x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Briton who converted to Islam as schoolboy now part of Guiding Light

When Lewis Bullock was a boy he chanced upon Muslim pupils bowed together in prayer. Something clicked, and at 14 he became a Muslim, eventually moving to the Gulf and marrying an Emirati.

Lewis Bullock spends his days working at the Sheikh Obaid bin Thani House, one of the oldest preserved buildings in Dubai.
Lewis Bullock spends his days working at the Sheikh Obaid bin Thani House, one of the oldest preserved buildings in Dubai.

DUBAI // From a distance, in his sand-coloured khandoura and full beard, he cuts the figure of an Emirati. Even as he draws closer, speaking fluent Arabic, it is hard to tell.

But Lewis Bullock is a native Briton. Now 33, he converted to Islam at the age of 14. By the time he was 17, in 1994, he had moved to Dubai, married an Emirati and become immersed in Gulf society.

A father to five sons, Mr Bullock spends his days at the Sheikh Obaid bin Thani House and lends a sympathetic ear to the many tourists who filter in and ask questions about Arabs and Muslims.

"I guess I'm an ideal person to talk to, because I'm European but I have been here for many years," he said. "I am from the West but have Islamic knowledge, plus the added bonus of being able to offer Arabic hospitality."

The house of Obaid bin Thani and the adjacent house of Juma bin Majid, in Al Shindagha, by the Dubai Creek, are some of the oldest preserved buildings in Dubai. They were built in 1916 during the flourishing pearl trade. Every day between 70 and 100 guests pass through the doors of the Al Siraaj exhibition, showcased throughout eight rooms of the traditional house. Using posters, 3D animations and plasma screens, the exhibition tells the story of Islam and illustrates the basics of the faith through quotations from the Quran.

When Al Siraaj, which means the Guiding Light, opened in 2001 it became the first Islamic art exhibition in the city.

Arshad Khan, a 37-year-old Indian, and a colleague of Mr Bullock, said the Briton not only reflected the universality of Islam, but frequently befuddled visitors.

"A lot of times I've seen people come up to him and think he is Arab - usually Syrian," he said. "Even the westerners can't tell he is British until he speaks and they hear his strong British accent."

Mr Bullock was first exposed to Islam when he was at school in Surrey, in southern England. There were a handful of Muslims in his year and a chance encounter sparked his religious curiosity.

"It was during one lunch break, I went past the classroom and peeked in. I saw them all bowing together during the prayer and something clicked inside me. I had to find out more."

His grandfather was an active member of the Church of England but he began delving deeper into his new interest and became convinced the Islamic faith was aligned with his beliefs.

"I knew God couldn't be part of creation if he was the Creator," he said. "He had to be bigger and more powerful than that. That's what I found in Islam."

Despite resistance from his family, Mr Bullock converted in a local mosque a few months later. As soon as he finished school, his first goal was to visit a Muslim country.

"I wanted to experience Islam in a Muslim community," he said. "The ideal place would have been Saudi Arabia but I met a group of Emiratis in London so I came here in 1994.

"I started working in an Islamic book shop and then I met my wife's brother. I told him I wanted to get married and he recommended his sister."

After a lot of negotiations their family agreed and the pair had a traditional Islamic ceremony in August 1994.

In 1999, he returned to the UK with his wife to complete his education, returning five years later with a qualification in business management. In 2005, he started working as an IT customer service desk manager for Dubai World and it was not until three years later when he lost his job during the financial crisis that he started this position with the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing at the Sheikh Obaid house.

"From a modern perspective there is a lot of negative press about Islam so this is a way for me to show people the culture of the UAE and many of the great and warm, welcoming customs of the UAE, which lie in the roots of the Islamic religion," he said.

Looking back he said the most important things to him in his life were his family and his religion and despite the initial difficulties he now has a lot of support from the Emirati and British sides of his family.

"To be honest over the latter years I couldn't ask for a more supportive and loving family regarding all aspects of my life," he said.

He said he had never regretted the decision he made as a teenager, which changed the course of his life, and made sure to teach his children - the oldest of whom is 13 and the youngest who is three - to value their religion as the most important thing in their lives.

"My children are brought up knowing that they are considered to be both British and Emirati but the underlying base is Islam. If either heritages have something that conflicts with Islam then Islamic principles supersede that aspect," he said.

aseaman@thenational.ae