His claim was certainly ludicrous, yet at the same time intriguing. The chance to travel across space and time for a modest fee was tempting indeed. The problem was that I was on a residential side-street in Willesden and the balding Arab-looking fat bloke in a tatty leather jacket making the offer did not exactly fit the sci-fi possibilities that lay tantalizingly before me.
“You may want to try Najaf in the 70s, Mashad in the 80s or even Mogadishu in the 90s. East-Africa pre-Idi Amin is also a possibility.”
“OK, fine. Let me try Najaf in the 70s.” I replied with a mixture of curiosity and wariness.
“No problem. Just allow me to blindfold you as the process may be very disorientating”
“Well…OK if you have to.”
Beginning to feel like I would waste an afternoon and money with this ever-likely scam, I wonder why I went ahead with it, but curiosity I guess got the better of me…
When the blindfold was finally removed I found myself in a fatha, the lines of the hall were lined with middle-aged men in old-fashioned suits or dishdashas, sipping cups of coffee and whispering quietly to one another.
Iraq of the 70s looked remarkably similar to an Iraqi Islamic centre in Cricklewood I knew – At that same moment I realised that I recognised most of the people sat around me. Angry at my gullibility, I got up to exit in a despairing attempt at confronting the man who conned me. However in surveying the scene before me, a new realisation dawned. I had not been conned. Well not exactly. This centre and its people did exist in a time warp – the Iraq of several decades ago.
The dream of the return evaporated ironically with the removal of the very reason that drove Iraqis to the UK – Saddam’s regime. Up till then most Iraqis were very happy to cling on to their cultural practices and not even contemplate their position in British society, existing in their carefully constructed bubbles adorned with authentic symbols and behaviour of a distant land and time.
Now that it has finally dawned on the majority that the UK will most likely be their final abode, there has been a shift in orientation to their newly adopted country. Progress in this regard though has been remarkably slow, even amongst the younger generations. Iraqi centres still continue to run without any sign of the true geographical or temporal context in which they exist. No meaningful interaction with their locale can be claimed on either an institutional or individual basis.
Not far away, Mehfil-Ali recently got a rude awakening when confronted by local resistance to their plans to redevelop into an all-inclusive community centre. Whilst a great deal of the objections were concerning issues such as parking or in some cases just plain anti-Muslim sentiment, an understandable section could not believe the claim of inclusivity given their complete isolation from the local community over the past decades. It is true that they have essentially followed the Khoja model of community isolation but a very similar accusation can be levelled against Iraqi centres too.
How we choose to integrate is essential to the future situation of the Anglo-Iraqi community. Time will resolve most of it regardless of whether we will be dragged kicking and screaming or embrace the opportunities through this process. But in what state we will emerge will largely depend on the path we take. Until then we can enjoy fabulous time and space travel at our very doorstep.