I woke up at six in the morning. After meditation, chi-building exercises, some reading, a shave and some breakfast, I was ready to leave the house at half past seven. My first destination was the refugee and migrant centre. I printed off notes and worksheets for the students and then unfolded and set out the tables and chairs. I sat down with a book about Anne Frank while I waited for the students.
One of the women who looks after the children for the breakfast club was unusually chatty this morning. She is a big-boned, black woman with cropped hair. She speaks in a halting kind of voice. She was telling me about her studies, since I had asked her if she had any plans for the weekend. I was interested to learn about the details of evening classes for adults, as I think I would be interested in taking some subjects in the future, such as an ‘A’ Level in French and some GCSEs in languages. The conversation moved on to the parallels between Nazi Germany and the current situation of Islamophobia in the West. I had been shocked recently to read a letter which someone had posted on Facebook. Someone had put the letter in the letter box of a Muslim family. It was a long and particularly and thoroughly unpleasant letter. The anonymous person had told the family that Muslims were “pests” and that there was absolutely nothing morally wrong in exterminating them. Can you imagine? The sender of the letter knew where the family lived. Perhaps they saw the person every day. It was a chilling example of what Muslim people are facing at the moment. I also told the lady about an incident that had happened when I was at university shortly after the 9/11 attacks. A Muslim student that I had known had told me that one day when she had walked into a café, a man had spat upon her. It had been shocking then and had lost none of its shock, even after all this time.
The students slowly trickled in. I had five today, all women. Although I speak to all of my students, the intermediate ones are the ones that can most understand and sustain a conversation. I was talking mostly to my Persian student. She is an extremely attractive woman. I asked her about her job search and she was telling me about English classes in her country. She was surprised when I told her that everybody didn’t have English classes in their country. I reminded her that it was generally richer people in a country that could afford English classes. She had thought that because English was an international language, that everyone studied it. She also told me her weekend plans. She was going to go to the beach with her husband and his sisters. I recommended Southend as it was closest to London and I told her about the adventure playground. I set the Persian student a story-writing task in the lesson. She could have written about anything. What she wrote about, wasn’t particularly a nice subject. It was about an incident of sexual harassment in her country which she had suffered. She had been going in a car somewhere and then some men in a car had stopped her because she was wearing what she called “short clothes”. They had asked her to come into their car with them. In the end, her father and the men in her family had had to help her since she was so scared and shaking. She had tried to hide in her car. I asked her if that was very common in the country and she said it was. She told me that stranger men on the streets in London also make such remarks to her, which surprised her. Of course, I have mentioned that she is a very attractive woman and even I have had gay men approaching me on the street, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. I told her that most people didn’t do stuff like that, it was the tiny minority.
After the class was over, I spent some time talking to one of the women in the office. She is a young university student on a gap year from her course. She wears a headscarf and has pale skin and big, brown eyes. Her mother is one of my students. I was asking her about the Eid celebration and what she got up to. We started talking about Muslims in India and I told her about the rising intolerance of Hindu extremists against them, a fact of which she was unaware. She also told me her family plans, as she was going back to her country of origin over the summer for a visit. Once again, the woman introduced the subject of fear. She said that she sometimes felt scared of being by herself in the building, as anybody could just come and go. I remarked that men and women were different, as I never felt fear. I wonder how rational the fear of women is, not to say that my lack of fear is particularly rational. I’ve seen it over and over again in family members and other women. Women seem to be scared of strangers hurting them. My own grandmother couldn’t sleep in her house after the death of my grandfather, so I had to sleep there in the nights so that she felt protected. Is this because women are probably physically weaker and cannot defend themselves? Or is it because of how they are educated and brought up? Is it the fault of our culture that women are so scared? Perhaps they have to take special precautions because they are sexually desirable to men. Why don’t they take self-defence classes to learn how to protect themselves if they are so scared?
I got the train into university to do some lesson planning for next week. I sat down to lunch with one of the other researchers. She is a cute, Italian woman. She is very pale, very petite and has blue eyes and straight, brownish grey hair. She was wearing a short skirt, so I had to make an effort not to keep on looking at her smooth and shapely legs. Although I see nothing wrong with admiring the body of an attractive woman, I also know that they do not want to be seen as bodies in everyday life with male acquaintances. I also know how repressed most women are when it comes to the factor of sex and therefore one has to pretend that it is not relevant. It is because of this that one has to look away and pretend that their bodies are not there. It is silly, but most of our rituals in life are silly. We were talking about how our research was going and one of our shared research areas, which is the work of Michel Foucault. I had spent about three months studying Foucault and read most of his writings, including the recently published stuff. His thought had had a big impact on my own ideas. The researcher was interested in looking at how conformity and politics are related. She was also introducing some of the ideas of Spinoza in her writing. We talked about how equality and conformity were linked: the idea that everyone should just be the same. I think we both had the same idea that everyone should be allowed to be different, particularly women and minority groups, since being exactly the same as everyone else usually meant being like and being treated as a white man of the dominant economic class.
Now was the time for my second volunteering activity of the day. I went down to the after school homework club where I help the students. The community centre is in North Kensington so they had a special art therapy session for the Tower fire. Drawing and painting have a soothing effect on the mind, as I find myself, so they had provided the opportunity for the schoolchildren. I went in and found one of my students in a disgruntled state. He had had a new haircut and hadn’t wanted that particular one. I told him about haircuts in my family. My father had cut my hair with a set of clippers at home until I went to university. He wasn’t a particularly good barber and used to mess up my hair most of the time. I didn’t care about it. I wasn’t particularly vain and every woman that I knew told me that I was a very good looking boy so I didn’t fuss over my appearance. In fact, my mother used to buy all my clothes, too. I didn’t buy out of my own preference. I think my story was wasted on the student.
It was after I told my little story that Adele, the Grammy-award winning singer made her entrance. I was sitting next to one of the younger boys and telling him some jokes. Suddenly, one of the women interrupted and said “Look who’s here!” The boy looked over and then dropped what he was doing and went off to meet Adele. I looked over. I didn’t recognise the person. I reasoned to myself that she was somebody that they all knew that hadn’t been in for some time. I don’t like Adele’s music and I don’t follow her career. I had no idea what she looked like, beyond a vague impression. The children were asking this big-boned and plain, blonde woman why she looked different from her performances on TV. She said that she wasn’t wearing the professional makeup and the glitter. It was only when the boy came back to sit next to me and asked me why I hadn’t gone to say hello that I realised who the woman was. I still didn’t care. As I said, I wasn’t interested in her music. Adele walked around the room talking to the children. Some of them took photographs with her. I was thinking about how unprotected she was, without any security. Wasn’t she supposed to be one of the biggest stars in the planet? I went off into the next room and after a while, Adele made an appearance there. One of the girls asked her if she could sing. Unfortunately, she couldn’t, as she had to rest her voice for her upcoming concerts. All of the adults were telling me that they were fans of her singing and her music. One of the women was going to one of her concerts.
When I left for a wander around London after five, a woman on the street asked me for directions to the nearest tube station, since the local one had been closed after the fire. I walked her down since I was going in that direction. She kept on asking me questions about my life and complaining about the distance, which I thought was quite short. I told her about meeting Adele just now and she was quite jealous, as she was a big fan. I left her at the station and had a kebab for dinner. I then went into my usual area in London and walked around, people watching. I was wondering what the women looked like without their make-up and whether, like the children, I would be able to recognise them without it on.