On Being a Suspected Terrorist

My best experiences of some of the Lebanese delicacies in the book were courtesy of our customers along the Edgware Road. I particularly remember the first time I tried spinach fatayer: ‘twas served alongside sweet tea as an unlikely remedy for shock. Allow me to explain…

Way back in the mists of the 1990s, when my husband and I were still growing our import and distribution business, we drove a jolly, bright orange, unmarked transit van. Jamshid at the time sported a lovely full beard and longish hair: let’s just say that he is swarthy and exotic looking, and there is little denying his Middle Eastern origins. I on the other hand sport rather wild red hair and am pale enough to pass (on a good day) as a child of Celtic descent (on a bad day I just look slightly mad).

You can no doubt see where this is leading. This was at the time when the IRA was still picking on the capital, and the Ring of Steel had just been ‘erected’ around the City of London: unmarked vans containing dodgy looking characters were to the police like a red flag to a bull. We were just pulling up outside one of our customers in Central London when the world suddenly turned bright blue: we were completely surrounded by flashing lights. Uh, and lots of guns. Don’t-mess-with-me guns. Attached to uniformed officers all of whom seemed to have forgotten to bring any facial expressions to work.

“Keep your hands where we can see them and step out of the vehicle slowly!” Cripes: had we wandered on to the set of some sort of crime drama? This surely wasn’t for real…

Now there’s this thing about the police: I don’t know if it is human nature or a peculiarly British thing, but when they nab you, you feel instantly guilty. Even if you’re the sort that routinely takes lost £10 notes into the nearest police station and tells shops when they’ve undercharged you. You start thinking about all the slightly naughty things that you’ve ever done, and flushing with remorse. And then you start talking over jovially to conceal your fundamental terror.

It really doesn’t help that we are spice merchants. So many of our products are anonymous looking powders. The officers and their canine pals were having a field day in the back of our van. Can a dog really distinguish between black cumin seeds and gunpowder? Or starch and heroin? I mean, our cat constantly mistakes our food for his.

In the meantime traffic was building up, with everyone rubber-necking to see who the felons were. I started to feel like a marked woman, an outsider in my own land, and even Jamshid, who is much more pragmatic than I, looked solemn.

Of course, the whole encounter took perhaps fifteen minutes, and the police were soon convinced of our good intent. They were polite and professional throughout (if less than impressed by my natural flippancy). We were given a little bit of paper with instructions on what to do if we felt dissatisfied with the whole affair, and off they went into the night, to scowl at and frighten another van driver.

Our customer and his staff had been looking on, and rushed out with snacks to fortify us. Fresh spinach fatayer from their oven, hot and peppery, with sweet cardamom tea. I guess it was their way of welcoming us to the club, for they too had been ‘stopped and searched’.

I am a big fan of the police in general, especially when they are keeping our city safe. But I was left shocked by this experience. It was a revelation being on the other side of the fence for once. It made me very aware of the fact that things are quite often not what they seem to be. Oh, and also of the fact that I am not as funny as I thought I was.

PS You will find the recipe for Spinach Fatayer on P22 of Veggiestan.

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