One snowy Saturday we sat in a train, trundling along from Paddington, stressing and straining under the weight of surprising snows, which engulfed, caked and delighted us during our stop-starting voyage to another world called Southall. With train departing, we crunched through the freshly laid snows, and exited the station to see young men, Asians, shovelling and pushing, huffing and puffing, helping families, saloons and vans slither there way up slopes that did their best to inhibit ascent. Venturing on in the crisp air, flattening the settlement, we came across a shop selling bites, teas and tobacco leaves. Curiosity called for a Masala Chai, very Christmassy with its cinnamon aroma. We procured a tobacco leave. The assistant sprinkled several sauces on to the leaf, as if he were gilding a Big Mac. Over zealous with the condiments he was, we wondered when it might stop, we chuckled, the magnitude of our chuckling growing exponentially with each squirt of new flavour. Later we entered a Gurdwara, and with socks and shoes off, a Sikh carefully mounts an orange kaftan on my head, smiling broadly when he sees my appreciation. I pat him on the back. An old man with a fine moustache talked in broken English about how Kabul was not doing well, mujahedeen, he said.
We walked across cold floors, peered into the dining hall, where men sit crossed legged on long carpet and ate and then worked our way up to the prayer hall. A beautiful, huge room, with a sea of white carpet, and men, and women, sitting in small groups or on their own, backs to the wall and columns, contemplating the melodic liturgy of the wisened and beard distinguished scholar teacher , who sat in a box lit up by the orange and yellow hues, given life by the light filtered by the beautiful stain glass window which sits imperiously behind. The man waved a white-feathered stick across something that took the shape of a very small coffin, all covered in white. Either side scholars took their position in booths, which lit up when they entered. We saw learning and wisdom accreted, pages of large books turned and inspected. Learning al publico. I closed my eyes and let the melodies of an old scholar’s song fill my mind, my brain trying to make sense of the grammar of this strange language, I felt welcome and yet unwelcome; toleration and anxiety, both within and beyond.
We ventured onward and around. The Tabaco leaf was chewed, the effect powerful. We found ourselves drawn to football results flashing out at us from a large flat screen TV situated in a Somali shop seeming to specialize in fruit juice smoothies. The colourful garlands, borrowed from Sikh brothers, and the array of fruit in the glass desk at the back of the shop spoke of beautiful thirst quenching juices, full of the bounty of Mother Nature. And yet our arrival, in what was quite clearly a Somali establishment, caused consternation, masked by a polite welcome. We asked for a fruit juice; three or four Somali men went into conference.
‘Juice?’ asked one of them. After some discussion the group finally concluded the object of our desire. It took ten minutes for the first juice to arrive, during which time we gazed into the TV and soaked up the results. Beforehand an impromptu lesson in smoothie making was given, in Somali. It took six minutes for the blender to do the job of cutting up pineapple and melon. The drink served was disgusting. By the time it had arrived, Phil Thompson and Charlie Nicholas had digested every last movement in the footbally contours of the Championship, and we had tallied, out of the eight corners of our eyes, how the noticeable volume of Somali men who had rolled into the shop, wisely eschewed the opportunity to procure a smoothie, negated to join us in contemplating the musings of Thompson and Nicholas, and piled, without explicit request or permission, past the counter, through a doorway in the backroom and down some stairs, into the nether regions of the establishment.
Between entering the shop and the first horrid taste of that drink, we laughed at how our request for a smoothie had caused such confusion. We chuckled at how the blender, in taking several minutes to cut through a pineapple was perhaps the most pathetic of its kind in London. But the most mirth was had at our own naivety, that a group of Somali men might think to open up a juice bar. The last laugh was aimed at an onion, buried amongst the fruit in the glass desk. What kind of smoothie would have an onion in it? We enjoyed our time in the shop and I believe the men, who worked there, if a little anxious, were similarly humoured, and most likely, with shop shut and once retired to the cellar, they savoured and digested the anxieties and awkwardness of the situation with much gusto, and together, of course with the rivulets of khat flavoured saliva, the habitual accompaniment of an evening’s reflection. Perhaps we were their first ever ‘customers’. We left with a foul taste in our mouth, and Norwich drawing 1 all at Coventry.
Still we wandered through the sleet and snow, and came across the mother of all Indian supermarkets; the Himalaya Palace, plus a succession of gold and Indian music shops and a shop advertising the fact that it sells ‘western food’. The night ended with a curry at The Brilliant. But the sweetest taste was the friendliness and openness with which the inhabitants of this place greeted us.
Ladies and gentlemen forget Narnia. The magic is all in Southall.