Published in the July 5 – July 18, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Marty Cheek

When I first heard about the June 18 terrorist attack on Muslims leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque after Ramadan prayers, a sickening feeling hit my gut. The attack on London Bridge, the Grenfell Tower inferno . . . England’s capital city has faced too many crises last month.

For a few years while working for a news service, I lived in North London. Near my Highgate flat stood an entrance to the Parkland Walk, a 2.5-mile nature trail created along a disused railway line. Sunday mornings often found me jogging along Parkland Walk’s wooded path. The run ended at a pedestrian bridge crossing over rail tracks to link the trail to the 110-acre public park that gave Finsbury Park its name.

After a misty jog one winter morning, I stood in the winter-kissed park with a postcard-perfect view of London’s famous skyline. The soft, golden sunrise illuminated the park’s barren trees. Distant city skyscrapers hung over Finsbury Park’s humble homes, shops and a classic church steeple ringing its bells. If framed in guild, that cityscape easily might have been a Turner painting at the National Gallery.

Tony Quinn, a construction worker friend, and his wife made their home in a council flat in Finsbury Park. Some evenings I’d drop by and we’d go for a pint at a nearby Irish pub. Sometimes we’d tour the neighborhood, Tony describing to me the strong ethnic and cultural diversity of humanity who made their homes and businesses here. Irish, Turks and people from African and Middle East nations, along with Christians, Muslims and Jews — all blended into a colorful Borough of Islington community.

One weekend we got caught in a flood of Arsenal club fans streaming the sidewalks to the nearby Underground station. After losing a match, they taunted Tottenham club fans with rude and rowdy remarks that made me laugh. I observed a powerful rivalry between the two teams’ fans that defied logic. Even in our athletic entertainment, we humans can be so tribal.

One Saturday morning, I stepped into a Finsbury Park shop for a haircut. Three barbers stood busy with patrons. All were black men. Immediately, the conversations stopped. Everyone looked at me. I felt like apologizing and stepping back out. But I had crossed the Rubicon. I asked a barber how much a haircut cost.

“You want a haircut?” he asked with a surprised look.

“Yes,” I replied.

“You want a haircut?” he asked again.

“Is that OK?” I asked.

“Let me ask,” he said, and stepped into the back of the shop. A minute later, he came back with another man. “You want a haircut?” the second man asked.

“How much do you charge?” I said.

He told me the price, and I said, “OK, can I get a haircut?” He smiled in a bemused way and nodded.

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Soon after, the first barber finished with his patron. As I climbed into his chair and he put a cloth around me, I cracked a dumb joke. Everyone in the shop broke into laughter. As shears buzzed and hair fell to the floor, we enjoyed a chat about life in Finsbury Park. Humor and humanity broke the tension.

Those London memories hit me when I heard about the recent Seven Sisters Road attack. I know Finsbury Park. I walked its streets, visited its shops, enjoyed a few pints at its Irish pubs, and got a haircut in a black men’s barber shop. Finsbury Park is not a touristy kind of place. It’s a place kind of like our own South Valley region. It’s a home for good people — including those who follow the words of the Koran.

I think now about the Muslims who make their home and live their faith here in South Valley. In following their Islamic beliefs, they often face challenges from others who fear them. The South Valley Islamic Community has for years sought to build a place to practice their faith in San Martin. Some locals have warned me the proposed Cordoba Center will train terrorists who will attack American citizens. Ignorance and fear of the faith of Islam make people believe silly things.

Maybe we can learn a lesson from London. The city has a tradition of defiance. Throughout its history London has always faced its fears and got through the crisis. In defiance against hate, Londoners know terrorists can’t win. They know good people with courage stand up against evil while refusing to lose their humanity.