Baron Arild Rosenkrantz was likely to have been immersed in the philosophical meanderings of anthroposophy while commissioned to create the stained glass windows adorning what is now Cadogan Hall. A ‘spiritual seeker’, he was prominent within the Rudolf Steiner branch of philosophy. The movement assumes the existence of a spiritual world, which may be intellectually experienced through a process of heightened imagination and thinking rather than sensory experience. Previously a member of the Theosophical Society, Steiner had become frustrated by the Eastern, specifically Indian, influence upon the Society’s teachings. In an attempt to counterbalance the diminishing influence of Western thought, he founded Anthroposophy, which was instead based on Christianity and the natural sciences. The theosophists, however, persevered with their post-west pursuit of esoteric philosophy and became influential in the Indian Independence movement as well as Buddhist modernism and Hindu reform. In a subtle nod to theosophy, the architect of Cadogan Hall, Robert Fellowes Chisholm, was also deeply influenced by Eastern philosophical and artistic traditions, defining the skyline of Chennai in India with what became known as Indo-Saracenic or Muslim-style architecture. In a departure from the Greek-inspired architecture of colonial times, he utilised local aesthetic trends and materials traditional to buildings across the city, transforming the city’s urban design.

Gazing at the gallery of the former New Christian Science Church that Baron Rosenkrantz and Chisholm helped to design and create, I am struck by their diverging approaches to East and West. Could their paths have crossed sufficiently for a philosophical deliberation to have occurred? These and other musings preoccupy me on a sweltering June evening, the stuff of Indian summers, as I wait backstage in Cadogan Hall, the setting for a performance I have waited and worked years for. To calm my nerves I visualise myself, a tall, thin, intense young man with a concentrated gaze striding onto the stage oozing an air of reassured confidence. How different I must seem from the casual youngster who had everyone doubled up with laughter at a dinner party in East London just a few days ago. That evening I was on form, entertaining everyone with raucous stories of generational spats from my homeland, and dangerously extravagant acts of chivalry in the sun-soaked nightclubs of Ibiza, hoping to impress. With a flourish I would acknowledge the applause and position my instrument. A hush would descend in the auditorium. My subtle nuance of touch majestically captivating the audience with such miracle of verve that they would be in rapture.

A few months later I am sat in an organic, vegan cafe in South East London that serves the best fairtrade coffee in town. Shabby chic decor and sprawling sofas on which we lounge construct an ambient vibe that wouldn’t be out of place in a backpacker hostel in Pushkar: a sprinkling of Western fusion in the East. But here we are, in reverse, as eclectic sounds from Transglobal Underground to Alt-J drift into the aural space around us. Conversation intersperses with questioning, to which I submit with the grace of a man well-used to navigating the politics of performativity.

Up until the age of six I was a carefree child who would play out in the streets of the capital of the Soviet Republic in which I was born, day and night. That year saw my father abandon the family and the death of both my grandparents. My mother’s response to tragedy was to become one of the few per cent of women in our country to wear the hijab. People would tell her not to wear it or they would recommend that she wear it in a different style but the more they said these things the more she would rebel and defy them. By the time I was seven, I recall my mother explaining that, while struggling with multitude layers of grief and loss, financial hardship and constant objections to her choices, she had completely neglected to enrol me into school. An unruly child and not well-behaved, she struggled to get me into good schools without success, and she didn’t have the money to bribe anyone so her only option was to persuade her former specialist music school to take me. An improbable prodigy, I was unable to read, write or count, never mind read music, and had not once even held a violin. My mother was undeterred. She bought a violin and all of a sudden I was expected to practise for hours and hours endlessly. Determined that I gain entry into the class of the internationally-renowned violin teacher in our country, barely literate and a novice, I was driven to compete with students who had been practising since the age of three years old. My mother enlisted the help of a friend who taught me to play and, against all the odds, I was admitted, one of just a handful of students, at the relatively mature age of nine years old. 

I could never attribute this achievement to talent. Instead I credit my success to intense training from a young age and a mother who reinforced the discipline of practise as instilled by the teacher. My theory conjures up images of the hot-housing of young maestros by communist countries battling Western cultural imperialism. I would practise incessantly and could never convince my mother to be less strict about my hours or economical with the truth when asked to report the details of my practise sessions to my teacher, who would easily be able to tell anyway because there are certain exercises that we would have to do in a particular sequence and we had to do all of it without missing any part out because otherwise a certain twist of the neck or something that we hadn’t worked out would come up and she would just know that we had practised much less or without concentration. She would be very cross and constantly threaten to kick us out of her class, and she did actually kick people out of her class who were not getting A+. A or A- just wasn’t good enough. We had to get A+. 

While she poured her energy into the music studies of her young son, supervising my practice and accompanying me on international music competitions, my mother found herself simultaneously grappling with theological misgivings. People were constantly telling us that music is haram and my mum was forever trying to figure this out. Someone would send her some ayats (verses from the Qur’an) claiming to prove music is haram and my mum would be so anguished, but then someone else would send something else that proves music is not haram, to her relief. She would also be constantly consulting Imams and one told her that music was fine as long as you don’t profit from it. She was always grappling with this issue and trying to ascertain a semblance of absolute truth. I still continue to receive text messages of religious guidance from relatives. They send them sincerely because they genuinely worry for my soul, but I tell them ok I am just going to play music a little while longer don’t worry I won’t do it forever, and that soothes their concern. 

The government of the former communist republic I am from, enthusiastically supported my precocious talent, providing funding for me to travel to music competitions abroad. However, with no other source of income, these lauded trips overseas were actually an illusory lifestyle that navigated a path of penniless fame. Instead of staying at five star hotels with other entrants, my family and I would head somewhere cheaper and opt not to have breakfast included, buying food at the supermarket instead. We were immersed in this bourgeois existence, where it was perceived that luxury was free to us. I was as little as twelve and people would greet me with great formality and respect. They would always make sure they never said anything wrong in front of me. Everyone was formal and deferential because I was a student of the most famed violin teacher of my region and because I had travelled abroad. It was assumed that we dined in fancy international restaurants and visited expensive bars when in reality we would eat packed lunches in the park and stay in budget hotels. 

The price of accomplishment was a childhood dominated by immense pressure. I was no longer allowed to play out because I was required to practise incessantly and when I wasn’t practising I was expected to read a book on Jascha Heifetz or study classical music. I had no access to television or the internet and would relish the occasional times I could venture out of my house on the premise of going to buy bread or to put the rubbish out. My mother had good reason to restrict my movements. Men in my neighbourhood like to brawl, so if a man passes you on the street and somehow feels slighted by the way you looked at him, he immediately wants to fight. I was a very bad fighter but if someone wanted to exchange blows I would never refuse and would always end up with black eyes and considerably worse off than the other guy. As my teenage years approached, men would fight me more aggressively. If they knew I was a violinist they would demand respect for no reason, and obviously I would not give it, so they would try to break a finger.

Only one opportunity existed to escape the endless hours of practising – prayer. I would do the longest prayers just to have a break from the violin and from music. It was really enjoyable. It was more of a meditation and escape from the monotony and pressure of constantly practising. On a Friday I would make sure that I went to the mosque and sit there for hours, elated by an intention to practise only for two hours instead of four that day. When I would get home my mum would be frantic and ask where I had been and when I told her I had been at the mosque she couldn’t say anything. It was not long before even this loophole was closed when crackdowns on alleged Islamist terrorists caused my mother to worry that I would get picked up by the security forces or be mistaken for an extremist, so she put a halt to my mosque visits. My mother’s ambition for her son drew unkind whispers alleging exploitation but I swear this wasn’t the case. It was she who sacrificed so much, putting my music study above everything. 

The spiritual serenity and peace that I had experienced in mosques in my home country, was something I was keen to emulate upon my arrival in London, with less happy results. On visits to the UK capital I had been to Regents’ Park Mosque but soon after my arrival as a student I decided, with a friend who was interested in Islam, to visit another, more local mosque that I had admired for its distinctive dome. Me and my companion were met at the entrance by men wearing green turbans. They saw that we were new and young. I was only sixteen, and they pressured me to stay after the prayers, which we reluctantly agreed to do. Suddenly we found ourselves in a gathering with a small group of Salafis who were expressing very anti-Western sentiment and ultra-conservative opinions. The experience shocked and frightened me, particularly as the men insisted on driving me and my friends back to school. I was terrified they would come back and ask me to attend another meeting or that the embassy would discover I had been to this meeting or my teachers would find out or even Islamophobes in my profession who would seize on this. It was a few years before I went to a mosque again.

From the moment I got into my violin teacher’s class, and as long as I managed to remain in her class, I understood that my destiny would lead me to travel outside my country. She had been teaching students for 50 years and many of them had attained great heights. For a long time I dreamed of a future studying in France. People used to say you go to Paris and you walk into a cafe and you have all of my country’s elite sitting in there. However, I ended up winning a place at a prestigious music school in London. I didn’t like it, it was gloomy, everything was on the right-hand side, the taps were tiny and either very cold or scalding hot. People were in the street smiling even though the weather was so bad and I couldn’t understand how they could possibly be cheerful. My school was one of the most prestigious music institutions in the world, yet all I could imagine was that I must have not done well in my auditions at various schools to have ended up there. Everything was alien. In the morning assembly the headmaster would read from the Bible and the choir would sing. Adapting was very difficult. I was used to being treated in a deferential manner, which is why it was such a culture shock when I came to study in England. I had been a highly respected figure but as soon as I arrived in the UK, all that was gone.

A Muslim teenager from a former communist republic, I found this acclimatisation acutely fraught. The cultural chasm between myself and my schoolmates seemed achingly vast. English people like to make jokes about anything and they get over those jokes almost instantly but the way that I was brought up there are just some things you do not joke about. When I first arrived I couldn’t take a lot of jokes and I had never been exposed to people who would say something just to get a reaction out of you, just for a laugh whether they meant what they said or not. I just didn’t get it at all. Culturally it was completely alien to me and as a consequence I came across as humourless and reactionary. I studied with many talented musicians but was scandalised to see the majority hardly practised, often distracted by the illicit pleasures of teenage partying. Aesthetics training, discipline and professionalism had been drilled into me from a young age but when I arrived in London that all faded away. Yet, confusingly, despite the relaxed attitude of my fellow students, there existed a fiercely competitive environment, like a constant psychological warfare. It was never encouraged to be a team player. I didn’t know English very well and I didn’t get the social references of my peers. Being a violinist, I just obsessed over the few opportunities I would get to achieve validation and the respect that I craved. I didn’t want anyone to hear me practise or to know that I practised often, so I would try to get a key to another building and practise from 4–7am in secret. Before long, I came to realise that there were times when I did not need to play perfectly and instead could compensate by being more social in interactions with other people. Completely locking myself away in a room and practising, which was what I did, meant that I earned a reputation of being a robot, a machine. A post-communist cliché. 

This shedding of my former self became apparent to me during a recent trip back home, my first visit in ten years. I was asked a question in a typically allegorical way. An acquaintance whispered: ‘In the UK do you have too many blue skies?’ In Russian slang ‘blue’ means ‘gay’ so it was their way of asking whether there are many gay people in the UK, except they didn’t want to actually use the word gay! I realised that this etiquette and formality that informs what you can or cannot say depending on the status of the person you are talking to or the respect you afford those who are within earshot, was now alien to me too. I remember thinking, oh my God I once communicated in this manner, and I thought why can’t you just say the word ‘gay’ so I started saying that the skies are very grey and cloudy so he hesitantly clarified: ‘No, you know: man-and-man’ and I said ‘Oh you mean gay?’ and the guy nearly fell off his chair and said ‘don’t say that word, your mother is just sitting over there’. Words are more than just a medium for description in the society of my birth. They are perceived to have such essence that if you utter a word you fear, it is almost as bad as if that word was happening to you. In comparison, the manner of communication that confronted me upon arriving in the UK, was so much more direct. Of course, the English say what they don’t mean and don’t mean what they say but in my country I was taught to avoid saying anything that might be remotely taboo. When I came to the UK to study, of course I met gay people and I simply did not know how to behave because I had been so conditioned to fear homosexuality. Some students I boarded with knew exactly what was going through my head and they would do things like walk into my room completely naked while I was praying. To them it would just be a joke, or a prank to wind me up but I just couldn’t handle this type of so-called humour and I would lose control, which of course they knew I would, but I couldn’t help but react. Sometimes it would get physical so I was lucky not to get expelled in my first week! Eventually, I realised that if I did not rise to the bait, I would no longer be harangued.

At home I was treated as if I was a great prodigy but looking back, I realise I was nothing more than lucky. I was fortunate to get into such a prestigious teacher’s class. I was lucky to get into a London music school without knowing any English and I was lucky to pass my bachelor’s degree because I struggled with the academic side and all I wanted to do was perform at concerts and practice. My critical inner voice sees only an abundance of compromises, which should have curtailed my success, but somehow didn’t. Perhaps it was talent that kept me afloat after all. Financial hardship is not new to anyone attempting to forge a career in the arts. Combine this with the struggle to adapt to unfamiliar social conventions and the potential for a combustible situation can easily arise. I found myself constantly getting into trouble and being disciplined for my ‘attitude’. 

After completing my secondary school education at the private boarding music school, I auditioned for and was accepted by many other higher education institutions but was unable to accept due to lack of a scholarship. My only option was a school in Canada but two weeks before I was due to leave, I was invited alongside one of my teachers to a concert. At the reception afterwards I was introduced to a man who asked why I was going to study in Canada, to which I explained that it was only because I had failed to get a scholarship that would enable me to live in the UK. The next day a renowned higher education institution called me to offer a full scholarship, explaining that the man I had been introduced to at the concert would be covering my living expenses. They asked me to immediately send them the documentation they needed to sort out my visa, as well as my bank details so they could transfer the money into my account that moment. To be suddenly financially secure was a bewildering experience for my teenage self. Although I had been granted a full scholarship to attend the music boarding school, it did not cover the school holidays and I was unable to afford to travel back to my country. Term times were like a holiday because I had meals and a bed but half terms and end of terms were difficult. I had been looked after by a host family that my mother had paid, having found funding from somewhere. When the money for that ran out I stayed somewhere else. It was in a basement and there were five or six other students in one room and it was awful. We were only occasionally given something to eat. Our hosts felt that it was enough that they were putting a roof over our heads. As I was under 18 my visa did not allow me to work so I got a paper round in the mornings earning £30 a week so I could buy food. It was a gruelling experience. The bag in which I carried newspapers was so heavy and I had to cycle up a huge hill weighed down on one side. The lady I worked for wanted me to arrive at 4am and I would finish my round about 7.30am. Every morning I struggled up the hill on my bike but Saturday and Sunday were the worst because at weekends newspapers have lots of supplements and my bag was so much heavier. I hated it. This unwelcome insight into the exploitation that occurs in the black market only added to my steely ambition to succeed. I did the paper round for several half-terms and summer holidays but eventually I couldn’t handle it any more. From then on, I learned to get by on my wits.

Studying at university marked a new phase in my life. Fellow students came from ordinary state schools and would be hugely impressed upon learning which music school I had attended. But to me it was just a place I had become ‘Londonised’. The first few months at that school had been very painful. It was probably hard for everyone but I took it extremely personally because a lot of the banter and jokes were about me being a Muslim. I didn’t want to go through the same thing at university and also it took a little while to establish myself and start playing at concerts so I really got into conspiracy theories and politics to feel a part of something. I would hang around Speaker’s Corner and romanced an evangelical Christian girl: Our relationship consisted of her sending me links about Muslims committing atrocities somewhere in the world and me sending her links about Christians doing something similarly cruel. My politicisation evolved into something far healthier as I gradually lost touch with my school friends and found myself hanging around with politically active and socially conscious fellow students. Suddenly I found friends with whom I could debate issues intellectually and have grown-up conversations and I finally felt at home with this worldly and internationalist atmosphere.

Political maturation was not necessarily matched by a mature approach in other areas of my life. My sponsorship did not continue after my first year at university, because I had no idea that my sponsor had certain expectations. It was entirely my fault. I was young and I didn’t realise that it was the custom to call my sponsor every week. He never said it but now I realise. He had hoped I would visit him regularly and play for him but it just didn’t occur to me, and no one told me that I had to nurture any kind of relationship with my sponsor. Even worse, I suddenly found my bank account was flushed with money. Instead of spending wisely and frugally, I called up my mother and told her to come to London, telling her I could take care of her. I then rented a two-bedroom flat with the funds that my sponsor had intended I should use for my music. He was very disappointed and at the time I didn’t get it at all but now I feel sure he felt that I had frittered away his money. I wouldn’t blame him at all for feeling that way.

Negotiating informal and formal emotional relationships is the height of intricacy. Yet British law is impossible. My visa prevented me from earning money so I could not be paid for performances. In the eight years I have been in the UK, corresponding with Britain’s heightened obsession with immigration against a backdrop of Brexit, I have been astonished at how recalcitrant conditions have become for international students. Those with any plans to stay on after their studies are expected to earn unrealistic salaries and the rules are continuously tightened. When my British visa expires then I cannot fly because I have to apply for a new visa and I have to wait a couple of months and then I have to apply for a European visa, and wait another month or two. So I am missing out on so many concerts and competitions just because I have to re-apply for my visas. The bureaucracy is very communist. The authorities now check whether students are indeed studying. After each lesson, teachers are compelled to sign forms to confirm the student is fulfilling the terms of their visa and attending the lesson. It is all very big brother and communist.

The generosity of benefactors, because there is no other way to obtain a visa or to survive, is invaluable. I am from the East, and my ability to remain in the West is so awkwardly dependant on the goodwill of others in addition to the whim of government. But as far as I am concerned that tension is tolerable, because in order to realise my ambitions as a violinist, I need to be here. Maybe I have convinced myself that the culture of classical music here is not part of our culture back home. It is ‘other’. I am everyone’s dream migrant, the good immigrant, yet the relationship between myself and my benefactors has the potential to veer into the symbiotic. Good intentions can become oppressive or enabling as the power balance is mired in expectation. I have had little choice other than to be at the mercy of the kindness of others. My teacher of the past six years has looked after me like a mother, being ever patient during the many times I lacked maturity and didn’t respond to her emails. She was the one who persuaded him to delete my facebook and Instagram and step away from Twitter as she worried my politicised posts could damage my reputation, particularly when I was going through my conspiracy theory phase. This music prodigy from the East has been wholly subsumed by the West. For now, I feel sure there is no other way to survive.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: