I’m from Nebraska—most of my world exists between two cornfields. So when I ventured to London for the first time with my school band, I was expecting charming accents. Flying umbrellas. Double-decker buses.
Instead, I got a whole lot of falafel.
We were housed in the London Hilton-Metropole, which is just across the street from the Edgeware Road underground station. From the station is access to all of West London and its famous theatre district. To the south: Oxford shopping street, Hyde Park and the city of Westminster. To the east is the London business district and the Thames, and all of its glittering buildings and bridges. But surrounding the glitzy hotel is Edgeware—a less-than-wealthy neighborhood, with one of the heaviest Muslim populations in England.
Honorable Mention 2009 FTF Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
Immigrants from the Middle East have been heading to Edgeware for over a century. Because of differences in language, culture, and religion, these settlers separated themselves from the mainstream. While they went to work as Englishmen in the day, they slipped at night back into their home cultures. After dark, the street comes alive. People relax in chairs out front of the restaurants, languidly blowing smoke through hookah pipes. The haze curls around the neon signs of Internet cafes and the local McDonalds. They laugh and joke and argue in a variety of languages—their voices mingle into a single, dissonant chorale.
At night, the living is good.
My experience was different from that of my classmates. I encountered Edgeware after I first converted to Islam. I felt lost and hideously Caucasian at home, where no one quite understood why my transformation had taken place. Above that stretch of Underground track, it didn’t matter. Wherever I went I was greeted with a warm salaam—I was an honored guest.
I spent nearly every evening of my ten days in London at a hole-in-the-wall Persian place called simply, “Iran Restaurant”. The waiters, who didn’t speak much English, would apologize and bring me cups tea from a samovar and extra helpings of delicious ghormeh sabzi. I didn’t know how to explain to them that I was perfectly happy, in a cloud of hookah smoke and spices, absorbing political debate in Farsi coming from the back of the kitchen. London cold is damp; the kind that seeps into your bones. On a particularly chilly day I brought my friend in for a bowl of aash soup. She was hesitant. Even though we were both outsiders, in a headscarf, I looked like I belonged. She was Chinese, with long black hair curled for a New Years’ party. But the salaam and the smiles and the extra slab of naan bread was the same for each of us.
The strong feeling of community in Edgeware is not simply from common heritage, but also from common tragedy. In July 2005, suicide bombers detonated in the Underground, leaving a blistering, smoking scar in the street that I fell in love with—and fifty-six people dead. The attack sparked paranoia where the Muslims of Edgeware were seen as ticking time bombs, waiting for the go-ahead to bomb the city into the seventh century. Everything from prayer in schools womens’ headscarves became flashpoints for public debate. But life goes on in Edgeware, as it always has. The wrinkled men selling kebabs on street corners and the schoolgirls in white headscarves don’t live as though they are the stuff of controversy. This is a place where everyone has a story. Despite protesters and proselytizers, everyone is willing to tell theirs—and serve them with coffee and dates.
This is a place where outsiders can become friends.
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