Alien Nation - Iqbal MBE
Diagonally across from the house I live is the semi-detached terraced house belonging to the Iqbal family. Mr Iqbal is in his 80s and moved to the UK in his late teens or early twenties. He isn’t quite sure about the actual date of birth. He told me that now and again, some regional official would come round to his village and ask if there had been any births or deaths in the last couple of months. He only knows that he is older than the date his birth was officially recorded.
We see each other now and again. We bump into each other in the street, he used to come round for a cup of tea. Nowadays he spends most of his days in his front room. He texts me sometimes. “when are you coming round. Iqbal”. Not so much a question as a request. But I like going to his house. He sits in his office chair, swivels slowly round the room whilst I sit opposite him on the big leather sofa. He tells me stories. From his childhood, the day he met and married his wife, his travels around Europe, his first job in Sheffield as a railway station sweeper, his slow ascent to the post of foreman in a steel company. The Council offered to pay for a college course after he was made redundant as part of a re-schooling programme. It opened his eyes to possibilities. He became a full time university student at the age of 50.
He received an MBE in 2006 for services to the community. Having benefited from the education he received after his redundancy, he decided that more people from his community should be able to access higher education and university courses. Mainly due to his efforts, a sixth form college was established in the neighbourhood and a university access programme was introduced to support students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. He is always proud when he tells me these stories. Photographs taken at the Queens’ Honours celebration ceremony show him with his head bowed.
Mr Iqbal is a man who has obviously worked hard all his life and became a fervent believer in equality of opportunity. Yet, he is also aware of the suspicions that surround him, from his own community, of having become too Western perhaps?
He believes that learning in schools, colleges and universities is more important than learning in mosques but, as he says:
I am a good Muslim, have never touched alcohol and pray 5 times a day.
He tells me often how he argues with his Mullah about the teachings of Islam but every Friday he gets dressed, puts on his pakol hat and attends mosque.
Mr Iqbal is a man in the middle who knows his community and knows himself. He knows what education can achieve and how it can change a mind. He also knows that religion can keep people together and that this is important. I promised I would paint his portrait. It took me 6 months to get round to it but I think I have captured the man as he is: content with what he has achieved. He said he was pleased with it when I showed it him.