Travels of a Muslim Misfit (USA)
Naturally like many in the UK and across the World I grew up on a diet of American movies, TV serials, comics and more. This is no surprise given America’s prominent power position. Power transmits not only militarily and economically but also culturally and in this respect the US has long enjoyed a distinct advantage. In many ways, its popular culture is global popular culture; for me and for many this fuelled a desire to visit the US.
As I got older, however, there was one other reason I really wanted to visit; I studied International Relations. As effectively a 20th century discipline the Cold war and the US are central to the subject area. For me, therefore, travelling to the US was also an opportunity to analyse American society and understand the sources of its power. My first opportunity came in my mid 20’s through the LSE International Relations society. A group tour was organised for a week to Washington DC to visit the organs of American government such as the State Department, Congress, The National Security Advisory (NSA) and more.
My introduction to America is one I will never forget. We flew into Dulles Airport and whilst I was passing through passport control, I came across a rather unpleasant immigration official. He was snarling at people with the intention of making them feel as unwelcome as possible. It was soon my turn; he asked my purpose of visit and I told him I was visiting with a university group. Given his attitude when he asked which university, I said ‘LSE…haven’t you heard of it? It is where JFK studied’, he nodded his head, and then he said where you staying so I showed him the address of the motel, and he said, ‘you better be careful down there’ and I said ‘really’? To which he sarcastically retorted ‘don’t you know it? That is where JFK got caught fucking Marilyn Monroe!’
Alas It was to be an interesting and memorable trip in many respects. For me, the differences the US has with the UK are no less fascinating than the similarities. The roads are bigger and wider-apparently built for cars while many in the UK were built for horses-the houses also bigger, with a more modern architecture, as are the cars. Culturally, Americans are far more open and engaging, and many US cities are vibrant, diverse, absorbing and energetic. As a country of 50 States, with over 300 million people it is both hugely diverse and equally fascinating: with a powerful and addictive allure.
While on this trip I was able to see and visit many of America’s principal political sites. We spent time in the State department, the NSA (from where we could see the snipers on the White House roof), Congress, the IMF and more. Whilst walking down the Pennsylvania avenue we also saw the likes of the FBI building.
The motel we were staying at was cheap and ‘dodgy’, in an uptown (in the US more deprived) part of DC. One night as a few of us were leaving for an evening out we were approached by a scary-looking black guy with scars on his neck who effectively cornered us. Having grown up in an inner-city environment the situation-if not the context-was nothing I had not seen. He asked if I were Muslim, so I used this as an opportunity to engage with him. However, when he saw my white Danish companion, he became angry and agitated saying things like ‘this is the white devil…Farrakhan warned us about these people’ to which I then replied ‘why do you follow Farrakhan? That is not true Islam’ and he said, ‘yeah it’s hislam’.
He told me he had just recently been released from prison for homicide and as I engaged him more, I got the sense he was looking for some money but perhaps not necessarily looking to hurt anybody. When our taxi came, one of my companions got in, I then gave the guy some small change and took my seat, he insisted on more from the white guy, who simply turned away and ran back into the motel at which point the black guy-likely worried about going back to prison- made a swift exit.
We then went out in Adams Morgan, but sadly for my Danish friend he was unable to enjoy his night as he was traumatised by the experience spending much of the night in the toilet; at one point he even offered me money for saving him (which I refused) saying that he was ‘from Denmark and had never had an experience like that’.
‘DC’ was clearly the political and/or diplomatic centre of the US and pretty dead-on weekday nights. I was surprised at the brazen inequality- often along racial lines (a pattern typical in many US cities) and crime rates-at the time DC had the highest murder rate per capita in the US. Parts like Georgetown were clearly smart and upmarket (if somewhat quiet), and places likes Adams Morgan (where we once ate at a place called Madams Organ) were lively and fun. It is most definitely worth a visit, if a brief one.
New York City
My first encounter with New York City was unexpected and brief. Whilst on the trip to ‘DC’ a Turkish peer mentioned to me and one other that this might be his only chance to visit the US and he desperately wanted to see New York. He had done his homework on how to get there and said he was planning to skip a day of organised activities to make the trip. Being naturally adventurous and not sure myself when I would come back to the US I agreed to join. So, in the early hours of one morning, we took a greyhound bus from a very dodgy looking bus station for the journey to NYC. The first challenge was to find accommodation which after some asking around, we managed to do in Harlem of all places.
Although we stayed only one night, we packed in an enormous amount, much of it the usual touristy sites. Touring around New York much like LA is akin to touring a huge movie set. Many of the main sites are iconic and instantly recognisable. We saw Wall Street, Staten Island, visited the statue of liberty; saw it again on high from the Empire states building (recognisable from the likes of King Kong and Spiderman) Times Square, Central Park the Met Museum and we even visited the twin towers literally months before 9/11. Although we planned to go out the one night we were there, we were so exhausted that we couldn’t manage it.
Being unfamiliar with the New York underground on the way back to our residence we exited on the wrong side of Harlem. It was late and dark and one of the guys I was with had a Macys bag with him in what was clearly in American parlance a ‘gang neighbourhood’. As we walked out of the metro station there was a group of young South American looking guys standing by smoking what appeared to be weed. It was clear we all thought ‘oh God what have we done’.
However, at the time the then Mayor Rudy Giuliani had developed a clever way of disrupting criminals in the city by simply standing policemen and women in crime hotspots. As we reached pavement level and looked across the street, we were relieved to see a policewoman. We asked her how to get to the place we were staying at by public transport but decided the safest bet would be to take a cab. The following evening as our little sojourn concluded we departed on a late-night journey back to join our group in DC.
For me New York City is basically the American version of London, it has many parallels; the tall buildings, the congestion, the busy underground metro the diversity, the size, and of course both are major and rival global financial centres. There are, however, many and of course significant and important differences.
Returning to New York again in 2012-this time slightly better off financially- I booked what was meant to be a 4* hotel (but was actually a decent European 3*) on the lower East side. I made a mistake though; my stay did not cover the weekend, so I was unable to get a strong sense of the nightlife. I did, however, explore more, as opposed to the Empire state building this time, I took in the views from the Rockefeller Centre. I visited the meat packing district on a couple of evenings and walked around the Upper East side and spent more time at the Met Museum and Central Park. Unfortunately, despite trying I was unable to make it to Brooklyn.
I must be honest and say although I could see the obvious appeal and energy of New York I am not as enamoured of it as some are. For me, the unusually tall buildings-some noticeably dirty-overwhelm the skylines, the weather is not great, and at times the city feels absurdly busy. However, perhaps as somebody once pointed out, perhaps I need to live there to truly appreciate what it has to offer.
In the Spring of 2012, I had the chance to visit Boston through work. Getting there as a Muslim was a challenge. I was scheduled to fly with two of my white British colleagues but being Muslim I had a sense that my journey would not be quite the same as theirs. I arrived at Doha airport with my colleagues and as I was queuing to check in an official from the American embassy asked me a few questions, like where I worked; Qatar is a small place, so he instantly recognised my employer and told the staff behind the check-in desk ‘he is fine’.
However, this was not enough, and I was asked to hold on by the check-in desk staff whilst I received electronic clearance (even though I had already obtained the required security clearance) from I am
guess the US. At this point, my British colleagues tired of waiting took advantage of their white privilege and proceeded through passport control to enjoy the business lounge. I waited patiently after all I had faced similar situations before. However, with 30 minutes left before take-off I got increasingly agitated. Eventually 10 minutes before the plane was meant to fly, I was given clearance; the Qatar airways lady at the check-in counter literally jumped over the counter and rushed me through passport and baggage control to get me on the flight just as it was leaving the tarmac. From memory I was the last passenger to board. I had recently purchased a (for me expensive) Austin Reed raincoat which I appeared to have lost along the way.
The flight on Qatar Airways business class with drinks and snacks on tap made up for the inconvenience at the airport. On landing I noticed one of the stewardesses walking around with a jacket which I recognised and alas I was reunited with my coat. I got through passport control without incident. However, as I was pushing the trolley with mine and my director’s belongings on it out of the baggage area I was pulled aside again much to our collective surprise. I told the official that not all the belongings on the trolley were mine and he said tough. My director just as surprised quickly ran back to retrieve her belongings. I was taken into a side room where everyone else had a similar skin complexion to mine. I was kept there for nearly 2 hours (whilst my colleagues again enjoyed the lounge). At the end of it what appeared to be a local policeman asked me basically the same questions the American embassy had in Doha!
As we were in Boston for, work reasons I did not get to sightsee as much as I would like to, I did, however, nevertheless, get a good ‘feel’ for the place. The hotel we were staying was South West of Boston Public garden and Boston Common; parallel to Boylston Street; a smart and long boulevard where a year later the Marathon bombings took place. It was boutique, the rooms were decent of like 4* quality. What I remember most about it was that downstairs near reception it had a brasserie that was most charming. The food was very decent and to this day I can still smell the aroma of the strong American coffee we would have in the mornings.
Boston public gardens was nice, of very reasonable size, lush green and a good place to get one’s bearings I felt. To the South West is a famous hotel where I think Monroe stayed (check) and to the East side is the Cheers Bar (seeing the sign took me back to the 1980’s). To the North East is the impressive state house. I did the typical touristy thing of taking a sightseeing bus, which is a great way of seeing much in a short time. From memory I saw the house where JFK once lived (The Kennedy imprint is all over the East Coast) the unusual Holocaust memorial, Boston pier (some history) and the smart neighbourhood; which with its period architecture and boutique shops was most charming; as well as being historic (in American terms). I even recognised the police station from the film the departed. In the evenings we dined in different parts of town, perhaps the most memorable was in the Italian quarter where we ate at a wonderful, atmospheric, intimate and authentic Italian restaurant; the quality of the food only adding to the experience.
Boston struck me as urbane, educated and to use a cliched term cultured. This was no surprise given it has something like a hundred thousand students during term time. It is home to among others Harvard, Boston University, MIT and Tufts Medical school. It is America’s centre of Health and education (with some finance) which apparently absorbs 25% of America’s health care budget. Being of a bookish nature it really appealed to my sensibilities, and I could happily live there, even if it is freezing during the winters. Being there I could not resist a visit to Harvard (which technically is not in Boston but Cambridge: check) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Its clock tower as one approaches Harvard is historic and iconic but the university itself (unless I missed something) is by no means huge, much smaller than the likes of an Oxford or Cambridge. The main campus is centred around a large grassy square on the one side of which appeared to be a large library and the other the law faculty and in the middle was a statue of John Emmanuel. Legend has it that he helped conceptualise Harvard on the example of Cambridge University England after he studied there and much like Cambridge Harvard exudes history, prestige, elitism but also plenty of old-world charm. For me it has a most scintillating allure (after visiting there I briefly considered a stint at its summer school ).
Last I checked it is one of the premier universities if not the premier university in the World; given the United States resources and dynamism this is no surprise. Apparently, it is so absurdly rich from bursaries that it does not have to charge students should it decide to do so. Some of the good and great who have studied there include (mention names). I spent a good part of a half a day there, taking my time to absorb the place and even and made a purchase in its souvenir shop. The campus on one side had quite a few bars and pubs, which I am guessing must get busy on the weekends.
On the last working day there we arranged a driving tour of the city. Our friendly driver took us to many of main sites, some we had seen before but also to others of the beaten track. He took us to a statue of Madonna which was quite high up with decent views. He also took us to a village on the outskirts of Boston; it was pristine, historic and conservative looking; the black driver and I could not help joking whether any minorities lived there. Incidentally, the driver told me that when he first moved to the part of Boston, he now resides in he was followed around and trolled by local white people (!). Clearly racism is a global problem and there is plenty of it here in the UK but in the US the brazen nature of it often astonishes me.
I would describe Chicago (or ‘Chi town’ as the locals call it) as a less high-profile and smaller version of New York, but consequently it is also more compact and easier to get around. I am told it has ridiculously high murder rates- although as a tourist I naturally did not see much of its darker side-and it also can get extremely perhaps even dangerously cold in the winters. In terms of rating, it by comparison to the likes of London or Los Angeles, I would say it is not quite in the same league but a ‘solid’ city that ‘holds its own.’
I visited for a few days in the summer of 2013 and stayed at the Conrad (Hilton), apparently named after Paris Hilton’s grandfather who founded the global chain of luxury hotels. It was centrally located within walking distance of North Michigan Avenue and the River North Area. I walked the Michigan Avenue and the Magnificent mile famous for its upmarket designer stores, at the end of which from memory is the Water Tower. This is one of few remnants from a fire that besieged the whole business district in the late 19th century. It is now home to the City Gallery, which exhibits works by local artists and photographers.
I took a both a bus tour and a boat sightseeing tour down the River (one noticeably bluer in colour and cleaner than the Thames). I took in the views from the sky deck of the Sears Tower (once one has been atop of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai every other tall tower seems minute in comparison), visited Grant Park where I saw the Buckingham Fountain. I liked the Grant Park, it had lake Michigan to one side and some iconic looking buildings with early 20th century architecture on the other. I also felt that although surrounded by busy roads it was serene, with a pleasant ambience; perhaps a good place to read and relax. I also visited the busier Millennium park and much like the other tourists was intrigued by a bizarre structure that has been erected there ‘The Bean’ (see below). I got a glimpse of the Navy Pier and travelled through the loop whilst on the bus tour.
Most evenings I spent in the River North area, which was jam packed with bars and restaurants, was lively and clearly popular with both locals and visitors. I met some friendly people and could not help noticing the plethora of Jazz bars; Chicago apparently has a rich Jazz tradition and its own Jazz style. I had dinner at one place where I was able to watch a live Jazz band whilst eating. This was clearly a pretty ‘hip’ or fashionable part of Chicago, whilst nice I did feel that Chicago did not quite rival the likes of London or Los Angeles in the glamour stakes.
One lunchtime I ate at what was apparently Barack Obama’s favourite Italian restaurant and wanted to visit the university but did not get around to doing so. The university is famous for its school of economics, and more precisely a brand of controversial economics harnessed by one of its professors Milton Freidman that has spread globally-often referred to as neoliberalism. Many a famous name were either born or lived in Chicago including the Obama’s, Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton, Harrison Ford, Al Capone and more.
While working in Qatar, I took two back-to-back package holidays to the US. The first was in the Summer of 2012 which took in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles (LA) and Newport Beach all for a few nights each. In 2013 I did much the same but this time taking in Chicago, Vegas, and LA.
Alas it was summer of 2012 I ended up in San Francisco. Once again from a young age I had heard much about San Fran and was keen to visit. I stayed in a nice 4* Boutique hotel, which was walking distance from the lively Union Square with some good designer shops around and a good place good place to get one’s bearings. Here I got myself one of those ‘hop on hop off’ bus tours. I found that they are a good way of getting around the city and seeing it at a good pace.
I saw many of the recommended sites; the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, The Parliament House, the Tenderloin neighbourhood, China town and more; unfortunately, I did not get to see Alcatraz. I found it to be compact and much was walking distance. I noticed a significant amount of Chinese people around; I am told that in the 19th century many Chinese were duped to come to San Francisco and their labour used to help build the railways; earning their right to stay. I understand that San Francisco is known to be a ‘liberal’ state, which may explain why one would regularly see homeless people sleeping around even at the key sites; on this note, I saw homeless shelter where the ‘Pursuit of Happyness’ starring Will Smith was filmed.
I liked the ‘alternative’ Haight Ashbury neighbourhood. It had a lovely ambience and authentic feel about it. I spent some time walking around, relaxing, taking in the sites, and visiting the shops. There were a variety of boutique and hip stores from one of which I bought myself a vintage style hat. Google describes Haight Ashbury as:
“Birthplace of the 1960s counterculture movement, Haight-Ashbury draws a lively, diverse crowd looking to soak up the historic hippie vibe. Upper Haight Street is a hodgepodge of vintage clothing boutiques, record shops, bookstores, dive bars and casual, eclectic restaurants.”
In the evenings walking distance from my hotel was the lower Pacific Heights neighbourhood; a place full of restaurants and bars and it would seem a popular nightspot. From what I noticed the San Francisco night scene was more laid back and less formal than say that of a New York or an LA, certainly less pretentious I guess and more ‘T-shirty’.
San Francisco is certainly a most charming place; it is hilly, a little on the chilly side (especially compared to parts of Southern California) and the architectural style of some of the houses and neighbourhoods was distinctive and aesthetically pleasing. It did not get my heart racing like some places but is a memorable place to visit.
Las Vegas has a powerful and addictive energy about it that one feels as soon as you disembark from the plane. From memory, there was like an underground metro that takes one from the airport to the strip. As soon as one exits from the metro the fruit machines and the ‘chink’ noise of gambling begins to be heard. Visiting Vegas was a bit like visiting a huge theme park, as a kid and feeling the same sense of excitement and energy. The very concept of building this sin city strip in the middle of the desert is arguably nothing short of genius.
I stayed at the Bellagio for a few nights and must admit I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. The weather was immaculate (I am guessing that is the case most of the year) and the Casinos are self -encapsulated resorts; meaning one does not really need to leave them. My room was vast and impressive (my understanding is that the room rates are reasonable as the casinos make large sums from the gambling). The Bellagio from memory had it all; 4 impressively designed swimming pools, high-end designer shops, Restaurants (from the high end to coffee shop style) plenty of bars of differing kinds, a night club and large casino area (which appeared to be busy throughout the night).
Unsurprisingly therefore I never left the strip and spent much of my time either exploring the Bellagio, lounging around and relaxing by the pool (One morning I had booked a trip to the Hoover damn but had to cancel). On admiring the Bellagio’s singing fountain, it dawned upon me alas this is where Dubai got the idea for its singing fountain. I also walked around some of the other casinos such as the Venetian (all have their own theme) and many in their own way are almost awe-inspiringly grand. At the Venetian, I realised where the Villaggio mall in Qatar got its internal decor from.
All this decadence and luxury is designed to dumb one senses and to take as much money of you as possible whilst also providing unadulterated pleasure; it was no surprise that prostitutes were everywhere to be seen. Many of the well-established clubs in the Casino have their own club nights with often big-name DJ’s. Although not big on night life one evening I did go out to from memory to the Wynn Casino, where they had a night on the rooftop terrace. It was glamorous with swimming pools in the middle and balcony views of the strip below.
There is no denying, however that Vegas is fun, exciting and hugely atmospheric. It is (pre COVID-19 at least) busy all year around, there are shows, artists, street vendors, circus, boxing events (I saw Cirque De Soliel) and given its high global profile people visiting from all over the World. It may not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ but it is a ‘must see’ place in my view at least if you are going to the US.
When one visits the US and notices what it has to offer to both its residents and visitors, it is no wonder many Americans never leave the US (last I checked something like less than 10% of Americans have passports). They have virtually all they need within their borders; this may explain in part why some have a somewhat inward-looking mindset.
Los Angeles-the ‘city of Angels’-is a fantastic city and one of my favourites. Yes, it is love or hate and I am firmly in the love ‘camp’. LA has it all; glamour, sun, sea, sand, fashion, entertainment, some stunning neighbourhoods, amazing weather and it is cosmopolitan. It has an extraordinary party like energy and ambience; it is a ‘buzzing’ place. I visited in the summer of 2012, was impressed so I returned in 2013.
In 2012 I stayed in the Intercontinental century city. One of my fondest holiday memories is waking to have breakfast on the balcony of my hotel room with the sun beating down and the Hollywood hills in the background. Within walking distance of my hotel was the open-air mall. Although I only had a brief walk around it, the mall was nice, with some decent shops and one night I even had dinner there. Nearby was Beverley hills where I naturally spent much of my time. Rodeo drive is simply stunning; lined with palm trees (apparently planted in LA from elsewhere) and glitzy high end fashion boutiques it exudes, glamour, elegance and panache.
At the bottom end on (mention road) is the Beverley Hills Wiltshire where pretty woman starring Julia Roberts was filmed (some people are even familiar with the balcony where one of the iconic scenes was filmed). Opposite the hotel is the very Tiffany’s they visit and in one scene she is mistreated in one of the boutique stores. Apparently in reality, people went into the same boutique and asked them why they mistreated her (!). At the top end of Rodeo drive a couple of blocks to the left I found this lovely restaurant which served like Mediterranean fare, where I would have lunch or breakfast before setting out exploring for the day.
In 2012 I completed three bus tours, one around the Santa Monica area and the other more central, Beverley Hills, West Hollywood, Hollywood etc. It was a convenient and great way to see the city. The third tour which I picked up at the Chinese theatre was the ‘stars tour’. On this tour one gets to see the houses of some of the most famous people on the planet. From memory, I remember seeing Katy Perry’s two homes near the Hollywood Sign (one of them is a party house) not far from which was Bruno Mars unusually designed place and then Gwen Stefani’s place (which she bought from JLO) and so on. As well as seeing the homes of these people one was also able to see more of stunning Beverly Hills where even the fire hydrants are silver and clearly a super desirable part of the World to live in.
As the bus tour entered deeper into Beverley Hills closer to Rodeo Drive, I saw a lovely well-kept house with an impeccably manicured lawn of a woman named Rosemary Clooney (whose nephew once stayed with her as he tried to break into Hollywood). Opposite her was Jackie Collins and next to her was the house I remember most fondly (not so much for its magnificence but its occupant); it was Al Pacino’s place. The house itself was not especially spectacular by Bev Hills standards; it had large hedges outside to keep the cameras out, and his white range rover was parked outside suggesting he was indoors (in other words I was about 10 yards from seeing a screen legend).
Santa Monica beach area was also most remarkable. The warm weather brings out the best in a place like that. It is busy and lively, the sea is lush blue, the tree-lined Ocean Avenue was full of people making their way to the beach. The beach itself was busy as was the pier-which from memory has a funfair on it. On the beachfront, there are an array of buildings in what appears to be the Art Deco Style, including the blue ‘The Georgian hotel’ which once hosted the likes of Clark Cable and the gangster Bugsy Seigel. This side of Los Angeles hugely resembles Miami.
Not far from which is the beginning of the beautiful Santa Monica boulevard. Once again, this tree lined boulevard is no less impressive than many other in Los Angeles. It has some lovely buildings and architectural styles, restaurants, shopping, coffee shops and malls and much else. Santa Monica Boulevard, however, is vast and runs through much of Los Angeles, cutting through century city, Beverley Hills, West Hollywood and more. Taking a drive through Santa Monica boulevard is a great way to see this most magnificent of cities.
Los Angeles, however, is surrounded by beaches. One day when I revisited in 2013, having heard much about Malibu beach, I decided to take an expensive taxi ride there to see what it was all about. After walking up and down a quiet pier and looking around Malibu Mart I enquired whether this was it? And was told yes. I was surprised, so I am guessing this place has a big reputation because of something that I could not quite appreciate like the quality of the sand or surf or because it is a good place to perhaps build a house (!). I also visited the Huntingdon beach area one evening. It was nice but more mainstream than the more exclusive parts of LA with a younger crowd.
There is a ‘wow’ factor to LA in many respects, the iconography[FK1] , the visible wealth in some areas, some of the properties on display and whom you may perchance bump into. I remember one night visiting the lounge area of the W hotel in Hollywood. It was busy, with a typical glamorous kind of crowd one would expect in an LA night spot. I heard whispers that Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were also there. I figured they would be sitting in some VIP area not accessible to the rest of us. Unbeknownst to me, they were seated approx. 60 yards from me at the front of the seating area, but through the crowd, I could not see them (besides, they had their backs to me).
On another occasion, after leaving the Chateau Mormont, I noticed paparazzi outside the building next door to it. I asked the security guard who was inside, and he said he could not say, so I asked the Paparazzi instead and they told me it was Johnny Depp. I then learnt that he happened to own most of the properties on the road behind the venue. On another occasion I passed what appeared to be a movie premier in the Hollywood Area.
When I returned in 2013, I stayed at the Beverly Hilton. This iconic hotel was opened in the 1950’s and apparently hosts the annual Golden globes awards. It is also where I am told Witney Houston was staying when she passed, and Barack Obama also once stayed. It had like a retro charm as well as a lovely poolside restaurant and pool area. It was also walking distance to Rodeo Drive and on the intersection between Wiltshire Boulevard and Santa Monica boulevard.
Should I return to LA (inshallah) I plan to see more of the Downtown Area, Universal studios, spend more time on the Santa Monica boulevard, and stay at the Beverley Hills Wiltshire for a couple of nights.
As part of my 2012 itinerary, I had booked a couple of nights at Newport Beach, which I had unknowingly assumed would be on the outskirts of LA. However, on further probing, I discovered that it was a fair distance outside. I met a friendly taxi driver in LA, and he told me it was not easy to get to by public transport; so, I hired him to take me there (it cost something like $150).
My hotel was a nice 5* with a first-floor pool; but it was still a short taxi ride from the beach area. The beach area and town were lovely, clean and smart. There was an area not far from the beach where there was like a stream with elegant condos on each side and footbridges to connect both sides. The beach was pristine and busy- I find it however difficult to just lounge around on a beach- and the adjacent town was a typical beach town with many tanned people around (I wondered if this is why it is called Orange County). The Newport area was overwhelmingly white- vastly different from cosmopolitan LA- and ironically one evening I met a chap locally who had also studied at the LSE who incidentally apologised for local racism: although I did not personally — as is often the case with tourists-experience any.
Before moving on just a quick note on something that I observed in American cities, its approach or model of diversity. Many Americans cities will have a distinct Japan town, Korea town, China town or a black neighbourhood. Whilst I can understand the sentiment I do ask, is this diversity or segregation? Do not get me wrong of course there is racism and segregation in UK cities as well, it is however more subtle, and I wonder whether that is a better approach. Ultimately, however it may be merely a case of what one is used too and of course, reflects much about any given society.
Having caught the American travel bug, I decided to return to Miami for a winter break in 2015. Even though I had been to the US in recent years, this time I had a feeling that as a Muslim getting there would not be straightforward. As a political person I was aware that much had been made of a mass shooting by a Muslim couple in San Antonio during the Republican primaries (even though there are almost weekly mass shootings in the US, most carried out by white Americans) and which would impact the travel of Muslims to the US (After being elected one of the first things that Trump did was to implement a ‘Muslim Ban’).
When I could not check-in online, I had a sense of what was coming my way. The following day I checked in at the airport and went through security as normal and it was only when I sat to take my seat that I was asked by some Virgin Atlantic staff to leave the plane for a ‘secondary security check’.
When I asked the staff member who had my name with a list on it ‘why? ‘Is it because I am a Muslim’ he nodded in red face agreement. In front of other passengers, I had to go through the humiliation of leaving the plane and being patted down and having my hand luggage checked by two airport employees whom I have little doubt were Muslim (!).
Miami is undeniably a ‘cool’ place, once again popular in the global imagination from the likes of Miami Vice and the iconic Scarface movie starring Al Pacino. At the airport I noticed much Spanish being spoken. The Latin American and Cuban influence was palpable all over the city; and I am guessing there are people who live in Miami who likely do not speak a word of English nor feel the need to do so.
Given Miami’s physical proximity to Latin America this is no surprise but is also a reflection of political events and the strength of the American economy. Some likely left Cuba after Castro came to power in 1959 and then again when the US offered to take in Cuban political dissidents in 1980[FK2] (Apparently, America’s offer led to Castro simply freeing some 125,000 Cuban prisoners and criminals-this is the underlying theme of Scarface). Miami for many of the same reasons has also been a major drug trafficking hub.
I stayed at the St Regis on the South Beach. It was typical 5* quality with a beach facing swimming pool and its own beach area. Nearby is the popular Oceans Drive and on the same block a busy pedestrianised boulevard with a plethora of shops and restaurants. It was a good place to walk around as I did often and stop for lunch and even dinner. As is usual I took in the bus tour of both the Miami Beach area and Miami City fascinated by much of what I saw and learnt. As a boxing fan it was intriguing to be so close to the Miami Convention centre where Muhammed Ali first became World Champion by defeating the fearsome Sonny Liston. Such was the brazen legalised racism at the time that neither Ali nor his opponent could stay in the Beach area but had to travel in and depart on the night of the fight.
Miami has some obvious parallels with LA, the large boulevards, the weather, palm trees, the beachfronts and the glamour. The Miami Beach area has some wonderful Art Deco style buildings, tree lined boulevards, and many a high-end hotel (Many nightclubs are open later here than they are in LA). I also saw the iconic Fontainebleau hotel-famous for its design- where many an iconic movie scene has been filmed.
I did not do an enormous amount of sightseeing as I was keen to rest and relax. However, I did manage to take in a bus tour of the Miami City and spend some time there. As a city it is indeed impressive, diverse, vibrant and with both some trendy and exciting neighbourhoods (If I go again, I will spend more time in the city area).
I saw the charming Little Havana neighbourhood where locals relaxed over domino at the Maximo Gomez Park and was hugely impressed by places like Coral Gables and Coconut Groves. Coral Gables had some stunning residential properties and the charming, magnificent mile and the famous Biltmore Hotel.
During my stay, I met some friendly people, and it seemed to me that the beach area had a far more laid-back feel to it than the City. One thing worth noting when travelling to the US is the hidden taxes. As a rule of thumb, I would say whatever you buy add 20%. When visiting a restaurant, one is expected to pay at least 15% tip and I was stunned for example when paying my hotel bill to see a state tax, a city tax, a resort tax and more.