I am a Palestinian British Muslim. I take great pride in my dual heritage. I have always had an abiding and deeply felt love for Britain and its way of life. I studied English literature, wrote in imitation of it and in extension of it, read avidly in it and worked tirelessly to teach it.
I have also maintained my Palestinian culture through its literature, its history and its people.
There shouldn’t be a price to pay for this duality, but there is. I have paid it always reluctantly, occasionally resentfully and once or twice bitterly. The bitter harvest is invariably sown when I dare to show any pride in my Palestinian origins, when – as a believer in dialogue and understanding – I work for peace in Israel and Palestine no matter how very modestly.
I was employed by one local education authority for some 12 years teaching in various schools. Here are some of the things that happened during that time.
A headteacher told me to keep race out of the school when – after I was racially attacked in a bank – I used the occasion to give an assembly on racial bigotry and intolerance. He said, “We don’t want these stories in our schools. Keep them to yourself.” On the same occasion a local education authority officer said, “Racial harassment is your problem, not ours. Don’t bring it here.”
A senior manager at the school asked how a football game was going and I answered that we (ie, England) were winning. “No lad. You’re not winning. We are.”
A senior adviser suggested, “Why don’t you look for senior posts in Hackney or Leicester? Many of your people live there.” And a headteacher, asked what I should do to get a senior post, said, “Leave – go to Brixton. You’ll make it there.”
Another senior adviser said, “You didn’t get the job, because we didn’t like the colour of – shall we say – your shoes.”
A headteacher said, “You will never get promotion in one of the local schools. Try the race relations industry. You should go far.”
During a meeting, a headteacher responded to a suggestion from me with, “We don’t want any of your foreign ideas here.”
Such statements, and they were not the only ones, I took as being part of the risks of the trade. They were, I thought, harmless and unintentional stupidities. I was very wrong. Their cumulative effect destroys the very essence of one’s humanity.
Then in the late 1980s I started teaching an adult evening class in literature. We did some work on the first world war poets. I decided to use three examples of modern war and protest writing: the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, extracts from the Israeli novelist Amos Oz and two poems from my then recently published anthology, entitled A Return: The Siege of Beirut.
Two students objected to the use of Palestinian poetry. They asked to be moved. They were moved. I was told by the director to “pack it in.” I withdrew from teaching adult classes.
Meanwhile, the students wrote to Selwyn Gummer MP objecting to the use of Palestinian poetry and alleging anti-Semitism. Mr Gummer rightly wrote to the local education authority. The LEA launched an enquiry lasting a term. I was asked to submit my anthology, which was scrutinised for anti-Semitic sentiment.
At the end of the term I was called into the headteacher’s office where an LEA official told me that I was exonerated of any improper behaviour or improper sentiment and that the matter was closed.
The official asked if I was happy. I told him that I was not, as I believed the whole episode to have been essentially unjust. For a man who had always believed passionately in a working relationship with Israel, the label anti-Semitic was highly offensive. He stood up before me, wagged his finger and shouted, “The matter is now closed. Be grateful. Now, get back to your teaching.”
I resigned and spent the next year writing freelance. I also continued my involvement in the Middle East through correspondence with persons interested in a negotiated peace. A year later, I got a new job. working in an advisory capacity for another LEA, where I was to stay for 12 years.
Here are some of the things said to me during that time.
“We used to shoot people like you” (on the occasion of walking into a room and saying ‘shalom’ instead of good morning).
“Oh computer. Wow. Bet you don’t know what that is” (when we received our new laptops as Ofsted inspectors).
“Of course you can’t inspect schools. You’re an Asian and as an Asian you don’t know how to criticise” (when an Ofsted report written by me was judged too soft).
“These people are pushy. You don’t have to be involved with them if you don’t want to” (when I put forward a proposal that we should work closely with the Anne Frank Educational Trust on the Anne Frank Moral Courage Award).
“You’re an Asian. You can’t say no” (when my workload had become unsustainable).
“You’re not in Beirut now” (on an occasion when I got excited over an Ofsted finding).
“Those four headteachers [all women] fancy you because of your race” (when evaluation feedback praised my work).
“I think that she’s Irish [referring to a headteacher who was not, in fact, Irish]. That’s why she likes you. You’re a Palestinian victim like her.”
“Go for it [when I suggested tongue in cheek that I should go for the post of chief education officer]. You might get it. They need a token black here.”
“Being a Conservative will get you nowhere. They all hate the likes of you” (when I revealed that I had voted for John Major).
In February 1999, I was asked to chair a group to look at the implications of the Macpherson report [Sir William Macpherson’s recommendations on the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes].
Having reported to the education committee by December 1999, I was then asked to chair another group to look at the implications of the Macpherson report on the whole of county council. Both jobs required some 40% of my time, I felt, to cover the task properly. As a result some other tasks suffered, especially in the early days.
I was consistently made to feel uncomfortable by an unsympathetic and pompous senior manager who felt that the Macpherson work was interfering with the real job.
By May 2000, a line manager complained about my work. I was immediately put on capability procedures. I went through the list of complaints with the head of the service, and these were removed one by one (except for a complaint that on two occasions my mobile phone rang during a meeting). I was consequently taken off capability procedures without a word of apology or an acknowledgement of unfairness.
My next reference for a job specifically stated that I had needed support at one point. I did not get the job and during the debrief I was told that the reference was the main obstacle despite my performance at interview being “inspirational”.
It was eventually conceded that my Macpherson work was causing an overload but nothing was done about this. The line manager was consistently impatient of my Macpherson work insisting that it came second to everything else.
The list of examples is endless. During an inspection of a special school in Sussex, a teacher came into the inspectors’ room and asked to see “that inspector – Mr Farouk McDoughnut or McDonald”, meaning me. At the time the mistake was mildly amusing. When it became my name at work, it was no longer so.
At one point the head of the school improvement and support service introduced me to a room full of newly qualified teachers as Mr Farouk McDoughnut. I received correspondence using that name. I became so sensitive to this abuse that when I obtained my PhD in 1997 and the head of the service sent a fax reading “Congratulations herr doktor”, I found it deeply offensive although I was sure that it was not meant to be so.
I have left out many examples of sexist comments about my alleged relationships with female headteachers. Presumably, it is impossible for a black man to have a successful professional relationship with white women headteachers.
It is difficult to work out in hindsight why I put up with such treatment. Perhaps I was frightened of the power that my seniors has over me. Maybe I felt intimidated by the hilarity with which much of these incidents were met and I did my want to be a spoilsport. It could even be that I just did not knew how to respond in order to protect myself.
I remember a fairly senior police officer in the Wiltshire Constabulary witnessing one of these racist incidents and angrily informed me that, in pursuance of The McPherson Report recommendations, he proposed to take the necessary legal action against my boss, who proudly sported his born again Christian credentials at all times. I pleaded with the senior policeman to let the matter drop as I was moving to a new job elsewhere and I wanted to make a fresh start.
I was wrong. I should have listened to his wise counsel. When I asked my Professional Association to take up my case, they dissuaded me from doing so. I wrote to the Racial Equality people who invited me for coffee and suggested that I drop the matter.
I did. Wrongly I now believe because I hear stories of precisely the same still happening in both Education Authorities today.