It is sometimes supposed that converts to Islam get special treatment in the mosque, but I’m not so sure. Moving in the circles I do, it has become quite apparent over the past few months that the notion of the convert is still alien to many people’s minds.
A Palestinian friend I often walk back into town with after the midday prayer at lunchtime told me that he thought I was Syrian or other-Arab when he first met me. In my own town, England is the last place I could possibly be from when a Muslim shopkeeper interrogates me about my roots. Are you Palestinian, asked one of them? Are you Bosnian, asked another.
On Monday as I made my way to mosque following my new more pleasant route, another old man stopped to offer me a lift. He didn’t say much at first and then he suddenly piped up with the question I’ve become used to from my kind volunteer chauffeurs. ‘Where you from, brother?‘
Until that day, I had always heard it as, ‘Which town are you from?’ because I know they don’t see me in the evening when I have driven back home. So I offered my usual reply. ‘Chesham,’ I said.
‘No originally?’ he asked.
‘Ah, you’ve noticed my funny accent? Originally I’m from Yorkshire. Well Hull, but I won’t go into that.’
‘No brother, where you from originally?’
Hmm, I thought, that must have been what all the other drivers meant, and they were just too polite to pursue my origins to the end, concluding I was either stupid or obstructive. ‘Well I’m English,’ I said, suddenly realising that the identity I am so comfortable with just doesn’t figure in their minds. ‘But my grandmother’s Irish if that’s any help. How far back do you want to go?’
‘Oh no, brother,’ he said, his laughter causing him to choke, ‘it’s alright.’
Last night my wife’s Qur’an study partner gave us a clue about the misgivings of some in our community. Her children, she explained, believe that all brown people are Muslims and all white people are Christians. They were once much perturbed by the sight of our white faces in the mosque, but we can excuse little children their strange questions.
I was reminded then of that strange conversation on my way back from tarawih prayers in Ramadan one year, when a man of Pakistani lineage ran though a list of all the East European and Caucasian states I could possibly be from, before telling me that he had lived here for forty years. I have no idea why I strung him along with monosylablic replies to each ethnicity he proffered, or if he just could not accept my, ‘I’m from here’ and had to delve deeper. Either way, by the time we parted company, I knew my place as the fresh faced arrival from a modern EU state: there was a pecking order here. It was all quite surreal. I knew about the north-south divide, but this was ridiculous.
I’m sure most people don’t think this way, but all of these experiences have got me thinking. When I moved to this town I never thought to introduce myself formerly, to stand up in the mosque and announce that I was an English Muslim. I just assumed, as people tend to when they’re content in their skin and culture, that my from-here-ness was taken for granted. But now, digesting my Palestinian-Bosnian-Czech-Syrian-Ossetian-Tunisian roots, I am starting to think that maybe I should have said something.
But then, does it really matter? What difference does it make? We’re all strangers, really. I can’t say as I write this that it consumes me inside, making me burn with rage. Instead I sit here smiling as I type it out. I don’t know about anybody else, but I just find it bloody hilarious. Though I do understand my more serious friends don’t quite see it that way. Skin heads and bovver-boots.