Writing this week in London’s Guardian, columnist Madeleine Bunting made an important observation in the context of her evaluation of television and radio programs that encourage “multicultural understanding.” She commented that one of the biggest barriers to bridging the cultural gap between non-Muslim and Muslims in Britain is alcohol.
Drinking is indeed a mainstay of British life. The pub, or “local,” has been a meeting place for generations of village and city dwellers throughout the seasons. Alcohol is the centerpiece of social life across all classes. Cocktails and wine with dinner followed by cognac are an integral part of the European dinner circuit. What Italian can live without Chianti? What Frenchman can live without wine? Germans have their beer, Russians their schnapps, and so forth. In other words, if Britain’s leaders are anxious to see young Muslims hanging out with young “typical Englishmen” their teetotaling presents a problem.
However, I would like to turn to an issue that exercises me a lot more than the prospect of eternal separation of Muslim and non-Muslim over the matter of a pint of beer.
Last week was the culmination of that poignant fortnight in which people all over the world wear a poppy in the lead-up to Remembrance Day. Nothing is more dramatic than seeing the sea of red flowers in the lapels of British men and women as they make their way to the office in the early-morning rush hour. All across the British Isles men and women of all ages wear a poppy. When I arrived in the United Kingdom thirty years ago from the United States I was so touched by this tradition that I made sure to buy one from a British Legion volunteer as soon as November rolled around.
The poppy is a symbol of the terrible loss of life in World War I in the fields of Flanders, where these blood-red flowers sprouted above the acres of corpses of fallen soldiers. As the decades have passed, the poppy has been worn to show one’s respect for the millions who have died in successive conflicts as recent as Iraq and Afghanistan. On British television, every presenter and anchor wears a poppy. In keeping with the motto of the British Legion—“Wear your poppy with pride”—every shopkeeper, publican, hotel manager and cabbie wears a poppy. This year I proudly bought mine at my local doctor’s office.
It was therefore all the more astonishing last week when I took a long walk along Edgware Road, the most densely Muslim section of London, and discovered that not one person was wearing a poppy. This all started because I was accosted on my corner, a few yards form where I have lived for twenty-eight years, by a young Arab man who began to get very aggressive with me. Was I, he demanded to know, “from the Jewish”?
He also wanted to know why I was wearing a poppy. I tried to explain the concept of the Cenotaph and Armistice Day. But he seemed determined to establish that I was a Jewess above all else. No matter how hard I tried, I could not shake him off. I began to get very alarmed. I hailed a taxi and, thankfully, my pursuer, who was by this time shouting, did not get into the taxi. The driver was enormously sympathetic but told me that I had been “asking for it” by walking in what he called “Little Beirut.” He then told me that we were in World War III. His white, working class anger at what he perceived as “the Islamic takeover” of Britain was palpable. He was not the first London cabbie who has told me he would gladly join the far-right British National Party if pushed.
(It is worth noting in this context that London Mayor Ken Livingstone is trying to institute an initiative to bring ethnic minorities into the taxi fleet, to tackle its almost exclusively white domain. Keeping in mind that Washington D.C. has one of the worst taxi systems in the world, in part because most drivers can barely speak English and do not know the meaning of the words “cordial” or “polite”, especially where female passengers are concerned, one prays the Livingstone initiative will be approached with caution.)
The driver dropped me at Marble Arch. I decided to walk back slowly should my scary have made his way in my direction. As I walked, I realized that not one of the hundreds of Middle Eastern and British-born Muslims who run all of the establishments along Edgware Road was wearing a poppy. Before shouting “Racist!” the reader must understand the nationwide atmosphere of devotion every November to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died—often agonizing circumstances and with some in their teens—so that we might live out our lives in splendor. The fact is that most everyone wears a poppy across a grateful nation.
As I walked along Edgware Road, crossing over from side to side of the long thoroughfare I began to get angry. If one lived in Damascus and there was an annual tradition of some sort similar to Poppy Day, one would show respect for the day and join in.
I went in to a greengrocer and asked the young man at the cash register why he was not wearing a poppy. His accent indicated he was English-born. He said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” He turned to an older man sitting with him -- perhaps his father -- and asked him my question in Urdu. The man looked cross and I repeated, “Why do you British Asians (those from Pakistan) not wear a poppy?” he shrugged. “Are you not taught about the World Wars?” I asked.
I walked and walked that evening, stopping in to every hookah café, every electrical shop and every hijab boutique. Not one person was wearing a poppy.
The British government has brought in a new questionnaire for new citizens. It is full of obscure and at times outlandish questions about British culture. Frankly, I would fail on most of them. What immigrants and their kin need to be taught is that basic pride in being British with which immigrants to the United States glow with such radiance. If a whole portion of the British population does not care a toss about participating in one of the nation’s most sacred traditions, how can we ever “integrate”?
Yes, I am angry and offended that along the miles of pavement I trawled I saw not one poppy on the apparel of any Middle Eastern resident and merchant of Edgware Road.
That evening I did what millions of rapt Britons do every year: I watched the magnificent Remembrance Day concert from the Royal Albert Hall on the BBC in primetime. The Queen looked unusually tense and somber. Shortly after the event we learned that Abu Musab al Zarqawi had issued a warning that Her Majesty, leader of the Crusaders, would be the next target of al Qaeda. There she stood, amid the shower of poppies that rained down on the packed hall, looking down on the thousands of brave service people, and she seemed desolate. The sum total the Muslim world could contribute to the commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II was this ugly threat from a man whose only occupation is spreading misery in his wake, be it a wedding in Jordan or a funeral in Iraq.
When I attended the mobbed Cenotaph ceremony the next day I did not see one Middle Eastern person in the throng.
When I told my local grocer, a Muslim born in the UK, where I had been that day, he looked at me with a blank stare. I said “Cenotaph” and he changed the subject.
Why is wearing a poppy such a big deal to me? It is a tradition started in Canada and the United States that spread to Britain and to the Commonwealth nations, who had also suffered great losses in the Wars. As a Briton born in the USA I feel honored to be a citizen of two great democracies. Another point Madeleine Bunting made in her article was that the young Muslims in a studio audience had endless complaints about life in Britain. They want to change foreign policy. Perhaps learning about how we got here, with our concert halls and opera houses and theatre and art galleries -- not to mention war memorials -- might be a start.
Now think of this: I am mortally afraid to wear my American flag pin in London. What does this say about the direction Europe is going? Bat Ye’or’s “Eurabia” is already erupting in France. Politically correct Britons scream at me if I defend the right of a cabbie to have the Union Jack on his London taxi. Others lament the “appalling custom” of Americans hanging flags outside their houses.
But all I want right now is to see British Muslims wearing their poppy with pride.
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