The Merry Muslim

Cumberland News Article
The Merry MuslimPublished on 17/11/2006

Picture by

STUART WALKER

Bridging the gap: Saj Ghafoor has friends from all backgrounds and religions. She wants her shop to be ‘a focal point where people can discover our food, culture and religion’

Saj Ghafoor should be bottled and used as a medicine to cure those with hate in their hearts. She breezes around with the sort of happy glow and easy manner that instantly cures bad moods or petty irritations. A conversation with Saj is conducted between smiles and bouts of laughter.

No wonder this Brook Street shopkeeper has become Carlisle’s unofficial ambassador for Islam.
Dressed in the traditional Pakistani garb of a shalwar kameez complete with headscarf, Saj represents the majority of moderate, tolerant Islamic wives and mothers who are weary of being tarred with the same brush as firebrand extremists.

To redress the balance, Saj visits local schools to talk about her faith and her culture. She says: “In rural areas, I am sometimes the first brown face the children have ever seen.’’ She introduces adults to her culture by teaching evening cookery classes at Trinity School.
Saj is also turning her HDM Spice Shop into a cultural melting pot; immigrants use it as an advice and information centre.

Native Cumbrians, she says, often pop in simply for an interesting discussion.  Saj has friends from all backgrounds and religions; her best friend is Hindu. Her reaction to racial and religious intolerance is simply bafflement.
She believes passionately in integration rather than the separateness of multiculturalism which is perhaps unsurprising for a 40-year-old woman who arrived in Carlisle at the age of seven as a member of only the second Pakistani family ever to have made their home in the city.

Saj’s father opened a clothing shop in London Road and brought his family to the city from Manchester. Saj remembers her mother’s biggest immediate concern was where to find aubergines in Carlisle circa 1973.
“I remember trailing all over the city and having to act as a translator for my mother. When she eventually found her precious vegetables in a shop in Botchergate, she was ecstatic. For her, it meant that there was life here after all,” says Saj.

She went to Brook Street School, where she also sent her own four children, Nazia, 21, Samina, 16, Rehma, 14 and Humza, 11.  Greystone Junior School was followed by a couple of years at Trinity before her family moved back to Lancashire for a couple of years after being repeatedly targeted by burglars.

Just after their move to Lancashire, Saj’s eldest sister died while she was waiting for a kidney transplant. The family were devastated by the loss and decided to return to Pakistan to live among the healing comfort of close family.

But for Saj, the return to her parents’ country of origin was a deeply unpleasant culture shock. “I was just 13 but I vividly remember the terrible smell of Karachi as I walked from the plane.
“A 24-hour train journey to the Punjab followed. The people and the culture seemed shockingly different. There were buffaloes in the streets and the standards of cleanliness and sanitation were poor.
“Within a short time, I was really ill. My face was swollen and I started having fits. It is a superstitious culture and people kept telling my parents that I was possessed.
“When I returned to England two years later I was immediately diagnosed with epilepsy although I have now been free of treatment for 10 years.”  Saj’s illness was later revealed to be a reaction to both the loss of her sister and the upheaval of adjusting to life in an alien country.

In retrospect, she says her two years in Pakistan taught her about her culture and her religion.
It also resulted in her marriage to Abdul which was arranged by her parents when she was 16. “It didn’t occur to me to object as I had been brought up to accept the idea of an arranged marriage. I knew my parents wanted to do their best for me. The reality is that the system works well – certainly, it has for me.
“My daughters will also have arranged marriages although they will also have careers and a wider choice of partners.
“There is a big difference between arranged marriages and forced marriages.  “Of course, until recently, the British royal family had arranged marriages,” she points out.

When Saj’s health deteriorated further after a bout of malaria, her family decided enough was enough. Saj returned to live in Carlisle with her new husband who set up in business selling tools. Four years on and there were still no more Pakistanis in Carlisle.  Saj settled down to domesticity and raising her children. But her life came to another crossroads in 1998 when Abdul became very ill and required a kidney transplant.  “Abdul’s operation was a tremendous success but I realised that if we had remained in Pakistan, he would have died. It made me think long and hard about what life was all about. I realised that we had to give as well as take.

“When I opened my shop, I decided it had to be about something more than just making money. I wanted it to be a focal point where people could discover our food, culture and religion. “I also wanted to be able to put new immigrants in touch with others from their original countries and to put a smile back on sad faces.”

As a British Pakistani, Saj is a passionate advocate of the need for immigrants to find a balance between embracing western society and maintaining their own identity. She despairs at the bad press Islam has received in recent years and compares the difference between terrorists and ordinary Muslims with the difference between the IRA and Catholics.

But Saj is equally saddened by the current British rush to shed homegrown traditions and Christianity.  In fact, Saj is deeply puzzled by the notion that British Muslims might be offended by the celebration of Christmas.
Her ready smile disappears and her brow knots into a frown. “Of course Christmas is a Christian event. Why on earth should it be regarded as a multi-cultural holiday? Everybody should be confident about who they are. You can only respect other cultures if you respect your own.

“My faith is very important to me and I try to lead my children by example. I want my children to be honest, reliable individuals who add to life in their community. I want them to be proud of themselves and to realise that they can achieve anything they want,” she adds.  Certainly Saj has never felt restricted by the conventions of her religion
In Pakistan, she remembers wearing a burka and feeling “the liberation of being invisible”.

In Carlisle, it would never occur to her to deck her head with more than a simple headscarf; a tradition which saves Muslim women a small fortune on hairdressing, she jokes.

Laughter, Saj has discovered, is the ultimate connection between cultures.

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