With over 270 different nationalities, 300 different languages spoken, and three million of its nine million inhabitants born outside the UK, London is the very definition of a world city. But it’s easy to forget that behind every one of those three million expats lies a story of cultural upheaval and adaptation, of adventurousness and often bravery, as people travel from very different countries to a vast, immensely complex city with 2,000 years of history woven into its streets.
Imagine you’re someone who’s spent your whole life in a small village in Dorset, and suddenly you’re trying to navigate Mumbai or Tokyo or Los Angeles. The sense of culture shock can be almost overwhelming. And this is in an age when greater global movement and global awareness has made it easier to do so. Now put yourself in the shoes of Tutu El-Kashef’s father, Mahmoud, who arrived in London from Aysut in central Egypt back in 1974.
The Egyptian community in London is thriving, but when Tutu’s father arrived, he was part of a wave of immigration to the city that had started in the 1950s. Mahmoud had been working as a purchasing manager in an Egyptian university and the General Manager at the Grand Metropolitan Hotel in London head-hunted him to work at his hotel. It was initially a temporary posting, but Mahmoud’s talent and ambition made a big impression, and he was offered a full-time post and ended up working at various hotels in the capital.
“My dad loved working in London, loved the culture and loved the people,” says Tutu, a 27-year-old graphic designer and the youngest of four children all born in the UK. “When he went back to Egypt to catch up with family and friends he met my mum, Samya, and so they came back to the UK together, before they got married, so she could see what it was like and whether she would be interested in living here with him.”
Tutu’s parents decided to take the plunge and begin their married life in London. But adapting to their new environment could be a challenge at times.
“Egypt was very Islamic, a very religious culture,” says Tutu. “The education system was very faith-based, it had never taught him about other parts of the world, other ways of life. And he spent time in the army too, so patriotism was drilled into him. It took time got him to adjust and understand there isn’t only Egypt, that there are completely different ways of living and being.”
As for Tutu’s mother, she was initially crippled by shyness. “My dad told me a story about how when she first came to the UK they used to share lodgings with an Englishman, very meticulous, very tidy, which my mum thought was an amazing trait. Anyway, she was so scared to go near his stuff or change anything that she used to stay completely out of the way. Eventually this man noticed my mum and asked my father how long she’d been living there. My father said, ‘A year.’”
Tutu’s father got on well with their English flatmate, who helped them integrate into English life, and soon Tutu’s eldest sister, Sally, was born. This being the 70s, property in London was cheap, so they moved into a large four-bedroom house in West Kensington.
“When my dad tells me how cheap it was, I’m like, ‘I don’t need to know that, Dad!’” The house was actually too big, and given Tutu’s parents had been used to living among lots of friends and relatives (they both came from large, extended families), Tutu’s mum in particular found it difficult. “It was an old house and she would hear noises. It was only things like the old copper pipes in the plumbing, but she got quite scared, especially at night, so they wanted to live somewhere there were more people.” Eventually they settled in Acton in West London, where they still live.
West London is where you’ll still find most of the Egyptian community in London. “West Kensington, Edgware Road, Notting Hill Gate and Fulham – these are the areas people tended to settle,” says Tutu. “My parents would go for picnics with other Egyptian expats in Hyde Park. It was a very normal life, very relaxed.”
Which isn’t to say they didn’t have to deal with prejudice and racism. “When you were looking for an apartment back in the 1970s, some people used to put these signs in the window saying ‘No Coloureds’. It was tough for them at times. But my dad was not a confrontational person, and because he had my mum to think about, he did his best to ignore it. Besides, I think what is most important is to have a sincere heart, and that way you’ll always have people that reach out to you, as his English flatmate did with my father.”
One of the great benefits of living in any multicultural city is the melting pot of cuisines, and Tutu’s parents helped to contribute to London’s now dizzying range of flavours with their enthusiasm for cooking.
“My family is very passionate about food, there are a lot of chefs in the family. But we’d also eat out in places on the Edgware Road, which has not just Egyptian restaurants but also Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese.”
Tutu would also accompany his dad to the local bakers and butcher shops, where his father would spend his time bartering in Arabic. Growing up in the UK, where prices tend to be fixed, Tutu found it both fascinating and excruciating. “I would find it quite uncomfortable to watch, but the exchanges between him and the vendor were so natural, and that’s how my dad makes friends, bartering in this very fun kind of way, as he would back in Egypt. In a broader sense, that’s something I learned from him– not to simply accept the face value of something, to challenge the norm.”
As soon as Tutu’s parents settled in London, they started to send money back to their families. “The conversion from sterling to Egyptian pounds back in the 1970s was huge, so my dad would wire money back to his brothers in Egypt, helping them establish and grow businesses there. He’s used wire transfers throughout his career because he didn’t have the time to be travelling and bringing money home. It was a big part of his life, he wouldn’t have managed without it.”
As for Tutu himself, like any child born in the UK but whose parents weren’t, he’s had to learn how to straddle two cultures. “There is a difference between me and my parents’ mentally,” says Tutu. “They’ve grown up in a culture where patriotism is very important, but I’ve grown up with ideas like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, so for example, we might have very different opinions of Egyptian journalists who are criticising the government at the moment.”
In terms of Tutu’s upbringing, things couldn’t be more different from his father’s. “As a born and bred West Londoner, I’ve got friends who are mixed-race, black and white, and from all kinds of cultural and religious backgrounds,” he says. But he remains acutely aware of what a big step it is to up sticks and start a life in a new country.
“I asked him recently, ‘Why did you take such a big risk?’ If you told me right now to go and live in, say, Japan, leaving behind my family, it would be a very difficult decision to make. But he said he wanted to discover what else was out there. My dad had a real spirit of adventure.”
It’s this spirit that makes London the dynamic, vibrant, world city it is today.