Remona Aly
Thursday 15 March 2018 BBC Radio 2

The Skinhead and the Muslim

The Muslim and the Skinhead

When you start a story with the words ‘skinhead’ and ‘Muslim hijabi woman’, you think it’s not going to end well. But not long ago in London, I jumped onto a tube train, grabbed a seat and minded my own business.  

A scruffy looking man got on at the next stop, and the entire carriage was filled with the pungent smell that he generously radiated. Of course, he sat next to me. The next stop came, and a skinhead stepped on. He had tattoos on his knuckles, a death skull on his neck and a face full of piercings. Of course, he sat opposite. Things were not looking or smelling great.

The skinhead kept trying to catch my eye. I looked anywhere else – the floor, the holiday ad, the emergency alarm, but finally, I just had to meet his look. He waved his hand back and forth under his nose in sympathy, grinned at me and said, “Phoo, astaghfirullah’. My jaw was on the tube floor. He’d uttered an Islamic phrase that only Muslims use, sometimes when things are bad, yet literally meaning, ‘God forgive me’! Here I was worrying I might get attacked, and there he was trying to connect with me.

I had to get out at the next stop, but looking back, I so wish we’d talked. Was he a Muslim, friends with a Muslim? He could only have known that phrase by hanging out with them, surely?

I was initially clouded by a fear of what I saw, I let the skull tattoo overshadow the bigger picture. But I should know better, especially since I also get judged for my headscarf – so that encounter on the tube was a lesson for me.

How we look from the outside is merely our opening chapter, it’s not our whole story.

These days we have just enough time to condemn others on Twitter or Facebook, but not enough time to hear out each other’s stories. And if time is not on our side, at least we can use our understanding.

As the Persian Muslim poet Hafiz said, “What do you seek – being right or understanding? Being heard or hearing, being loved or loving? If you seek the one you will not find the other. If you seek the other, you will find both.”

Perhaps one day I’ll find the skinhead and we can hear each other’s stories…