The Office Eccentric

My current colleagues at work do not know that I am a Muslim, but they have concluded that I am an eccentric. There is something not quite right about me, they think, pondering on all the strange things I have let slip over the past year working with them. I do not own a television and have been caught sighing as the running commentary on I’m a Celebrity and Big Brother picks up in the office. I do not read The Sun and I once rather foolishly read out a comment I saw on my computer screen that said, ‘Those who read tabloids deserve to be lied to.’ I do not drink alcohol, I am young-but-married and I haven’t put a Christmas Tree up.

Today I came across a poster in the office featuring a picture of William Shakespear. Underneath it somebody had written my name. It has been there for ages apparently, and my manager laughed: actually they were calling me Shakespear since before I even started. I can’t claim to have been mortally offended at being named after England’s greatest playwrite, but I was slightly surprised. It is my peculiar beard apparently. Another nickname they have for me, I learned today, is Oliver Cromwell. I am sniggering at that one even now.

I really enjoy my job and so I have had fun as the last twelve months have passed by. I haven’t really minded the odd dig about my eccentricities. There is a running joke about me that my house is made out of things other people would throw away because I once made a stand for my monitor out of the polystyrene packaging from a new computer. My colleagues think I come from another age because I buy my fruit and veg from the market instead of Tesco. Well, in all honesty, I don’t mind being the office jester if it makes people smile.

Two things over the past couple of weeks, however, have slightly dampened my humour: Christmas and meeting up with old friends. Christmas because answering all the questions about my participation in the festivities remind me that my role as office odd-ball is a bit of a lie. And meeting up with old friends because I noticed that I was distant from them spiritually and intellectually; my mind seems to have become dull.

The drawbacks of keeping my faith private, as is the Englishman’s way, have hit me all of a sudden. At some point last week a colleague asked me if I had put a Christmas Tree up yet and if I intended to. Well obviously I could not lie. I hadn’t, I didn’t and, in all honesty, I hadn’t even realised it was two weeks until Christmas. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before I had a new nickname in the office. Scrooge they call me now.

At the weekend, our elderly Christian neighbour had some advice for me. She said I should have said, ‘No, I’m not getting a Christmas Tree because I’m a Muslim.’ She said she could understand my point about not announcing my faith in ordinary conversation earlier on in my employment—’Hi, I’m Tim and I’m a Muslim’—but she couldn’t understand the need to hide my belief so extensively that I have to pretend to be Scrooge for three weeks of the year. She speaks with some authority, for as a practising Christian she had to exempt herself from the Office Christmas Party throughout her career and thus expose herself to the constant mockery of her peers.

On reflection, I think she was right, but I wonder if the whole Scrooge shenanigans have gone too far already. Possibly, since arriving at work last Wednesday I found that somebody had placed a present on my desk. I thought it was slighly odd, but I proceeded to open it anyway. Inside there was what we would call a Santa Claus hat, except that it was black, and it had the words, ‘Bah Humbug’ emblazened across it. Well I can have a laugh too: this weekend I bought a packet of reindeer droppings (chocolate covered raisins) from Oxfam and sent them back to the sender.

Despite such silliness, there is a serious point here. Every time I downplay my lack of enthusiasm for the great festival before us, I am in fact downplaying my faith. I do not have a Christmas Tree because I do not celebrate Christmas.  Can I not just say this? Well perhaps if my colleagues were Christian they would understand, but for the atheists of the entertainment generation, there is an irritating question that returns: ‘What has religion got to do with it?’ For many, Christmas is merely part of our culture; it has no sacred value. So what could be wrong with celebrating it whether you believe in Christianity or not? In a secular world, nothing at all.

But I am a Muslim and I do not celebrate Christmas because I have not lost sight of the sacred. Christmas is sacred for Christians, regardless of its origins and the views of the early Church Fathers. It is a time of worship and thanksgiving for them, and it has theological resonence. This is why I do not celebrate Christmas, because it is not my festival and it is not of my faith. I am clear on this within and comfortable with my position, so what goes wrong in the office? Why this great pretense, that I am merely a kill-joy, a Dickensian Scrooge? Surely it is hypocrisy.

I often tell myself that I keep my faith to myself because it is the English way, and there is certainly some truth in this. There is nothing the English hate more, we are told, than people wittering on about religion. So my faith is a quiet thing: I hurry down to the mosque to do my prayer at lunchtime, and hide in a disused room for the afternoon prayer, and fast in the month of Ramadan in secret, and inscribe everything else on my heart. Perhaps I am just too English in that regard.

But perhaps there are other things that keep me from sharing my beliefs. Perhaps all those petty comments about Muslims that I have heard in the office over the months indicate that my confession would be unwelcome. Unwelcome because some have clearly conveyed their dislike of Muslims, but also because some would be embarrassed to know that I had been listening to them all along and I never said a thing. That was certainly how my previous manager felt when she outed me in a team meeting two years ago.

Later on in that old job of mine, my manager decided to tell all of my colleagues that I was Muslim. I believe she had good intentions, hoping that social gatherings would be less drink-centred. The consequence, however, was that many of those colleagues stopped talking to me. Perhaps I am after an easy life; perhaps I don’t particularly look forward to a repeat of that scenario all over again.

And so in the office I am Scrooge. Not a principled believer in an alternative faith, but the great eccentric of the office who will not have Turkey on Christmas Day, mulled wine on Christmas Eve or presents around the tree. And at Easter there will be no Chocolate Eggs. And in summer I will turn down the birthday cakes in the office for an entire month, as if I am on a diet. Such pretense, when four short words would suffice: ‘I am a Muslim.’

Meeting up with old friends last week showed me the consequence of all this. My role as court jester has somehow stunted my intellect. I am not a fool actually. I have brains and interests, but somehow I have become the caricature that I have been made. My friends seemed to soar high above me both spiritually and intellectually. And I, somehow, have just dumbed myself down.

Storm in a tea cup

Much ado about nothing, I say. Before we can draw our team brief to a close this morning at work we have to cover preparations for Christmas Dinner. It’s all going swimmingly until the organiser thinks she should inform us of a problem. Apparently a certain employee upstairs cannot attend because it has been booked in a pub and her beliefs stop her from going to pubs. She’s a Muslim. That causes a few raised eyebrows and laughter. Someone points out that if it was a restaurant, they’d still be serving alcohol.

I start sinking in my seat, burying my eyes in the table top. The organiser adds, actually the lady in question wasn’t bothered too much, that it was another member of staff who was worried about it on her behalf. Who’s attended Equality and Diversity training, asks our Director, what should we do? My Manager starts saying that we should have thought about this. Yes, they agree, but now what are we going to do about the lady upstairs? Will we have to cancel our booking and arrange something else? I could easily say something – suggest that I’m sure she’s not even bothered about it – but I’m staying out of this one.

Except I’m not going to be allowed to let this pass me by; I’m about to be outed. We should have thought about this from the start, says my Manager, she’s not the only person in the organisation who wouldn’t be able to attend for that reason. There are at least two people affected. Who, asks the organiser, you don’t mean X (the Indian woman upstairs)? My time has come. I think she means me, I say, and all eyes are on me, a look of horror on six of the faces. Tim’s a Muslim, my Manager tells them.

Faces are red. It probably wasn’t the best timing; after the words exchanged moments earlier. Never mind, my Manager’s brought me in. So yes, I tell them, it’s true, I am a Muslim. Personally, I tell them, I wouldn’t go to the pub either, which is why I excused myself from attending. I don’t expect them to change their plans on my behalf. I appeal to the memory of my Methodist grandfather who similarly excused himself from alcoholic gatherings. I explain that the lady upstairs probably isn’t worried about the matter at all and wouldn’t expect anything to be rearranged. I point out that last year’s storm about a council allegedly banning the word Christmas in case it offended Muslims had absolutely nothing to do with Muslims, but was the product of some well-meaning official. And I say, yes perhaps my faith has implications for them when it comes to organising social functions, but I am not guilty of keeping a secret any more than they are; none of them had told me they were atheist, Catholic or whatever.

After the meeting my Manager sends me a one line email:

Tim, I didn’t mean to embarrass you in the team meeting. Sorry if I did.

I tell her not to worry about it, but I send an email of my own to my immediate colleagues, my Director and the organiser of the Christmas Dinner.

Dear all,

A clarification on today’s revelation during team brief… It is indeed the case that I am a practising Muslim – as I have been for about a decade. This was a personal choice, following a period of searching prompted by the discomfort of being the only agnostic in a very religious family – both my parents are Anglican priests.

I really don’t have a problem with people knowing that I am Muslim, but I did make a conscious choice when I started this job not to publicise it widely given the prevailing political climate. I am sure it won’t have escaped your attention that my religion has been receiving a lot of negative attention over the past few years, particularly after the massacre on the London transport system in 2005. Having experienced colleagues making wild assumptions about me because of my beliefs in past roles, I felt that silence was the best option. Thus I disappear off at lunchtime to do my prayers and make excuses for not coming to the pub with you.

I do not expect you to make alternative arrangements on my behalf. Generally I do not sit where alcohol is being consumed – partly for reasons other than religion – which I guess is rather an anathema at Christmas time. But don’t worry about it. At the end of Ramadan, I had a lovely Eid celebration – I don’t feel I’m missing out. Others may feel differently, but that’s my personal take. If in doubt, talk to the people concerned – whether it is someone with health issues or specific cultural needs.

Apologies to anyone who thinks I should have been more open about my beliefs – but you know the English way; we tend not to broadcast our beliefs. Hence I never knew that David is a Jedi Knight.

Thine,

Tim

Almost straight away, my director responds.

Tim, I apologise if you were put in an embarrassing position this morning. As a PCT I hope we are sensitive to everyone’s beliefs. Sometimes it is difficult to think of everything so I was appreciative of your understanding. Please don’t hesitate to come and see me if there is anything you want to talk about.

The organiser of the Christmas Dinner writes to me to say she’s sorry I won’t be attending, but now she understands why. Meanwhile, my colleague writes:

Good clarification, thanks Tim. And there’s nothing wrong with being a Jedi Knight! It is an official religion on a number of planets I visit as an ET Technical Projects Manager, including: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1589133.stm

As for the conversation which sparked gale force winds in our best china: a colleague of the lady in question casually mentioned it in passing that she would have liked her to be there for Christmas Dinner. The individual organising the dinner became very worried after this, even though the lady explained several times that she did not celebrate Christmas and did not feel left out at all. Having explained that she did not want any plans changed on her behalf, she left it at that. She tells me, “It’s all a storm in a tea cup.”