border on foot?”
“Hungary,” Mr. Baktash says.
“Yes, Hungary. In the Netherlands, we stayed in a camp for two years waiting for our case to be accepted. But then a relative advised us to come to the UK. We had to pay again to cross the border in the back of a lorry. Imagine, with three children – at that time the two little ones were not yet born – we squeezed into a tiny space in the back of the lorry and travelled from… what was the name of that place in France…”
“Calais,” says Mr. Baktash
“Yes, Calais. Thank God, we didn’t face many problems here. We were accepted in about a year or so. The government here is much better. They gave us a three-bedroom house in Harrow, which wasn’t big enough. But then the council showed us a few other houses, before we chose this one. Normally the council houses in this part of London are bigger. But then it depends how many children, you have. Are you happy with your house?”
“Ours is not a council house,” my wife says. “It’s a small flat we rent.”
“Oh, really? Didn’t you apply for a council house?”
“Well, I’m not entitled for a council house or unemployment benefits,” I reply. “People who come here with a work permit are supposed to work and pay their taxes.”
“Life must be hard,” is all Mrs. Baktash says and for the first time, I sense sympathy, and not awe, in the couple’s expression.
* * *
As I hit the TV on it’s sides hoping to fix the wavy picture, I can tell my wife is standing behind me, her hands on her hips, looking at me angrily.
“Are you deaf? I said don’t jump on the sofa,” I shout at Bilal. “Sit down. Properly.”
“Don’t take it out on him,” my wife says sharply and sits on the sofa next to Bilal. “I told you not to buy a second hand TV, didn’t I?”
“Could you not start now?”
“You never listen. You buy second hand and you pay twice.” She gives the sagging sofa cushion an emphatic shove. “Second hand. Everything secondhand. My whole life is second hand.”
I keep quiet. I fear if I say a word, she will extend her argument to the flat issue. But my silence doesn’t work.
“You brought us to this matchbox to save how much? A hundred pounds a month? You pay fifty pounds extra for your commute. You didn’t see that coming, did you? At least Bilal had a box for a room.” She picks up a pillow, lying on the floor and hurls it onto Bilal’s bunk bed in the corner of the living room. “Second hand,” she grunts before she storms out.
I smile at Bilal, who watches me with concerned eyes. He smiles back. The doorbell rings and he runs to the corridor. A moment later he returns.
“Babayee, your friend wants to see you.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him before.”
I leave the TV and go to the door.
“Hello, my name is Mike,” the young man in jeans introduces himself. “I’m a police officer.” He shows me a badge.
There is a rush of saliva in my mouth. “Is everything okay, officer?”
“Oh, yes, don’t worry. The border police at the airport gave us your name and details. You recently travelled to Amsterdam, right?”
“I assume they did tell you that you might be visited by a police officer?”
“That’s correct. I remember that.”
“Is now a good time?”
“Of course, please come in. Would you like something to drink?” I say.
“Thank you. I don’t want to give you any trouble,” he says as he takes off his shoes and settles on the sofa.
“There is no trouble. I’ll bring you some tea.” I take Bilal’s hand and lead him into the kitchen where my wife is washing up.
“Who is he?”
“A friend of mine. Don’t let Bilal in the living room.”
When I place the cup of tea in front of the officer, he smiles and looks around. “It’s a lovely place,” he says, perhaps to start a conversation.
“Thank you,” I say and watch him as he pulls out a small notepad and a paper from his coat pocket.
“I understand my colleagues at the airport asked you a few questions. I was told to pay you a visit. Nothing to worry about.”
Officer Mike is a friendly person, I am thinking to myself. In his plain clothes, I’d never have guessed he was a police officer. As he sips his tea, he asks me questions about my job and where I lived before. He asks me whether I travel often back and forth to Afghanistan. He finally asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer.
“Do you attend a mosque?”
I look at him for a moment and smile: “No, I don’t attend a mosque.”
Officer Mike drinks the last of his tea and slides his notepad and pen back into his coat pocket.
“Thank you for your hospitality.”
“It was my pleasure,” I say to him and shake his hand at the door.
“What did he want?” my wife asks.
“Nothing important,” I say and resume hitting the TV on its sides.
“Babayee, when you get rich, will you buy me a laptop?” says Bilal.
“Of course I will.”
“Because Saeed made me an email address. I want to send emails to my friends.”
“Saeed? Is he not the same boy who called you the infidel’s son?”
“Yes, but we are friends now. He made me an email address and said we could sometimes chat.”
“That’s great, son. What’s your email address?”