Captain’s Log 07/12/16 18:38
I’m on my way to visit a mosque for the first time in my life. You might remember Sami in my last post, who asked for a poem about the one across the road from him in Fenham. Well, a few days after this, I rang the poet Wajid Hussain, who put me in touch with the Imam (or spiritual leader) there, Imam Kola. I gave him a ring yesterday and explained what I’ve been up to. He said I could come down and see the prayer tonight at 7:15 and, after that, we could have a chat about whatever I wanted. I haven’t really given it much thought until now, but I’m starting to feel a bit worried about this. What if I make some kind of religious faux pas? Are skinny jeans and Doc Martens really an appropriate look for a mosque? I have absolutely no idea. I check my phone, I realise I’m also running late. I don’t like the thought of showing up halfway through the service of a faith I know nothing about.
I get there just in time. I walk quickly up the ramp outside to a bright green door. It’s open. I step in. There’s a little entrance area with shoes and sandals stacked on shelves. I meet a lad in his mid-twenties called Toheed, who’s dressed all in white. I tell him I’ve got a meeting with Imam Kola.
“Who?” he says.
“Imam Kola.” Toheed looks confused. Oh no, have I somehow come to the wrong mosque? Maybe Wajid put me in touch with a different one? What do I do now!? I decide that, either way, this is where Sami wanted me to go, so I’m still in the right place. Toheed asks me what I’m doing here. I explain that I’m a poet and I don’t really know anything about Islam.
“It’s great to see someone taking the time to find out more,” he says, smiling. “People make a lot of assumptions.” He tells me I can wait inside for whoever it is I’m meeting, but I’ll need to take my boots off first. Note: It turns out the only reason you wouldn’t wear Doc Martens to a mosque is that they take forever to unlace.
Toheed leads me down the hall to the first doorway on the left. It’s incredibly peaceful and quiet in here. There’s 20 or so men sat along red diagonal lines across the floor, all dressed in shalwar kameez or thobes and topis. There’s some red chairs on the far side of the room, with a handful of old men sitting in them. Toheed shows me where I can hang my coat and we sit down in the back corner on the soft white carpet. It’s a fairly empty space with all white walls, I can see shelves with fancy gold embossed books on them. In the far corner (which I assume is facing Mecca) there’s a digital clock with green numbers and, under that one, a silver clock, which is weird because it has 7 faces on it and 7 different times. A few men give me a wave on the way in and a little boy comes up to me and shakes my hand. I feel really welcomed, the atmosphere definitely isn’t as stern as the Roman Catholic churches I was forced to go to as a kid.
The room begins to slowly fill with people until there’s about 100 of us. Some are standing, some are kneeling and they all seem to be doing this at different times. I meet Imam Kola on his way in, who has a long black beard and a fascinating Yorkshire/Geordie/Asian accent. It turns out Toheed only knows him by his first name, Abdullah, hence the confusion. He says a quick hello and shakes my hand, before going over to where the clocks are and starting the prayer. Everyone moves as close to him as they can. The Imam starts singing a section from the Qur’an into a mic. It sounds incredible. All the people fall in rhythm with each other, they kneel, then stand, then kneel again and touch the floor with their foreheads. The room is only about half filled and, because of the way they’re sitting along the lines, it makes a really pleasing geometric shape, like a jug half full of water. Everyone turns their head to the side and I think the prayer is finished.
After this, Imam Kola invites me next door to a little room and we sit down either side of a small wooden table. He seems like a pretty jolly man. I tell him I was struck by how calming the prayer was. In Christianity, the message of the bible is often rammed in your face.
“We believe it’s the word of God, so we always do it this way,” he says, smiling. I ask about the clocks. “The clocks are the different times of day for the prayers,” he explains. “The time changes according to the sun and the moon.” It also turns out that, whatever time you come into the room, you always have to go through the same motions of standing and kneeling, hence all the getting up and down at different times. I noticed there was only men there and I ask if there’s a separate space for women to pray in. Imam Kola tells me they don’t really do that here, “You wouldn’t push women to go to the mosque but, if they do come, you wouldn’t send them away either.”
The conversation turns to the relationship between Islam and Arabic poetry. “Before Islam, the best poetry used to be hung up in the Kaaba,” says Imam Kola. “When the Qur’an was brought there, all the other poets said ‘That is not from a human’ and all the other poems were taken down.” The link between Islam and poetry is really interesting. From what I can gather, poetry has always been incredibly important in the Arab world; I’ve already found out about the huge competitions that used to happen near Mecca before Islam existed, which were basically massive rap battles for all the different tribal poets. It seems the Qur’an really took root in the Middle East because of the popularity of poetry. Essentially, it won the rap battle and, because of this, it’s perhaps the first and largest recorded example of the ‘mic drop’.
Imam Kola takes me upstairs to the big room they use on Fridays. I learn that Fridays are like the Islamic version of the Sunday service. Aside from having light pink carpets and being about double the size, it has exactly the same features as the other room. In the corner, along with all the clocks, there is a big ornate wooden structure with steps on, which the preachers stand on so they can be heard better. Imam Kola explains the rules of the room. “These four walls belong to God,” he says. “Nobody has a right to any space in here, not even a king. There’s certain laws; I could do intercourse with my wife in the room we were just in- that’s not part of the mosque. But not in here.”
“That’s an interesting thought to be confronted with, having just sat in there,” I joke. But Imam Kola doesn’t laugh. I’ve done well not to say something offensive so far, I decide not to dig myself a hole.
Instead, I ask him about what Toheed said to me, does he think people make a lot of assumptions about Islam?
“Everybody listens to the BBC,” he says. “They listen to it once, twice, three times. 100 lies will make a truth. People say ‘They are all like this’, even though they don’t know for themselves. But we try to make sure our actions speak louder than words.” Before I go, he shows me the washroom where the men prepare for prayer. There’s a sign on the wall that reads: ‘Water is a gift from Allah! Use it! Don’t abuse it!’ It’s a simple and positive message and it strikes me that I’d already been thinking about a jug of water before. I’m definitely getting a strong water vibe.
I’ve enjoyed talking to Imam Kola, he’s been really helpful and given up a good hour of his time. As if that wasn’t enough, he offers me a lift home too. He’s got a few errands to run near where I live, so I ride in the car with him to his house to pick up his baby daughter, then to Byker to drop off a letter for a student, before heading over to mine. At one point during the journey, I find a place where our opinions differ. We’re talking about parents splitting up and raising kids afterwards. Imam Kola believes that, if the parents are divorced, it’s best if the children are raised by the mother up to their teens, then by the father after that. “Women are naturally softer,” he says. “They aren’t able to say no to the child as easily.”
It’s a pretty difficult view for me to accept. I was raised by my Mam on her own until I was 4 and, even when my Stepdad moved in, she was always the one in charge of telling me off. The idea that she was too soft, or that she couldn’t do as good of a job as a man, is something I can’t really agree with. But this is the thing about life: You can’t agree with everyone all of the time. It strikes me that, despite the fact we have very different cultural values, Imam Kola has welcomed me into his place of worship, he’s given me a lift home and at no point has he preached at me or tried to make me change the way I’m living. I decide I’m not going to preach at him either. There’s a mutual respect here, which seems much more important than ‘proving’ anyone right or wrong. He pulls up outside my flat in the dark and I thank him as I get out the car.
Captain’s Log 09/12/16 12:08
I find myself outside the mosque again. I’ve decided to come back and watch the Friday prayer. Imam Kola said this was the busiest time of the week and it seemed like a great moment to try and capture in a poem. I text him yesterday and he said I was more than welcome to come, though he might not have time for a chat. I head in, take off my shoes and Imam Kola leads me upstairs.
“How are you?” he says, smiling. “I’d forgotten you were coming.” As I sit down in the back, I start to see why his mind is somewhere else. There’s 40 people here already and the place starts filling up gradually over the next few minutes. Soon, there’s around 400 and the room is absolutely packed from wall-to-wall with men of all ages. 2 dads sit in the back next to me; one has a toddler with him, he’s wearing a Spider-Man hoodie.
The prayer starts. It’s incredible to see this many people standing and kneeling in unison and, unlike last time, I’m now shoulder to shoulder with them. I become very aware of the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing. At first, I decide to stay sitting. But when this many people are doing something together, it feels kind of disrespectful not to give it a go. So I do. It’s a bit like not knowing the rules to musical chairs; one minute I’m the only one in the room standing, the next minute I’m the only one kneeling. It’s so busy on a Friday they have to put on a second prayer because everyone can’t fit in the first one. Some latecomers turn up during the service and stand awkwardly in the doorway, unable to get any further in. I feel a bit guilty. In many ways, I’m just wasting valuable prayer space here. Everyone turns their head to the side and the prayer finishes.
I watch the people slowly file out, some wave and smile at me, many of them stop to ask Imam Kola some advice. A man in his early thirties comes over and sits next to me, he’s wearing a multi-coloured shalwar.
“Are you a student?” he asks, he’s been watching me scribble in my notebook. I tell him I’m writing a poem. He’s studying Abrahamic religions at uni and talks about his interpretation of Islam. He says the word ‘hijab’ actually translates to ‘modesty’ and that the Qur’an calls for men to be modest in dress before it calls on women. “The only thing Allah asks women to do is cover their hair,” he says, which seems to echo Judaism and Christianity too. He tells me he left his home country of Bangladesh because he felt the government were doing terrible things in the name of Islam, that they’d twisted the religion to suit their political goals. Before I get the bus, we walk over to his car and he shows me a picture of his twin sons. They were born yesterday. He gives me a copy of the Qur’an to take home.
Captain’s Log 13/12/16 12:47
I’m taking a picture outside of Sab’s Barbers. It was Corey who asked for a poem about it. Originally, I’d just planned to go down and interview someone about what made it so great. But, after thinking about this, I decided a good barber shouldn’t really be tested on their powers of description. For this reason, it’s highly important that I get my hair cut here too. But I haven’t been to a barbers in a very long time and there’s a lot at stake: I’ve got the face of a 7-year-old and my long hair helps to disguise this. Growing up in Hebburn, my only memories of the barbershop are of me asking for a trim and ending up with a short back and sides every single time. My girlfriend, Rose, also likes my hair how it is. I told her what usually happens when I go to the barbers. She didn’t sound impressed.
Corey named all the people he knew at Sab’s and I’ve got a list of them in my hand. I head in and I meet Nas, who is on the list. He’s got slick black hair and a smart shirt on; I instantly like this man’s style, he has the fashion sense of a Sicilian mobster but without being, y’know… threatening. Unfortunately, he’s got a meeting to go to.
“Come back at 9 in the morning tomorrow,” he says. “We can talk for as long as you like. I’ll make you the best coffee and give you the best haircut in the world.” It’s an offer I can’t refuse.
Captain’s Log 14/12/16 09:02
The shutters are just coming up as I get to Sab’s. Nas isn’t here yet, so I sit on the black leather seats and look around. It’s a narrow shop with shiny black tiles and table tops and neon lights around the mirrors. Beyoncé is coming out the sound system. A man called Rawand makes me a cup of coffee. After a while, Nas comes in. I ask him if I can record our conversation on my phone, to help me remember it. I think part of this is lost in translation.
“Good morning everyone!” Nas announces into the dictaphone. “We’re here getting a top quality haircut from Sab’s Barbershop on Hadrian Road, Fenham.” I sit down in the chair. “What can I do for you?” he asks.
“Just a trim,” I say, gulping. “I thought about getting it all shaved off but my girlfriend would go crazy.”
Nas tells me just how busy the barbers can get.
“At Eid, we start at 9 in the morning and we stay open till midnight,” he says. “There’s queues out the door all night. It’s like our version of Christmas, everyone wants to look nice.” I start to think… The black surfaces, the club music, the fact it’s open till the middle of the night: This place is like some kind of nightclub. I suggest this to Nas and he laughs. He seems to be warming more and more to the idea of me writing a praise of the barbershop. “It’s like a coffee shop/barbers/party,” he says. “People come in and we ask them how their kids are, how the family is. People say, when they come here, they feel like they’re at home.”
“That’s lovely,” I say.
“Write it down,” says Nas, laughing.
He takes away the scissors and asks if I’m happy with the haircut. I realise something quite incredible has happened: For the first time in my life, the barber has done what I’ve asked them to. He’s just trimmed a bit off, tidied it up. It looks good. I ask him how much I owe him and he says it’s on the house. Result.
Captain’s Log 19/12/16 08:54
I’m walking across the street to the mosque. It’s exactly a week since I went to see the Friday prayer. Despite how busy Fridays are, Imam Kola’s said he’ll meet me in the one half hour he has free today, between dropping his kids off at school and starting the first prayer. Sami is coming down as well. I’m also meeting Claire from BBC Radio Newcastle, who’s recording me reading my poem for Radio 4. The idea of recording this so early is nerve-racking , it’s not one of my funny ones. Some people think writing comic poetry is easy. It’s not. But it can be easier to hide behind first thing on a Friday morning. I bump into Claire outside. Just as we’re shaking hands, Imam Kola gets out of his car. He invites us in and, after taking our shoes off, we step into one of the smaller rooms. There’s 3 chairs left out in a circle. It feels weird sitting on chairs in here, I realise every time I’ve been before I’ve sat on the floor. Sami arrives soon after. He goes to get a chair. Now the 4 of us are sat in a circle, like how I picture an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting would look, except I decide it’s not a good idea to say this out loud.
Claire gets me to go back outside and pretend I’m knocking on the mosque while she records it. Imam Kola comes to the door and does a great job of making it seem natural. I’ve always hated doing stuff like this. I’d much prefer to just record the whole thing as it actually happens.
“Can I come in?” I ask, knowing the answer will obviously be yes.
“But I thought you were a door-to-door poet, Rowan!” Imam Kola jokes. We pass back into the room and sit down again. I explain what led me to write the poem: I decided pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be able to tell Sami anything about Islam that he didn’t know already. Instead, the poem explains what it’s like to visit a mosque for the first time in your life. I read it out. Claire only has one mic set up so, once I’m finished, we sit in an awkward silence while she moves over to the Imam and then records his response. “I like the way you’ve talked about water,” he says. “When we met, I explained how important water is.” Claire then moves over to Sami, but he declines to comment.
“He can explain better than me,” he says, looking at the Imam. I’m hoping he’s just feeling a bit shy.
We get ready to leave. As I put my shoes on, me and the Imam start talking about how long it took me to put my Docs on at the door when I first came. (For anyone interested, I’ve worn thin canvas trainers today). It all feels very homely. It’s fair to say coming here for the first time was a bit scary. A mosque can be quite daunting from the outside when you have no idea what happens in there. But the Imam and the other people I’ve met have made me feel really welcome. I’ve learned a lot about Islam too; though there were things that didn’t fit with my beliefs and how I was raised, I think it speaks volumes that no one ever once compared our ways of life or passed any judgment on me whatsoever. I was treated as an equal, and I wonder whether this would have happened if I went to one of the churches of my childhood.
“Hopefully we’ll see you soon,” Imam Kola says. I wave goodbye and thank them both for being involved.
Peaceful as a Glass of Water
in the back corner,
watch the white walls as they fill
to the brim with an ocean of people;
400 slow and calm droplets
from the washroom.
Water is a
sit close together
on diagonal lines along
the pink carpet. A perfect square.
Face Mecca. A clock with seven clocks.
Boys in thobes and parkas; men
in leather jackets and topis;
a toddler wearing
in quarter tones,
standing on the top of an oak
throne, two branches either side of
a crisp and brown Autumn leaf.
The crowd all hum at once
to agree, the breath
of a sleeping
All stand up as one,
bow their heads at the waist,
then rest on knees and touch the floor
with their foreheads: A flat line
across the ocean, still
and peaceful as
a glass of
Me and Claire are outside Sab’s. I’ve said we’ll meet Nas here at about 9.30. We’re early. We go in and I ask for him, but he’s not here yet. We sit down. I’ve tried to get in touch with Corey but couldn’t get through, so I sent him a text to say I’d be reading out his poem here this morning. As me and Claire wait in the seats, I notice a figure in the corner of my eye; someone outside in a multi-coloured hoodie walking past, then back again. It’s Corey! I head out the door.
“I can’t stay,” he says. “My fiancée is waiting for me.”
“Have you got a minute while I read you my poem?” I ask.
“Yeah OK.” I read it to him in the street with Claire recording. Now, I hate to blow my own trumpet here, but he clearly loves it. “I’ve never heard anything like that!” he says, laughing and shaking my hand. “I’ve found some more people who want a poem as well, my Mam and my Sister. My Mam said she didn’t like poetry but I told her to give it a chance cos it’s not what you’d expect.”
Corey tells me Nas came round to his house after I first went to the barbers. He was a bit suspicious about what I was up to. “He says to me ‘Who’s this Rowan?’ I said ‘A poet’. He didn’t understand what a poet was, I had to try and explain. ‘Like Shakespeare,’ I said… He wanted to wax your eyebrows.”
“I did think about getting them threaded,” I say.
“Threaded is fine but don’t ever get them waxed. That’s the most painful thing in the world!” We laugh.
“I’m so pleased I got to read this to you,” I say.
“When you asked me what was important in my life,” he says, “apart from my family, it’s the barbershop. I get my hair cut here for free, I’ve been coming for years. It’s not just a barbershop, it’s somewhere you can come and see your friends.” I see that Nas wasn’t lying when he said people felt at home here, it’s obviously a really important part of the community.
At this point, Nas walks over to us. Despite it being winter, he’s wearing a t-shirt and some blue Hawaiian shorts. Corey tells me he’s got to go, I can see his fiancée waiting down the street for him, looking slightly miffed. “Will you do the missus’ eyebrows tonight?” he asks Nas.
“It’s just that simple!” Corey says to me, smiling, as he waves and walks away. We step back into the barbershop. This time, I read out the poem for Nas. It’s a really strange experience. After every line, he gives a little hint of agreement:
“Yeah that’s right… Yes indeed… Keep it going.” It’s like he’s toasting over the top of my poem. It would be great to have someone there doing this all of the time actually, it makes me feel really ‘urban’. I finish reading and Nas looks very happy.
“You could put that up on the wall,” Claire says to him.
“I didn’t want to say that,” I add, “cos it would sound arrogant… But you could.”
Despite how much fun we’re having, I can tell Nas has stuff to be getting on with. I make my goodbyes.
“Come back any time,” he says. I’m so pleased that him and Corey both enjoyed this. And, on top of that, the whole experience has really changed my opinion of barbershops as well. I’d actually like to come back here… and that’s never happened before.
They’re open in the middle of the night,
Beyoncé pounding out into the street
in rhythm with the bright blue neon lights.
The Party Barbers- it’s the place to be!
No bouncers on the door, no entry fee,
just packed with people having decent crack.
They’ll shave and chop with perfect expertise,
they’ll even give your nasal hair a wax.
Forget about that night out on the lash,
the dancefloor’s sticky like a chewed up toffee.
Go to Sab’s and get yourself a facemask,
replace your Jagerbombs with cups of coffee.
And come the morning, you’ll have no sore head;
your face will just look proper fresh instead.