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Journey’s End: an Arab view of the UK

by Dr Jehad Al-Omari

Photo by Jose Llamas on Unsplash

Every journey has to come to an end, and when my 25-year journey in Britain came to an end, the most frequent question I was asked when back here in Jordan was, "Why did you return?" The logical questions that often came after the “why” were the “what” ones: “what is it that you miss most/ remember most/ sticks out most in your memory?” I have spent the last couple of weeks thinking about these questions and trying to separate them from all the incidents, impressions, life-changing events, and rude shocks.

In 1975, when I first arrived in Britain, I spent the two and a half hours or so on the train from London to Bournemouth both deep in thought and mesmerized by the greenery, having come from barren and arid Abu Dhabi. Following a comedy of errors, I landed two days later in Kings Road (Chelsea) to witness the last surviving hippies of the Sixties. This further piqued my curiosity in British society and way of life. I returned in 1979 to live permanently and to continue to feed this curiosity.

By the time I left Britain, I had lost all my curiosity; it simply dried out. I needed a new challenge in my life after visiting every palace, garden, castle, park, cathedral and manor in south and central UK. I was thirsty for something different. I needed something totally new, and, as I was in my early forties, I believed that I could take on a new venture, and returning home was that venture. Having travelled widely and mixed with the largest variety of people possible due to my career in training, it was time to move on. I was bored with every line, sentence, and joke that I uttered during my lectures. I had lost faith in what I did. What started as a job, developed into a vocation, and ended as a rut; and so I was itching to pack my bags and try something new while I was still young enough.

In my opinion, assimilation is one of the most meaningful English words, as it describes an entire process that many of us undergo both unprepared and unaware. Years into my time in the UK and after I started working, my partner asked me what I thought of my manager, Anne. I said that she was a good manager and very efficient, though tough sometimes. “But she is very common", I added. My partner picked on this last remark to accuse me of becoming a bit of a snob and started imitating my newly-acquired, middle-class accent. Although she was teasing me, it shocked me that I had absorbed such an attitude so totally. God knows for how long I had carried it. It bothered me since I believed myself to be a completely egalitarian person, especially since I came from a region of the world where the class structure did not exist. Even now, almost 30 years later, it is still only beginning to emerge.

Another rude awakening came a few years later after I gave a lecture on Arab culture and traditions. During the coffee break, a middle-aged lady approached me privately and after a few pleasantries commented that much of what I had said, especially on issues such as family, hospitality, and honour applied to British society. I remarked that I had been in the UK for a long time but had not observed what she claimed, to which she answered, "Ah, but you have been mixing with the wrong people." She was clearly and unmistakably Upper Middle Class; her attitude and our subsequent discussion have stayed with me to this day.

Today (and for the last two or three decades), it is not politically correct to talk about ‘class’ in Britain. There is a tendency among many British people to either deny that class has a role to play in British society or to suggest that it is disintegrating and therefore no longer has the impact it had in bygone days. That is definitely not how it looks from the outside. Granted, initially it can be hard to observe or prove, but once you catch onto it, especially as an outsider, you begin to see it in everything from dress code to accent to jobs to children’s upbringing, as well as in behaviour towards foreigners.

Indeed, unlike the hidden class system, racism was the first thing we felt as overseas students at Norwich City College. Then, in 1979, the number of foreigners in Norwich was very limited, and there were only two foreign restaurants (Chinese and Greek). At college, we were warned by more experienced colleagues where to go in Norwich and where not to go. I remember visiting the nearby town of King’s Lynn a year later, and people were looking at us as if we were aliens from outer space. We could not wait to get out and return to the relative safety of Norwich. Today, and not least because of its new Prime Minister, I would say that Britain is perhaps the most racially tolerant, or for lack of a better expression, most multicultural society in Europe. The transition over the last 40 years is truly splendid, especially if you compare it with the rise of the far right in Europe. Yesterday, as a matter of curiosity, I researched on the internet the faculty members of my old department at the University of Surrey. Whereas in my time in the early Eighties, there were only three foreigners out of approximately twenty members of staff, today the absolute majority are foreigners or of foreign extraction, including two Iranians and at least three Chinese.

As I sit here in relatively greenish Amman, the capital of Jordan, I would add that the one thing that I miss most about Britain is definitely the lush green parks and woods. Nothing during my stay in the UK gave me more pleasure than walking in parks and woods almost every Sunday, and to remember my favourite haunts and secret places is a source of immense pleasure to me to this date. This is something that, partly due to geography and weather and partly due to a lack of prosperity, we may never have in Jordan except for a few protected zones or enclaves. What continues to bother me in Amman and in the Middle East as a whole is that people, and especially young people, rarely walk. They use cars for the shortest distances and errands, whereas in the UK walking to the train or bus stop or through parks is simply a way of life.

To end on a lighter note, when I decided to leave Britain, one of the things that I made a point of taking home with me as my crutches was British comedy. I bought all the episodes of "Only Fools and Horses", "Fawlty Towers”, and "Yes, Minister / Prime Minister". Even today, nothing gives me more pleasure than the British sense of humour. If only we could have something like it in our region. Of course, what goes along with that is the wide variety of British dialects, which I also miss. When I lived in Britain, I used to miss the Arabic language, but now the reverse is true, which suggests that every language carries with it a certain beauty that goes beyond communication and soothes our souls in the way music does.


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