Keeping the faith

IS THE SNP press machine employing a new policy of softening up journalists by force-feeding them, I wonder, contemplating the plate piled with plump, yellow Pakistani mangoes Bashir Ahmad has just brought to the table, having cleared away the wreckage of the delectable chicken and beef curries he was ladling on to my plate earlier, brooking no refusal.

This recently elected list MSP for Glasgow proceeds to give an enthusiastic dissertation on the merits of Pakistani mangoes (apparently he's so fond of the fruit he has been referred to in family circles as "Uncle Mango"), kneading one like a rubber ball, the better to extract the juice, and demonstrating how the other varieties on the plate are better for slicing or peeling.

The succulent fruit is a tangible link with the village community in the Punjab that Ahmad quit 46 years ago to seek his fortune in Glasgow. After successive careers from bus driver to hotelier, this transparently decent man, at the age of 67, now finds himself elected as the Scottish Parliament's first Scots-Asian and first Muslim member. Hosting myself and Humza Yousaf, his parliamentary assistant, at the dining table in his home in a leafy Alexander "Greek" Thompson terrace in Pollokshields, he is a paragon of the Islamic tenets of hospitality. He comes over as generous-natured, quite literally a gentleman - so much so, some speculated, that he was ill-equipped for the political hurly-burly of Holyrood.

Certainly he speaks in slow, measured terms, still in heavily accented English, but one suspects that, under the affable manner, there lies a certain doggedness. When I put it to him that it's been suggested that he is far too nice a man for politics he laughs: "Some people, those who know me, think it's the other way round, actually. They know that I'm very polite - but not if they are wrong and I am right."

This, remember, is someone who arrived in Scotland from his village in what had become Pakistan (he was born before partition from India) with absolutely nothing - no English, no money and only the skills with which Punjabi village life had equipped him. Yet he promptly learned to drive a double-decker bus, becoming one of the first one-man bus operators in his depot; went on to open the proverbial Pakistani cornershop - much against the advice of his bank; and made such a success of it that within three years he'd bought a bigger one and then a restaurant (again much against the advice of bankers, who pointed to his lack of experience). After accumulating further shops, a takeaway and the Clydesdale Hotel in Lanark, he retired, to use the term loosely, in 1993.

In his May victory speech, Alex Salmond acknowledged Ahmad's arrival, describing the Asian community as "woven into the very tartan of our parliament". Ahmad made his affirmation of loyalty in Urdu, and in his maiden speech in the Parliament last week, took up the thread, as it were, to call for the globalisation of Tartan Day. The election of an Asian MSP, many said, was not before time. "Late," he agrees cheerfully back in Pollokshields, "but we are there, and it was the SNP who did it." A former Labour voter, since 1995 he has carried the torch for the SNP, founding Scots Asians for Independence with support from Salmond, and pointing to what he regards as the advantages which independence brought to Pakistan.

For a man who, while serving the public on the buses and in his shops, has borne the brunt of drunken, racist abuse and, during his tenure as a councillor in Pollokshields, encountered the appalling racial hatred of the Kriss Donald murder, Ahmad maintains a faith in the good nature of people in general, and the Scots in particular, which the sceptical might regard as touching to the point of being nave.

That good faith, however, is at least partly explained by the extraordinarily heart-warming tale he tells about his less-than-auspicious arrival in this country in 1961. Invited by a cousin already in Glasgow to join him there, the 21-year-old village boy from the Punjab arrived at Renfrew airport with a few essentials wrapped in a holdall, and clutching his cousin's address in McCulloch Street, Pollokshields. "The agent had telegrammed my cousin and said I was coming on such-and-such a flight. My cousin didn't receive that telegram. So, when I arrived at Renfrew airport, there was nobody there and, within a short period, all the other passengers had disappeared.

"I had no English, no money, I didn't know how to approach anybody." His bleak predicament was resolved when a man asked where he was going. "I didn't know what he was saying, but I understood his body language and gave him the address." The man directed the disorientated new arrival on to a bus, which Ahmad boarded, to discover that his good Samaritan was in fact the driver, who didn't take a fare from him.

"When the coach arrived at the Glasgow terminus, everybody got off and, again, I was left thinking what to do. The same man came and asked me so I showed him the paper again, and he smiled and took me - he took the whole coach - to McCulloch Street. And he didn't even leave me on the street but took me two stairs up and made sure I belonged to that address..."

Forty-six years on, there is still an incredulity in his voice. "There is no way he should have left his route - he could have got into trouble - but he did that for me. After a few years in Glasgow, I was driving that same bus, that same route. I never met that man again, but I have never forgotten him."

Ahmad progressed through the archetypical Pakistani immigrant gamut of experience, as bus driver, shopkeeper and restaurateur, ending up with the hotel. He has always lived in Pollokshields, within the Govan constituency, and his entry into politics was a gradual affair. In the mid-1980s he became involved with the Pakistan Welfare Association, of which he has been president five times, and which used to invite politicians to its annual dinners.

Initially, Ahmad admits, they didn't invite the SNP, owing, as he puts it, to "some brainwashing", which seems to have instilled a certain confusion between the aims of the SNP and those of the BNP. "I wasn't a member of any party then," he recalls, "and I usually voted Labour. But in 1995, we invited the SNP, just to know their views, and Alex Salmond turned up."

He is vague about what it was in Salmond's speech that made an impression, but it convinced him to join the party. "A lot of people were upset, because we'd all been supporting Labour, but because the cause [of independence] was good, it became popular in the Asian community later."

In 1993 he stood successfully as councillor for Glasgow Pollokshields East, within the Govan constituency of Labour's first Muslim MP, Mohammed Sarwar. Sarwar, he suggests, was less than pleased at the SNP upstart on his patch, although Ahmad finds him approachable: "He is a good man to talk to." He is, he reckons, finding his feet at Holyrood: "The beginning is, always, not straightforward. But I had a little idea of it from four years on the [Glasgow] council, so I had some experience. And I am getting there."

At a time when the seismic aftershock of 9/11 and the mess of Iraq and Afghanistan threaten to polarise Islamic and Western worlds, he expresses concern at what he perceives as Islam's unhappy image and the threat of extremism. "Islam is wrongly presented in this country. The way the news was coming, people here think we are terrorists." Yet the word Islam, he says, means "peace".

"If we can describe it in a better, organised way, then maybe it can be sorted out," he remarks hopefully. There is a long way to go, however, even in his beloved Scotland. The other day he and Yousaf were being interviewed in Glasgow's Hope Street when a passer-by made anti-Muslim remarks: "All Muslims were terrorists, that kind of thing - but that was not his fault," adds Ahmad, who can seem charitable to a fault. "A wrong image had been put in his mind, just as it happened to us when we didn't invite the SNP to our annual dinners."

As for terrorism fuelled by fundamentalism, "I become ashamed with it, actually. Killing is the worst act you can do. It is not Muslim." Meanwhile the SNP administration has stated that it would consider state funding for Muslim faith-based schools if there was sufficient demand. Just as there are arguments against Catholic schools as encouraging sectarianism, I suggest, is there not a risk that separate Islamic schools would simply encourage divisiveness? He thinks not: "If parents demand it, I don't see anything wrong, because already there are Catholic and Jewish schools." Others argue that state-funded Muslim schools would help reclaim Islam from extreme elements, while Ahmad points to the popularity in Pakistan of "mission schools", as Roman Catholic schools are known there, and states that, like Catholic schools, Islamic schools here would not be exclusively for Muslims.

Racism in its most brutally ugly form came to Ahmad's constituency three years ago, when 15-year-old Kriss Donald was abducted from a Pollokshields street, beaten, set on fire and killed. Three Asian men, who fled to Pakistan, after the murder were brought back and given maximum sentences. The councillor attended the boy's funeral: "It makes you cry," he says, "the way she [Angela Donald, Kriss's mother] must have been feeling. I could see a brave lady, the way she said it was not the community's fault."

The neighbourhood was so upset at these events, he says, that there was no backlash - despite a tasteless visit by the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, to lay a wreath on the site of Donald's death - "but Angela told him to go".

The interview is drawing to a close and I ask Ahmad to pass my congratulations to his wife, Naseem, on her cooking (although he is no stranger to a curry pot, a legacy of his restaurant days). Theirs was an arranged marriage, he explains, although he adds, smiling, he kicked against the decision at first, demanding to see his bride-to-be before the marriage, though to no avail. A traditionalist at heart (with ten grandchildren), he and his wife similarly arranged the marriages of their five daughters. He regards it as an effective system, and, somewhat predictably, points at the high divorce rate in the West - although, he concedes, "mistakes can happen".

His two sons, however, discarded tradition and chose their own spouses. "I agreed with them because they are more educated than me, so they think they know better," he says, wryly, then smiles: "And they're taller than me."

Then he and Yousaf are off for another interview at Awaz FM, Glasgow's Asian community radio station, while I leave, clutching an obligatory bag of ripe mangoes.

• BASHIR AHMAD made his maiden speech as an MSP last Wednesday, during a debate on the annual Tartan Day celebrations, which he suggested should be extended well beyond their transatlantic connections: "We should turn east, not just west, and ensure that Tartan Day, or something like it, is used to project the reality of modern Scotland to Pakistan, China and all the places from which many have come to this nation and to which many still go."

Tartan Day, he declared, "is not about heather and haggis, or even software and silicon chips; it is about the reality for all the people I represent, be they first, second or third-generation members of the Asian community in Glasgow, refugees to whom my city provides shelter, and the opportunity for a fresh start for the old and poor who are marginalised in substandard housing."

Since his election, Ahmad has also raised two other issues particularly relevant to the Asian community. Earlier this month he tabled a motion protesting at the suggestion of Ruth Kelly - then secretary for communities and minister for women and equality - that translation services discouraged immigrants from learning English. This he described as "flawed logic", and argued that to erode translation facilities could further isolate ethnic minorities - especially asylum seekers - rather than help integrate them.

Ahmad has also asked for the Executive to consider further support for carers in ethnic minority communities.