Thursday 29 January 2009

Don't Talk About Politics Or Religion

I left work early today.  I had to be in Chester that afternoon, so I left work to catch the 13:20 shuttle from Crewe.  I was there hopelessly early as usual, so I simply buried myself in a book (Winkler, by Giles Coren, since you didn't ask).

I was aware that someone was stood beside me, using that peripheral don't-invade-my-personal-space-detector we all have, so I glanced to my right, and there was a skinny Asian man stood a couple of feet away.  Blue puffa jacket, jeans, mid-20s; nothing special.  He didn't even register as anything more than someone else waiting for the train.

Then my peripheral vision kicked off again, so I looked to the right.  My fellow passenger was on his knees, his shoes off his feet and placed neatly behind him, and he was praying.  He was staring at a metal column, and praying.

My immediate reaction was to smile.  It seemed charming somehow.  I'm a complete atheist, but I understand how religion plays a part in a lot of people's life, and I sort of admire it when people carry on worshipping without embarrassment or shame (this may be part of my whole religious fascination which reaches its apotheosis in my nun obsession).  So long as it keeps you happy, and you don't start condemning me or my friends or even people I don't know just because you don't like them, then I'm happy for you to carry on.  There's a definite pleasure in observing the rituals of the faithful.

So, the Muslim gentleman - having seen his prayer style, even I, with my little theological knowledge, could recognise him as a Muslim - was kneeling and praying as the train came in.

And this is where my second, shameful, horrible thought entered my head, one which I am embarrassed and horrified by, and yet one which I am for some reason sharing with the interweb.  I thought, is that a backpack?

Indeed, it was; a very small, blue backpack, which matched his coat.  And my third thought, as shameful as the second because it linked the two was, that's a bit worrying.

My liberal professions lay destroyed before me.  My whole idea of myself as a well rounded, Guardian reading, lefty-lefty loony friend to the diaspora lay in tatters.  I'd linked a devout Muslim man, a backpack, and public transport, and somehow I'd managed to contrive a horrific scenario out of it.  Because that's what my brain was doing.  

A load of other thoughts came rushing in afterwards - You dirty racist!  then Who would want to blow up this train anyway?  Hardly anyone even wants to ride it then  If I am maimed in a terrible explosion, will I be able to reschedule my appointment, do you think?

I boarded the train anyway, blushing furiously, hoping that my thoughts hadn't somehow been transmitted outside.  That wasn't who I wanted to be.  That's not who I am.  I am not the kind of person who normally leaps to those conclusions.  For some reason, this afternoon, I did.  Perhaps I can take comfort from the fact that I boarded the train anyway?  Probably not.  I can only cling pathetically to the words of Daniel Boys in Avenue Q: Everyone's a little bit racist sometimes/Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes.  

The story has a final twist.  I was still reading my book, when I became aware that we weren't moving.  Still.  The train was late, and with each ticking moment I became more and more anxious, because I had to be in Chester by two fifteen.  There weren't any announcements or apologies for the delay.  

Finally I put down Winkler and looked around me.  Including out of the window, behind.

Which is where I saw two policemen carefully taking every item out of the Asian man's backpack, and laying it on the platform.  Around them, a man in a suit was jabbering into a mobile phone, circling the three of them, while the hapless passenger had his hands folded in front of him, a politely resigned expression on his face.

I felt even more ashamed and embarrassed then.  The train took off, leaving the man and the police still picking through his bag, and I felt embarrassed for the man and his humiliation, embarrassed for the state we have somehow whipped ourselves up into, embarrassed that I - even momentarily - gave into the same paranoia and insanity.  I also felt ashamed that this probably wasn't the first time this had happened to him, ashamed for myself as a part of a society that seemed to think this sort of thing was ok.  

I wish I could put across my confused, outraged, deflated state at that point in a more articulate way.  I'm pretty annoyed by it, even now, eight hours later - both my pandering to that paranoia and that the police somehow became involved in it all.  I wish I had a great, soothing, inspiring way to finish this blog post to sum up my confused state, or some kind of theory or solution to the problem of terrorism.  But I don't.  I don't want to be blown up by terrorists, and I don't want men missing their train and being publicly humiliated because of who and when they worship.  I don't know how to reconcile the two.  I think I just wanted to get it out somehow, and perhaps I should leave it as confused as me. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah well. In the unlikely event that having police attention drawn to yourself would make you feel better, try whipping out a camera in the middle of Lime Street Station, the bigger the better.

Fun times...