My friend, the asylum-seeker

Six years ago, the writer James Fergusson met a young interpreter in Afghanistan. The bond they forged has taken them from the western front to London's East End - and exposed them both to the truth about multicultural Britain
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The Independent Online

My friend Mir has lived in London for six years now. I helped him seek asylum here when he fled his hometown, the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. I was a freelance correspondent for The Independent then, and he was a bright young fixer-interpreter I had hired for $40 a day.

My friend Mir has lived in London for six years now. I helped him seek asylum here when he fled his hometown, the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. I was a freelance correspondent for The Independent then, and he was a bright young fixer-interpreter I had hired for $40 a day.

Mazar was on tenterhooks in the spring of 1997. The previous year, the Taliban had swept all opposition before them. An unlikely coalition of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras - the so-called Northern Alliance - had fallen back on the city in preparation for a heroic last stand. I flew with Mir in an army helicopter to inspect the Alliance's western front. We didn't see the enemy but they were never more than a few miles away, secreted in dug-outs, watching and waiting for the fighting season to begin again. At dusk each evening the two sides traded insults on their field radios. Mir thought this battlefield ritual a wonderful game and asked to take over the handset.

"Talib, Talib, Talib," he growled. "Your mother was a camel and your father was a Pakistani spy."

"Spawn of Satan," crackled the outraged respondent. "Your offspring are all bastards. With Allah's help we will soon put an end to your infernal mating with dogs and donkeys."

"Hoh, did you hear that?" Mir whispered, wide-eyed at the profanity. "Dogs and donkeys! Can you imagine?"

Mir and I soon became friends.

The western front was held by the ousted governor of Herat, the legendary Mujaheddin leader Ismail Khan. We drank tea together in a ruined farmhouse, where Khan made disparaging remarks about his Uzbek allies in Mazar. His attitude had important implications for the integrity of the Northern Alliance. Back in Mazar, therefore, I faithfully wrote up the interview for the paper, dictating the copy to London at budget-sapping expense via a borrowed satellite phone. London, somewhat to my surprise, ran the story. To my even greater surprise, the World Service picked it up and immediately rebroadcast it, in the local language, right across Afghanistan.

Later that night Khan was arrested by two Uzbek goons and beaten up for "helping foreign spies". I left the country filled with foreboding, heading north to research another story. A fortnight later, Mir was working for a BBC TV crew in Mazar whose cameras were stolen at gunpoint by a local Hazara militiaman. Mir helped the BBC to retrieve their equipment. The Hazara was caught and, to Mir's horror, summarily shot. Other Hazaras swore to kill him in revenge. Mir ran for it.

He arrived at Heathrow the following year. I had told him that I would help him into Britain, but that once he was here he would be on his own, barring emergencies. That was our deal. I'd had nightmare visions of an asylum-seeker sleeping indefinitely on my sofa, but I needn't have worried. Mir was a proper Pashtun, the son of a well-known Sharia judge, and his word was his bond. With the help of an Afghan friend who was already resident in London's East End, he quickly landed his first job, washing up in a Pakistani-run eatery in Upton Park. Within a month he had found his own place to live, and had enrolled in medical classes at college. He intended to become a doctor, he declared; one day he would return to Afghanistan and help his own people. I took him to see Tony Banks, his MP. With Banks's help, Mir was able to jump the enormous queue and was soon granted full political asylum. I was hugely relieved: it seemed the experiment was going to work.

I stayed in touch, now that the pressure was off, and even tried to educate him in some of the ways of the West. I took him to Tesco's, the seaside, even into a Soho porn shop. There was a pleasing symmetry in the way that the guide had become the guided. And yet, as I showed Mir around, I realised that I was seeing a side of London that I had never known before. I went to visit him in his Newham bed-sit and was astounded by the multiculturalism of his adopted borough. The market by Upton Park tube station resembled a Pakistani bazaar more closely than I had ever thought possible, here in the city of my birth.

He took me to another market in Woolwich where he had begun to dabble in a new sideline, a mobile phone service that he called "unlocking": rewriting a unit's internal programming on a laptop, in such a way that its user would enjoy cheaper calls forever to any rival mobile network in the country. There was no shortage of customers for this service, for which Mir charged £10. Ingenuity, after all, is a classic Afghan trait.

Mir adapted the way he spoke, too. After a few months, an unmistakably Cockney glottal stop had crept into his English. I understood that this was a street survival tactic, an example of the kind of social dissembling that Afghans call taqiyya. He never quite mastered the English letter "v" however. Once, after a concert at Acton Town Hall given by a Pashtun singer called Abdullah Makouri ("I have seen the London life, in the north, the south, the east and west," Makouri sang, "But all the pubs in London are not worth a single glass of water from the hands of an Afghan girl"), Mir announced his intention to visit Wales.

"Wales?" I said. "What on earth for?"

"Because the girls in the hill willages there are all wirgins, innit?" he replied.

His attempts to make sense of his strange new world were often touching, but there was no hiding the fact that he was desperately lonely in London. He had been brought up in the traditional Pashtun way, in the bosom of his extended family. At home he would have looked to his family, especially to his father, for moral and practical guidance in life. In particular, Mir needed his father to arrange his marriage. Exile, therefore, meant that his life had been put on hold. Separated from all that he held dear, alone and frustrated in a Western city filled with temptation, there was a real risk that he would stray from the righteous path.

I worked abroad for a year. When I came back, Mir had changed. He had a hard look in his eyes and he kept talking about his Muslim "brothers". His appearance was also disquieting. He had shaved his head and was wearing a knitted white skullcap that was instantly recognisable from the newspapers: it was identical to that worn by Abu Hamza, the hook-handed cleric of Finsbury Park. Then, as now, Hamza was front-page material, the embodiment of the West's worst fears about Islamic fundamentalism. The skullcap was no coincidence: Mir had indeed attended one or two of Hamza's sermons at Finsbury Park.

Would Mir have gone further down the radical route? Or was the skullcap no more than a piece of sartorial taqiyya? I never found out; because in 2000, his older cousin and two brothers arrived in London, having smuggled themselves into Dover in the back of a truck and everything changed for Mir. As the only decent English-speaker among them, and the only one with any income, Mir became the de facto head of this new family branch.

The four of them were scheming to bring over the rest of the extended family - parents, wives, sisters and children - but their plans were derailed by 9/11 and the subsequent American assault on their country. Mir, meanwhile, had been networking fervently in London's burgeoning Afghan community. He knew an astonishing number of Afghans, who tended to live in tribally or ethnically organised clusters all over the capital's periphery. As a successful asylum applicant, he was able and eager to help his compatriots negotiate the Home Office's ever-changing maze of asylum rules. He never charged them for his services.

His selflessness soon paid off. At the end of 2001, a month before his 24th birthday, he was nominated to attend the UN peace talks in Bonn. It was a signal honour for Mir. The Afghan delegation from Britain, one of many invited from around the world, numbered no more than half-a-dozen and he was its youngest member. Mir also travelled to Rome where he met Zahir Shah, the exiled monarch of Afghanistan. The Abu Hamza skullcap was cast aside: when Mir returned from Italy, he did so in a smartly cut new suit.

Mir was doing fine. The world's media were suddenly interested in Afghanistan again, which was good news for an ambitious young man with considerable experience as a journalist's fixer. He landed jobs at the BBC, and became a key researcher on Michael Winterbottom's award-winning film about two Afghan asylum-seekers, In This World. Yet, "hach guli ba char mast", as the Afghans say: there is no rose without thorns. Things went seriously wrong for the family in the summer of 2002.

Mir's cousin, Gulabuddin - a gentle professor of advanced mathematics back home - had been doing a spot of mini-cabbing around the East End at nights. Mir phoned me one morning in despair: his cousin had been arrested and charged with raping a female passenger. I had told Mir that he was on his own once he was established in Britain, barring emergencies. This seemed to qualify. We went to see him in Wormwood Scrubs. There was no doubt that Gulabuddin, who had a wife and three children back in Afghanistan, had been a fool. He admitted that consensual sex had taken place; but nothing he said convinced me that he had actually raped his passenger. Out in the prison car park, therefore, I offered to stand bail for him.

Mir, however, declined. His cousin, he said, although innocent of rape, was nevertheless guilty of adultery, a sin for which he was "not yet showing proper shame". He pointed out that if he had committed such an act back in Mazar, he would have been stoned to death. One or two weeks more in prison, he reasoned, would help Gulabuddin achieve the proper level of contrition. There could be no better illustration of the gulf of understanding between us. Family honour was everything to these Afghans. Mir later put it about that Gulabuddin had been imprisoned for running someone over in his car. Theirs was a topsy-turvy moral universe, in which it was preferable by far to be guilty of manslaughter rather than adultery.

Gulabuddin ended up with rather more than a couple of weeks to contemplate his crime, however. His Old Bailey trial at the end of 2002 was a disaster. He failed miserably to defend himself in the dock. I appeared as a character witness, but there was nothing I could do to help him. The judge sentenced him to eight years. "My father will say that I did not look after my family properly," was Mir's sad response. Just after the sentencing Mir was offered a job at the Afghan embassy in Rome, a permanent job equivalent to the rank of First Secretary. It was probably the lucky break of his life, but he felt unable to abandon London at a time of such deepening crisis for his family, and he didn't accept it.

At the time of writing Gulabuddin is still in jail, still protesting his innocence, 21 months after he was first imprisoned. After the trial, Mir and I hired another barrister to launch a High Court appeal. Leave to appeal was granted in April, although no date for the hearing has yet been set. There was another positive development this spring when Mir's parents and two sisters finally made it to London. It was a joyous relief for Mir, who was at last able to pass responsibility for the moral well-being of the family back where it belongs.

That is not to say that his struggle is over, however. Mir, now living incognito, is still the family's only proper English-speaker and remains their main source of income. There are currently six adults living in his one-bedroom East London flat. There is also Gulabuddin to worry about. And the family are still not fully reunited: Gulabuddin's wife and children were forced to wait behind in Pakistan, where they wait and wonder if they will ever see him again.

One thing is certain: the saga of the Kandahar Cockney is not over yet.

'Kandahar Cockney: A Tale of Two Worlds', is published on 7 June by Harper Collins, £16.99

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