George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 18 July 2007
"I Look Foreign"
Alex Horne – 18th July 2007
Because we’ve now got people tracking us down instead of us unearthing them, we sometimes find ourselves in situations when we’re meeting strangers in fairly random London locations having only exchanged an email or two. What this means practically – and what we seem to only realise when it’s too late – is that we often don’t know what the person we’re going to meet is going to look like. Or, even more crucially, whether they’re going to be male or female.
On this occasion, waiting to meet someone called Jeyhun from Azerbaijan outside Shepherds Bush tube station, I had a hunch I was going to be meeting a girl. It just looked like a girl’s name to me.
I sent a text to say I’d be wearing yellow shoes.
I received one back which read ‘I’ve got a green t shirt on and I look foreign!’ I found this quite funny. Not all that helpful, but quite amusing. Until I started looking round for a green-shirted foreigner and realised, not for the first time, that pretty much everyone in London ‘looks foreign’. Everyone looks different. And that’s kind of the point of the project.
When Jeyhun eventually found me (very few people have yellow shoes) he wasn’t a girl. And, of course, he looked no more foreign than anyone else. We found the nearest Starbucks, I bought him a coffee and we started to chat.
Never having met someone from Azerbaijan before but having eaten my first Armenian meal just weeks before and knowing that the two countries are neighbours I chose to open the conversation with a description of the restaurant. ‘Oh yeah’, said Jeyhun after I’d been going for a couple of minutes, ‘you know we’re fighting them’. ‘Oh no’, I said, ‘I didn’t know that’. But I wasn’t surprised. I’ve learnt pretty quickly that there are an awful lot of wars going on in the world that I don’t know about.
‘Actually it’s pretty much stopped now’, Jeyhun continued. ‘They’ve taken what they wanted’.
Jeyhun is 27 years old. He arrived here three years ago and has since married and divorced an English girl. He told me he likes the UK, ‘not because I can earn money, but because it’s democratic. If you’re talented you’ll do fine. If you work hard you can do it. I think that’s great’.
Jeyhun works hard in a gym round the corner from the café in White City. But things aren’t completely rosy in his particular view of cosmopolitan London. ‘There are too many Poles here now’, he said. ‘They are spoiling the name of foreigners. The local people have started complaining and they look at me and think I’m Polish. It wasn’t like this before but now we’re all lumped together’.
There has been a lot of varied reaction to the undeniably large number of Polish immigrants recently and it was interesting to hear the opinions of a fellow Eastern European immigrant on the subject. He was keen to point out he has nothing against Polish people per se, it’s just the high concentration of them that makes people uneasy and therefore has an effect on his life.
‘I work with lots of Polish people in the gym’, he told me, ‘and they’re lovely. But even they say the situation is not right. One of them has a brother who runs a business back in Warsaw but he can’t recruit people any more because they’re all over here. He says the only people left are over fifty years old.’
We returned to the subject of Armenia and, in particular, Edward, the Armenian guy I'd interviewed; ‘Did he have a big nose?’ asked Jeyhun with a broad smile. ‘And your person from Georgia, were they very stern?’ I told him I wasn’t not too sure on either count and evidently looked quite concerned about his line of questioning. ‘Oh no’, he reassured me, ‘we’re all the same – Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani – we really are all the same. We group ourselves together. We’re all Caucasians’ (referring to the Caucasus mountains that separate Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from Russia and which Berdia, our Georgian, had also been keen to praise).
Jeyhun left the region for good when he was twenty three but he’d already visited Britain nine years before that. ‘In 1995 I came here for a swimming competition’, he explained. ‘That’s how I fell in love with England and the English language. I’m self-taught in English now. The competition was in Bath’ – we both, inevitably, chuckled about particular linguistic gem – ‘I know’, he acknowledged, ‘but it’s a beautiful place’.
After leaving school back home, Jeyhun worked in Azerbaijan's capital as a swimming teacher and fitness instructor then moved over to the UK as soon as he was able. ‘I used to miss Baku for the first year’, he told me, ‘and I still miss my family and friends but I’m used to the lifestyle and being independent. It’s different. When I go home I miss London so much – I miss meeting so many people, I miss the big flow of people. In Baku even the town centre is quiet.’
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In a couple of weeks he’s taking a British friend of his back to see his homeland and it’s clear he’s looking forward to the trip with some pride; ‘I did some research on the internet and found out that out of the eleven main climates in the world, nine of them can be found in Azerbaijan. It’s a little country but there’s an amazing climate. You can grow cotton, grapes, walnuts, apples, bananas, kiwis, everything’.
I asked him why it’s not more prosperous. ‘It is. Or at least it was, but then there was so much corruption. The government is clamping down now but all the wealth went to just a few people’. To demonstrate he showed me a picture he’d taken on his phone the week before of two expensive looking cars with the number plates B8AKU and B7AKU. ‘I found these outside some massive house’, he told me. ‘Some people became rich after communism. There were a few billionaires. But there were a lot of poor people’.
‘Have you found many people from Azerbaijan in London?’ I asked him. ‘You’ll like this’, he said with a smile. ‘When I came over I know there was one person from my old school here already. Then one day I was walking around Wimbledon and just bumped into this guy waiting to do a driving lesson. Neither of us could believe it. We just stood there gobsmacked. It’s such a huge place but we’d found each other. I hadn’t seen him in ten years and I didn’t know which language to speak in!’
I did like it.
It started to rain outside (no need for ‘outside’, I guess, but there it is). ‘Ah, I love the rain’, sighed Jeyhun. ‘Baku is by the Caspian Sea and it’s always windy. I hate that’.
He did, however, seem happy, for the most part, in London. In fact, he seemed like a typical Londoner – if that’s not an oxymoron considering the third paragraph of this entry.
I guess he seemed happily grumpy. ‘For me it’s difficult to stay here’, he muttered before we said goodbye, ‘but for the Polish it’s easy’. It’s a favourite topic of conversation amongst Londoners and Jeyhun has his unique own angle: ‘It costs £30 to get to Poland but £366 to get to Azerbaijan. Is that fair?’ I didn’t answer. His self-taught English was pretty much perfect and I thought it was probably meant as a rhetorical question. Either way, I really don’t know the answer. It’s quite complex this immigration issue.