I am wondering if I purchased things from the recently convicted lyrical terrorist, a young lady who worked in a newsagents shop in Heathrow airport that I patronized every time I returned to the UK in recent years.
As a traveler, I experienced nothing but kindness and courtesy in Islamic countries. I also met people who confided their desperation to escape, and the opposite, once — a very sultry manager of a coffee shop I frequented in Cairo, quite Westernized in her dress, who told me with a most convincing smile that
In Islam everything is very good; you could see.
I knew, of course, that everything in Islam was not entirely rosy. But not until I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin did the pieces, individually familiar, truly assemble themselves into a picture.
As an aside, I was floored to hear historian Roy Foster say on Start the Week this week that Ireland has effectively, quietly, become a protestant country. On reflection, I realized it was true and that it happened in a relatively short period of time.
The recent decision by London’s Tower Hamlets Council to take a planeload of young Muslims to visit Auschwitz this week is surely a good idea, though some Muslims have opposed it bitterly. I will be interested to see any interviews when they return.
I know that a planeload of young Muslims could be taken to London from the middle east, given a tour of its underbelly and could go home convinced that much they had been led to believe is true. The West is far from innocent. Sexual slavery is alive and well in the UK today. Family breakdown and social disorder of every kind is rampant. We also need to look in the mirror.
Surely, the demonisers on both sides can not be defeated, except by individual acts of humanity and kindness?
My own favourite spontaneous act of kindness happened in New York.
In 1978, as a first year undergraduate, I applied for student visa to the US. They were allocated by lottery because demand exceeded supply at the time. I was lucky and, suitably inspired, I passed even my physics exams, borrowed the fare from father and took off for a memorable summer.
On arrival, foreign students were advised to leave New York right away. It was not a safe place we were told. Most complied.
I decided to see if I could look up a friend of my brother’s in Jackson Heights first, so I went to Queens on the IRT overhead train and by good luck found the right apartment, even though I didn’t have the address.
I was just in time. His parents were retiring, leaving NYC in a few days and, until I turned up, they had wanted him to move in with his brother in Boston. So, I had a place to stay.
Next, I needed a job. I had no luck for a couple of weeks, until the day my money ran out. I borrowed a few dollars, lived on peanut butter sandwiches and skipped the subway fare for a while.
My only treat for the first month was a very occasional 30 cent glass of Miller in a local Irish bar in Jackson Heights called The Liffey. The barman was a Dubliner named Tommy Berry with a son at Fordham University. He knew a hungry student when he saw one, and believe me I was.
Would you like a sandwich?
he inquired one Friday evening. My face must have lit up. “Don’t go to any trouble” I said, thinking that he might, if he had time, slip a slice of cheese between two pieces of bread.
Nothing happened for quite a long time. I tried not to be disappointed even as my stomach gurgled where’s the sandwich? and my head was saying time to go. I hadn’t noticed Tommy on the phone.
Then a man dressed like a chef arrived, wearing a red and white striped apron and carrying a tray. Tommy motioned him in my direction, then peeled off some notes and paid for the finest and most welcome sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my life: a steak sandwhich, with a side order of large French fries (chips), and he served me, and also paid for, a wonderful pint of Guinness for good measure, and then another. It remains one of the most unforgettable meals and most agreeable surprises I’ve ever experienced.
I never saw Tommy Berry again after that summer. I stopped by en route to graduate school in Ohio a few years later, after a quick visit to the top of the World Trade Center with my wife. He wasn’t to be found.
I never went back to Jackson Heights, alas. I would love to shake his hand again and take him out for a meal, but what are the chances of that?
Of course, in the Big Apple the impossible sometimes happens. Here is romantic proof: Love at First Site.
All I can do is emulate him by performing some random act of kindness once in a while, for a traveler or refugee or visitor or a displaced person.
Thank you Tommy, and cheers, wherever you are.