The comfortable and familiar feeling of being among a sea of Muslims returned when I attended the Global Peace & Unity event held in London on November 24 and 25. There were literally tens of thousands of Muslims from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Everyone looked the part, largely dressed in a way that set them apart from the rest of the British population. There were elegant East African women -- tall, thin, dark, and often carrying themselves with striking beauty. The South Asian women varied from those who wore an all enveloping hijab that left only the eyes visible--often thick with makeup--to those who made no attempt to hide their feminine charms. Likewise, their menfolk included men with imposing black beards and others whose visits to mens grooming saloons must have been at least once a week. Confusingly, the majority of this vast crowd spoke English with a thick working class British accent. My eyes were telling me "that man sure looks Arab" while my ears were saying "but he certainly sounds English". I was immersed in a mixed-up world of multiple identities and generational allegiances, where English was Arab and Pakistani was English, and where half the women wore cheap Chinese made Palestinian style kaffiyehs despite having almost certainly never set foot anywhere near Jerusalem.
There was a large room with all kinds of small booths and stalls offering things for sale and causes to contribute. One popular stall painted small flags on women and girls' cheeks, and henna on their hands.
There was a man and woman selling Muslim T-shirts. A brown shirt said simply resistance, and had a picture of an automatic weapon. A blue shirt had a superman logo that said "Muslims do it 5 times a day". But the finest was a red shirt with ISLAM in large letters, whose 'M' was in the style of the famous McDonald's logo. Beneath it was the slogan "I'm lovin it". I looked at it intently with a no doubt perplexed look on my face. I asked the man if he thought the shirt was sacrilegious. Without a hint of irony or humour, in his British accent he told me he didn't know what sacrilegious meant. I told him it meant it was against the sacred nature of Islam. He replied that he had designed the shirt himself, and that some Muslims loved it while others hated it. He thought it was practical. Imagine, he said, a young Muslim man being confronted by drunks on an underground railway station at 11 p.m. The drunks would find the shirt amusing, giving the upstanding Muslim the perfect opening to preach the glories of Islam. His wife was standing beside him, her face covered, busy serving customers. I did not know what she thought of such practicalities.
I asked a man selling a military biography of Khalid ibn al-Walid, otherwise known as the Sword of Allah, whether this was an appropriate book for a peace and unity event. He admitted he had not read the book and could not say. Before asking him this, I had taken his photo alongside it, honouring his request to include the honey he was also selling.
There was a booth with a bearded man bellowing loudly into the ear of a young woman. Above them was a sign promising to assist those suffering from evil eye, black magic, or jinn possession. The man was effective. Soon enough, the woman broke down in tears. While all this was going on, I asked his son of I had permission to photograph the sign advertising their services. He told me to go ahead. I took the photo, his father noticing out of the corner of his eye. He stopped helping the woman and began to berate me for daring to take a photograph. I let him speak, and when he was finished, I told him I had merely photographed the sign with his son's permission. His temper flaring, he demanded to know I was a journalist. I said I was not. He was agitated and I realised it was best to listen to him quietly and calmly. He said in his booming voice that British journalists had made a mockery of his work, and a French television station had confused him with a man wanted by the police, giving him all kinds of things to worry about. A elderly man beside me became very angry and demanded to know what I was doing there with a camera. I said nothing but looked him in the eye, which he took to be a sign of aggression. The curer of evil eye, black magic and jinn possession calmed down at this point, and told the other man he could handle it. I reassured him that at no time had I photographed anything but their sign. I gave him my card and expressed my sympathy for his predicament. He smiled, apologised, and resumed his work. The elderly man also smiled apologetically.
The massive crowd
I came across a booth where a wife and husband of Pakistani origin had enterprisingly set up a small photographic studio. We struck up a long and fruitful conversation. The wife told me about their photography business, emphasising her skills as a woman photographer, which was very useful with the upsurge in gender segregated weddings. They were dull to photograph, she said, because they lacked the interaction between the groom and bride that made wedding photography so special. But it was good for business. In our discussions on Muslim marriages she told me that she believed a woman should always have the right to choose her husband, no matter what anybody else in the family says. She herself was married at age 17, without ever having met her husband till the day she was married. While she had a marvellous marriage with three children, she said as women became better educated they were demanding their right to choose their husband themselves. A skinny pimple faced young man came up to the booth, examining the beautiful bridal photographs on display. She offered him her brochure, at which point he realised that he was not at a booth offering to match potential brides and grooms. His friends laughed at him. The woman pointed out that all the brides were already married, and her husband pointed to a portrait photo of a girl who was about three years old, mentioning that she was not married. We all laughed.
I joined a crowd of many thousands enjoying musical performances taking place in a huge auditorium. On stage were a continual stream of earnest musicians emphasising their wholesome family values and commitment to Islam. It was in fact uplifting family entertainment suitable for the many young children present. The organisers wisely interspersed the more somber acts with a dash of humour, which proved to be a big hit. A Californian named Baba Ali had everyone laughing when he described how a Muslim could get thrown off a plane. One suggestion was to scream loudly in Arabic. Another was to turn to a friend mid-flight, waking him up and saying loudly "Osama, it's time, it's time." He said that wearing a hijab would not get you thrown off a plane. Neither would a large beard. But wearing a hijab while having a large beard probably would.