Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 2

Public meeting regarding an application
to build a new mosque and community centre,
9 Bath Street, Leicester,
Tuesday 20 January 2009

Well, if anything sounds prosaic, surely this one does. Having said that, I should point out that when I drew up the long list for my top ten of the year, this one sneaked in at the bottom, but the more I thought of it, they higher it has climbed. In the end, it was one of two occasions which led me to think, "That's Leicester for you!" (The other such occasion, on a larger scale and to greater effect, is at number one in this top ten countdown for 2009.)

I’d seen an article in the Leicester Mercury the day before about this proposed new mosque that was going to be so environmentally friendly it would be virtually carbon-neutral, using solar power and rainwater amongst other things. This caught my eye particularly because of my being involved in planning the Climate Change Conference. I was attending a meeting of Global Education LeicesterShire at Rushey Mead School that afternoon and I thought that, since I was at that end of town, it might be useful to pop along to the planning meeting on the off-chance that someone there might be interested in attending the climate change conference and making a contribution to the programme.

The meeting was held in a factory building in Bath Street, off Loughborough Road. This building, which was pretty derelict, was owned by the Dawoodi Bohra group, who had commissioned the design for the new mosque and who were applying for planning permission to get it built.

The first speaker was John Tiernan, Senior Partner, Pick Everard Architects, who had drawn up the plans for the proposed new building. He explained how their design was “faithful to religious requirements of the building as specified by the client – for instance that it should have no minarets, but have small domes – but which also has elements which are familiar to us, with common elements that have come through the three great religions of the Middle East, showing some continuity of religious architecture that has come to us down through through European history – e.g. windows with Gothic arches.”

Jaffer Kapasi spoke on behalf of the Dawoodi Bohra Welfare Society, the Muslim community interested in this development. He said that the community in the city and county amounted to little more than 35 families which would be regular users of the mosque. They had been seeking an appropriate site for this community’s place of worship for over ten years; three other sites have been considered, but none of them have worked out. For the time being, they were meeting for worship in a converted office space in Wellington Street. When he stood, he gave the traditional greeting, “Salaam alaikum” (“Peace be upon you”). Much to my surprise, the almost entirely white, middle-aged and female local residents replied, in unison, “Alaikum salaam” (“And upon you be peace”). I was really taken aback by this - delightfully surprised - and, if I’m honest, this was the single most striking “inter faith” moment of 2009 for me.

None of the residents in attendance raised objections for religious or cultural reasons, but did so on practical grounds (e.g. obstruction of light for neighbouring houses, increased traffic, noise, lack of parking spaces, access for emergency vehicles being blocked. Everyone acknowledged that the proposed building was not in keeping with the look of the local area; but the residents praised the design, calling it “wonderful” and “fantastic”. They appeared genuinely pleased that they were going to get this beautiful white marble building in their rather drab street! However, they were also concerned that the unique character of this building (as highlighted the day before in the Leicester Mercury article) would attract many visitors from outside the area, increasing the pressure of traffic on Bath Street and adjacent roads.

Rev Peter Hobson was there on behalf of the Bishop of Leicester, prepared to disperse any whiff of religious intolerance that might arise, but, to but his services were not needed. The locals expressed real ease with their Muslim neighbours, some of them thought it was a bit rich to have a troubleshooter from the church among them when there was no such trouble there - and they wished that the church would show as much enthusiasm in cleaning up the nearest church, in Claremont Street.

During the course of the evening, no reference was made to the environmental features, which were the original reasons I went to this meeting. I did speak with Mr Tiernan about the planned conference and he did say that Pick Everard would be happy to display the plans at it, and that he himself would come along and speak to attendees. In the end, however, the conference itself was radically changed, and reduced in duration from three days to one. There was not the space after all to involve Pick Everard, unfortunately.

Little bit of a cheat here: the photo of Jaffer Kapasi OBE (above) was taken at Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 Jan 2011, in New Walk Museum. I'd been talking to him then about this event back in 2009 and mentioned that I'd nothing to illustrate this blog entry. I was glad to hear from him that plans for the Mosque in Bath Street are still proceeding.

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