Going to read the Quran every weekend was not something my sister Shazanna and I were very interested in doing. We would rather have been shopping, watching movies or seeing friends. But, it is the duty of Muslim parents to teach their children the Holy Book, so my father used to dress us up in traditional salwar kameez and drive us 40 minutes to Chatham, south of London. Our teacher, Mahmood Shah, used to open his modest house up to around 20 other British Pakistani children and we would all spend around an hour in his living room reading the Quran line by line. It was in the early Nineties, I was barely 10 and Shazanna was just in her teens.
It seemed like a pointless exercise at the time; we didn't speak or understand Arabic and struggled to decipher the alphabet. We sat on the floor, slouched over low benches and took turns in going to him to repeat what we had recited in that session. Regardless of how well or badly we did, our kind teacher would always give us a biscuit to congratulate our efforts. He must have known we spent more time mocking his Pakistani accent than reading the Surahs, but he had a greater motive in holding these classes. He was a serious, elderly man. He would always wear a greyish salwar kameez and a topi and he had a long white beard.
We used to call him Maulvi Saab, or teacher, but he did not have a particularly strong religious background. Though his intentions were first and foremost to instil in us a sense of spirituality, he was also passionate about glueing the Pakistani community together. He dedicated his time for nothing and was always organising events, some held in his own home. Even in his last days in a wheelchair, before he suffered a stroke last year, he had been planning a welcoming party for the returning pilgrims from Haj.
Maulvi Saab first came to England alone from Jhelum, in Pakistan, and worked for the London transport system. He later brought his wife and son to Britain but sadly his marriage broke up and he lived alone, once again. When he retired, he immersed himself in the community, encouraged spirituality and spent spare time with his son and granddaughter. While he managed to get back to Lahore quite regularly to visit extended family, his real goals and dreams stayed in England.
Little gestures have gone a long way. Through simple acts such as welcoming all sects of the Muslim community to his home, making regular phone calls to stay in touch and recognising that one way to make Quran-learning more enjoyable is to give biscuits to children, he has succeeded in creating cohesion. I am still very close to the children I met during those lessons and our parents remain good friends.
If it wasn't for those weekend trips to Chatham, our community would be weaker. Now, over Eid, Ramadan, weddings and cultural events like Pakistan Independence Day, even though we live in Kent, a county with a small Pakistani population, we celebrate together. Maulvi Saab was around 80 when he died. My mother received a phone call with the news. When she told me, it brought back all these memories I hadn't thought about in a long time. I prayed for him as soon as I found out, something he had shown my sister how to do when she was a teenager.
His body was flown back to Pakistan by family members, but there will always be a part of his spirit in England. * Anealla Safdar