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Finsbury Park Muslims react to the mosque attack: "We felt something was going to happen"

A neighbourhood wakes up to a tragedy its Muslim residents had long feared.

On Sunday, a woman in a hijab and a long gown stood chatting to a white man in a hat and shorts in Finsbury Park. They were watching as kids paraded on an eclectic combination of bicycles in a disability-inclusive cycling event.

Down the hill, under the trees, families of all faiths and none sought refuge from the sweltering heat. Some played keepie uppie; others had tied balloons to branches to celebrate a birthday. It was a typical weekend in my neighbourhood.

The next morning, the park is still sweltering, but empty. In contrast to its dappled silence, the concourse around Finsbury Park station is crowded with TV vans and satellite dishes. Commuters stop to take photos of the cordoned off road, where, around midnight, a van ploughed into a group of Muslims leaving a mosque after Ramadan prayers.

One man died, and eight were injured badly enough to be hospitalised. But the crowd in the morning mostly seem confused.

As the Daily Mail felt fit to note in its coverage of the tragedy, Finsbury Park mosque gained notoriety in the 2000s as a home for radical preachers. But this fact reveals almost nothing about the attack that happened overnight.

Finsbury Park is an eco-system that thrives on co-existence: Muslim-owned local shops and restaurants are frequented by customers of all faiths and nationalities – and everyone turns up to the park at the first hint of a cloudless sky.

Members of the Muslim community I speak to, though, are aware that they were targets for attacks. Buhllessi Yann, a young man dressed in a green t-shirt and shorts, had come from the nearby Holloway neighbourhood to lay flowers at a makeshift memorial by the mosque (the attack actually took place outside the nearby Muslim Welfare House).

Yann was praying in the Holloway mosque on Sunday night when he heard what had happened. He went straight to Finsbury Park. “It is our community,” he says. “It is very shocking what happened. It is very sad.”

Then he adds: “We were feeling [something] was going to happen soon to the Muslim community.”

The police are assessing whether London’s mosques need more security, but the workers in the halal shops I visit have only a vague idea of what happened.

At Kausar Rafiq’s halal butcher shop, passers-by stop in to greet her and say: “Bad night.”

“They do whatever they want to do,” Rafiq says, when asked about police protection. “They won’t listen.”

For some locals, though, the scene of the attack has started new conversations about what it means to be from a minority religion in the city. David Curtis, who is Jewish and wears a skull cap, came down especially from his home in a north London suburb to the neighbourhood where his grandparents lived. He is deep in conversation with Bashir (who did not want to give his last name), a young Muslim man from Finsbury Park.

Curtis believes the police are doing their best to crack down on terrorists of all motivations. “These people are on their radar,” he says. “One suspects with more resources they could do more. They do what they can.”

Bashir, standing astride his bike, notes that with prayers happening several times a day, and worshippers often spilling into the street, there is little the Muslim community can do to protect itself against such attacks.

He himself was confronted in the street days earlier by a man who demanded: “Why are Muslims killing people?” He glances at the scene in front of us, the forest of cameras, commuters, and police. “It was outside this mosque,” he adds.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder