Stranger Things Have Happened on the Pianos of St Pancras

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I’m on a train to London, and the train guard is making his announcements in a trusty broad Yorkshire accent.

It’s the usual rehearsed script of where the train is due to stop, the estimated time of arrival, the shameless promotion of overly priced food and beverages before informing parents, lovers and friends saying goodbye to loved ones that unless they want to be charged an arm and a leg for an unintentional trip to London, could they kindly get off the damn train before the automatic doors slide shut, thank you very much.

He pauses for what feels like a few seconds, and proceeds to advise passengers not to hesitate to report anything suspicious.

“Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”

There is a noticeable change in his diction as he emphasises the last few words, the formulaic drone in his voice giving way to a grim seriousness.

On hearing this I feel myself squirming incriminatingly in my seat like a misbehaving child sent head-hanging and red-faced to the headmistress’ office. Nobody has said a word to me, nobody has cut me with a rueful side glance to suggest they aren’t happy with my being there. But today I am overly cautious of the fact that the hijab on my head might bring unwanted attention. I should have worn a turban, but in the mad rush to the train station, an overfilled Ted Baker shopping bag weighing me down in one hand, cracked iPhone in the other, the hijab I flung over my head went from being wrapped acceptably in my trademark Iranian Elvis Presley style, to a monstrous rag with tufts of static hair pointing out front like a mohican. People might take me for an anarchic, hijabi punk-rocker or worse, a Tina Turner impersonator with a hijab. So you can imagine why I am feeling slightly paranoid.

Two hours later, the train pulls into Kings Cross. I still have a few hours before I need to head off to watch a play in the evening. I don’t want to leave without playing on one of the pianos inside St Pancras station next door, a small rite of passage whenever I pass through. My heart is set on one particular piano, a black, sleek beauty gifted by Elton John. It’s like the holy piano of all public pianos, and it’s never not being played. But for once, there’s nobody on it. With nothing between us, I rush towards it to claim my prize. Out of nowhere a woman brushes past, her arms thrust purposefully back and forth, eyes magnified like those pestilent bottle-flies by the oversized Jackie O sunglasses she wears shutting out the sun blazing outside and the world with it, a Mulberry bag looped elegantly around her arm. She wrinkles her nose at me as if she just touched a leper. She’s bad and bougie. Fortunately for her and for my bruised ego, my musical bae is waiting, and nothing can dent this sunny disposition of mine.

So there I am, poking and prodding at the keys of the piano like a fool out of a Morecombe and Wise sketch. Commuters headed from Paris to Nottingham, pull their hand luggage behind them with wheels whirring and spinning over the smooth floor, shooting past on either side of me as I play. I feel like the prophet Moses parting travellers and commuters with the celestial power of my music, but the few bum notes I hit are a humbling reminder I am no bloody Alicia Keys. The tannoid sounds again, this time in the station:

“The threat level has been raised to critical. If you see anything suspicious, please do not hesitate to inform a member of staff or contact the police. Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”

The country’s terror threat has been raised to the highest possible level, but the way the faceless man on the tannoid says it, is in such a matter-of-fact way, you’d think he were an employee at a supermarket announcing a spillage on an aisle after a screaming child smashes a jar of baby food that splatters on the floor like a Jackson Pollack painting, in protest at being refused sweets before dinner. They don’t say “Keep calm and carry on” for nothing; such is the British way. But there creeps that gnawing sense of vulnerability again. Big Brother might be watching…

At this point a woman with long, flowing braids and a green hat perched on her head stops to listen to me play. After a minute or so, she asks if she can film me.

“Feel free, but just to warn you my fingers have a habit of freezing up when the camera is on.”

“I’ll just pretend I’m not here” she says, sitting on the metal railing snaking around the glass elevator the piano is placed in front of.

I’m not being modest. My fingers freeze and the notes stop melding together as I become conscious of her watching me play. After a few minutes, I give up and insist she has a go. She sits on the stool and plays a few songs, all her own compositions which she modestly says are a combination of chords she mixed together. I’m not one who gets emotional very easily, but all of a sudden I’m having to swallow a lump in my throat. Her face is radiating so much joy, so much soul as her fingers dance gracefully over the keys. As she slides off the stool to let on two guys watching on the side, we sit down and talk for a while.

Her name is Sophia, and she is visiting from Chicago. She’s been pining to play the piano for a few weeks since coming to the UK, but couldn’t find one until today. Anyone who loves to play will know that feeling of piano withdrawal which sets in when you haven’t played for a while. We talk about her stay in London so far, about our shared love for theatre and period dramas. The subject of period dramas opens up a whole discussion about how Colin Firth made the best Darcy (apologies to anyone who is camp Macfadyen), and how period dramas are so translatable to south-Asian family politics.

We pause for a moment to glance over at the two guys who went on to play earlier; they’re now playing a duet. Observing how friendly we are with each other, all four of us exchange confused glances.

“Do you guys know each other?”
“No we just met. Do you know each other?”
“No, we just met too!”

That’s when the St Pancras piano gang of two suddenly becomes a gang of four.

Our other fellow piano lovers are Luis and Tawanda. From John Legend, Ludovico Einaudi, Adele, to Alicia Keys, they drop song after song for the next hour. Luis casually flicks his hair to the side, his skateboard tucked under the piano as he plays a song we all recognise with lightning speed. Then Tawanda gets on and blows us away with his cover of John Legend’s ‘All Of Me.’ The sun is blazing, Tawanda and Luis are jamming away, Sophia is now singing like a songbird, and I’m stood here awkwardly squawking the odd words, swaying like a palm tree. I’m not sure what the armed policemen briskly walking up and down in their high visibility jackets make of us, but we’re the most unlikely band going. Here we are, an American, a Zimbabwean, a Londoner, and a hybrid Londoner-Bradfordian, four complete strangers united by our love for music.

What happened to those legendary stone-faced London commuters who don’t stop for anything, I don’t know. All of a sudden, strangers are approaching us, thanking us for playing such beautiful music. I’ve spent a lot of time at St Pancras, but today it feels like there has been some kind of unburdening, almost a heavy sigh of relief as people stop by longer than usual to soak in the sound of the music. Even as sirens howl like wolves in this city, I’m so thankful for the small moments of beauty that float up unexpectedly out of the sand storm enveloping us right now.

Here’s to random encounters. Here’s to strangers who light up your horizon as they come streaking into your life for a moment like flaming comets. And here’s to the day when I’ll finally be able to wrap my hijab like a YouTube blogger.

On the Manchester Attacks, Katie Hopkins, and Moving Forward

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My connection with Manchester happened purely by accident.

I initially started out my undergraduate degree in London. But after a family crisis sent my family and I into a domestic violence refuge, push came to shove and we were eventually forced to relocate to my mother’s home town of Bradford. My university degree, something I had spent so long planning towards, almost went down in flames because no university would take a last-minute transfer. But the University of Manchester tossed me a life-line when I needed it most.

At first, Manchester and I didn’t start out on the best of terms. I almost had a dramatic meltdown on my first day of university after I got lost and couldn’t find my way to Manchester Victoria train station. But for the following three years that I was there, it became a home away from home. It was a smaller version of London with the hustle and bustle of a concrete jungle, and Mancunians imbued with that generous northern spirit we southerners sometimes lack (and envy) at the helm of the city.

On the one hand, I’m grieving for Manchester, a city where I’ve embarrassingly danced the night away, escaped the demands of adult life for a few hours in concerts at Manchester Arena and other venues, just as the victims did last night. I’m grieving for the families who won’t hold their loved ones again, for the people being treated in hospital, and for those who will carry the memories of what happened last night for the rest of their lives. I’m grieving over the fact that as unfathomable as it might be, there are people in this world who can somehow justify detonating a bomb of shrapnel and nails in a crowd of concert-goers who never expected they wouldn’t return home.

On the other, I’m worried sick about the retaliation that some communities will face off the back of this attack. I’m worried someone will scream at visibly Muslim women as they walk down the street, that they need to go back to “f*cking ISIS” because of the cloth on their head as I’ve experienced before. I’m worried about the brown or black kids, the Muslim kids going to school who will mark this day as their premature coming of age because their classmates thought they were related to the big bad terrorist, just because of their name or the amount of melanin in their skin. I’m worried that the kind of corrosive words spouted by the likes of Katie Hopkins will become more palatable to fellow Brits, tired of the fact she hides behind the Union Jack as if she has more claim to this country than I do because whiteness is a barometer for Britishness. I’m worried that despite feeling in absolute turmoil, despite feeling an unbounded rage at what has happened, I’ll have to paint a smile on my face when I see people glance at me uncomfortably, just to show that underneath the folds of cloth on my head, I am not a threat. I feel exhausted, and I know the sickness I’ve been feeling all day today isn’t just anemia dragging me down. It’s a weight that has been dragging down everyone across the country today.

How can we possibly understand the logic of someone who justifies killing innocent people, no less children? There is no making sense of thoughts and ideologies woven out of chaos, no matter how much politicians, pundits and the like theorise and pontificate. The least we can do, whatever our faith, whatever our alliances, is to channel our grief and rage into something good, something useful. The worst thing we could do now is to turn on each other.

I hate that it takes for events like these to mobilise people into action when we’re collectively reeling from the heavy blow of what happened last night. Our country is already hurtling down a rabbit hole of political and social chaos as it is. But if we aren’t calm and measured in our responses, if we don’t show love and solidarity to those who have suffered directly or indirectly and to those who will need it in the coming weeks, then the impact of yesterday’s attacks will be generational.

On my way home from a vigil for Manchester at Bradford Cathedral earlier, I walked past a gravestone specialist shop in Manningham. “IN LOVING MEMORY”, the sign read in rusted gold capital letters. It made me wonder, when we die, what impact, what legacy will we leave? Big or small, we all have a part to play in shaping this world of ours. Whether we choose to use our hands or our words as a hammer for good or bad, is entirely up to us.

Watching the candles burn in the cathedral, and whispering hurried prayers in the darkness of my room, something Dylan Thomas wrote popped into my mind:

‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

From the doctors, the taxi drivers, the police, fire and ambulance workers, the hotel and restaurant owners, the homeless man who held a dying woman in his arms, the concerned people who opened the doors to their homes, to the Mancunians who ousted the EDL from the streets of Manchester, each and everyone of these people have shown that as hard as it is to focus on the positives tonight, there is hope. There is unity and resilience. There are forces of good at work. Don’t you dare forget that.

If You Can Survive Exam Season, You Can Survive A Post-Trump World

I was a pint-sized fourteen year old when I took my GCSE mock exams in Fulham Cross Secondary School for girls. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I’d never live past sweet sixteen. It’s a dramatic thought given school is supposed to educate rather than inculcate thoughts of death, but hardly surprising given my age and the heightened hysteria exams stress induced, particularly in an all-girls school. I was convinced I would leave the black metal gates in a pine box, my dreams and aspirations cryogenically frozen into the unique candidate number and illegible scrawl on my exam paper. Writing this more than ten years on is almost like speaking “beyond the grave”.
 
In those days, the worst of secondary school problems were about acne; buying into the latest trends of McKenzie hoodies and Nike bags; how hanging glass dummies around your neck was the biggest fashion faux-pas of the decade; and formulating ways we could dupe our parents into endorsing soft porn by purchasing stationary with the Playboy bunny logo. There were no Kardashians then to dictate to the obliging masses what to wear – only disapproving high-school girls who would shred you to pieces with one dagger as they scanned you from head to toe. Everyone just wanted to “fit in” to the human jigsaw puzzle that would become disfigured the moment we left our sequestered little school bubble. So you can imagine how it was that exam stress was the final straw that broke the teenage camel’s back.
 
Exams were always held in the gym. It was in these four walls, the centre of our scholastic universe, where dreams were made and broken, and where generations of students ruefully froze their butts off during the winter. The first day of exams was always the worst. Completing day-to-day activities was lost to us students. The ability to form an orderly cue for example, which comes innate to any Brit, became impossible as we huddled outside the gym like a group of Emperor penguins braving the arctic winds, shuffling sheepishly side to side as we counted down the seconds until the gates of school purgatory would burst open.
 
After manoeuvring her way through zombie-faced students, the deputy head stood in front of us with her arms crossed, her lips pursed, and a steely look in her eyes: “You are the worst year we’ve ever had!” she said. There was no kissing of the teeth from the bolder students, the ultimate teenage sign of disapproval, and there was no high-pitched screeches of “Later!”, a euphemism for “What the hell are you talking about?”, amongst other less pleasant things. Whether it was because we’d heard it so many times before or because the year group had spent half the night snoring on top of their CGP revision guides, with its dry jokes nestled at the bottom of the pages that only knocked us out even more, no one responded. There was just an eerie silence. Even the hardiest, most anarchic Fulham Cross gal was grim-faced and mute.
 
The clock struck twelve and the year elevens, the big fish of the school, came streaming out with the morbid expression of someone who had just walked out of a funeral. One girl’s eyes were puffed up and swollen red as if she had had an allergic reaction to the exams. She was flanked on both sides by friends who rubbed her back and nodded like those Churchill dogs with less enthusiasm and more sympathy, as she wailed tearfully about how hard the biology exam was that she had just sat. I found myself secretly wishing I had learned those duas, prayers my mum told me to recite before starting an exam. It used to be a classroom joke that a funeral was taking place in the old graveyard adjacent to the school, prompting gullible school girls to look out of the window in search of the hearse. There was a funeral that day except this time, it was our own. Didn’t I say teenagers were Class A melodramatics?
 
Eventually, it was time for my year group, the year tens, to enter the gym, where the handle of the clock was God, the exam invigilator was the devil in plain clothes, and our wooden desks were our salvation from sinking like the Titanic into the laminated flooring – Jack be damned of course. The small desks we were designated, personalised with our names typed onto a sticker on the top left hand corner, were placed at regular intervals in the gym. Like pieces of driftwood floating in a sea of oestrogen, we clung on for dear life as our fate was determined by the knowledge spilling out from our over-saturated brains, and whether our glutes could withstand the numbing sensation of sitting on planks of hard plastic for a few gruelling hours.
 
As the invigilator laid down the rules of what we could and couldn’t do, I ran my hand under the side of the desk. An expression of disgust crumpled my face as my finger came into contact with dry chewing gum, smooth and fossilised, waiting to surprise the unfortunate fingertip that brushed over its surface. You could trace letters scratched frantically onto the surface of these desks with the sharp tip of a compass, by generations of students who etched an eloquent obituary to their youth years before. “Gemma woz ere 2004”. Teenage vernacular was always short and to the point. The ghosts of students from the past descended on us, whispering of exam elation, despair, and complete boredom, sending shivers down our spines. Other girls etched the names of their boyfriends, past and present, their love immortalised in a cursive heart which enveloped both their initials. I remember fleetingly contemplating whether to etch Aragorn’s name into the desk, but was torn by my admiration for Legolas’ golden locks. My loyalty to fictional lovers back then was fickle. “You may now begin.” Suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of pages turning and nervous scribbling as two hundred pens simultaneously came into contact with paper.
 
The first page of the exam would set the tone for whether you would succeed or fail. The eyes of the girl sat on my right bulged because she didn’t revise the content needed to answer the first question. Exam suicide. Another student repressed a squeal of joy because two months of burying her head in a book and sacrificing her social life had finally paid off. One of the school teachers masquerading as an invigilator frantically walked past his star student several times, wondering why she sat staring at the first question for five minutes with a blank expression on her face. His fears were subdued eventually when he saw a smile ripple across her face as she experienced a Eureka! moment, scuttling off happily with the gait of an Irish leprechaun, assured the ink spilling from her pen would not let him down.
 
I have boxes stuffed full of old exercise books and exam papers written by the old Aina, the Aina with the illegible scrawl a teacher once said rather curtly, that she had to use a magnifying glass to read. Her assassination of my handwriting still piques my pride to this day. I look for the foolish teenager I used to be in the pages of my schoolbooks or the comments teachers left behind. But like wisps of smoke floating from a candle as you snuff them out, cutting across the room like threads of spider webs shot into the dark, she has vanished. Similar to the girls who scribbled the names of their lovers or their own names into the exam desks, I also wrote my obituary to my youth long ago, I just didn’t know it then. At least now, standing on the altitude of adulthood looking down on a world where a human Oompa-Loompa has become the most powerful leader of the free world, it has finally dawned on me that exam stress was nothing compared to the trials and tribulations that were to follow.

Coming of Age in a post-9/11 Britain

“Bin Laden’s girlfriend!”
The words came rocketing out of his mouth, each one purposefully sewn with the other, each one a stick of the pen-knife in my childish ego. 
At first, I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. Try telling any ten year old Muslim girl that her boyfriend is a middle-aged, Saudi-Arabian man who looks a bit like her mosque teacher, and just so happens to be a mass murderer. It’s the last thing on earth she would want to hear, least of all from the mouth of the popular kid who dribbled footballs like David Beckham. 
A swell of anger came surging up from the pit of my stomach. I stood there, shaking with rage, and I reached for the only thing that I knew otherised him.
“Well you’re… black!”
With a dramatic turn of my heels, I ran off before he could reply.
Up until September 11th, my Muslim identity was completely invisible. The only time I felt obviously brown was when instead of taking quintessentially British fish and chips for World Food Day, my mum would send me to school with freshly fried pakoras instead to the delight of my teachers. 
But that day the super-power of invisibility I had wielded for so long vanished much like Bin Laden did. 
As a naive ten year old, I couldn’t fully understand the repercussions of 9/11. But I knew the hijab I wrapped around my head “Mother Theresa-style” as my brothers liked to tease, had something to do with being called Bin Laden’s girlfriend.
As the stone-hewn eyes of Bin Laden peered out from the world’s television screens, a global audience stared back at a man who had overnight become the most reviled human being on earth since Adolf Hitler. It’s no surprise his face would be used as a template to screen other potential terrorists skulking in the shadows with their beards, their turbans, and their melanin-rich skin. 
After 9/11, Osama Bin Laden and the Muslim community at large were no longer made up of individuals. Every Muslim was Bin Laden, and Bin Laden was every Muslim. It’s the kind of Kafkan metamorphosis made of the stuff of nightmares. Even the hijab of an unsuspecting ten year old obsessed with Pokèmon became a barometer of extremism, tying a young Muslim girl from London to a man who orchestrated the deaths of 2,996 people. 
The end of the school day arrived, and kid Beckham’s mother had inevitably approached my mother to ask why I had called her son black. As the details unraveled, our mothers, both exceptionally sensible given the sensitivity of the situation, made us apologise to one another, and we both went on our way; a very amicable resolution if you know anything about how messy playground politics can get. 
We didn’t know it then, but 9/11 marked a coming of age for many young British Muslims like myself. Life became less about obsessing over Aragorn or Final Fantasy, and more a defensive one where you would have to justify the theological, social and political underpinnings of your hijab, your faith, your very existence.
Not only do we straddle dual identities as British Muslims, Muslim Brits, whichever order you prefer. We straddle two time phases: pre 9/11 which we look back at almost nostalgically when Islamophobia hadn’t fully made its debut on the world stage, and a post 9/11 world in which we became perpetual defenders of Islam, whether we wanted to or not. 
This was of course before ISIS materialised onto the global stage. 
My younger sister’s generation, the millennial generation, are now living in a post-ISIS world. If this is our coming of age for young British Muslims, then we’ve got a lot to be worried about. Our youth should be worrying about acne, fleeting school crushes, or buying their next pair of Nike trainers. Instead, they’re having to think about Islamophobia, integration, extremism, Prevent and so on. 
September 11th will always be a sombre day of reflection on the nightmarish events that unfurled that day fifteen years ago. The reverberations of 9/11 are still felt across the pond to this day. 
But for me, as a British Muslim, it will always be a reminder of how Pandora’s box was opened for the Muslim community that day. 
When the lid will be slammed shut to stem the Islamophobia that has been pouring out from it since, only time can tell.

Smuggling Knaffeh into Tel Aviv Airport

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Imagine you’re in Tel Aviv airport. As a spoilt, British national whose passport is considered gold dust (perhaps less so since Brexit), you think you’re going to sail through security like a regal swan.

I clutch my passport in my sweaty palms, thinking Her majesty, Queen Elizabeth will jump out from its thick pages, wave her hand in salutation to the security guards, beguile them with her stiff upper-lip English, and they’ll let me pass through.

Alas, that doesn’t happen.

The group that I’m in are suddenly diverted from the “normal”, overwhelmingly white looking cue, and into the brown, Muslim cue.

Suddenly, my brown privilege and even my Muslim privilege plays its double trump card. I find myself for the first time in my life, in the brown, Muslim cue.

I laugh at the token white guy standing behind me in his starched shirt, as he looks around in bewilderment, probably wondering what on earth he is doing with an army of brown folks suspected of hiding explosives and drugs in their hand luggage, beards ands hijabs. “I’m just a computer technician”, he says to those of us standing in ear shot.

I sigh to myself in exasperation, hoping, praying that my pilgrimage to Jerusalem isn’t marred by a nightmarish experience many have warned me about.

“Next please.”

I’m up.

I gather my luggage, and push it into the conveyor belt so it can be scanned.

An Israeli woman with bronze, curly ringlets, not much older than I am, approaches me and takes me to the other side where she proceeds to empty the contents of my hand luggage, and scans each item of clothing with what looks like a plastic riding crop.

I want to get rid of the gnawing, growing feeling of fear and annoyance expanding in my stomach. I have some fresh knaffeh in one of the bags I’m holding, and I really, really want to get it past security.

So what do I do when I’m nervous? I talk.

As I watch her intently, brushing my clothes over with the plastic crop, I say to her: “It looks like a plastic rod, but I’m guessing you’re using that to scan my clothes for explosives.”

She looks up for a moment, almost surprised I’m engaging her in conversation, and says: “Yes, it looks like nothing. We use it to detect drugs and other things too.”

The feeling of fear in my stomach explodes momentarily, even though I know I’m not carrying any drugs. I’m still worried about getting my fresh knaffeh I picked up this morning past security.

I quickly look at her name badge to catch her name in an attempt to strike conversation and make this whole experience even a fraction more “normal”.

“Your name is Noa. Is that after the prophet Noah?” I ask, hoping she won’t deflect my attempt to engage her.

“No actually. It’s pronounced the same, but Noa was kind of the first Jewish feminist” she tells me.

Feminism. Now that’s a conversation I can hold. I know I’ve struck conversational gold, so I press her to tell me more, not to mention, I’m intrigued.

“Noa was basically one of a handful of sisters who fought to receive inheritance after her father died, at a time when women didn’t get inheritance. That’s patriarchy for you huh?”

“Don’t get me started on patriarchy!” I say bitterly.

She then takes me past the luggage area, and proceeds to pat me down; my arms, my legs, inside my fluorescent floral-print trousers.

I stand there, in an outstretched star-fish pose, acting as if I’ve been searched like this before. Is this what it’s like for my black brothers and sisters, or my Palestinian brothers and sisters, who go through this on a daily basis?

Afterwards, Noa directs me to the full body scanner. I cringe inwardly as I step in, knowing I’m going to see a digital, butt-naked outline of my body. I almost laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of it all, as I raise my arms above my heads in the “hands up” gesture. As I step out, I avoid eye contact with the outline of my naked body which appears on a screen in front of Noa.

After a few seconds, I pluck up the courage to have a quick look, and notice that my right butt-cheek is glowing red. Uh-oh.

Suddenly the phone next to Noa starts to shrill. I can hear some invisible, nameless face on the other end of the line speaking heatedly in Hebrew. The words “anomaly detected” flashes across the screen.

Noa looks at me, and at this point, I remember that I shoved a handful of Fox mints into my pocket before I came to the airport. I quickly reach inside, grab the sweets and I say “Is it the sweets that are causing the anomalies?”

She suppresses a smile, and probably says to the phantom on the other end of phone in Hebrew: “We’ve got a 24 year old child here who set the scanner off because of some sweets. She’s clear.”

She takes me back to the luggage area and we continue our conversation as she continues to look through my clothes.

She picks up from our conversation earlier: “I’m not religious. I don’t like religion. But in Israel, you need a rabbi to get married, even if you aren’t religious.”

I tell her I’m someone who considers them self as religious, spiritual even, and that I respect her right not to want a religious minister at her wedding.

“Are you a secular Jew? I mean do you consider yourself culturally Jewish, but not religiously?” I ask her.

She pauses and says “Culturally Jewish? Definitely.”

I tell her that I’ve been to a few Shabbat dinners, and how the Jewish people I’ve observed are surprisingly so musical. The only crude comparison I can make, is that it’s like being at one of those merry Hobbit feasts Tolkien wrote so much about.

“It’s sad you know. There are so many similarities between Islam and Judaism.”

“I know” I say grimly. I tell her how I’ve been told this by a handful of rabbis I’ve encountered in my work.

I wonder if our little conversation is a nice change of pace from her usual mundane routine.

Just as I say goodbye to her, and she offers to help me re-pack my luggage (my knaffeh, thank God was given the all clear too), she quickly adds:
“Eid Mubaghak”, her heavy Hebrew accent replacing the -r with a -gh.

I look up at her, surprised, and thank her, wishing her well. I really didn’t expect that.

I guess the moral of this story is, don’t shove Fox mints into your pockets if you’re flying from Tel Aviv airport. Their scanners don’t like boiled sweets, and they’re bad for your teeth anyway.

But more than anything, and perhaps most importantly, speak when you don’t want to speak. Exercise the privilege of your tongue if all else fails.

You really don’t know what you might learn, or what doors might open (literal or figurative) if you engage someone in conversation.

On Cigarette Butts, Donald Trump and Sadiq Khan

The night encounters I’ve had whilst walking the streets of London are so different to those I’ve had during the day. 
At night, the city is a calm, simmering mass of lights; not her normal, uptight self that heaves and sighs in exasperation as Londoners and tourists alike rush through the maze of streets. There’s still a tangible buzz in the air even at night; this is a city that never sleeps after all. Maybe that’s why people start to open up and blossom when talking to random, curious strangers like myself. 
I’ve been told it’s a big faux-pas to be walking in one direction, and suddenly turn 180 degrees and walk completely the opposite way. It reflects poorly on your IQ apparently. I tend to do it quite a bit when I’m using my Google maps to navigate around any concrete jungle. I wonder what that says about my intelligence! 
This particular evening, a lady I walked past was taking photographs of discarded cigarette butts on the pavement. Her partner was teasing her, probably saying something about why she was taking so many photographs of the grey, concrete pavement. Like a typical Londoner, I passed by, rocketing off to whatever destination I was headed to. 
At first I walked past, half-smiling to myself at the novelty of what she was doing. I mean who takes photographs of cigarette butts? My curiosity eventually got the better of me, so I turned right around and approached her. 
“Excuse me? Could I ask why you’re taking photographs of cigarette butts?” I never thought I’d ever ask that question, but ask it I did. 
“Oh it’s for art. My daughter is an artist. I’m not really one but there’s something about these cigarette butts that speaks to me. Here have a look.” 
She gestured to her phone and proceeded to show me a series of photographs which to my eye, looked exactly the same. Cigarette butt in pavement. Cigarette butt on pavement. Cigarette butt beside pavement. And so on. 
So I smiled at her and said: “What you perceive as art, I might see as something completely meaningless.”
Then she showed me a photograph of two cigarette butts that looked like they were having a lovers spat. And for a moment, I saw meaning there. Who would have thought you could find meaning in discarded items of trash? There’s beauty in ugliness, or beauty in mundane things after all. 
The woman and her partner eventually introduced themselves as Terry and Gary. Like most pedestrians you meet in London, they were tourists visiting from New York. Don’t ask how but Gary and I eventually got talking about the maniacal joke that is Donald Trump. 
I asked him what he thought about the democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders who recently lost the nomination to Clinton. 
“Clinton? Oh everybody hates her in America. Bernie Sanders was a good guy but the thing about him was that he promised too much. He’s like the Donald Trump of the left. He wouldn’t have been able to deliver on his promises. He was way too idealistic. 
When Obama became President, he didn’t say from the outset, “I’m going to legalise gay marriage.” He just did it. Had he said that from the beginning, he might not have got the support of the senate.”
We spoke about Sadiq Khan too, the first Pakistani and Muslim mayor of London. I may have glowered with pride since I carry the now prestige (albeit very, very common) surname Khan. 
“Are you related?” he asked. 
“No. Khan is quite a common name in the south Asian community. There’s like an army of us out there!”
When we eventually got to say our goodbyes (his wife Terry at this point had ventured further up the street to photograph more unsuspecting cigarette butts), he said earnestly: “Do come to New York!” Keep in mind, we stood on the streets of London for a good twenty minutes, as passers by hurtled around us like cars on a motorway to avoid colliding into us. 
I replied half jokingly “I plan on it, but that’s if Donald Trump isn’t president by then!” 
His face became serious all of a sudden, and with a slightly audible tremble in his voice, he said:
“Muslims have been in America since the very beginning. They’re part of its fabric. You must think most Americans are crazy voting for someone like Trump, but we’re not. As long as there are Americans like me keeping Trump out, you have nothing to worry about. It makes me so emotional just thinking about it.”
So the next time you see Donald Trump harping away, his blonde toupee barely remaining on top of that vacuous, hate-filled head of his, just remember: there are people like Terry and Gary who don’t give a crap that “my name is Khan” as the title of the Shahrukh Khan film goes, and would happily open their doors to a turban wearing, Cheshire-cat grinning Muslim woman like you and I. 
If a conversation on appreciating the art of discarded cigarette butts can lead to such profound declarations of solidarity, there is some hope after all. Don’t you forget that!