People: Breaking down barriers with laughter
On Valentine’s Day at 1pm there will be a celebration of the communities, cultures and faiths of Bristol on College Green.
As well as a one minute silence to remember the victims of violence across the world, people and communities are invited to “share in their experiences and hopes celebrating the multi cultural diversity of Bristol”.
Pamela Parkes meets one of the organisers Rizwan Ahmed – Cultural Awareness Officer for the Bristol Muslim Cultural Association
Having a laugh is a big part of Rizwan Ahmed’s job.
He speaks to thousands of people a year at schools, colleges and organisations in Bristol and across the South West, trying to break down preconceptions about Islam and the Muslim culture.
However, it is not a role that came naturally to him. It was only after he was “thrown in the deep end,” and had to learn on the job, did he discover that he had a knack of winning people round.
“After one talk I did an old lady came up to me and said she didn’t realise Muslims had a sense of humour…She was being serious because of what she had seen on TV and her perception was that was that was how all Muslims are – so they do get a big shock when they come across me sometimes.”
“Changed my opinion”
Working for the cultural association means Rizwan has to juggle many roles including organising the Islamic Fair at Eastville Park and acting as a Muslim chaplain at Bristol University. “It’s like anything in the voluntary sector you never end up doing one thing,” he said.
Introducing people to the realities of the Muslim faith is what spurs him on because “human interaction can make such a big difference”.
“Last week we had teachers visit from Cornwall and we did a mosque visit with them…Cornwall is not very multi-cultural and, after the visit, one teacher came up to me, she was actually quite emotional and said you have changed my whole opinion on Muslims and Islam.”
Sometimes though the audience can be more intimidating and at some organisations he may be “the first Muslim they are meeting” and “you know there is that extra pressure”.
“How are they going to relate to me? How are they going to react? Luckily I am down to earth and friendly and that seems to work. They see you as a human being again rather than the dehumanised image they have picked up maybe through TV or through their parents.”
“Lunatics do these things”
But as a community media spokesman Riz often finds himself at the sharp end of the debate about his religion. The recent tragedies in France have been especially hard.
“ I was on the radio…and I did say that as a nation we should be grown up enough that I shouldn’t have to be sat here right now. How many ways and how many times can I say that this has nothing to do with me.
“We should know that just because some lunatics do these sort of things, the fact that the happen to be Muslim does not automatically mean that this is what all Muslims believe – it is a fringe of minority lunatics who do this and we shouldn’t all be labelled.
“What it does is feed into a growing Islamaphobia – yes, it can become frustrating…With some of the things that have happened recently I have thought I cannot be bothered – I’ve just had enough and I don’t want to do it, but the next time something happens I think right I’ll just get on and do it.”
Married to the job
Riz was born in Pakistan and came to Bristol when he was just six months old. “I’ve live in Easton all my life, except for four years at university in London. I still live in Easton – I’ve never really gone away from the heart of Easton.”
Living and working in Easton means there is sometimes no escape from work and family pressures. With his two younger brothers married he said, tongue-in-cheek, that “the community are working on my marriage as a project.”
However, it may be a while before a wedding is on the cards. “One of my colleagues was asked is he married?” said Riz. “They said “no, he’s married to the community.”