A Hand Full Of Stars


Monday, 13 July 2009


I won’t be here in this room for much longer so I want to describe what our part of Mile End looks like. We live in a 1920s redbrick building that faces out onto a busy road. By the train station across the road, a horse chestnut tree has been standing there for far longer than any of us can remember – even our neighbour, Mrs Robinson, the old lady who’s lived at Number 21 since 1964, swears it was as big then as it is now. Every autumn it sheds its fruit and delighted children quarrel over who will keep the biggest ones. Later, they’ll thread them with string and challenge each other to duels in the playground.

Our building is built around a large courtyard, which belongs to everybody. At one end there is a sycamore tree and, according to Mrs Robinson, it, too, has stood there since before she arrived. It’s in this courtyard that everyone comes together to talk and laugh and (sometimes) to quarrel. It’s a playground for the children who use it to play football, to hold bike races, to have picnics or, as they did last February, to build snowmen. On warm summer evenings, adults will bring out chairs and pots of tea or coffee and sit gossiping with each other for hours. Sometimes – and these will be my most cherished memories – the residents organize barbecues or parties to celebrate someone’s graduation or the birth of a child, or simply the beginning or end of summer.

I can tell you how this building of ours has changed and how families and friends have come and gone. The first girl I kissed – Amy – lived at Number 17. The first boy I had a fist-fight with – Leroy – lived at Number 12. The first guy I fucked – Farid – lived at Number 27. My best friends through adolescence – Anwar and Jerome – lived at Numbers 11 and 9 respectively. There was the old lady at Number 2, the local spy, whom we all hated because she’d watch us from behind her net curtains and report us to our parents. And there was her cat that Jerome and I poisoned with kerosene because the older boys had dared us. (We were thirteen and being in a gang bored us after two weeks.) I could go on, but what I mean to say is that this place has been my home for a very many number of years and, in all that time, it has been the only constant thing in my life.

You see, you never know the worth of a place until you have to leave it behind. You never know how much you love the four walls of your bedroom, its nooks and crannies, until you’re packing what you own into big brown boxes, deciding what’s worth keeping and what needs to be thrown away. You never miss your neighbours until you have to cross to the other side of town and make new ones all over again.

To the outsider, Mile End is nothing special. It has only a few claims to fame. On 14th June 1381, the young King Richard II rode to Mile End and signed a charter to end the Peasants’ Revolt. (Later, he had most of the rebels and their leaders executed.) On 13th June 1944, the area was hit by the first V-1 flying bomb to strike London. The blast killed eight civilians, injured thirty and made over 200 homeless. Mile End was mentioned by Pulp in the song of the same name and features on the Trainspotting soundtrack. (It’s about a group of squatters who take up residence in an abandoned fifteenth-floor flat of a derelict tower block.) And it got a mention in The Streets’ song, Has It Come To This?: ‘my underground train runs from Mile End to Ealing…’

But to me, it’s my homeland. I could take you on a tour of all its landmarks and milestones. The derelict flat my friends and I used to use as a den: we’d go there to drink cider, smoke joints and (sometimes) fuck girls. The bus stop where Jerome and I were once stopped and searched by the police because a stupid white girl had been mugged there by two teenagers who matched our description. ‘One of them was black,’ the policeman said, looking at Jerome. Then, he turned to me and said: ‘And the other was Asian.’ The tree in the park by the canal under which a girl called Mandy let Anwar and me touch her breasts. It was under the same tree, years later, that a guy called Daniel gave me a blow-job. The cemetery in which my friends dared me to spend a night. I only made it to about 10pm but they were kind enough not to go on about it.

So, whenever someone asks me ‘Where are you from?’, it will never be Britain or even London, but always Mile End.

At the same time, W10 beckons and the ‘readiness is all’. The passed couple of weeks have been a time for re-assessment, re-evaluation and re-direction. By that, I don’t mean an existential crisis so much as a utilitarian one: I need to gauge my effectiveness as a human being. But how? Finding significance in the ‘mundane’ – thinking long term: career, property, and so forth – has always been a challenge for me. The readiness is all and I think I’m ready for a major change. For, since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? And, as Bill Monahan once said: ‘Out of everything you can do or think you can do, pick one thing and be it.’

Sunday, 12 July 2009


Jodie was a guy I met outside the post office on Russell Square one evening in January 2001. He dropped an envelope, which landed by my feet. A bashful ‘Thank you for picking that up’ turned into a conversation, a drink, an exchange of phone numbers and a Proper Date the following weekend.

Jodie was a kindred spirit. He was one of those inspired students. He lived in the zillions of books he had to read for his politics degree, his thoughts heavy with the Black Man’s struggle. He even went the whole nine yards and read stuff his professors dared not recommend. For him, everything had political and moral significance. We would sit for hours mulling over something someone had said in a book or an article or an interview, comparing it against something somebody else had said, weighing them against what we thought, finding them both defective and moving on to the next exploding star.

It was his total disregard for what anyone thought of him that I found so utterly arresting. Once, as he waited for me to arrive at a rendezvous, I stood watching him from across the road, his quiet confidence, his mismatched clothes, his dreads. He was absorbed in a novel and suddenly burst out laughing, making passers-by jump. I remember thinking ‘You make me follow you’ because the only ones that capture my attention are the ones that don’t care.

Skip to August. It was almost time to pack my bags, to collect my passport from the Syrian Embassy and to beg a lift to Heathrow. Jodie was refusing to meet up with me. Three days to go and I called him one evening as I walked passed that same post office. I got his voicemail instead. ‘I’m leaving in two days,’ I must have said. ‘I haven’t seen you in a week. Don’t you want to say goodbye?’

He called back at the wrong time. When I got out of the tube at the other end of my journey, his voicemail was waiting for me. ‘I don’t think it’ll be good for me to see you. I mean, a year is a long time.’

I can laugh at it now. I can understand why he did it. I can even thank him for it. But at the time his way of doing things filled me with rage, which eventually subsided when I got to Damascus. By then, I missed him.

We went out last night – Ali and I – to a ‘Mediterranean night’ at Enclave on Brewer Street. Quite unexpectedly, I won a jar of sweets in the raffle. The DJ, who called out my number, recognised me from Facebook. By that point I was so drunk on Stella and JD&coke that being recognised by a DJ really impressed me. I needed the distraction: bodies gyrating to the camp tones of Arabic and Turkish pop; the Brazilian that chatted me up; the Kazakh, his mad cousin and Jewish fag hag who turned every tune the DJ played into a celebration of their homeland (they invited us to Fire but we declined); Shap and his Nigerian friend; the black guy outside Centrepoint (according to Ali: ‘He looked you up and down. What’s wrong with you? Talk to him. He’s so hot I’m getting a hard on!’); the other black guy on Charing Cross Rd whose last word in a shouting match with a white guy was, ‘My dick’s bigger than yours’ (I offered him some of my sweets – ‘It’ll calm you down’ – but his friends only laughed at me); and, finally, the cabaret that is the No 25 night bus.

Saturday, 11 July 2009


What about the hypocritical silence of governments and the media over what China is doing to the Uighurs? Usually there’s nothing more satanic than a communist government suppressing the human rights of its citizens – except when the citizens in question are Muslims. In that case, the citizens become the aggressor and the government becomes the victim. But that’s the whole point of this new American century: no means yes, up means down and oppression is a national security strategy. Orwell was on the vibe.

This from Mona Eltahawy, The Huffington Post:

If only the Uighurs were Buddhist and China was Israel

Pity the Uighurs the wrong kind of minority, the wrong kind of Muslims, fighting the wrong kind of enemy.

For years, Uighurs a Turkic people who are largely Muslim complained of economic, cultural and religious discrimination under the harsh fist of Beijing. The latter made sure the Uighurs were outnumbered in the western Xinjiang province by Han Chinese migrants.

In the worst ethnic unrest in China in years, Uighurs took to the streets of the provincial capital Urumqi on Sunday, apparently after a protest at government handling of a June clash between Han Chinese and Uighur factory workers in southern China, where two Uighurs died.

At least 156 people died in weekend riots.

The Chinese government quickly blamed exiled separatists and Muslim militant groups, arrested dozens and tried to curb information by stifling the internet. On Tuesday, Han Chinese armed with iron bars and machetes went looking for revenge on Uighurs.

Following the news that did make it out of Xinjiang, I thought if only the Uighurs were Buddhists like the Tibetans with whom the Uighurs share almost mirror grievances against Beijing.

If they were Buddhists, Björk, Sting, Bono and all those other one-named saviours of the world’s poor and oppressed would have held ‘Free Xinjiang’ concerts already. But the West continues to largely ignore the Uighurs. Maybe they’re not as cuddly as the Tibetans or their leader, the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps the US State Department would issue stronger words in their defence if only the Uighurs weren’t the wrong kind of minority in a country that produces half the goods we use and which currently lends the wobbly global economy enough money to keep it just this side of total collapse.

The Uighurs aren’t Buddhists but are instead Muslims and us Muslims don’t get much love these days. You’d think the US at least would be paying a bit more attention to Uighurs after locking up four of their brethren at the prison camp at Guantanamo without charge for seven years. They were released earlier this year to Bermuda.

If the West seems deaf to Uighur complaints, then where are their fellow Muslims? Surely this is a chance for Muslims across the world to march in protest at the stranglehold the godless communist Chinese keep over the Uighurs?

Think again.

The Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas put it bluntly on the micro-blogging site, Twitter where thousands follow him when he asked why no one was paying attention to the Uighur ‘intifada’, the Arabic word for uprising that is usually associated with Palestinians fighting back against Israeli occupation.

That’s precisely the problem the Uighurs are no Palestinians and the Chinese are not Israel. Many Muslims Arab Muslims especially pay attention only when the US and Israel are behaving badly. Palestine followed by Iraq always take precedence leaving little room for other Muslim grievances.

Look at Darfur, where the suffering goes ignored because those who are creating the misery are neither Americans nor Israelis but instead fellow Arab Muslim Sudanese.

China is coincidentally one of Sudan’s biggest trade partners and sells Khartoum plenty of weapons which Darfuris complain are used against them. So it’s unlikely Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who declared himself the guardian of Islam in 2007 by putting on trial a British teacher for insulting Muslims when she named a class teddy bear ‘Mohammed’, will condemn Chinese oppression of Uighurs.

Perhaps Israel can save the day and invade Xinjiang.

Xinjiang and its Muslim inhabitants are almost complete unknowns in the Arab world, much to China’s relief, I’m sure. During a visit in 1995 to attend the United Nations conference on women in Beijing, I tried to visit Xinjiang. But not a single airline office would sell a ticket to a ‘radical lesbians’, as conference attendees were seen. No ‘restive regions’ for us.

Further afield from the Arab world, Shaaz Mahboob, a British Muslim friend of Pakistani descent, wondered on Facebook: ‘Where are the Pakistani emotions which rage whenever there is an issue to do with Muslims anywhere on this planet (thank God there aren’t Muslims being persecuted on the Moon or Mars yet!)?’

He asked Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket superstar, and other Pakistanis who have supported militant groups why they would not even support the militant Uighur groups who have allegedly initiated this chain of violence.

‘They remain mysteriously silent over the plight of Chinese fellow Muslim. Or is it that the “friendship” with China takes precedence over helping fellow Muslims this time?’

As I said wrong enemy.

The Chinese government quickly boosted security to crush Sunday’s Uighur uprising and arrested dozens of men, leaving many women to demonstrate on Tuesday, waving their the identity cards of male relatives they say were arbitrarily detained.

Those women just might be the Uighurs’ best hope of getting the world’s attention. Or at least one of them and no, I don’t mean Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur businesswoman and activist whom Beijing blames for orchestrating the violence from her home in the US.

Reuters’ photographer David Gray took a picture of a lone Uighur woman in a headscarf leaning on a crutch and facing off with two Chinese security vehicles behind which stood dozens of security personnel.

It was reminiscent both of the picture of the lone Chinese student facing off with the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and of the ubiquitous images of Iranian women from that country’s recent demonstrations.

So now they have an iconic image, here’s hoping the Uighurs start to register on our radar.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


I tried really hard not to think about M today. So I decided to go for a walk only to discover that walks do not clear my head. Instead, I had a series of heartbreaking monologues and, tangled in the forest of my thoughts, I got lost in an unfamiliar part of the East End. I asked a group of boys for directions but promptly forgot what they’d told me and got even more lost. I had no idea where I ended up but luckily it had a cab office and I got a ride back to Mile End. I wasn’t in the mood to go home so I went to the cinema and watched Ice Age 3 instead, which provided some relief. Until the long walk home…

I don’t think he knows how close to my heart he exists. Is it possible to be ‘in love’ with someone when it’s unequally reciprocated? Surely love is a symbiotic process, a dynamic state that evolves and strengthens and joins together. But does it not also require a mutual recognition and understanding that there really is something out there or in here that matters to both? Is it my need to be accepted and understood and valued? Is it that desire for intensity beyond ‘intelligent survival’? Or is it simply the release from having to explain myself and every little thing that makes me so weird? And why does something so utterly simple have to be so complicated and painful?

And, against my will, I have Hafiz in my head:

Your love

should never be offered

to the mouth

of a stranger;

only to someone

who has the valour and daring

to cut off pieces of his soul

and weave them into a blanket

to protect you.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Suppose you meet someone. Suppose you think about him all the time because thinking about him makes you happy. Suppose he says things like, ‘You have a smile only God could make.’ Suppose you try really hard to break with habit and open yourself up emotionally, ignoring the No in your head and concentrating on the Yes in your heart. Suppose, when you’re talking with him, you never want the conversation to end. Suppose the thought of seeing him again gives you goosebumps. Suppose you want to walk with him in a field of purple flowers, hold his hand, smile and just enjoy that moment’s delicate beauty without needing to fill it with words and avowals. Suppose he’s exactly what you’re looking for in a guy – not just looks but, more importantly, his intelligence and spirit. Suppose you really like him.


Suppose he says he still has feelings for his ex. Suppose he says he wants to ‘play it safe’ (with you). Suppose he says: ‘I don’t want to jump into one thing while feelings linger over another situation.’

What then?

You could shake his head and say: ‘See me.’ You could say: ‘I would never treat you like that. I wouldn’t hurt your little finger.’ You could say: ‘Pick me. Please?’

Instead, you push your own heart aside and you say: ‘If you have feelings for him and think there’s a chance, then contact him. He can say yes, which will make you happy. Or he can say no, which will give you closure.’

Because that’s what Love is about, isn’t it? You want the other person to be happy – even if it’s not with you.

So why do I feel so sad and stupid?

Sunday, 5 July 2009


I’ve never had the urge to go before so I don’t know why I suggested it this year. Perhaps it was the thought that I’ll be 30 next month and I can’t let that happen without being able to say, ‘Done that. Like, whatever.’

So yesterday afternoon, as we headed to Maria’s barbecue, I said to Syndi, ‘Do you want to go to Pride afterwards? We can check out the urban music stage.’

Syndi is newly-arrived from Australia so she doesn’t always get it. She said: ‘What’s that?’

When I’d finished declaiming against over two thousand years of hetero-fascist oppression and lauding how far ‘my community’ has advanced in its quest for equality, she said: ‘Oh that. It’s like Mardi Gras, right?’ Then: ‘So how come you’ve never been?’

Which only got me thinking. Why have I never been to the gay event of the year? Even my older sister – who is not even a lesbian but has known about my sexuality since I was 14 – attends Gay Pride. Every year for the past sixteen years, she has tried many a tactic to convince me ‘to give it a go’. When none of them works, she’ll try humiliation: ‘You’re the ungayest gay in the universe – what the hell’s wrong with you?’; or ‘You might find someone to shag. God knows you need it.’

But I’ve always resisted, despite the annual fantasy in which I turn up and ‘find’ my Prince Charming. I’m older but the fantasy is still the same: he’s a beautiful Muslim man wearing a green-and-black kefiyyeh, dedicated to the campaign for gay liberation in the Islamic world; he’s tall, extremely intelligent, witty and cultured; and our eyes meet across the crowd and our fingers touch as he hands me a leaflet and invites me to a public lecture. (Sigh.)

Perhaps at a deeper level a part of me is still too embarrassed to be seen with so many ‘queens’ at such a public event. Perhaps, when I am in a place full of gays, I become too conscious of myself. On another level, it may be because I have never felt any affiliation with other (and by that I mean white for I was the word in its Saidian sense) gays: I’ve never experienced homophobia so I’ve never had to rage against hetero-fascism. My ‘struggles’ have always been of a different sort – racism, Islamophobia, global injustices – and, as a result, I have never felt part of the gay milieu.

I have always felt uneasy with the gay ‘scene’ because it appears to me to pander to our worst stereotypes and empowers a minority that is already extremely confident in its sexuality – for whom being gay is not simply a matter of genetics but informs every aspect of their lives (watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and you’ll see what I mean) – and drives away the majority for whom that is not what being gay is about, if it is about anything at all. It is this scene that desires to establish an identity premised upon a set of cultural references exclusive to a very specific type of gay ‘lifestyle’. I cannot believe that the way forward for gay liberation is a weekend of binge-drinking, drug abuse and debauchery on the streets of London. Whereas I can see how important it is for a minority to be visible, I keep asking myself: Where is the history, the liberation ideology?

Forty years after the Stonewall riots, the gay liberation movement has achieved its objectives in Britain: an equal age of consent, marriage, the repeal of Section 28 and the criminalisation of discrimination against gay people in employment and housing. Thanks to our courageous forebears, we made it to the Promised Land.

Yet, for the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians around the world the struggle has not ended. It is still all around them. They do not enjoy our freedoms and rights; they cannot march freely through their streets; they risk imprisonment or execution even if they express their love privately; they are tortured and executed by their governments; they are murdered by their own families or neighbours; they are run out of their homes and communities; they are equated with paedophilia and the spread of Aids. We, on they other hand, are ok.

So forty years after Stonewall, where is the international gay solidarity movement? Being gay has become all about lifestyle and nothing about solidarity or liberation. (It is this moral vacuum that explains why one of the gays in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy voted for Margaret Thatcher despite the fact that she introduced Section 28, the most explicitly homophobic piece of legislation in British history. ‘But, darling, did you see her boots?’) So what’s to be proud of? And what has marching through London dressed in drag or like a gimp or in one’s underwear got to do with fighting homophobia?

In her famous essay, Notes on ‘Camp’ (1964), Susan Sontag, one of my icons, had this to say about campness: ‘[It] converts the serious into the frivolous . . . It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon . . . It goes without saying that the camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticised – or at least apolitical.’ We can say the same about Gay Pride.

Friday, 3 July 2009


I’m moving to Ladbroke Grove, on the other side of London, in a couple of weeks so I woke up early today and started to clean out my room. The idea is to take only the essentials: books, clothes, laptop, camera and the rug I bought in Damascus. Everything else can go in the bin. It’s amazing how many things I have accumulated over the years. I’m a terrible hoarder. I fear I might throw something out and then regret it or, worse, realise it was something I should have kept. But no more.

I discovered my old diaries in the ‘box of memories’ I keep under my bed. I will never throw away that box: it is far too precious. So I forgot about the cleaning and made myself a mug of coffee, opened the window, sat on the ledge with my legs dangling out, lit a cigarette and spent the rest of the day going through them. My diaries stretch back to when I was at secondary school: almost twenty years and talk about angst and insecurity! When I see photos of myself back then, I see a handsome young man – but I also see one who placed too much importance on his intellect in order to hide how awful he felt about his exterior, the shape of his body, his face and the colour of his skin. (He had spent his childhood being put down by his mother and sisters about the colour of his skin. ‘That’s my African child,’ his mother would say to guests.)

They say a journal is a rear-view mirror, the perfect aid to retrospection and analysis. Perfectly true. Going through my old diaries, I realised that, as the years passed and we entered this bleak new century, the same thoughts, actions and (ultimately) mistakes have been recycled except in different places and contexts and with different people and boyfriends. I realised that internally – emotionally – I have not changed at all. I am still that boy who loathed his body, his face and the colour of his skin. In twenty years, I will probably look back at pictures of myself at 29 and say, ‘You weren’t as bad looking as you allowed your mother and sisters to make you believe.’ But at 29, I am still trying to un-learn my childhood. And that, I have learnt, is the greatest irony – and lesson – of life.