“I just love people. I like to get out and learn new things, not through a TV screen or my phone.We live in a dangerous time where the media want to tell you exactly what to think, so they only show you certain things."
Piccadilly Circus, on one of those hot and balmy days in the city. Tourists and Londoners alike have come out in droves, with their strappy vests and frappuccinos, to soak up the sun and the sights. The tourists are in their element, frivolously enjoying their jaunt around the Costa del Soho, ditching their over priced rain ponchos and London Underground brollies. The Londoners, on the other hand, are not taking anything for granted. Enjoy it while it lasts are the words on their lips. They know it won't stick around for long.
I have wandered over from Soho Square, where I’d sat for an hour in the sunshine, with the hope of finding someone to approach for their story. It soon became apparent, however, that this was a bit of an awkward task. Everyone was so busy. Not ‘busy’ busy, just ‘occupied’. In the whole of the square, there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t texting, or playing on their phone, or talking on their hands free, head down and headphones on. I gave up after a while, and after a short walk, found myself in the centre of Piccadilly.
There is a busker outside the tube station who is attracting quite a crowd. He is young and lovely-looking, playing acoustic versions of songs that everybody knows: Brown Eyed Girl, Hallelujah, Wonderwall. The crowds are singing along and enjoying the collective sun-worship. I join them on the steps of the memorial statue, and drink in the scene. What should be tourist-hell, is actually quite lovely.
To my right is a guy with matted dreadlocks down his back, and lobster-pink skin from too much sun. He is smoking a rollie while listening to the music, and I pluck up the courage to ask if he has the time to hear about my blog. He shrugs and apologises and tells me that he doesn’t speak English, and then I apologise and tell him it doesn’t matter, and smile and gesture that he can carry on listening to the music. People are glancing over and I feel rather awkward, and wonder how long I aught to wait before getting up to leave.
However, I am rescued by the man sitting to my left. He overheard what I said and asks what my blog is all about. He agrees to talk to me, on the condition that there are no hidden cameras or recorders. I assure him it is just me and my ears. I’m not even writing anything down.
He introduces himself as Imad, an Arabian Palestinian from Jerusalem. He lives in Willesden Green in a flatshare with two other people who he never sees, and works as a chef in a restaurant in Piccadilly. He was actually on his way there today, to collect his hours for next week, when he decided to come and sit by the fountain for a while.
Imad came to England three years ago, not directly from Gaza where his family still live, but after a long journey of travelling and living around the world in Germany, Sweden, Georgia, Turkey and South Korea. He is reluctant to share how and why this long and complicated path unfolded.
“It’s a very long story,” he insists. “You would need to have all day.”
What he does tell me is devastating. He grew up in a large family of 10 brothers and 3 sisters, but four of them died during the conflict in his home country.
“Were they in the military?” I ask.
He looks at me, bewildered, “No. They were children.”
Several years ago, Imad decided to move away from Palestine, and wanted his family to come with him. His father couldn’t understand his reasons, and none of them were willing to leave.
“My father said he’d rather die there in Palestine if he had to, than leave his country behind.”
Imad wanted to travel the world and be educated, to learn things and meet people. Opportunities for all of this were not possible where he is from.
“I wanted to do something to help. I couldn’t get a job there. There is nothing for me to do there.”
“Do you send money home, from the work you do over here?” I ask him.
“Of course. I send everything I can home.”
Other than working in the restaurant, which he does five days a week, I ask Imad how else he spends his time. He hangs out with friends, in the Arabic restaurants near Paddington Station (which I know, because it’s around the corner from where I work) or one of the Irish pubs in Piccadilly.
“I like basketball and I was on a basketball team when I lived in Gaza. I could have had a career in sport,” he says. “But it wasn’t really possible there. If I’d moved to Sweden when I was younger, I could have maybe picked it up again. But I was too old by then. It’s too late now.”
One of Imad’s favourite things to do is people-watch, and this statue in Piccadilly is a prime spot for doing just that.
“I love to listen to people, and guess where they’re from. I like to hear their voices and look at their faces and guess which nationality they are.”
I ask him to say where he’d guess I’m from, even though he already knows the answer. “I’d say you were Scandinavian, because of your hair. Or Australian. Maybe American. No, Irish! Or Russian? You could be Russian actually. Not English, definitely not English. You don’t have an English face.” As much as he might love this game, he’s not particularly accurate. With such a keen interest in people and places, I guess that he must speak lots of languages too.
“Not really,” he answers. “Just English. And Arabic obviously. Some Swedish. And Russian. A little German.” Smart, interesting and modest too, I think.
“I just love people,” he says. “I like to get out and learn new things, not through a TV screen or my phone. We live in a dangerous time where the media want to tell you exactly what to think, so they only show you certain things. You say ‘Arab Muslim’ in the west and people think we're all terrorists. We're not. You say ‘European’ to an Arab, and they think you're all plastic and fake. You're not. You have to talk to people and make opinions for yourself. That's the only way you can learn."
This conversation is so relevant, I think to myself, in the current political climate of Brexit and Trump, immigration and trade deals, refugee crises and terror plots. Nobody knows what to think, but we sure know what the media want us to think. We can read all the articles, all the news reports, all the exposés and commentary we want, but maybe all we need to do is go out there and meet people - talk to each other and listen to each other, work with each other and try to understand each other. Perhaps only then will we actually be qualified to say what we think.
“What’s next for you then, Imad?” I ask him. “Where to next?”
“I think I might go to Dublin. I feel a connection with Irish people, they have been through a lot of what we have been through as a country. They seem like friendly people. And,” he says with a smile. “I like Guinness.”
I check my watch and realise I’m now running late, so I thank Imad for his time and his honesty and we shake hands in the sunshine. It was worth the wait, to happen across this humble man so late in the afternoon, and I think back to just over an hour ago in Soho Square. If Imad had been one of those people engrossed in his phone, we'd never have met. It seems apt then, that we should meet here beneath the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain. I have just learnt that this statue depicts Anteros, the God of selfless love, and it was built to commemorate Lord Shaftesbury, a politician and philanthropist – known as a great lover of people and humanity itself.