Tuesday, 21 June 2011

On a Dilemma

I had planned to start this post with a call for you to refrain from judging me, but I've changed my mind. I want you to judge me. I want to know what you think of what I did, of what I thought.

I shall start from the beginning. I was waiting for a train. A light drizzle, typical of the Great British summer, fell gently over the platform. The overhead wires crackled and fizzed, the raindrops collected in shallow puddles. I felt at ease. I like the rain.

The train pulled up and the doors opened. And elderly couple pushed past, rushing further up the train to get on another carriage. I assumed they just wanted to be at the front.

How wrong I was. As I settled into my seat and the train pulled away, I heard a man muttering further down the carriage. It was a whisper at first but the volume increased steadily. I soon realised that most of what he said wasn't in English. That's not a problem in itself; I am, as you may know, an avowed lover of language. It was Arabic. At least I think it was. A constant monologue that grew from a whisper into a chant, into a shout. It was interspersed with cries of "LIGHT OF THE DAY" and "Your blood is the same colour as mine!" A wee bit sinister for lunchtime on a Sunday. The rest was, quite literally, foreign to me. I thought I could hear the odd "Inc'Allah" which, from repeated listening to an MC Solaar song of the same name, I know to mean "God willing."

So that's why the elderly couple changed carriages. That's why everyone else was shifting in their seats, exchanging worried glances and, at intermediate stations, following the exodus into the adjoining carriages.

And so, I found myself in a dilemma. He who prides himself of being accepting of others found himself itching to get off the train. The crazed liberal inside me was screaming "Look at you! Where are your egalitarian ideals now? What happened to live and let live? What next? Starting sentences with 'I'm not a racist but...', or 'You can sleep with whoever you like but I'll have none of that under my roof!' You...you Daily Mail reader!" But there was another voice, a nagging doubt. A fear building up inside. A desperate call for self-preservation, in spite of my oft-touted liberalism.

What should I have done?

What I did, was stay on the carriage. I did so with my headphones in but my iPod off, a sense of impending doom writhing inside me.

I'm not sure what the above makes me. Was I stupid to stay on a train on which I felt unsafe? Or did ignorance rear its ugly head and prove that I'm not as accepting as I think I am?

I've been thinking about it a lot today. We live in a state of paranoia. You can see it on the tube sometimes, or on trains, at airports. It's exacerbated by what I think is a very British reaction to any public declaration of fervent religious belief; awkwardness.

I know full well that this man was not representative of all Muslims, all British Muslims or probably even all the Muslims on that particular train, who probably don't make a habit of praying loudly on public transport. II don't even know what he was saying - it could have been something really quite pleasant. Nor do I subscribe to the Cameronian belief that multiculturalism has failed. His lifestyle, upbringing and outlook are as alien to me as the beliefs of the man shouting on the train. But that's ok. I wouldn't, for one minute, wish for a homogenous society in which everybody thinks, feels and acts the same.

But I'm still not sure what I should have done, or whether what I did do and did feel, was right.


  1. I think that's okay that you were a bit scared. I hate to say this, but this is the reality of the post 911 world. We don't want to be like this, but something inside us can't help but wonder "what if?"

    I do the same at work...I was convinced that a kid with his hood up was going to try and rob me. Just the way he was sitting and looking around...he looked like the type of kid who was looking for an opportunity to pull something. But later I saw a bus schedule in his hand...he was just killing time. I'm such a suburban snob!

    I was on a bus once late at night in Toronto with just one other guy. He looked sketchy and I had these flashforwards of him following me home and attacking me. He, of course, didn't get off at my stop and I was worried for nothing.

  2. I agree with Allison. It's normal to be scared/worried.

    Today, I was on a bus on my way home from work. An old, smelly, hobo-looking man took the seat beside me. I got worried that he might be a thief or something. But I hesitated to transfer because if he wasn't, I would offend him (I'm nice sometimes). So I didn't transfer. And he didn't harm me. But my lungs were badly injured. The smell, dude. The smell!

    Anyway, I think your reaction was normal. I don't know what I would have done too if I was in your situation. So.

    PS: Glad to see you back!

  3. I don't think its anything to feel bad about, or to accuse yourself of being less tolerant because of.

    The unfortunate matter is we live in a time where there is enough random bad occurrances that we get frightened by those who would resemble anyone who might do something.

    As far as the religious/cultural intolerance, I don't blame you. I've had a similar situation. Heck, I react that way to crazy shouting Christians, and I am a Christian. I think it's difficult not to be scared because we know how severely unhinged people (especially the shouting ones) can become.

    So don't beat yourself up over it, pretty sure most of us would have felt the same way.

  4. Dude, if you want to be that crazy it don't matter if you're black or white. In a situation like that, headphones off and furtive glaces was the right choice.
    His ethnicity shouldn't come into question. A bomber with a dead man's switch (if that is what you imagined) would try hard to be quiet, and it wouldn't happen on a sunday, not enough traffic.
    No reason to feel bad. Anybody of any color would be cautious if a raving lunatic was on their train. (Fuck, I feel like getting off the train when an accordion player gets on)

  5. I think that it's a natural reaction to something out of the ordinary. I think you'd need to worry if you would react differently to someone who began to yell verses from the Bible, for example. If some "punk" looking kid got on the train and began to yell about Anarchy in the UK, I think it would have brought about a similar reaction.

    I think it's extremely important to ask yourself the whys behind a certain reaction, because that helps you understand how you're relating to the world. In this instance, I don't think your reasons are contradictory to your idea of egalitarianism and liberalism. :)

    p.s. Insha'Allah is the English transliteration, I think.

    p.p.s. I miss you.

  6. @ Allison - I'm glad he was just waiting for the bus. At times like that I wonder if anyone ever thought that way about me when I was a young and annoying teenager. I doubt it somehow. I'm not nearly menacing enough :(

    @ Gnetch - that situation is all too familiar. I find that smelling a book/sleeve is always helpful, it takes the edge off!!

    @ Tabs - I just find it disappointing that random bad occurrences mean I'm not the happy-go-lucky live and let live person I thought I was. But I think you're right. I think it was the fact that he was unpredictable that was worrying me, more than his religion. That said, I don't even know if he was religious. He could have been saying anything!

    @ Erin - Parisian accordion players LOVE trains, don't they? We don't have them here. We just have beggars. At least the accordion players put on a show!

    @ Risha - It's funny you and Tabs should mention the Bible thing, because the VERY next day I sat next to someone reading a Christian book on how to pray for the fallen and encourage them to repent. He wasn't shouting or anything - in fact I shouldn't have even noticed except that I'm a nosey bastard and can't help but look at what other people are reading - but it made me wonder. And you're right, if he'd have got up and started shouting about his beliefs, the headphones would be in, and I'd be pretending to read.
    PS Noted, you fount of all knowledge you.
    PPS Doubly noted. I miss you too.

  7. A belated comment, I know, but I've been away from my beloved internet. Anyway, I'm going to end up echoing what has already been said: you were right to be cautious.

    Quite frankly, anyone who thinks it's normal to pray loudly in a public train is probably a few palm trees short of an oasis. I'm willing to bet that had there been any Muslims on that carriage, most would have been just as worried.