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On London streets where Arabic is the first language

In Queensway the signs, sounds, aromas, and habits are distinctly Middle Eastern, with only an occasional bowler hat to break the spell. Our correspondent records impressions of this lively Arab Diaspora.
by Hadani Ditmars

Veiled women push baby buggies past dark cafes. Market stalls offer quantities of dates and pomegranates. Dark young men in white shirts sit and smoke strong cigarettes in the afternoon shade.

Squint sideways and you could be in any city of the Middle East, except for the Prince Charles and Di Tee-shirts displayed next to the posters of Buckingham Palace.

No, this is not some culturally distorted twilight zone, but rather the thriving London neighborhood of Queensway, where Arabic is the first language, and real heart-pounding, cardamom-spiked coffee is available on every corner.

Colonial accident or strange twist of late 20th century fate, the area remains a cultural oasis for London's Arab Diaspora. Refugees, students, businessmen, artists - transplanted from all over the Middle East- come here to shop, talk, meet friends, make deals, or perhaps find a sense of self lost in the spiritual dissipation of wars and borders and emigration.

Occasionally, reminders of British culture seep through the oriental ambiance - black-top cabs, phone boxes, fish and chip shops - but their function is almost symbolic. Any awareness of being in Britannia is temporarily suspended, as geographic reality gives way to cultural immersion and sense of place surrenders to impressions of the senses.

Here you can talk to Mohammed, the local green-grocer from Gaza, and catch up on the latest news from "Gaza First." Mohammed' s family had the unfortunate experience of going from Gaza to Kuwait and then, after the Gulf War, to Yemen. So, his attitude is philosophical, to say the least, as he uncrates oranges from Jaffa and talks about the weather.

Down the street is a newsstand run by Egyptians, where you can find almost every major paper from Baghdad to Marakesh, and indulge in the latest movie-star gossip mags from Cairo. The owners are friendly and sometimes even offer a comic-tragic joke or two about cheap holiday tours run by the Muslim brothers.

It's easy to spend the whole day reading newspapers at an outdoor cafe (London weather permitting) but the street scene is absorbing in itself and distracting enough to keep you forever skimming the first page.

Completely shador'ed women walk by manicured English gardens, while across the street, Orthodox Jewish boys carry their books home from a nearby school.Tuareg tribesmen with Rolex watches rub shoulders with waif-like English teenagers dressed in '70's revival clothes, and little girls with head scarves brush past proper English gentlemen complete with bowler hats. Every morning an English skinhead dressed in Doc Martens and black jeans walks by with his Muslim, hijab'ed, wife and their baby.

The effect of this melange is initially surreal, but later melts into the familiar realm of daily London life. After all, this is part of the post colonial pot-pourri that makes the city so unique.

If the street scene exhausts you, retreat is available at the local hamam. At the Porchester Spa, you can steam your soul free of urban stress or tranquilly sweat out London pollution in one of the Turkish hot rooms. There are usually lots of Moroccan women around, gossiping in hushed Magrebian tones and hennaing there hair, until the inevitable interruption, by one of the Irish attendants bitching about the red stains on the towels.

For post-bathing refreshment, you can go across the street to the Shiraz Cafe. Here you can while away the hours eating Persian sweets and listening to santur music. Sometimes, you can even meet the guy next door - an eccentric Englishman with proper public school credentials who seems to know everything about the Middle East. He's often seen with a bodyguard in a chauffeured limousine, and has for some reason been impersonating a certain TV producer for the last three years.

He claims to be someone he is not -either out of dementia or more mysterious necessity, but his stories are so interesting that you never want to call his bluff. He'll talk about Iranian politics, Beirut war adventures, and Afghani arms dealers all in one breath, blithely dropping names ("Rafsanjani this", "Nasrallah that", "Kashoggi said") along the way.

If its literary adventure you're seeking, a wonderful bookstore is only a few blocks away. "Al-Saqi Books", a virtual cornucopia of literature from all over the Middle East, is a reader's paradise for nostalgic Arabists, homesick travellers, refugees, and other members of the Greater Diaspora.

Here you can find the latest expose on the Thatcher-Saddam arms deal, or sample one of Nawal El-Sadawi's delicious novels. There are Arabic-English anthologies of Adonis and other well-loved poets, as well as beautiful photo-essay books on Moroccan Berbers, orientalist painters and other visual feasts.

Next door is the Kufa Gallery, which has regular exhibitions of work by artists and photographers from Khartoum to Istanbul. Outside, posters advertise classical ney concerts, Sufi poetry recitals and the latest Arabic theater production.

Recently, an all-women troupe of actors performed an Arabic version of Lorca's "Bodas de Sangre" at the Rudolf Steiner House. Apparently Andalusian vendetta tales strike a cultural chord.

After some "ahweh" at the nearby Iraqi cafe, you can head back to Bayswater - thick with Arabic shop-front signs and Lebanese restaurants. Here, Afghani refugees participate in an indifferent co-existence with the homeless, who are mostly English but with the occasional Yugoslavian gypsy or street musician completing the tableau.

Meanwhile, dark blue Mercedes cruise by, their drivers clutching mobile phones and smoking cigars from behind tinted glass. They are oblivious to John Major's England or to any talk of recession.This, after all, is Queensway and certain businesses are booming.

A few months ago, a man and his girlfriend were shot in their nearby flat. There was speculation that this was connected with the recent killing of a Lebanese businessman whose head was found in a Manchester football field.

But these stories rarely stay long in the headlines, and if they do, they are soon usurped by tales of cross-dressing MP's dying with drug-filled oranges in their mouths.

As evening falls, it is wise to take a comfortable seat at a cafe terrace, drug yourself with yet another Turkish coffee, and wait. This vantage point allows you to witness the twilight transformation that turns the scene into a carnival of cultural collision.

Tonight it offers a group of Scandinavian tourists flirting with some local Arab boys in a cacophonic mix of Swedish and Arabic and broken English, while Um Kalthoum belts out an earth-shaking love song from the adjacent shawarma stand.

A couple of bobbies walk by, standing tall and erect in their quintessential Englishness as some Moroccan girls give them furtive, kohl-laden glances.

A religious freak appears, wearing a sandwich board proclaiming "Jesus Saves" in Arabic and English. He barks an incomprehensible sermon through a tinny loudspeaker and when you pass he smiles and says, "Hallelujah!"

At Whitely's, the local shopping mall, which after dark becomes a cruising/promenade place extraordinaire, English is on the periphery of consciousness, as rich Arabic vowels fill the night air.

On the top floor, there are dozens of cafes and restaurants filled with gorgeous women, "maquillaged" and Chanel-suited, laughing, and gossiping with elongated red finger nails while waiting for their men in expensive leather jackets to return to them from the distractions of their mobile phones.

This could be a scene from Beirut but for the English store names glaring down in neon - W. H. Smith, Boots, and of course, Marks and Spencers.

In the parking lot, there are at least a dozen Range Rovers, many more Mercedes, and a few Jaguars. At the exit, a homeless man sells the "Big Issue" with capitalist zeal.

It starts to rain and you hail a cab.

You briefly contemplate a detour to Edgeware Road - London's other main Arab area - but decide against it. La Rose Patisserie, where you can find tired revolutionaries turned real-estate developers and hypoglycemic Lebanese sweets, will wait for another day.

The radio plays and a BBC announcer's voice drones matter-of-factly about John Major in Oxford accented English.

The streets are wet now and the de facto Arab colony begins to dissolve into the distance as English fish-and-chip-shopped London looms before you like another country.

The driver takes the scenic route, along the river, and passes by the new M-15 building, gleaming in the dark like a sinister shopping mall.

You drive by Big Ben as it gongs midnight into the rain-slicked night, like an Anglo-Saxon minaret in disguise, tolling for a great city on a small island, receiving its colonial karma.


(The writer is a journalist based in London.)
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