Travel Comment

Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Jill Worrall: Rock steady

Add a comment
Selfridges storefront, Birmingham. Photo / Jill Worrall
Selfridges storefront, Birmingham. Photo / Jill Worrall

One of the last times I saw Mujahid he was trying to squeeze a battered elderly jeep through the Lahori Gate in Lahore's old walled city in Pakistan. We were face to face, bumper to bumper with another vehicle, a cycle rickshaw was trying to squeeze past us on one side and a stallholder, whose goods Mujahid had nearly run over, was gesticulating at us on the other.

Meanwhile, in the Jeep itself Mujahid and I were engaged in a heated debate (a frequent occurrence) about whether he should admit defeat and back out (my idea of course) or stand his ground - Mujahid's plan of attack. He of course prevailed, as he usually did.

That was more than 10 years ago and what had always been a rather tempestuous relationship has evolved into one of those friendships that stand the test of time; where conversations are struck up without pause after six-month silences and the intervening ups and downs of life don't have to be explained or excused.

As Mujahid had moved to the UK some years ago and my travels rarely take me there we'd often mused that by the time we did meet up again we'd be so old as to be unrecognizable.

But then serendipitously, there I was a few weeks ago sitting in the drizzle outside the Cambridge railway station waiting for him to pick me up.

I'd expected better of the railway station knowing the glories of Cambridge's university architecture that lay just a few minutes away. It was a bleak place for a reunion...even a larger more imposing station like London's Liverpool Street or Kings Cross would have lent the occasion a little more gravitas.

Buses, taxis and cars circled the roundabout in front of me. I'd forgotten to ask what Mujajid what he would be driving so had to rely on him spotting me. Someone was waving at me, but I decided he was trying to attract the attention of the other women beside me on the bench. After all I didn't really think Mujahid would be at the wheel of a late model silver Mercedes.

Eventually, tired of me ignoring him (and no doubt thinking at the same time that my ability to irritate him hadn't diminished over the years ) Mujahid got out of the Merc, opened the passenger door and beckoned me with a flourish.

"I know, I know ... what's a Paki doing driving a Merc," he said in a distinctly Midland accent, clinching me in an embrace and kissing me soundly. Now, that never happened in Pakistan. The bus driver behind honked his horn in annoyance.

We spent the next three days in a nostalgic sea of incongruity. Lunch in a tiny Pakistani restaurant-takeaway in Northampton, where the conservative Muslim owner gave me sweet delicious barfi as a present because he was so surprised I spoke Urdu and knew it was Ramadan; then a beer across the road in the pub because Mujahid, is as ever, caught between worlds; he teaches his young son simple prayers and how to ritually wash properly every day but Mujahid himself does not like the direction he feels Islam is heading.

He and his family live in a terraced house that was once lived in by workers that sweated it out in Northampton's now largely defunct boot and shoemaking industry. He and his wife work all hours, walk almost everywhere (the Merc is mostly for Mujahid's taxi work), their young son is in a private primary school - they anxiously monitor his and that of his little sister's progress. They want them to do well academically, have life a bit easier. The children's friends are Pakistani, Polish, Sudanese, English. I help fill out birthday invitation cards - it's like an United Nations roll call.

"Not many English friends," though says Mujahid. "I know we Asians are criticised for not mixing but we do try ... it's often the English that don't want to. At a certain level in a relationship the barriers go up"

For a few days I see migration from a totally different perspective. The overwhelming desire to see one's kids have the best, do their best; the juggling of cultural differences - Mujahid and I eat curry and chapattis with our fingers; Anna uses her spoon; the kids now refuse to answer or speak anything other than English - they seem to have worked out their own way to assimilate.

"My home is New Zealand," I tell his son "so that makes me a New Zealander. What about you?

"I am Northampton," he says firmly.

Next day, we, Mujahid and I, have an outing. We eschew stately homes and museums. "I'd like to see Birmingham," I tell him.

We emerge from the railway station under the Bullring, the rejuvenated, gleaming new heart of Britain's second largest city. We turn tourist and photograph each other beside the giant six-tonne bronze sculpture of a bull that is the centerpiece of the shopping centre. The bull is the mascot of the city and is a link back to a time when bull baiting was a popular entertainment here.

Nearby is Selfridges store, the sinuous curves of which are made up of 15,000 aluminium discs and inspired by a sequined dress. Birmingham is home to what is often called the UK's most hated accent but it was more than an hour after our arrival that I heard it, such was the eclectic mix of cultures in the city centre.

"What are you grinning at," said the stallholder as he was expounding the qualities of the leather belts he was selling "I love the accent," I said. "Are you taking the piss?" he asked. I told him no, I had a soft spot for the Brummie accent. "You must be the only one who has," he replied.

While we ate Portuguese -Mozambiquen grilled chicken while being served by a young Sikh we planned our afternoon. Mujahid suggested that as I was interested in Birmingham's ethnic mix we should take the bus to Alum Rock.

Once a working class Irish neighbourhood on the city's outskirts, Alum Rock is now primarily a Pakistani community. It was still Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting when I was there so most of the Pakistani restaurants and grocery shops were closed in the daytime. However, the majority of Alum Rock's renowned fabric and clothing stores were still doing good business.

Mujahid, who well knows my weakness for Pakistani shalwar kameez, the sparklier the better, kept us moving along the pavement lest I succumbed. This was bling heaven: sari lengths and shalwar kameez encrusted with "jewels", sequins, and swirling embroidery in vibrant blues, greens, red; elegant cream gowns adorned with thick gold embroidery.

I did manage to dart into one store only to find the outfit I had taken a fancy to had a £400 price tag. There was wedding jewellery too, shelves of glass bangles, a couple of halal butchers, and right in the middle of it a Church of England primary school.

Outside a community hall a group of bearded men in white shalwar kameez and skullcaps stood talking on the pavement.

"Now this is what I don't like," Mujahid said sotto voice as we went pass. "This is why the British are getting uneasy, this is too much. If you come here you need to adapt, not forget, but not do this in-your-face stuff."

That evening back in Northampton the kids played with the Kiwi soft toys I'd brought them. We ate Biriyani and drink Polish vodka. We were all a little adrift culturally, but what ultimately holds people together is family and the warmth of enduring friendship.

- nzherald.co.nz

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 23 Jul 2014 05:32:44 Processing Time: 2327ms