contributed by Linda Crafar
The Guardian 26
When Cat Stevens
turned to Allah, it wasnt just his old name that he gave up. There was no place in
Yusuf Islams life for either music or humour. So whats he doing with a new
record? And has he really lost the scowl? Simon Hattenstone reports.
The man on reception says
he doesnt know if Yusuf will be coming today. Im not sure what Im doing
here or where I am, for that matter, I think Im meeting Yusuf Islam who used
to be Cat Stevens who used to be the little Greek Orthodox boy Steven Dimitri Georgiou
many, many years ago Our date has not been confirmed, though. This flat, featureless
building claims to be a hotel Londons first Muslim-friendly hotel, according
to the brochure but masquerades as an old age peoples home.
"Yusuf lslam sometimes
comes here," says the man on reception. "He pops in without telling us."
Oh, I say, confused, is
Yusuf a friend?
"Yusuf lslam, a
friend of mine? If only,"
Why "if only"?
"Well... Yusuf Islam
is a great man." He lowers his eyes.
Does he remember him as Cat
Stevens? Oh yes, he says, and he has listened to the old records in the past. But not now,
of course. Now he listens to Yusuf Islams new song, The Little Ones, a haunting
elegy for the dead children of Bosnia and Dunblane.
What does he prefer -
classic pop songs like Father And Son, Morning Has Broken and Moonshadow or the spartan
Yusuf of now?
"Oh, definitely now.
It has more... value yes, that is the word. Its not pop music, not
part of an industry it has a message."
If he didn't speak with
such awe, youd think hed been primed. I ask him how he knows Yusuf Islam, and
he tells me the great man is his boss, owns the hotel. "Look, look, thats
him across the road."
How are you doing? Salaaaaaaaam."
Bear hugs all round.
The slight man with the black briefcase and hennaed beard looks younger, less severe than
in the post '77, post-retirement, post-seeing-the-Islamic-light pictures Ive seen.
Hes wearing black trousers, a grandfather shirt, collarless jacket. Trim the beard,
slip off the hat, add a few curly locks, a handful of bangles, and you could be face to
face with Cat.
But Cat Stevens died in
1977. He cancelled a world tour, told us he was dazed and confused by the platinum discs,
the fans, the venal business of music. He said hed become a Muslim. Ta-ta, you
wont be seeing me again on Top Of The Pops.
And we didnt. The
press wondered aloud whether hed gone potty like Peter Green and Syd Barrett before
him. Meanwhile, Yusuf Islam emerged, and the Muslim activist and patrician set to work. A
nice wife was found for him, and he settled down to half a dozen kids and began to badger
the authorities. We need Muslim schools, he said, Our children have nowhere to learn. And
he hectored and persuaded and bullied and bored anyone whod hear him out.
The Government wasnt
interested, Brent Council wasnt interested, local journalists only gave him the time
of day because he used to be Cat Stevens. And when they discovered he considered music a
blasphemy (only Allah can shake the soul) and wouldnt talk about his former life,
even they gave up on him. The young Yusuf Islam became a treasured battleaxe for the
Muslim community and a bit of laughing stock to the rest of the world a humourless
dogmatist with fake exotic accent. He may have made himself as unattractive as possible to
stave off would-be admirers, but he got things done. The first school was opened in 1983.
Now there are four of them and the infants has been granted state aid.
"You've got to admit,
its some story," says Bobby, Yusufs PR machine, "the man who
disappears from music just like that, and then makes his first record for 20 years.
Woooowww! Everyone wants his story, but he wants to talk about serious things like
religion and Bosnia and education."
Yusuf Islam is the
executive producer of the album I Have No Cannons That Roar, on which he has written two
songs, one of which he sings. His voice is unchanged, but accompanied by a dulling drum
rather than the guitar stringed instruments are outlawed in parts of the Muslim
community. The message of his songs is necessarily morose, but you can trace their lineage
back to Tea For The Tillermanhe is still singing about how to relate to an
incomprehensible world. The CD is dedicated to the former foreign minister of Bosnia whose
helicopter was shot down by a Serb rocket, and part of the profits will go to Bosnian
Do you mind if my daughter
Alix sits in on the interview? I ask Yusuf.
says. "I hope shes not too bored."
And he smiles softly,
benignly. Its distracting, almost the smile of an idiot savant Eventually I realise
it reminds me of Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do Ave Em,
a sitcom that shared its prime with Cat Stevens.
He tells me how terrible it
is that Bosnia is being ignored, that the conspiracy of silence about the genocide has
allowed the ethnic cleansing to repeat itself in Kosovo, how astonishing it is that the
culture has survived unscathed. Im listening, agreeing, and I cant help
thinking how well the old cockney voice suits him.
I also can't help thinking
that, despite his sincerity there is another agenda. That, actually, he does want to talk
about music music of the future and music of the past, as the terrible John Miles
song went. That Yusuf Islam wants to reclaim some of Cats baggage.
We talk about the old days.
Ive been warned that hell skillfully reroute the conversation back to Islam,
but he doesnt.
Where on earth did the name
Cat come from? It must have taken some crazed marketing genius to invent it.
"No", he says,
bashfully. "I did"
"There were all sorts
of influences, films like Whats New Pussycat?, Cat Balou ...Cats are beloved things
to people, and I wanted to become beloved. I wrote a song called I Never Wanted To Be A
Star, and it has a glimpse of truth. I just wanted a little bit of; you know, love."
Couldn't he get it from
family, friends, lovers?
"I don't know. I was
good at drawing, then it grew into music, and that appreciation
.I suppose you just
want more of it."
The diffidence makes sense.
Cat Stevens never really enjoyed the pop game. Yes, he was Che Guevaraishly sexy, and wore
an open-necked denim shirt like no one else. Yes, he had stacks of money and a girlfriend,
the actress Patti DArbanville, who became the heroine of one of his songs and went
on have an affair with Miami Vices Don Johnson, not to mention a tattoo on her
bottom. But the real Cat Stevens was just a heaving soul of neuroses. The bedroom angst of
the records pretty, melancholic songs about flowers, love, fathers, mothers, dying,
honesty, coping and not coping was stamped in his heart.
"After the initial
success, I found myself a fantasy figure," he says. "My whole life became
exaggerated, and based on peoples idolisation. Unless you have experienced it, you
cant understand how terrifying that is. I needed to talk about my fears and my
weaknesses, but despite the fact that I was surrounded by people all the time, there was
no one for me to talk to."
He thought he was cracking
up. Even the earliest cuttings talk about a man plagued by doubts, stammering and lisping
away towards embarrassed inconclusiveness. He worried he had nothing to say to anyone
because hed said it all in his songs.
Did he like Cat Stevens?
"It was a name I had
to learn to live with, and I never quite, hee-hee-hee, managed it." He giggles like a
One day he ignored the
danger warnings and went for a swim in the sea. He found himself lurching further and
further into the depths. He found a prayer: if you save me, I will dedicate my life to
you, God. A wave flung him round and he managed to swim back to safety. Soon after, his
brother gave him a book about Islam.
Did he need to make such a
violent break from his former life? He says that it rejected him as much as he rejected
"I cut myself off from
many people because they refused to understand. If you only like me because I am like you,
then what kind of friendship is that? If you like me for who I am, then you can still be
my friend. There were many breaks I had to make because people wouldn't accept me for who
Like so many converts, he
became inflexible, extremist. He wanted to follow the letter of the law to I prove that
even a former pop star could quote the Koran with the best of em. He decided his
former philosophy love can cure all was na´ve.
"Justice has to have a
place before one can achieve peace and love."
He weaves an intricate
moral maze with the concepts of justice, mercy, peace and love as Alix walks over to him
with a picture of a man wearing a hat not unlike his own. "Oh, that's
lovely...Whys he wearing a flowerpot on his head?"
He regards Rushdie as a
criminal, said he should be sent to Iran for his just deserts.
Does he feel the author of
Satanic Verses is deserving of mercy?
"I dont want to
talk about that"
But its important, I
say. Should he be allowed to live?
"Again, this is one of
those things that once mentioned, becomes a headline... My views were
"Again, I dont
really want to get into this. I think we should move on"
"Because it might
focus people on it."
So we should forget the
"It distorts Islam,
its precepts, its conditions, its values. Law itself has so many aspects it cannot be
narrowed down, Oh, Aliix, thats very interesting"
Shes drawn a pair of
"Wow, look two
opposites, Opposites mean they are on different sides... but the wind is blowing the same
She walks back to her
little desk happy. His language may sound tortuous and obfuscatory, but on its own terms
he is treading a new path every bit as radical as when he suddenly announced he was Cat
Stevens and then Yusuf Islam. He does not seem interested in condemning and dividing these
days. But hes in a tricky position. He cant be seen to be too critical of old
friends the traditionalists or fundamentalists, call them what you will who
remind us at every opportunity that Rushdie should be dead.
I mention that he seems
more at peace with himself these days, more willing to embrace the paradoxes.
"I think I've had the
time and space to look at what Im doing, and today I suppose what I represent is
British Muslim. I came to Islam after an extraordinary journey and in the end I had to
discover a balance between who I am and the image the things I stand for."
The war in Bosnia and his
visit there helped bring about the transformation.
"You look at Bosnians
and theyre all white, most of them blond Muslims from Europe, and they sit
comfortably in their own surroundings."
He no longer blushes with
dismay and anger at the life of Cat Stevens. He accepts it as a valid part of his life,
"It is the backdrop to
who I am today."
Does he ever sing the old
songs in the bath while scrubbing up for prayers?
"More than I used to.
Ive been revisiting songs from out of the archives because they want to release some
unreleased material. So yeah, occasionally I find myself thinking about it - more thinking
Some of the songs still
move him, and he screws up his eyes to quote from distant memory.
"Let me think. Well,
there were sentiments like, like...
Its difficult to
recognise when he quotes in monotone, but I sing anyway. His eyes light up and he smiles
the Frank Spencer smile.
I tell him he seems
desperate to be involved in music again.
"Its not just
music, its a matter of balance."
Is music really wrong? The
point Im trying to make is that culture, something quite natural, is a part of life.
"I may be criticised
by some elements within the Muslim community but I feel confident enough to know that at
certain times in certain places you do something to provide for the needs of the people.
Thats why I went into schools. Now Im moving past that to a cultural need,
especially for an identification of something good with Islam."
What if he found himself in
the charts again?
"This kind of music is
for a selective audience. Im not sure whether it would sell in large numbers. Today,
a lot of it is hype, and this is nothing to do with the hype, its the real
But there are millions who
believe in the cause.
"Well, who knows what
may happen. But its not what were after... Oh, Alix, those suns are lovely.
But why are the clouds crying?"
Because they dont
want to rain, she tells her new friend. And they walk off together.