The evening after the 7 July bombings the Tube train I was waiting to catch home slid to a halt leaving me exactly halfway between the front door of one carriage and the end door of another. On that nervous Friday there were plenty of seats free in both carriages. As I began moving to my left, a large, dark-skinned man with a thick black beard, clutching a rucksack in his arms, stepped through the door to my right. I paused in mid-step; then turned, followed him and sat down opposite him.
The man seemed to be around thirty, although the beard made it hard to tell. Brown sandals exposed the wide spaces between his toes; he was wearing a blue salvaar, which hung loosely as he stretched his arms along the ventilator beneath the window, and a small white skull-cap. The man glanced at me and I looked away. Two stops later he got off the train, and as I watched him walk off down the platform I felt a shameful sense of relief. It was only then I began to realise that my own intent behaviour was attracting some odd looks from the other passengers.
The last time I wore a blue salvaar and a white skull-cap, it was July 1990 and I was hanging round the lobby of a Baghdad hotel. I was nine years old and keen to practise some of the Arabic phrases I had learned during a family tour of Iraq’s Shia mausoleums. I introduced myself to the concierge, who smiled at me from under his thick black moustache, and asked me where I came from. ‘Ana Min London,’ I replied proudly, while mentally rehearsing the correct form for telling him my age. Instead of asking it, however, he laughed and said in English: ‘No, you are not from London. You are from Pakistan.’ I informed him haughtily that I was British, born and bred. ‘No, no. How can you be from London when you dress like a Pakistani?’ ‘Look at my passport – you’ll see it’s one from Britain,’ I answered desperately. But the man continued smiling indulgently. Unable to think of anything to say, I turned round and sauntered away with my hands behind my back.
A week later my father and I walked through the streets of Baghdad as exuberant soldiers sang celebratory chants and fired volleys into the air. At first we thought Saddam Hussein had been overthrown in a military coup; instead it turned out that Iraqi troops had captured Kuwait City. Within a few days the airports and borders had been closed. On 2 August, the British government voted in favour of UN Resolution 660, which condemned the invasion of Kuwait ‘as a breach of international peace and security’.
Hours later uniformed men confiscated our passports and told us we would be moved to another hotel as ‘guests of the president’. We learned later that the media had called us ‘human shield hostages’; apparently we were positioned beside military bases to deter any bombing by coalition forces.
Three weeks into our confinement, it was decided to attempt to secure our release by appealing to any Islamic solidarity Saddam might have, or like to be seen to have. My mother was advised to prepare my salvaar and skull-cap, and I was told to rehearse a passage from the Qu’ran which stresses the quality of mercy. Iraqi television often showed small boys reciting from the Qu’ran in the presence of a grinning Saddam, who would pat their heads and pull their cheeks like any embarrassing Arab uncle. But I never got to be one of those boys. A week later women and children were allowed home. My father was kept for another month, until his release was negotiated by Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens. He and three other Muslim men made up the first group of British detainees to be freed. It was said at the time that British Muslims were given preference because of their faith. More likely Saddam took the view that in negotiation you give up your least valuable assets first.
The children of migrants are used to the everyday ironies associated with not belonging fully to either culture. (My experience in Iraq was exceptional in its starkness.) Once it was discovered, however, that the men who carried out the 7 July bombings had been born and raised in this country, British Muslims knew that some would be questioning where their loyalties really lie.