The Evening Standard (London, England)
Byline: MARK ESPINER
It’s a sweltering 100 degrees. In this heat, it feels like the soles of my sandals are sticking to the molten tarmac. A satellite Turkish TV station is blasting its tinny tones across the cafe and splattering colourful Arabic pop videos on the back wall. The channel flicks over to Al Jazeera, the Arabic TV station that scoops CNN for Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda news stories every time. I order a mint tea because Coke just isn’t quenching my thirst. Maybe Mecca Cola the Arab alternative to the US product would do the trick, but I opt for mint tea instead. A man wearing a keffiyeh – the checked Arab headdress for men – and puffing on a nargileh water pipe looks up. He exhales a thick cloud of smoke. The waiter asks me if I like my falafel. I tell him that it’s a little salty, and he replies that it is an acquired taste. I look at the menu – partly written in Arabic, partly in broken English – and come to the section with the water pipe fruit-flavour tobacco offerings. If it wasn’t for my asthma, I would be tempted by the apple. I note the particularly stark warning against putting any hashish in to the pipe which, if discovered, will bring harsh, though unspecified, recriminations.
I am, of course, on the southern stretch of the Edgware Road, on a particularly hot August day.
Some call this Arab quarter of London ‘Little Lebanon’, and it does have more than a whiff of Beirut about it – lots of traffic, a bit of sleaze and bags of fun.
South Asians have Southall and Brick Lane, the Portuguese have Vauxhall and the Czechs like West Hampstead. But the Arabic and Middle-Eastern community, one of the youngest in London, has the Edgware Road. And, from Ranoush Juice to the famous Green Valley Supermarket (where food writer and chef Claudia Roden shops for Lebanese produce, and where you can buy a cardamom-flavoured coffee to go), to the chintzy shops selling gold-plated everything, this smog-filled street seems an Arabic cultural melting pot. Customers and vendors hail from all corners of the Arab world, including Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Over here, rivalries between different countries are put to one side – they are Arabs, first and foremost. In one supermarket, the Moroccan butcher tells me without any resentment that the owner is Iraqi. He shows off his wonderful kofte kebab skewers – ‘ideal for barbecue’ – and offers me a Saudi date. It’s delicious, but more expensive than the fresherlooking US ones. ‘They are probably from Israel,’ he says, scowling at the perceived political doubletalk of the fruit market. The Saudis, he tells me, are here in force at the moment, holidaying in London to get away from the intense heat of the Gulf. They clearly picked the wrong time.
But Arab influence in the capital is not seasonal. However, it is, in comparison with other ethnic groups, quite recent.
Some arrived in Britain in the late 19th century, when trade with the Ottoman empire was expanding. Yemeni seamen settled in the port towns of Britain, but it was following the establishment of Yemen as a British protectorate in 1905 that links with Britain became more firmly established, and immigration from there continued until the Eighties.
Egyptians arrived in the Fifties for education and work, but it was in the Seventies that the real influx began, largely due to the Gulf oil boom. Oil money brought Gulf Arabs here. Their arrival coincided with the Lebanese civil war. Beirut was at that time the centre of the Arab newspaper business and as the war tore the city apart, the industry relocated to London and has thrived here ever since. The overthrow of the Shah in Iran and civil unrest in Algeria have also caused Middle Eastern and Arabic culture to take further root in the capital.
For Algerian rai singer Abdelkader Saadoun, who came here 15 years ago, the more recent Arabic influence has been phenomenal. ‘Compared to the first time I came to the capital, Arab influence is huge,’ he says. Now his rai band – music which he calls ‘Arabic rock’n’roll’ – plays in chic bars in Soho as well as at Algerian weddings. He talks enthusiastically about how the music is being played by DJs at many clubs too. Currently working on his new album, Freedom, Saadoun says that playing his oud (an Arabic guitar-like instrument) and leading his band into the Arabic fusion of funk, jazz and pop that is rai has never been in such demand. His audiences are as mixed as the sound.
For fellow Algerian, Mourad Mazouz, the man who started up the super-stylish restaurant Momo and the wonderfully intimate Kemia bar downstairs, the story is the same. ‘No one was doing Moroccan food here eight years ago, and now it is all over London,’ he beams. His enthusiasm for Arabic music is equally infectious, and his eclectic and addictive compilation CDs feature rai among many other styles of music. And his live music programme in the Kemia bar downstairs at Momo (which has also featured Rachid Taha, who specialises in Arabic-influenced music that has all the edge and energy of the Clash) certainly rocks the Kasbah. ‘In France,’ he says, ‘being Arab is like being West Indian in London, but here the community is quite small. I adore the Golborne Road, not just because of its North African slant but also because of its mix. And I love to go to the Edgware Road. I love the atmosphere there, and I have to say I find it the safest street in London.’ So if you decide to take a stroll through Little Lebanon for a bite to eat, or sample Algerian cafe culture on the Golborne Road, you will soon find that you can take a cultural trip from Morocco to Iraq – without even having to leave the city.