I have never been interviewed, neither have I felt the need to be. However, now more than ever it’s important for someone to represent Harlow’s Muslim community. I desperately want people to understand that we are good people. And those few that tarnish our religion, with their twisted version of Islam, are far removed from the billions of truly peaceful Muslims.

This is a wonderful country with wonderful people. I’ve not changed – I’m still the same peace-loving individual I’ve always been. I would walk a mile to help anyone, regardless of their faith. That level of non-judgemental respect is something that was instilled in me from a young age. 

I was born in Jurgat, a small city in what was once India, but in 1947 after the dissolution of the British Raj and turbulent partition became Pakistan. My childhood was lovely and peaceful. I had friends who were Sunni and Shia Muslims; there was no prejudice – we all lived in harmony, because in essence we believe in the same god. It’s only recently that tensions (abetted by so-called scholars) between the sects have escalated. 

We lived a comfortable life. My father worked hard and was, as were all my family, well respected in the area. My parents, siblings and I lived within a family compound of around three acres. It was a perfect situation, we lived independently, but could call upon and assist family members at the drop of a hat. My parents believed that a thorough education was key for a successful life, but unlike my siblings I had different ideas –of being a film star. Not just an extra; I wanted the lead roles. Even from a young age I’d an extensive knowledge of films and film stars. Shy I was not. Therefore, at any given opportunity I would put myself forward for drama roles or public speaking. My parents and teachers faced a quandary, often remarking that if I put as much effort into my academic work as I did drama I’d do very well. 

I didn’t graduate and nor, as a Muslim (especially from a very religious family), was my vocation of ‘film star’ encouraged. Culturally and morally it was not deemed to be a career path to follow. Peer pressure mounted and I was encouraged to drop what they felt was a pipe dream. But the more they opposed me, the more I dug my heels in. My last-ditch attempt was to win over my mother. I urged her to see if she could do ‘owt to help smooth the waters and help realise my dream. She agreed to speak to my father. However, the response was far from positive. An ultimatum of ‘pursue said career, but all ties with the family will cease’ was issued. In their opinion, my lacklustre stance in life was made all the more obvious by the career leaps my brothers were making. One was an engineer, who having worked for a British company had relocated to England. Another was in the army and another who’d also moved to England was doing well for himself. 

Inroads were made to see if my siblings could arrange something for me in England, but until then my father was willing to set me up in business. He rented a shop on the high street, which was soon emblazoned with ‘Pakistan Cloth House’. I might only have been fifteen, but that didn’t stop me from making a real success of the business.

In 1971 I unexpectedly received my British work permit. Even though I was doing well my parents urged me to go; I respected their decision and my shop was handed over to an uncle. The final arrangement was that of my marriage, which as part of our culture was arranged by my parents and solemnised before I left Pakistan. In what felt like the blink of an eye I was floundering with the English language at Heathrow’s passport control. En route to my new life in Bury, Lancashire, I stayed overnight at my brother’s home in Harlow.

 

The excitement of my new adventure soon turned into one of upset and disillusionment. I’d left my lovely wife, life and shop in Pakistan for a job cleaning oil drums, a situation made worse by my minimal understanding of English. Therefore, my other brother (who lived nearby) enrolled me on a full-time English course. After six months, having also secretly enrolled in drama classes, my language skills developed, giving me the confidence to take employment within a textile mill. 

My life was shaken to the core upon news of my mother’s death. Emotions aside, when I returned to Pakistan I now felt like a different person – someone with more life experience. As time passed I felt that maybe now I could become an actor. Sure enough, after visiting a film studio, I was offered a lead role alongside a famous female heroine. I may have changed, but others’ views towards the profession hadn’t. My wife rightly gave me a choice – her or films. I chose correctly and I’m still married to that wonderful woman today. I returned to England and soon after my wife joined me. We moved from Bury, where our first son was born, to Harlow, where our two further children were born.

At that time jobs were plentiful and before long I was working at Key Glass. However, I missed being my own boss, got easily bored and struggled with the abject workplace racism I experienced. I felt it best to go and work alongside my brother, who had a busy stall in Harlow Market. In the early 80s we went our own ways. I set up a stall trading solely in leather goods – they were great times. I was friendly to all; mixing with all colours and creeds. Sure, I still faced some racism, but I was now better placed to deal with it, often laughing it off with a witty reply. Me and my wife (the family’s backbone) worked so hard on that stall, just so we could give our children the best we could – education included. 

I don’t wish to go into details, but in the late 80s something happened that destroyed me and my wife forever. During this time other market traders rallied around us. It was like being part of one big multicultural family – to this day I’m touched by the love and support we were given. 

My life is very simple now and focused wholly on my family, who I’m so proud of. I find Harlow a wonderful place to live. It’s changed in many ways, but your view depends on your situation and outlook on life – personally I see good things happening in Harlow’s future.

A Muslim’s appearance and beliefs might be tricky for some to accept. But we aren’t that different to anyone else; we still face the same challenges in life. Personally I don’t dictate my beliefs and expect others to accommodate them. When my children were young integration was important – so we had a Christmas tree in our house. Not every Muslim would agree with such a decision but, as with every religion, it’s just human nature to have disagreements – you can’t stop that!

© 2018 CHRIS HADDON

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