This appeared in Gulf Life (Gulf Air’s inflight magazine):
It’s August and, as well as the Notting Hill Carnival, west London is seeing its yearly influx of Arab tourists. While the visitors are here they’ll rub shoulders with a varied and well-established Arab community.
Unlike some cities, London is too mixed to be ethnically zoned. When I lived a few years ago on the Harrow Road in west London, my neighbours were Poles, Pakistanis, Trinidadians, Lebanese .. I could go on. In London there are no monocultural ghettoes, but there are cultural concentrations, and my Harrow Road bedsit was in the middle of the Arab one.
At lunchtime I would cross the canal to buy steaming bowls of harira from the Moroccan stallholders on the Golborne Road. North towards Willesden I would meet newly-arrived Iraqi refugees, each with a story. If I walked west to Shepherd’s Bush I found Syrian grocers selling olive oil from the old country, and balls of salty shellal cheese. On the Uxbridge Road I could even eat fetteh, the essential Levantine working man’s food, and I prayed with men of all sects in a basement mosque.
Further south, towards Notting Hill and Kensington, it becomes more glamorous, princes and oil millionaires mingling with the internationally privileged. On the way, commercial activity buzzes on Queensway and the Edgware Road, where there are more shisha bars than pubs, and shops where you can buy za’taar, or Adel Imam comedies, or Libyan or Egyptian newspapers. For a brief term following the destruction of Beirut and before Qatar and the Emirates upped their profiles, London became the capital of the Arab media. It’s still important, still housing such ventures as the independent pan-Arab paper al-Quds al-Arabi.
On Queensway, past Whiteleys shopping centre, popular to bursting with young Gulf tourists in the summer, turn into Westbourne Grove for al-Waha restaurant, one of London’s best, and the famous as-Saqi bookshop and publishers – as influential in its own way as the Madbouli bookshop in Cairo.
All of these Arabs, but against a decidedly non-Arab background, involving a lot of darkness and rain, sometimes even in August. In the winter, I remember the ice freezing on the inside of my bedsit windows (although I’ve been colder in a Syrian January). Yet these days, London is the Arab world too, which is a way of saying the Arabs have become Londoners. In my novel of Arab London, a character remembers visiting the Regent’s Park mosque: “the peculiar Englishness of it .. coats and scarves hung up on hooks, the smell of damp wool, wooden panelling on the walls. Snow through the windows against a red and yellow sky.” If Syria is the Arabs on the Mediterranean and Oman the Arabs on the Indian Ocean, London is the city of the Arabs in the cold north west. Especially in August.