These days my inner grumblings have me contemplating why I was always not just passive in the face of harassment, but apologetic too. Last night, my memories had me back in the flat I rented from a church housing association in King’s Cross in the late ’90s — for years the backdrop to my restless nightmares.
I resided in that grotty flat through my second year at university, the summer that followed and the first term of my third year. I had come across it during that searching phase of my life, while attending a popular church in central London.
Despite the entire building shaking whenever a tube train passed beneath us, it was a comfortable dwelling for most of the academic year. There were two other tenants in my flat: a tall young man from Hiroshima — quite an eccentric — and an Italian woman.
There were a series of other flats downstairs — the common areas of which I would clean weekly — but I didn’t really know those residents at all. I would just clean up their mess, leaving their kitchen spotless, vacuuming the dusty brown carpets in the corridors and on the stairs. For a time, I earned the praise of our landlord for those efforts.
Those comforts would come to an end just as the academic year did. My Italian student neighbour moved out, and a middle-aged man moved in, along with his burgeoning record collection. He was a different breed from previous tenants though.
While the others had just been students in need of a home, he was a true evangelical on a mission, intent on reminding us that ours was a Christian housing association established to provide accommodation to Christians specifically. It was thus a given that he had every right to constantly invite me to his church.
And so the invitations came thick and fast, whenever we encountered one another in the kitchen. At first they were friendly, but as time went on they became ever more persistent and unrelenting. Each time the topic was raised, I would politely decline. When that would not satisfy him, I would offer various non-specific excuses. But in the end, of course, I would just have to come clean. “I’m a Muslim,” I whispered one afternoon, as he cornered me with more demands.
With those words, the invitations ceased. But there his incessant harassment began.
Over the weeks that followed, I would be subjected to the most peculiar behaviour on his part. On several occasions, late at night, he would trail the speakers from his record player out into the landing, place them directly against my bedroom door and proceed to blast me with Christian rock music.
Although he was my immediate neighbour renting the room next door, I took to avoiding him as much as I could, for whenever we did speak, he would be hostile towards me, threatening to tell the housing association about my conversion. Soon he would be joined by a Sri Lankan resident from one of the flats downstairs, who would stop and question me whenever I entered or left our building.
Others, in my position, would have written to the housing association to complain of harassment. But I — in typical apologetic fashion — sent a letter to my landlord explaining that since moving into the flat as a searching agnostic, I had found faith: only that faith was not Christianity.
Instead of listing the behaviour I had been subjected to for months, conscious that the housing association had been established to serve practising Christians, I explained that one of my flatmates had taken exception to my faith and that, as he was clearly uncomfortable living with me, I proposed to move out to placate him.
Although the initial response I received from my housing officer was kind, there would be no probing into the events that motivated me to write. Looking back now, I wonder why I was so passive in the face of serious harassment. No, why I was in fact apologetic. Why did I project the blame onto myself, rather than seeking redress, as I would have had every right to do?
Perhaps what happened next provides a clue. As I sat out my notice period, there was a break-in downstairs. An intruder had broken into a flat by kicking and hacking through the plasterboard wall, instead of trying to force the door. The tenant was naturally shaken by the incident, as we all were.
But while we might imagine that the residents of the downstairs flats might have realised it was unwise to leave a window accessible to neighbouring buildings wide open in what was then one of the most crime ridden parts of central London, it turned out that the drug addicts and dealers for which the area was notorious were not the prime suspects.
No: I was the prime suspect.
While I was preparing to set off for the library one morning, I received a phone call from the housing association. It was not the officer I was used to dealing with and we exchanged none of the usual pleasantries. Instead, taking up my letter to her colleague, she noted my newfound faith and, almost in the same breath, asked if I had anything to do with the break-in downstairs. Of course, I was mortified.
As her accusing words rang in my ears — “It’s disgusting!” — I wondered how I had transformed from that nice, quiet tenant who had been praised for cleaning the flats weekly to one capable of attempting to enter another’s room by merciless force. How was it that my desire to honour God had been ripped to shreds and twisted into the pursuit of criminality?
And so that was that. Yet another slander, unchallenged as I passively absorbed months of harassment. I suspect those former tenants still have vague recollections of that once-kind flatmate turned brutal thug, who suddenly moved out in mysterious circumstances, shortly afterwards. Perhaps they’re still recounting that tale in their personal anecdotes about the criminality of the Muslims.
Looking back now, I regret my apologetic response to harassment. I should have had courage of my convictions and stood up for my rights. I should have pointed out, not with pride but with self-respect, that I was the long-standing tenant who had been respectful to all, paying my rent on time, cleaning their filthy flats weekly, who was simply pursuing sincerity before God.
But, instead, like so many other times, before and since, I just let it go. I left them to think whatever they wanted to think. Once again, I walked away, apologising for my very existence. Always, always apologetic.