The town that pioneered multiculturalism | Nadifa Mohamed

Nadifa Mohamed
Children in Tiger Bay, 1938. Photograph: Hulton Getty

I have become a stalker of old men. I seek them out in community centres, cafes and mosques, in their cluttered flats and in dark alleys. I don’t want anything nefarious with them, just to capture their memories.

My speciality is old Somali men, especially those in Cardiff. Having grown up in London, where it is anathema to turn up unannounced at a stranger’s door, it is always discombobulating to ring doorbells in Butetown and be met with a smile. This is a district built on the absorption of strangers, particularly sailors from all corners of the globe, and the resulting community is one of the most truly mixed I’ve ever seen. The area gave us Shirley Bassey,, but it also lost a quarter of its men in shipping disasters during the second world war and nurtured “multiculturalism” before the word even existed.

I’m working on a novel set in Butetown (or Tiger Bay, to give it its older name) in the 1950s, when Bute Road had Cypriot barbers, Somali cafes, Jewish pawnbrokers, Sam On Wen’s Chinese restaurant, and street gamblers on the corners.

It was here that Mahmood Mattan, a cocky young stoker from British Somaliland, settled and tried to build a life. From a well-to-do merchant family, he bristled against the limitations that the “colour bar” put on his life, and drifted into petty crime after separating from his Welsh wife, Laura.

One of the old sailors I doorstepped knew Mahmood and remembers him vividly, down to the white flower he wore in his lapel on his wedding day. Mahmood lived for only five years in Cardiff before he was convicted of the murder of a local shopkeeper and executed by the notorious hangman Albert Pierrepoint.

It was not until 1998 that Mahmood’s case was reviewed and his conviction quashed. It is these memories of his white lapel flower, his sharp clothes and even sharper tongue that keep me coming back.

A rare moment in marriage

I found the first episode of Channel 4’s new series, Extremely British Muslims, surprisingly amusing. It followed three British-Pakistanis as they looked for marriage partners. Keeping everything halal, the three relied on parents, the matrimonial service at Birmingham mosque and the cold purgatory of dating “events”. There was a car crash of a date between a civil engineer and a financial manager who rejected the possibility of becoming a “man-dad” – I think he meant house husband – when challenged on his patriarchal ideas.

We moved on to Mizan, a former investment banker who organises speed-dating nights. When asked if British-Muslim women are subjugated, Mizan replied that, on the contrary, the women who attend his dating events are intimidating. “The women have become the men they want to marry: this is the fundamental problem,” he said, with the gravity of a doctor diagnosing a disease.

This comment struck a nerve with me. Although put forward as a negative, there was a real compliment in his words. It is a rare time in history when women of any background can aspire to have the adventures, opportunities and freedoms of the men they wish to marry, and the fact that Muslim women have jumped at this chance is not a shocker; they are some of the most ambitious, engaged and brave people I know.

A blossoming idea

Blossoms are starting to appear on the fruit trees, and I wish we had something approaching Japan’s hanami custom in this country. After surviving yet another damp and dreary winter, we should mark the first signs of spring by gathering under the blooms rather than just trampling over the delicate petals once they’ve fallen to the ground.

This liminal time between the seasons is a little rough on all of us; my joints are creaky, my back hunched and my skin dry, but we have the promise of those long summer days ahead of us. I suggest a “cherry blossom bureau” to map when and where the trees will bloom, large parties in the parks, and maybe a televised message from the plant-whisperer himself, Prince Charles.

Nadifa Mohamed is the author of The Orchard of Lost Souls

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