George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Saturday 15 September 2007
An Englishman, Kyrgyzstani Lady and Turkmenistani Lady Go into a Kebab Shop…
Alex Horne - September 15th 2007
I went to a friend’s belated birthday party in Kensal Green tonight and had a couple of drinks. My wife had generously offered to drive us home and for nearly all the hour-long journey back to Chesham I, apparently, waxed lyrical about this project, saying, at length, how great it was to meet all these people and how honoured, in particular, I was to have become friends with Mariam. I’ll now try to recreate that eulogy, albeit with a touch more coherence, in this entry.
Mariam, from Kyrgyzstan, had got in touch recently to say that after a busy couple of weeks she’d now got time to help us find people from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – not the sort of offer Owen and I were going to refuse in a hurry. So this morning, fairly early for a Saturday, I made my way up to Wood Green, North London, where she was already waiting for me.
And it was great to see her again. As she guided me round her local patch in search of these two tricky former-soviet–stans she told me what she’d been up to since we’d last met at the picnic on Regents Park, how she was finding London life and what she was going to do next. I won’t include the details here – I fear I’ve already shared more than enough of Mariam’s personal life on this blog – but let’s just say that things are basically going pretty well for her right now.
It turned out too that we had a fair amount of time to do our catching up as the places we’d hoped to find our people proved frustratingly unproductive. We were aiming for kebab shops. But we’d met at 10.15am. Neither nationality was due to start their shift until noon. Which was a tiny bit problematic as both Mariam and I had other commitments in the early afternoon. Pragmatically we decided we’d try to meet Turkmenistan now and Uzbekistan later* then, over the course of three scenic bus journeys around her local area, chatted happily away about this, that, and the other – not necessarily in that order.
Why kebab shops? You may well ask. I certainly did. And there a couple of reasons: First, Mariam enjoys exploring London and at the weekends likes to take her kids to different restaurants, which, on occasion, have included Turkish cuisine. Second, people from the Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan/Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan area tend to be able to grasp the Turkish language fairly easily, meaning that if they come to the UK they can often find employment in Turkish restaurants. Third, Mariam is very good at spotting people from those countries and will often strike up conversations and then friendships with them, whilst dining with her family.
And so at a quarter to twelve we arrived back at Wood Green (after a trip to the Rose Restaurant and Barbecue in Crouch End) and sat down to wait for the Turkmenistani employee to start her shift at the Kebab Centre. I had a coke. Mariam didn’t. It’s Ramadan (cf Samia from Yemen). We talked about this. And I’m pretty sure one of my drunken themes on the way back home that night was how glad I was to be able to discuss things like religion with people from all over the world. I’d never really thought about Ramadan before – it didn’t effect me so I didn’t find out about it. Now, thanks to this project I learnt all about how Mariam had to eat her last mouthful at 4.54 this morning and then nothing until 7.22 this evening. Not even a glass of water. I had no idea. And, sitting in the mouth-watering atmosphere of the Kebab Centre I doubted I’d have the will power.
As we were wondering if Ramadan was why the restaurant was so quiet, Mariam finally caught sight of her contact. ‘That’s her’, she whispered then, after some swift negotiations with both the manager and the girl herself, Mariam introduced me to our Turkmenistani.
‘Her name means love’, she said. Muhabbat nodded with a grin. ‘Yes it does’, she confirmed. We were off.
She came to London two years ago from Ashabat, the capital, to learn English. Like so many immigrants here she’s now working flat out every day – either at school or here at the Kebab Centre, in a bid to pay for and make the most of her opportunity. ‘Are you getting much sleep?’ I asked. ‘Not enough’, she said, with a somewhat weary smile. ‘To be honest’, she added, ‘I want to go to Canada’.
‘So what do you like and not like about London?’ asked Mariam, easily wresting the reins of the interview from my hands. ‘Well’, said Muhabbat, ‘I was shocked when I found out so many people don’t speak English. My English was actually better before I came here, while my Turkish has improved! But I like that the government takes care of the people – everyone can get a house on a credit mortgage or live in a council house.' Mariam agrees. ‘We don’t have council flats back home’, they both say before concluding, rather heart-warmingly, that the British welfare system is the best in the world. Muhabbat’s daughter was born in an NHS hospital. She’s now being looked after by Muhabbat’s mother back in Turkmenistan. ‘The doctors were very good’, she told me. ‘I’m happy she was born here.’
Mariam’s heading back to Kyrgyzstan for her niece’s first birthday in a few weeks time. ‘There’s always a big party when they are one year old’, she said, ‘because in the old days babies would rarely survive for a year. Now they do, of course. In fact, under Soviet rule if you had ten kids you’d get a medal and free travel!’ I suppose medals are certainly one thing the welfare system here doesn’t provide.
* An excellent choice in the end as, without my knowledge Owen had actually met someone from Uzbekistan the night before. Well done Owen. So now, we have just one –stan to go – the rather reluctant nation of Tajikistan…