Racially harrassed for having facial hair

Rajesh Thind faced harassment after growing facial hair to test social changes in the wake of the London bombings
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The Independent Online

At about 8.50am on the morning of Thursday 7 July 2005 I was waiting for the train to work on the southbound platform of the Piccadilly Line at Holborn underground station. That train never arrived. Twenty-six of its passengers didn't survive the journey.

That weekend I felt at first hand the impact of a close brush with terrorism; I was shaken, life felt precious. I stayed home for a few days, cooked for my girlfriend, didn't bother shaving. By the time I re-emerged the world around me had undergone a Kafkaesque transformation. With guns everywhere, stubbly-me with my rucksack and newspaper was getting a lot of attention.

People discreetly distanced themselves from me. Some stared, first at me, then at my rucksack, then back at me. The only minor consolation was that I'd never had so much space to myself on the Underground.

I wanted to tell people it was okay, that I was a little afraid too, but that we mustn't give in to that fear. But you can't really just go up to people and say that. Not during the rush hour anyway. A few days later, I was on a bus in East London when a middle-aged Rastafarian man got on, and to my surprise, sat next to me.

"So how's it feel brethren?" he asked me. "Erm, how's what feel?" I replied. "How's it feel now it's your turn to be bottom of the pile?" We had a good chat, the Rasta and I. We talked about riots and muggers and what it was like for him growing up a black man in Brixton in the early 1980s.

Then we talked about bombs and beards and what it was going to be like for "a brother of my persuasion" (he just assumed I'm Muslim; I'm not) from now on. Talking to him thawed the chill in the air, helped me get some perspective. I felt better. "Take it easy brother," he said as he stepped off the moving bus. He left me with an idea for a film that would involve growing my first proper beard.

I wanted to understand whether Britain is undergoing a permanent social transformation in the wake of the July suicide attacks. I realised that being a brown bloke with a beard was an excellent, if itchy means, to find out what life was like in Britain after the bombs.

To test the waters, I went for a tourist stroll around London with my rucksack on. I was strolling down the road near Downing Street when two policemen came up and asked what I was up to. I asked one of them whether I would look any less dodgy if I wasn't wearing a baseball cap and he said: "No, you'd still look dodgy." I asked if I would look less dodgy if I was wearing a suit and he said: "You'd look like a dodgy guy in a suit."

It might not be right that people are influenced by stereotypes, but in a world where news daily reinforces the idea of Public Enemy No.1 being a brown guy with a beard in a cave somewhere, it's hard not to be. People have a right to be afraid, and tolerance takes courage. But what cost our paranoia? And who picks up the tab?

The questions became even more urgent on 22 July, the day after a round of attempted attacks. At Stockwell Underground station armed police, on the hunt for a Muslim North-African man, had shot dead a Catholic Brazilian electrician on his way to work. The police said they couldn't promise it wouldn't happen again. Part of me felt surrounded; terrorists on one side, jumpy policemen with guns on the other.

I'd heard about this man who had made see-through rucksacks called "Freedom bags" so I stood outside Stockwell station with 30 bags in rush hour and offered free rucksacks to people. All but three of the bags were taken by non-whites - Latin Americans, blacks and Asians.

I became suspicious that "shoot-to-kill" was a misconceived response to the threat of suicide bombers. I wanted to take this to the top. Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had just been quoted calling for a public debate on policing.

I called his office to see if he would have a public debate with me.

"Travels with my what?," they said.

Having been turned down by the press office, I wondered whether Sir Ian wasn't the sort of belts and braces, down-to-earth sort of Cambridge graduate who would appreciate the direct approach.

I tracked him down to the Dimbleby Lecture in Shoreditch, conveniently close to my house, and pounced when he arrived for rehearsals in the afternoon. "Sir Ian!" "Yes?"

Sir Ian was very pleasant, heartily agreeing to meet with me for a public debate on policing after the bombs and asking me to sort it out with his press officer. A couple of days later, brimming with questions and limbering up for my debate with the Commissioner, I called her.

It seemed the Commissioner wouldn't be able to meet with me after all. Having failed to confront Sir Ian, I travelled to Beirut to visit Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, nicknamed the Tottenham Ayatollah.

I wanted to see whether the Government's decision to ban him from this country was effective. I took with me a mannequin to play a game called "Spot the terrorist". I dressed the mannequin in a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap.

I hoped to catch him off guard by asking him if it looked like a terrorist. "No, it looks like a homosexual," was his response.

Over the course of the four months that we were making Travels with My Beard, the more time that elapsed since the bombs, the less paranoia there was on the streets. But the longer my beard grew the more I felt scrutinised.

At a time when many of the second and third generations of Asian immigrants to this country are exploring their cultural and religious roots with a new- found confidence and curiosity, and a healthy lack of shame, being made to feel under suspicion is a dangerous, illiberal path that requires all of us to pay attention, even the beardless.

Mischief - Travels With My Beard, BBC3, Thursday 2 February, 10.30pm

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