There are some evenings warm enough that the restaurant opens its large windows and keeps them open after sundown. The music at this North London Turkish spot may have been scoffed at by my new friends, but I was enjoying the jazz, likely taken from a compilation album designed to be background music in any number of places. I was without new or old friends, but this was entirely on purpose. I’d started eating alone on evenings more and more as my time in London was drawing to a close. I still hadn’t figured out whether my time here had been a short or a long time, or how long it felt like, but I knew it was significant. One of the reasons I loved this restaurant was the noise of it, how much it felt like being outside in the city.
Being outside in London has always been some mixture of inspiration and fatigue. When meeting people or observing them, I’d get the impression that everyone was constantly on the move, thinking about how to progress to the next level of whatever pyramid they were on – and in one sense this was inspiring, infectious even. Other times I’d see the same thing and wondered why no one wanted to slow down, why no one cared to settle, how they’d placed so much weight in moving up. Of course, for some this was an issue of survival and the protection of their families which is both noble and understandable – but there seemed to be this spirit in more than just those who had no choice. Eating here was a perfect reminder of all of this, in a semi enclosed setting allowing me to digest it all more calmly. The prices were not reflective of the impressive, sleek decor, meaning the clientele ranged from students to Saudi families escaping their countryfolk in Knightsbridge. Working class Pakistani families sat next to Turkish uncles discussing referendums and coups, while middle class white couples enjoyed date night.
As I waited for my starters one of those effortlessly handsome North African guys came in looking worried. He wore a light grey overcoat and as he took it off I made a bet with myself that he smoked – and sure enough as he draped his chair with the coat, a packet of Marlboros hit the floor. He’d been smoking outside, fulfilling the stylish stereotype I had of him. His date, equally chic, sat opposite, and he no longer looked worried. For reasons unknown, since childhood, I’d always looked carefully at people’s hands and theirs were opposites. His joints were stern looking, as if nothing he’d hold would ever fall or escape; while hers lacked the same definition, even shook slightly; being the only outward aspect of her that seemed unsure or perturbed. Like their hands, their voices were starkly different; his, clearly that of a smoker, fitting for his harsh dialect and hers far warmer. Together it was a joy to listen to and not understand. The kind-faced waiter came to take their order and disturbed their exchanges and refocused my attention to my starters.
I was committing the frequent sin of having too much bread before the main meal, but the warmth of fresh bread and 3 different dips was as ever, too enticing. The group of students in front looked both like a perfect university prospectus cover photo as well as an advert for the diversity of the Muslim Ummah. The go-to choice for groups here seemed always to be the mixed grill and for good reason too. The thick peppers that decorated the mountain of meat made it a perfect dish to photograph and the group took it in turns to get the perfect shot, all while receiving the disapproving head-shake and scorn from the groups quieter one. All dishevelled and horn rimmed – I imagined him to be the one who struggled to convince his parents that studying the influence of Third Cinema on political movements in the West was good for job prospects. His friends mocked his seriousness, but he took it well and made witty retorts. Impressively sidestepping the jabs, the conversation moved on to his brother, who he said went back to Sweden recently after a strange two weeks in London. There are some who seem to hold a sadness on their face so visceral that the fact that you know nothing about them becomes meaningless – his was one of those. Though what he told the group about his brother was not overtly traumatic or a description of some great tragedy, his eyes told me that his brother was dear to him, and had left London without untying a knot he had hoped would unravel in his short trip. A girl from the group also saw this pain and seemed to be as lost in it as I was, resting her chin in her palm and frowning into his story. The lightness that was their laughter and youth seemed to turn heavier the more he went on, a change which he himself seemed to notice and almost abruptly changed the subject to something else.
My mains arrived hot and with the same smile and sincerity of the waiter that I had grown accustomed to. Enjoy your meal. I wondered whether this was indeed sincere, or a matter of training. I’d always thought that sincerity was something you couldn’t fake and that if I felt someone was sincere, then they probably were. But as the waiter’s smiles around me fell off their faces as they turned away from their customers, I thought that perhaps my sense could be more easily tricked than I thought. I thought of Yasiin Bey singing ‘I love it when they say, enjoy your stay, they say it how they mean it ‘cause its how they been trained’.
The Pakistani family were served by the same waiter as me, but had to send him back as the two small children had yet to decide what they wanted. The couple seemed as familiar to me as any other, the father’s seriousness coupled with his softness, his wife’s dupatta that doubled up as hijab, Bhutto-esque and bright. She hurried her children in a dialect that punched me into home. This wasn’t the first time language did this to me either – I’d been stopped many times by Asians who looked lost or troubled, who came to me because they thought I’d be able to help. The week before a Bangladeshi man named Munib stopped me and asked me if I spoke Urdu, to help him find his place of work. He had the address written down on scrap paper, and I offered to walk him there as it was only a few minutes away. He spoke to me in broken Urdu and revealed that he was going to work security at a pub, and he’d only arrived in London this year. His beard, religious looking, made me wonder if he felt at all uneasy about his job, but his nervousness told me he was one of those that had no choice. He thanked me and walked towards the busy pub. I left for home and thought about him the entire journey back. I wondered how many of us were caught in the web of necessity, how many men and women before him had come too far to indulge in the choice of career path. How many assuaged the guilt they held with the sight of well-fed children. I got the impression the Pakistani father sitting nearby was further along in his journey than Munib, but was perhaps once just like him, sending money home, saving money here, until there was enough to bring his family.
My complimentary tea arrived at the same time as it did for the Saudi family, though they had helpings of baklawa too. The family was today without its patriarch, and may well have included friends. The women were in fine pastel headscarves, and understated jewellery, and dressed not unlike many you’d see walking down Brompton Road. Through my limited understanding of Arabic, I gathered that one was studying engineering and her family was visiting her that summer. She left the table to wash her hands and the others quickly huddled around the mother, who had kept a gift for her in her bag. As she returned they sat back down smirking, and though I couldn’t make out what was given to her, it was clearly well chosen. She began to wipe her tears and profusely thanked her mother, who held her and kissed her forehead, and made that motherly face that feigns displeasure when their child has been overly emotional. Amongst the noise and jazz of the restaurant I doubt anyone noticed this scene, and when the hugs and tears subsided she passed the gift around for the others to look at, in between sips of sweet tea. Embarrassingly, I immediately wondered how expensive the gift was, just how much wealth the family had, and if they had any connections to petroleum. Theirs was a world so different to Munib’s and even my own. Beyond our faith, I imagined we had very few commonalities, that our reference points in conversation would be so wildly different that friendship would be near impossible. I remembered visiting the Kingdom some years ago. The looks, the tone – of men who knew their position as above ours so well, was imprinted in my memory. It was an image difficult to reconcile with the softness and joy of the family I saw in front of me. It was an irony akin to that of Britons, how much the Saudis enjoyed the food of the Turks, and the cinema of the Hindis, all while their state apparatus showed no such appreciation of the foreigner. My mind shifted to another day in the searing daytime heat of the Gulf: where manual labourers slept in the only shade available to them, a palm tree above a bench in some sterilised, deodorised apartment complex. Putting up with the impossible climate for what it might mean back home. Whether home was ever reachable again for some was a different story, but different iterations of these men existed across the peninsula, and beside the climate, shared much with the workers in England. Be it here, Saudi Arabia or Dubai, the promise of a foreign land that might drag a family out of poverty, war, war-like towns or some tragic mixture of all, has existed for some time. The exploitation of that dream existing right alongside it. Decades ago, cruel men operating on the Karachi port would sell trips to Dubai through the Arabian Sea, only to take peoples money and guide the boat off the coast, and have it dock further along in Pakistan. Such was the desire to get away to some shining promise.
Though I was definitely in the wrong tax bracket, I ordered another tea – and was offered a pot, I imagine due to my somewhat frequent custom. It had been one of those rare evenings when London managed to slow down, when even the noise of the outdoors had settled to a manageable hum. The chefs wound down the operation, spotlights no longer shining on to the stacked lamb and chicken used to entice passers-by. A cheerful man who I imagined ran the place walked over to the group of uncles like an old friend and asked them if everything was okay. They insisted he sat down with them to share in their food and discussion and though he initially resisted, the roar of laughter and a slap on his back was enough to pull him away from his duties and indulge in life for a few moments. A couple of kitchen staff emerged and seemed to ask his permission to leave, but he laughed it off and signalled them to leave without fear. I thought of how many thousands of men and women were dreaming behind the fryer, calling home in smoking breaks and smiling at their phones whenever customers would let them. Giving jobs to their cousins, playing Geo News on the restaurant television to stay in the loop, humming along to Asha Bhosle while wrapping up an order, smiling with a full heart at the child taking home her wings, knowing their own children were continents away, living off international money transfers. The remittance industry was surely indebted to the institution of the restaurant. And these weren’t just characters of course, it was all real. All to the tune of restaurant jazz.