"One woman's journey to the home of the 7/7 bombers"
Next month is the anniversary of the attacks on London. Three of the terrorists came from Leeds, two from the suburb of Beeston. Here, writer Urmee Khan reveals her remarkable experience living with the community which was home to the men who killed in the name of religion.
Sunday June 18, 2006 Observer
'I would rather die than support Leeds United. I would never support Leeds; they're a bunch of racist scumbags. Did you hear the rumours at the end of last season when Leeds played Cardiff at Elland Road? There's was stuff on Leeds fan sites about teaming up with the Cardiff fans to come here to Beeston and beat the shit out of Paki terrorists. They are racist fuckers.'
Meet Imran, 28, a Beeston boy, who would later boast of his friendship with one of the London bombers and his love of fish suppers. His paranoia about living in Beeston is not unique or surprising.
To get under the skin of a community is hard. When it is scarred as badly as Beeston - home to two of the 7 July terrorists, with a third from nearby - it becomes almost impossible. This area of Leeds, in the LS11 postcode with about 5,000 people, has had the world's press gawp and shudder at the place which 'produced the monsters' that killed 52 people and injured hundreds more.
For months afterwards, TV cameras zoomed in on the terrace houses as correspondents announced: 'I'm standing in front of where the youngest suicide bomber lived. As you can see this is an area of deprivation and...' Their grave tones cemented an image of an area full of angry people, people who would give succour to terrorists. Despite such intensive exposure there has never been a real insight into a place often accused of being 'closed'. We have never heard the voices and aspirations of people such as Imran.
The 7 July attacks provoked a collective trauma that affected all of us individually, and I'm no exception. I'm from Reigate in Surrey, in London's commuter belt. I am also a Muslim. Not a very public one, in that I don't wear the hijab or go to the mosque every day. But my parents, who came to England from Bangladesh 30 years ago, have a faith which I think is important. It is my faith.
One year after the bombings I wanted to test what it is like to be a Muslim in Britain. I didn't say I was a journalist, but that I was undertaking research into the issue. Say you're a journalist and people freeze, or show off, or refuse to speak - particularly if they are women.
I wanted to get to the truth so I moved to Leeds and lived there for a month. I recorded the experiences and testimonies of wives, mothers, boy racers, youths, shopkeepers, ex-heroin addicts, religious leaders and everyone else I could find to speak to. These are the stories of Beeston and of Muslim Britain.
Beeston Hill has a parade of shops including one that sells everything at a pound, several Islamic butchers, a post office, a Chinese restaurant called Chop Suey, with halal meat dishes, and a pharmacy with a needle exchange for addicts. Nearby is a park where Shehzad Tanweer, the bomber who blew up himself and eight innocent people at Aldgate, played cricket the day before the attacks.
My first impressions of Beeston are of surprise. First, I can't believe how close together it all is - Tempest Road, Lodge Lane, Stratford Street, the primary school where another bomber, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was a teaching assistant - all immortalised in the press. Khan, 30, and Tanweer, 22, lived and worshipped in Beeston. Hasib Mir Hussain, 18, lived in the adjoining Holbeck area.
The housing was grim looking but far more normal than the menacing streets I expected. Maybe I had envisaged eerie gothic pathways with shuffling clerics spreading words of hate. No, it was all drab but very normal.
The area is deprived: 47 per cent of households have people on some form of state benefit, more than double the average for Leeds as a whole. Ninety-three per cent of the homes are in the poorest council tax band.
Premises that used to house the area's only dedicated youth club were boarded up after it was reported that the bombers used to hang out there. Now the only place which seems to be any sort of youth club is the Hamara Centre (raided by the police after 7 July), a cheerful set of community offices. One local resident said of the people involved: 'There's more than a whiff of do-gooder about them.'
Wearing a headscarf was daunting at first. The last time I had covered myself was more than 10 years ago. However, in Leeds city centre you realise that shop assistants look at you acceptingly if your head is covered. But after the first week, I was at ease with the whole female modesty thing. And it certainly got me respect from the boy racers in Beeston.
I made my way to the centre expecting it to be run-down and shabby. Instead I found a vibrant and colourful building in what used to be a church. Notice boards advertise Pilates classes, Muslim women-only gym work-outs, police drop-in sessions and a sign advertising cut-price car window tinting. It was slightly surreal - this could have been any community centre in Britain, yet this was Beeston.
I smell cooking and see plates of chicken curry and dal for £2, dished out by two women. I chat with one of them in Bengali: 'I have a daughter at university. Why don't you move into our house? Your mother will be worried that you are not eating enough,' she says. I was sent away with a container of second helpings.
Next day I go back for more. I am approached by a young headscarfed woman with betel nut-stained teeth. She asks if I'm from Bangladesh. There are two types of people who ask me 'where I'm from' - people from the Home Counties and in Beeston. Once we establish that my family's from Bangladesh, she tells me her name is Amina, she's 25, and she's late for her 1pm sewing class.
Amina's home is a terrace house with a green door. We step into her kitchen. There are a couple of chairs up against a wall with peeling wallpaper and a table with saucepans. It is a very basic, slightly ramshackle and poor household. Amina's elderly mother sits on a stool with a frown, chewing nuts with ferocity. She doesn't say anything apart from offering me tea. Amina's elderly father, wearing little glasses and with a white beard, comes in carrying a metal pipe - the boiler in the bathroom is broken.
'I've lived in Beeston for about 20 years and I have four brothers and four sisters,' Amina says. She is unemployed and gets her classes at the centre for free but she's looking for a job. 'I've applied to Morrisons and McDonald's, but they didn't reply. Maybe they want more people with job experience and I haven't got that.'
As I leave in the early evening, a group of Asian lads are hanging around outside the chip shop on Tempest Road by the shops. They must be between 15 and 17. They wear a standard outfit in different colours: tracksuit, Nike cap, Reebok trainers. They are laughing and hitting each other around the head. A friend cycles up. They chat. I overhear the words 'match', 'prick' and 'chips'.
Next morning I buy chocolate in a grocery shop and am served by Imran. He asks if I'm a social worker. I say no, a student. Above the counter are St George's flags on sale at £2. Imran is friendly. I go back later to buy a drink and ask if he has 10 minutes to talk about urban regeneration for my research.
I meet him after work and we chat in his BMW. Imran asks: 'Have you always worn that headscarf?' 'Yes,' I lie. 'Smoke?' I shake my head 'You're a good Muslim Bengali girl, not like apna [our Pakistani] girls. They're no good - the slags.'
For someone like Imran the bombers were more than neighbours - they were his mates. As we drive around, he lowers his voice and says: 'Don't look back now, but that lad carrying the blue carrier bag was taken to Paddington Green [police station in London] because they thought he had something to do with the bombings.' As I turn around I see a youth wearing a cap disappear into a house.
Imran is about 6ft and quite heavy-looking. He is unshaven and has a big square diamond stud in his ear. He looks much older than his 28 years. 'I was on heroin and I used to deal but I've been clean for the past five years,' he says. 'My mates helped me. I was taken to another mosque, and while the others prayed my teeth were clattering as I went cold [turkey].'
The boys who helped him get off the drug included 'Kaka [baby] Shehzad Tanweer. The Aldgate bomber was a good friend of mine,' Imran says.
He goes a bit quiet and says: 'Kasme [promise] you're not secret service?' I promise and he continues: 'He wasn't a bad lad, you know.' Both Tanweer and Khan were part of the 'Mullah Crew' who helped local boys to get off drugs and embrace Islam again.
Imran looks in his rear-view mirror. 'These gora [white people] exaggerate stuff and we're all suddenly baddies.' It's been especially bad for his mother. He looks sad. 'She's frazzled. She just can't believe it. Those fucking journalists have made it hard to live around here.'
Anti-media feeling runs quite deep in this part of LS11, and I grow used to hearing about the intrusion. It is mostly hate, but a small part is incredulity. 'It's like flipping celebrities everywhere - we had Trevor MacDonald with security guards! That bloke from Iraq, what's his name... John Simpson, and even Jon Snowdon [sic] came!' Imran said. 'People here couldn't believe people like that wanted to come to shitty Beeston.'
There were cases of revenge, however. Local boys made one Jewish journalist from Dallas cry by telling her the bombings were Israel's fault. 'I felt sorry for her. Those lads had a field day.' Other youths sold made-up stories to journalists.
Imran's chat seems honest. 'Boys here get married to keep their mums happy. Most of them tell their blonde girlfriends, "It's all right, I don't really love her. It's to keep my ma off my back. These mangees ["imported" partners from South Asia] are a nightmare, you know.'
I realise that many of the young men here are no more religiously observant than an equivalent group of white men. For example, attendance at a nearby massage parlour is apparently widespread. 'The lads all use it. It's full of prostitutes from all over the world. It's been raided so many times I can't believe it's still going. Most of the girls are trafficked. That's why the Old Bill hangs around.'
He turns to me: 'Can you cook fish? My family have another grocery shop where they sell fish and vegetables to the Bengalis. If I bring you a fish and some coriander, you can cook for me,' he roars with laughter.
I came here expecting lots of angry young men. When the press came here last July, we were all told about 'disillusioned, young thugs'. And to a certain extent, there were lads milling about looking, well, pretty disillusioned. A large number get sucked into the boy racer scene, or use hard drugs. But anger was not something I experienced: there was not one Free Palestine flag in sight.
Real life is far more neutral. One lad told me teenage boys often get drunk on vodka in the park. But their talk tends to be about girls and football, not international jihad. Like Imran, they are pacified by the mundanities of day-to-day living. Angry marches in central London don't speak for them.
I used to be a student in Leeds and at the end of the second week I go out with some old university friends in Headingley, the student area. The lifestyle is alcohol-fuelled decadence, and I realise that my time in Beeston is affecting me more than I'd anticipated; it's as if my Muslim identity is reacting with the people I meet in Beeston so I look at white student life through slightly different eyes.
I see students on the Otley run, a pub crawl from the top of Leeds right down to the bottom of the city, at least 20 pubs long. There are people dressed as the 118 118 runners in the TV adverts, as bumblebees and in army uniforms.
I leave shortly after seeing a blonde woman eating a chilli burger, a red kidney bean sliding down her cleavage. I wonder if the students would be shocked to know that many of the cabbies here live in Beeston and are Muslims. I see two communities separated by a few miles and a whole mindset.
The Asha Centre sits on Stratford Street, about three doors from the vaguely marked Stratford Street mosque. The only thing distinguishing it from a similar terrace house nearby is a bright yellow bit of canvas pinned above the door which says: 'Asha Centre 20 Years'.
This street was a particular focus of newspaper attention following 7/7. The mosque was reported to be radical . But both the Stratford Street and Hardy Street mosques had banned the bombers from worshipping, and worked closely with the police.
The centre is managed by a woman called Niznin. 'I've been here since 1986, I'm second generation,' she says. 'I'm lucky my father really wanted us to be educated. And I went to university. We have to encourage education, to get to college and get degrees. As for going back to Bangladesh, I'm not going back.'
Niznin is exposed to the problems of local first- and second-generation Asians and, more specifically, Muslims. She tells me about a girl of 16 who has run away with a married man. 'It is very sad because the girl is now pregnant, and her mother is so upset and wants to know why her daughter didn't even ask her [about the problem]. If my daughter wanted to run away I would say, tell me, and you're welcome to go.'
Asked about the poverty of the area she says: 'These houses have been here 100 blooming years and are falling down and schools are closing.'
The centre provides classes and projects for women. With only 25 per cent of people in the area achieving grades A-C at GCSE (compared with 44 per cent in Leeds as a whole), these are invaluable.
Niznin explains the compromises that have to be negotiated by some of them. 'If it's an English class the family starts to get a bit worried they will get too much freedom. But if they say it's for clothing technology the families encourage it.' She invites me to be an interpreter for a class the next week. I say I will.
Dawn stands out among the 10 headscarfed women in the sewing room. She is exasperated. 'How many times have I said you should put the plastic wallets the right way in the folders otherwise your work will fall out.' She holds up the ringbinder, and the women look sheepish.
At 9.30am the chat is focused on French hems, seams, folds, and buttonholes. Out of my depth, I listen to the group of 12 women, half Bangladeshi and half Pakistani. Some are new brides and all are aged between 20 and 30. Sofia whips out her mobile phone and shows me a picture of her husband. 'He works in a bank, we've been married for a year - he's young and attractive, isn't he?'
At lunchtime the women pick up their children at the centre's creche and I sit in the staff room. It's the normality which is striking. Topics of discussion include Big Brother - 'Ooh, Sezer is fit,' pipes up one of the white women workers. Copies of Heat magazine are strewn over the table. We pore over it and laugh and point at who's too skinny, or too fat. All the women, including those wearing headscarves and saris, are reading celebrity gossip enthusiastically. Niznin wants to know if I'm married, and asks if I'm interested in marrying her son. I know she's deadly serious when she asks: 'Where do your parents live in Bangladesh? You know, it's very hard to find educated girls from Sylhet [province] these days.'
I make friends in the class, including a girl called Maryam. She tells me she had to cook prawn curry and samosas and clean the entire house before she was able to leave. She is in her early 20s and came to Britain from Pakistan after marrying a local man. Later she invites me to her mother-in-law's house for dinner, but I have to pretend to be a distant relative back home from Bangladesh, such is her unwillingness to reveal she'd been making friends independently.
The women in Beeston seem to be divided into two types. There are those like Farida who wants to be hairdressers, and are dressed straight out of Bollywood, with dyed hair and tight-fitting Asian clothing. The others are like the women I work with at the centre who have recently arrived from Bangladesh or Pakistan and are much shyer. I suppose these families hope they will achieve a balanced lifestyle, with their kids having a bit of both Western culture and a sense of identity from their homeland. Maybe, however, it just leads to confusion.
This is something I relate to. Both my parents came to this country in the Seventies and I was born here, feeling pulled in both directions. As children, we never spoke to my parents in English, and I was put in remedial classes on the premise that I was 'foreign'. My siblings and I only ever spoke in English together, which riled my parents. Yes, we were confused, and I am not surprised at all that the kids of Beeston feel the same.
It is the week of the Forest Gate raid, where two Muslim men are detained as police storm a house in east London. There are lurid tales in the papers that a chemical attack has been foiled. One of the brothers is shot in the shoulder.
I ask people in Beeston what they think as the headlines again use imagery of Muslim people as an enemy within, terrorists. 'Oh the stuff going on in east London, it's happening again,' one woman says. 'Obviously they got it wrong, like they got it wrong in Iraq, like they killed that boy in London, I don't trust these people - MFI, FBI, IE, EF whatever their funny organisations are. They need to work to reassure the Muslim communities they are not unfairly under fire.'
Another woman says: 'They have so much dodgy information, but they have to act on it to protect us. Maybe it's the price we have to pay for living in these times.' The first woman looked unconvinced, bit into her sandwich and said: 'We'll see'. These debates are happening in kitchens all over the country, including here. The men were later released without charge. There was no chemical plot.
On Friday evening I stand and watch as the men leave the mosque. They are all dressed in traditional salwar kameez and the obligatory religious hat. Across town, students are putting on hired Burton tuxedos for the Leeds University summer ball.
The contrast of prayer to God versus the homage to hedonism by thousands of students gyrating to Rachel Stevens in a field drinking chardonnay is stark. It is one all young Muslims in Britain face, including those in Beeston.
On Saturday, England play Jamaica in a friendly ahead of the World Cup finals. In Beeston, England flags flutter sporadically on the streets. The TVs in most houses are tuned into the match. There's suddenly a round of cheers. England have scored again and a young Asian man shouts out of the window to a young woman in a sari. 'Meena, you've got to come and see this, Crouchie's stupid dance - a right goal fest!'
I am invited to a public meeting at the Al Hikmah Centre in Batley, about seven miles away. Organised by the Crown Prosecution Service, this 'listening, reassurance and information seminar' is called Engaging the Muslim Community. It is an opportunity for Muslims from all over Yorkshire to listen to CPS officials including its head of counter-terrorism.
There are about 70 people there, mostly elderly religious men. Some of the talk on race hate legislation and confidence in the criminal justice system feels like a law lecture. But interesting questions arise afterward such as: 'Why does Abu Hamza get put away when Nick Griffin [of the BNP] is not prosecuted?' The older men make long speeches about civil liberties, Iraq and Ireland.
'I remember when all that [the suspicion of Catholics in Britain during the Seventies] was going on. I know what it feels like for minority communities to be persecuted - and we are being persecuted,' says one elderly man.
'Muslims around the world are discriminated against,' says another man. 'It is just like in Iraq and Afghanistan - how can you say that foreign policy doesn't affect boys here?' A third Muslim man says of the new 'watered down' Religious Hatred Bill: 'Sikhs and Jews are protected by legislation. Why is it so hard to protect the Muslims in Britain?'
For the Reverend Bob Shaw, of the Holy Spirit Church in Beeston, the changing face of the area is an advantage as well as part of its problem. 'There are a fair number of refugees and asylum seekers from all over. I don't have a big congregation, but in it I have people from Cameroon, Lebanon, south India, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, South Africa and Malawi, and we're just a small congregation.
'The people here have really pulled together. That's what this community is all about. It is the most important thing, and it has saved us.'
Last Saturday was Beeston Mela, an Asian fair in Cross Flatts Park. It is an important day. The organising committee worked until about 11pm the night before to mark out the stands. It's the first mela since the bombings. It's also the day of England's first World Cup game.
I have been asked to help on the Asha stall, giving out leaflets and doing henna painting for 50p a go. I look around and see people of what seems like every race and nationality - black, Asian, white, Indonesian, you name it. Many are wearing England shirts. There was an Asian dad telling off his three boys. All four of them have on identical football outfits.
I admit I was surprised to see little Muslim girls running around with their faces sporting a red and white St George's flag, as they eat pakoras [an Indian dish] and bright blue ice lollies. It was everything a fair should be.
During the afternoon, the boys disappear to watch the football, and I remember the pride with which a friend of Imran's had told me: 'We've bought air horns for the England games!'
The field is taken over by swarms of young mothers in their best clothes with their dolled-up young kids. Niznin, who is here, knows most of them. 'You see Sultana - she was with us in the creche as toddler. Oh and hello, Nasreen.' She waves. 'When she first came to us she was too shy to come through the front door and would always come through the back. Now she speaks English fluently and she even drives!'
A group of boys skulk up to the stall in black hoodies and nod with respect as Niznin passes. She laughs as the boys run away, and says that 'shatan' and 'shatan's bai' - trouble and trouble's brother - are part of the Asha school link which supports underachieving Asian boys.
At the end of my month in Beeston, I come to some conclusions about being a Muslim in a place that entered the public consciousness for all the wrong reasons, like Dunblane or Lockerbie. Famous because it had some link to tragic events.
This impoverished community has warmth, hospitality and a decency that is never reported. I went to Beeston looking for signs of trauma. They are there, of course - but I came to see it as a neighbourhood, not as the vehicle for events that happened 200 miles to the south.
As I painted henna tattoos at the mela - including such names as Courtney and Connor - I had to remind myself that this park was the place where Tanweer had played cricket, a place that had sent a shudder through me on my first visit. Beeston is in fact much bigger than those four individuals, and so is Islam.
This journey has been hard for a British Muslim from the edge of London. The events of 7 July left me sick in the stomach, shocked and angry at the ideological rubbish which had allowed four so-called Muslim men to unleash carnage in the name of religion. Our religion.
In Beeston I found kind, decent people: young mums, bored kids, community cohesion, an interfaith set-up which was the pride of northern England. I came looking for mullahs bent on destruction. All I found was mothers. I came looking for answers to explain 7/7 and ended up realising that, just as in every community, there are complexities here that cannot be explained simply. Yes, some people are angry. But most are just trying to get on with their lives.
The first anniversary of the July bombings falls in just over a fortnight's time, and hard, blank faces will greet the inevitable new media intrusions. We'll get yet more descriptions of a 'closed community', full of danger and an 'it could happen again' mentality. Such descriptions, however, would be wrong.
· Some names have been changed