From the life of Gowhar Shaikh
By Jack Pascoe
Sam and I reached Richard House Hospice at around ten o’clock in the morning. I hadn’t slept particularly well due to noisy neighbours. Also the noise of the planes taking off from London city airport that morning didn’t help matters. We signed our names on the visitor form at reception and were lead inside. We walked down the bright corridors, passed the play area filled with colourful bunting and elaborate wall displays, through the cafeteria with the round beechwood tables and high glass ceilings to the meeting room where Gowhar was waiting for us.
Gowhar and I had met previously but never one on one. I was slightly nervous about how the talk would go, after all we were to be sat in a room for up to an hour together. I’m not the most talkative of people at the best of times so this would be a true test of my character. If I could just shake the lack of sleep from my eyes and engage as best I could without being nervous.
She was sat in a single chair with her hands in her lap. She wore a long skirt and a shawl with small orange and red patterns dotted across the front. Next to her on the table was a copy of the hospice magazine explaining the great work Richard House does for children and their families. As we entered she turned with a warm smile and greeted us. I felt at home instantly. She spoke in a soft, breathy voice with a distinct London accent that reminded me of the women my mother would often converse with when we lived in Bromley. Strong but sweet women with the best of intentions.
I began to set up the recording equipment as we talked. She had mentioned that her Grandfather lived in Cardiff (a place I had lived for nearly half my life) the last time we had talked. This time she had come equipped with photographs and a willingness to tell me her story. I couldn’t have asked for anything more as a writer. I hit record and she began to tell me about her Grandfather.
Butetown, South Wales, is widely known as one of Britain’s first multi-cultural communities. A concentrated mass of terrace houses, connecting Cardiff city centre and the docks. It consists of about ten thousand people from over fifty different countries. The locals affectionately dubbed the area with the title ‘Tiger Bay’. The name has since become a worldwide label for the area. Even museums dedicated to the history of Cardiff would print the title in their exhibitions.
If you walk down Bute Street today, you can still see the remains of the recent decades. St Mary’s Church still stands at the start of Butetown where the city centre ends. Grand stone turrets with black painted tips shoot up towards the overcast skies where seagulls sway in the wind. The turrets shadow the Greek Church of St Nicholas and the Salvation Army hostel right next door. Everything further down this historic street is now a mere result of modern housing developments throughout the years since the 1960s. Warm red bricked terrace houses with charming chimneys have been changed for the slicker look of beige walls and light brown roofs.
In the middle of Butetown sits Loudoun Square. A crooked two lane road with broken pavements that surrounds a pair of concrete tower blocks. Before the towers existed, Uba Hassan lived at number nine on the square with his wife. The driveway was cobbled and crunched when you approached the front door which was usually open. As you walked into the house and through to the living room, you would witness a table laden with lentils, bread, and various other food stuffs accentuated by the overpowering smell of chicken stew coming from the kitchen. The more the smell permeated the air, the more neighbours approached the door and were welcomed inside.
Uba was from Yemen. He had moved to Butetown like so many others looking for a new life in Britain. Once he and his wife were settled in their new home, they made it their mission to spread love and acceptance through the community. They accepted all other faiths with open arms without question. They would take in local orphans and dress them in outfits that Uba’s wife had made. Lavish and colourful velvet outfits that would be sported for family photographs and the local Muslim processions that meandered through Butetown. He was also instrumental in building Cardiff’s first mosque with a man named Shayek Zayed, another pillar of the Muslim community. Between them they would bring the community together through their faith and enlighten youngsters with what it means to be a good Muslim.
The first flight of stairs at number nine lead to Uba’s prayer room. He would burn incense and hold court with the local children. His stories were mainly about the prophet, but he would also slip in a couple of tales from his youth if they had particular relevance to the teachings of Islam. Even if they didn’t he took great pleasure in telling stories. He would captivate his audience and teach them the value of accepting other faiths. He would give lines from the Quran for the children to remember, and if they recited them back to him he would give them a sweet out of his pocket.
Gowhar would often be one of the children in the prayer room hanging on his every word. She would be warmed by his generosity of spirit. Filled with chicken stew and the odd sweet here and there. Her parents would travel down from East London to pay the family a visit. When she would play in the garden of number nine she would often turn the bars in the fence and run off to the park to be with her friends from the neighbourhood. They sat on the swings near the railway track chatting and watching the trains crawl from the city centre towards the docks. Luckily everyone in the neighbourhood kept and eye out for them. They could run through the streets of Butetown without a care, but if anything happened while they were out that would disappoint their families it would usually beat them back home.
Her Pakistani father worked on the buses and also at Frankenberg’s, a department store owned by Jane Seymour’s father. Her Welsh mother worked at the Pakistani embassy and the education department throughout her time there. Gowhar was blessed enough to have a family that consisted of many cultures and she was well aware of this.
She was raised in Whitechapel and attended Tower Hamlets Girl’s School on Commercial Road. Later on she went to St John Cass in Aldgate. As a very creative student she enjoyed art as a subject. She was especially fond of waxwork in painting and also sewing. At the end of the school day she attended after school club where she loved to read the many books on offer. Her favourite books were the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series which warmed her with it’s tales of close family coming together through all the adversities of nineteenth century mid-west America.
The school environment she was bought up in was very multi-cultural and open to every kind of child from any background. At one point she was an angel in the school nativity play even though she had been raised a Muslim. Every Sunday they would attend the East London mosque that stood right next to a synagogue and the whole family would also run errands for neighbours of all faiths. Back then neighbours used to keep a set of keys on a piece of string just inside the letterbox so that others could let themselves in should they need to. You slipped your hand in the letter box, felt around for the string then pulled out the key to unlock the door. Needless to say, there was a great deal of trust and a larger sense of community in the East End.
Life with her family was a balance of discipline and warmth. Every Saturday their house would be cleaned from top to bottom without fail or complaint. The lights always went out at eight o’ clock on a school night once the children were tucked up in bed. This would be right after they came home from school and had their fix of television from four until six; Tom and Jerry cartoons followed by Blue Peter and Crack a Jack. It was Gowhar’s job to maintain the fireplace and help the coal man when he would make his rounds to the house on a Tuesday. She would curl up in front of the fire that warmed her entire family, all of them watching the hot rocks burn to the end before making their way to bed and the following day.
Shortly after Uba’s wife died, he was due to set off on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Before he left he gave the contents of their home to various family members and friends. His friends thought it strange, but not out of character, that he was being overly generous towards them. His family knew from his actions that he was ready to go.
Whenever he travelled to Mecca he would normally go with the same group of people each time. This particular journey was no exception. They made the normal route through Europe completely unaware of Uba’s intentions. His usual stories would not flow from his mouth so easily and his responses were almost monosyllabic; strange for a man of such openness and creativity in his communication. During the journey he became separated from the group. Naturally his friends tried to find him but to no avail. Eventually he walked up to them out of the crowd that surrounded them. His pockets had been emptied of money and all his gold had vanished. When they asked him what had happened he offered them a simple explanation that rolled off his tongue like the lyrics of a captivating and heart-felt soul song; “I don’t need it anymore.”
He was prepared to leave his life in the way he had always lived it, as a servant of humanity. He had given up his worldly possessions to those he loved as well as those who needed it more than him, and given his efforts to his faith one last time in the noble manner that he always carried himself with. He knew, but didn’t revel in the fact, that he had lived as an example to those he cared for right up until his last warm and solitary breath. On the coach ride through Turkey, on his way back to Butetown, he passed away.
Once she had finished school, Gowhar worked in Enfield as an admin worker for the council. In 1987 she gave birth to her first child with her new husband. This daughter was born profoundly deaf, and prompted Gowhar to move to Pakistan and teach English as a foreign language up until 1991 when she fell pregnant again and returned to London. She gave birth to a little girl who passed away three months later. Gowhar would be met with speculations about the cause of these tragedies. Since she had been married to her cousin, many people assumed this was the cause of the health complications with her children. Gowhar simply believed that what is meant to be is meant to be and that we cannot control it no matter what the circumstance may be. After all, life doesn’t care about your plans or your current situation. The couple lost six children in total. Thankfully, Gowhar’s strength was unrelenting. A trait she had no doubt picked up from Uba.
Their son Murad was born by caesarean and given two days to live by the doctors due to complications with his kidneys. Gowhar and the family bought everything for the baby on deposit so as not to tempt fate. Her lasting memory of the birth is the deafening silence before the birth. Up until that moment the room had been filled with happy and hopeful family members. All of a sudden, everything went quiet.
Murad is now seventeen years old. He’s partial to wearing suits and ties like his great-grandfather Uba, and like both of his great grandfathers, neither of whom he has ever met, he wears shalwar kameez for prayers. He also has a taste for old television shows like On The Buses and even Charlie Chaplin. However, all of this is overshadowed by his undying creativity which he gives back to the world at the drop of a hat.
His love of singing takes precedence above all else. Even when he’s being driven to hospital to address complications with his kidneys, an ongoing problem throughout his life, he would sing in the car. He loved one particular song called ‘Teray Rang Teray Rang’ (God’s colours God’s colours) by an artist called Abrar ul Haq. On a trip to Pakistan he was lucky enough to meet Abrar who kept in touch with the family. In an act of overwhelming kindness, he came to see Murad while he was in critical condition at the hospital. He sang the song Murad would sing by his bedside. It echoed through the hospital and mixed with the tears of gratitude from the family just outside the cubicle. The next day, his test results picked up and he began to feel better.
Despite the love and support around him, Murad’s life has been anything but carefree. It’s often fretful going back and forth to hospitals, in and out of doctor’s offices, up and down drab staircases owned by the NHS. Richard House Hospice was the family’s ultimate support in making their lives easier. The eternal compassion and acceptance has paid off in the generations. From Butetown to Pakistan, Yemen to the East End of London, Richard House to Mecca, a powerful connection is held in place. A connection in the goodness of people and the strength of integrity.
Sam returned to the room where Gowhar and I were talking to let us know we were out of time. I was nearly speechless from the information I had received. It was like somebody had taken me from the back streets of a council estate and thrown me into the vastness of the countryside. Before I left she showed me a video of Murad from her phone . It was taken in East Ham registry office waiting room. Murad sits on a chair in his suit and tie with the broadest grin on his face. It is a grin that spells contentment in any language. He is dangling his legs off the edge of the chair and singing to himself completely oblivious to the world around him. That’s when I nearly started to well up. He’s singing and looking sharp with a big grin on his chops. I caught a precious glimpse of his spirit right there and then. The last few seconds of the video showed a security guard asking Gowhar not to film in the waiting room, but it didn’t matter, the moment had already been beautifully documented.
I said goodbye to Gowhar and left Richard House. As I walked back to my flat I started to reconsider my attitude that morning. I had been moaning about noisy neighbours and loud planes with an ugly sense of entitlement. Now I was aware of the real hardship that families go through in East London, and the character that carries them through. Whether it’s learnt from the community you live in or the family that supports you, it seems to be character that helps us all make it through. I learnt a lot from Gowhar that morning and was inspired by Murad’s attitude to life. Now, as I paced down the cracked tarmac in the shade of the trees with pollen drifting on the breeze, I could feel the presence of Uba Hassan like he was strolling next to me telling stories and filling me with chicken stew.