Monday, August 27, 2007

Edgware Road nights...

One of the must see destinations for any Arab visiting London and probably the strangest, is Edgware Road, accessible by three tube stations, one of which is Marble Arch. By day, it is a harmless assortment of Arabic shops and restaurants. Smack bang in the middle of the road is one of the biggest casinos in London along with the swanky Hilton which dominates one end of it and marks the traditional boundary of the road. Recently the influx of Iraqi's has stretched to the previously neglected side, meaning more Iraqi style restaurants, gadget shops and internet cafes. However, like most places in London, it is the people which make this place interesting, and the night with it's glitzy displays, neon lights and blaring music.

When I first came to London, one of the places I used to go to whenever I missed home was Edgware Road. This was a mistake. Later I was to find that, rather than a home away from home, Edgware Road was a distorted and weird kaleidoscope of the various Arab communities in London. It was a Wonderland, a Wild West of the Arab community in the city where the lowliest of the low would mingle freely, conning and being conned. In the summer droves of wealthy Gulf tourists would flock in with their families or on their own, often bringing in expensive sports cars all the way over which would constantly circle round, blaring loud music and honking at any passing pretty girls. The fast food restaurants are dominated by the over rated (and priced) Fattoush, Maroush and Ranoush shawarma chains, owned by a certain Lebanese business man. The best shawarma place on the road was and always will be Cafe Helen. Closed during the day, this venue is a small shop which only opens from 10 o'clock onwards and my friends and I have concluded many a drunken and wild night in the town munching on those divine wraps (extra garlic and chilli of course) at around 4 in the morning.

Sex is a slow burning tension on the road, with the seedy underbelly of London just about visible under the veneer of respectability the surrounding buildings cloak themselves within. Wealthy Gulf and Arab visitors attract a myriad of brothels which cater to every 'whim', advertising on the seedy call girl cards posted throughout the famous London phone booths on the street. Alongside these, you find the stalls of traditionally dressed conservative Muslim 'brothers' preaching the Quran, Islam and selling a variety of books, happy to debate with anybody wishing it and with the evangelical Christian Arabs handing out free Bibles near Marble Arch (the boisterous and vibrant Speakers corner is only across the road in Hyde Park). It is a road for Saints and Sinners and anyone who falls in between, or beyond, these categories. It is also the home of some of the busiest (until recently) Shisha shops where people pay over the top prices to smoke and socialise over tea and coffee and watch tacky Arab pop video clips or football matches. The preachers, whores and gamblers mix at ease with the Sheesha and Shawarma connoisseurs, the women covered in Hejabs (to various extents!) and the odd American or European tourist here to taste their Orient. I love it and hate it, always going back for more.


julius said...

wouldn't it be interesting if someone wrote a history of the arab presence in london? has this been done? if not, how about it wassim? your dissertation's done, isn't it? don't you need a new project?

sasa said...

I completely agree with Julius. It is a much needed piece of work, and who's in a better position than Wassim to write it!

I completely agree with your picture of Edgware Road. I love and hate it. I find myself abandoning it for months, then coming back and falling in love all over again.

Have you read Hanan Ash-Sheikh's Only in London?

Wassim said...

Hi guys,
It's certainly an intriguing idea..Let me have a think about it! I'm glad you liked the article.

Alastair Murray said...

From a "western" perspective I have just experienced the "Edgware Road Effect" having stayed in Portsea Place for a couple of months whilst relocating back to the UK from the US.

It's an incredible place and, as Wassim writes, a kind of "Disney" world.

My wife and I have previously lived in Tunisia (not Tunis) and Dubai (another "Disney" land) so I thought it would be easy to blend in....but it's the most bizarre area I have ever seen.

Someone should write a history (maybe even just about the car wash on Kendal St, a kind of Top Gear on steroids) of the Arabic influence on the area. I can understand the Iraqi influx (and guess there is the irony of BLiar living round the corner..who paid for his house?) but who preceded them ?, and why this area ?