Sunday morning, having peeled my eyes open from a deep slumber following a rather late night before (wedding festivities that saw me home well after pumpkin hour) I realised I had somewhere I had to be. Jumping up and out as fast as I could I still managed to be late. We had been told to arrive at 9.45am for a 10am departure. Having arrived at 10am and claimed my reserved seat, I and my fellow passengers waited a further half hour to ensure we had our full complement of journey companions. Gotta love Muslim timing!
In attendance were a wide range of nationalities. Mostly Muslims with some Non-Muslims sprinkled in. We had couples, families and singletons, young and old, all eager to discover the hidden Islamic history of London, the bustling multicultural cosmopolitan metropolis heart of the United Kingdom. The group of about 30 people were spread out over the two decks of the bus, the majority choosing the vantage point of the open air upper deck.
AbdulMaalik was our tour guide extraordinaire. Distinctive in his bright red fez – he has two fez (fezzes?), one of which he loans to a young boy on the tour. The Muslim History Tour crew all wear tops distinguishing them from the rest to the party. The slogan on their backs reads “DISCOVER UNTOLD STORIES.” And AbdulMaalik, with microphone in hand and battling to stay upright (not easy on a moving bus), regales us with these ‘untold stories’. The commentary that is provided is in depth and peppered with questions to keep it interactive and to keep us on our toes. Questions such as “Does anyone know where the crescent is to be found in Trafalgar Square?” and facts like “The first Muslim tried at the Old Bailey was accused of stealing’ 60 handkerchiefs” told me that AbdulMaalik certainly knows his stuff. But then he is the only professionally qualified Muslim tour guide in London. Prepare to be surprised at the scope of the tour!
Our double decker bus started the guided tour in Whitechapel outside East London Mosque which we were soon to discover was not its original site. The bus meandered its way through London taking us to some of the usual tourist spots and also some of the not-so-usual. The tour includes and is not restricted to:
- East London Mosque
- Regents Park Mosque
- Trafalgar Square
- Horseguards Parade
- Westminster Square
- The Embankment
- Tower Bridge
- The Tower of London
- St Paul’s Cathedral
- The site of the first Mosque in London (1895)
- The site of the first ever coffee shop in London (1652 – a time when drinking coffee was feared as it might turn you into a ‘Turk’)
- The site of a former Turkish bath (1894)
- The site of the first curry house in London established in 1801 (It was here before fish and chips!)
- The various London residences of Abdullah (William Henry) Quilliam who spent his latter years in the capital.
There are three hop-off stops on the tour where the bus parks up and we follow AbdulMaalik to sites not viewable from the sightseeing bus tour. It breaks up the journey and allows a stretch of the legs whilst adding a little bit more to the tour, unlike other London bus tours. We are also treated to some chocolates and sweets at a couple of points along the way. The tour is a round trip and we end where we start, back at the East London Mosque. Some people disembarked at our last hop off which was in the Liverpool Street area. However, should you leave at this point you will miss out on the chance to get behind the wheel of a big red London bus (for photos).
If you are in London and have a good three to four hours to spare, I would recommend this tour. I enjoyed it and it was a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning. Be aware that a tourist bus full of Muslims is a thing of curiosity and interest to other tourists (on other sightseeing buses) and there were a few snaps taken as we passed by. Some suggested packing should you decide to embark on the journey: be prepared for all weathers – you are in the United Kingdom after all and it is renowned for serving up all weathers in one day. Although on the day of the tour it was a lovely warm day, it did get a tad brisk and breezy on the open top upper deck so perhaps consider bring a blanket or wrap with you. Pack some light snacks and drinks to keep you (and particularly your munchkins, if you have them with you) fed and watered. And finally ensure you have plenty of camera space as there are photo (and selfie) opportunities galore.
To find out more about the bus tour and what else AbdulMaalik and his crew offer go to http://www.muslimhistorytours.com/en_GB. They offer private tours for schools, large families, work networks and so on. I have my eye on a halal afternoon tea river cruise so perhaps see you there?
Khalida Haque is a qualified and experienced counselling psychotherapist who has a private practice, is a clinical supervisor, group facilitator, freelance writer and counselling services manager as well as founding director of Khair Therapeutic Services CIC (www.khair-therapeutic.com). She loves playing tourist, sightseeing and connecting with the history of wherever and whoever she visits. Follow her on instagram, facebook and twitter.