By East End Walks
November 9, 2008
I had a remarkable encounter in Brick Lane today. I had a couple of hours to kill between doing an "Anti-Fascist Footprints" walk for a random group of interesting individuals responding to an ad in Time Out, and a "Radical Jewish East End Walk" for a dozen people in the afternoon who had bought an auctioned walk that I had donated to a charity that organises drama workshops for young people, including many with disabilities. I had a spot of lunch with a Japanese social worker, curious about Jewish history, who had been on my anti-fascist walk (and a few weeks earlier had experienced my other walk) and then I decided to head for "Rough Trade", my favourite music shop located in what was once the alleyway next to Truman's brewery. These days a path separates an array of Camden Lock style shops and stalls. Only I didn't get as far as that.
I had barely gone just a little way down Brick Lane when I was accosted by a man beckoning me to come into his restaurant. Those of you who know today's Brick Lane will recognise this as a regular occurrence. The touting for business was already quite aggressive before the credit crunch and now smacks of even greater desperation. But this was no tout. It was Shams, the owner of the restaurant, renewing contact.
In 1984 I started to go out with my partner Julia. Our courtship often seemed to involve a Brick Lane Curry, invariably at the Clifton where, through regular contact, we became friendly with Shams, at that time a young, quite slight, very attentive and hard-working waiter. The first time we visited the Clifton after our twins were born in 1986, he presented us with a bottle of champagne at the end of our meal, which I suspect he paid for himself.
I was working just off Brick Lane from 1988-90, so I still saw Shams frequently. One time when we went for a meal he told us he would soon be opening up his own restaurant - we wished him luck.
And then as my work took me away from the East End and our visits there became less frequent (our children's social lives were more localised in Camden Town), we lost regular contact. A few years on we bumped into Shams again and ate in his new restaurant. He told us of other plans involving more restaurants. Exchanging information about our families, he said he now had four children. But with restaurants changing hands frequently and new ones appearing I lost track over the years of where Shams was.
I found out today as he took me into his restaurant - Monsoon at 78 Brick Lane - which he rents. We chatted for about 45 minutes. His opening words were "Your children must be about 23, it was around 1986." (they are 22!). I asked him how his four children were - he has 8 now. I told him about the walks I do that bring me back to Brick Lane quite frequently and he was clearly very interested in the Jewish history, claiming that the founder of Tescos had started trading on the street outside of 78 Brick Lane! (not sure if that's totally accurate).
The more I talked to him the more shame I felt about the ignorance and narrow stereotypes about "Muslims" that pervade too much of the Jewish community - that see all Muslims as the same, view all of them as antagonistic to Jews, narrow minded, fanatical etc etc. and probably hardly know where Bangladesh is, let alone know anything of its troubled history.
We talked about Monica Ali's book on Brick Lane, our children's progress in the world and our plans for the future. We discovered that our ages were just months apart. He's about to be 50 - I'm getting closer to 51. When I heard that his oldest three children were studying at college I brought my own prejudices to bear. I was sure he would tell me that they would be doing business studies and preparing to enter the restaurant business.
Of course I was wrong. The oldest one (a son) is studying computer science at London University, the next two (daughters) are both studying politics - one at Oxford, one at Cambridge! One of them as very keen to work for the UN and had already visited it as an elected representative of a youth parliament project. These children will not be following their mother's and father's footsteps but forging their own futures. I hope this is true too for my children who graduated in 2007.
Though obviously proud, he was as quietly spoken and as modest as the day we first met him. He told me about the level of rent he pays for his restaurant and the frequent rent increases that occur as the city encroaches further. He lives in a house in Bethnal Green, also rented, though he showed me, on his phone, a picture of a house under construction in a village in Bangladesh - where he intends to retire in five years time, though he acknowledges that his family will want to stay here. We talked about his first days in Britain (he came at 16 having only had a primary school education and knowing not a word of English). I told him what I knew about my grandparents experience arriving here as children too.
Parallel lives but many similarities, so many points of contact in our stories, though undoubtedly he had far fewer choices than I did. The matter of what some families in the Jewish East End achieved and how they had the single-mindedness and drive to do it has often perplexed me. Who succeeded and who failed seemed far from straightforward and owed a lot to good fortune.
Many members of the Jewish community today, long removed from its old ghetto, get in a terrible tizz about which selective school to try to get their kids into. Shams' kids are reaching the heights through attending their local primary and comprehensive schools.
In a cut throat world, his core human values remain as as solid as ever. Can our community say the same? It was a humbling and beautiful encounter.