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Sunday Express
November 16, 1986
Written by Mark Palmer
Courtesy of Linda Crafar

From Discs To Desks

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The hair is still black and disheveled, the beard unclipped, the eyes dark and winsome, but there’s little else about Cat Stevens that remains as it was. Gone are the acoustic guitars which helped him become Britain’s leading songwriters of the 60s and 70s, gone are the public relations men hovering by his side, and gone is the guilt complex about fame and fortune which haunted him throughout his very successful singing career. Gone, too, is his name. Cat Stevens, born Stephen Demetri Georgiou, son of a Greek father and Swedish mother, is now Yusuf Islam, a devout Muslim, the father of four children and principal benefactor of what could become the first Muslim state school.

It’s the school, Islamia Primary, in the London borough of Brent, which Yusuf Islam likes to talk about. It’s a project which combines his enthusiasm for the Muslim faith with a concern for children that goes back to the early 70s when he wrote a song called "Where Do The Children Play?

"I hope the school answers question in the song," he says, sitting in his grey abaya robe in the headmaster’s office as morning classes prepare for work in the adjoining rooms. Yusuf spends most of time at the school. Housed in large three-storey family home in Brondesbury Park, Kilburn, Islamia Primary was founded in 1983 with 34 pupils. Today it has 85 on the roll, with at least 500 on the waiting list.

Yusuf's hair used to be parted in the middle and covered his ears but now it is cut short at the back, pudding-basin style. He adjusts his wire- rimmed spectacles, shuffles his sandalled feet and leans forward. He looks serious but younger than his 39 years.

"Whatever I did, I did it to the best of my ability with as much honesty as I could," he says. "I tried to be honest but it wasn’t always possible in the music business. You had to keep the records selling."

Which they did, in huge numbers. Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, Catch Bull at Four and Cat Stevens Greatest Hits all achieved platinum status and Mona Bone Jakon was not far off. He was hailed throughout the world, not least in Australia, where in 1977 it was claimed that one out of four people had at least one Cat Stevens's album in their record collection.

After growing up in Shaftesbury Avenue, where his father ran a Greek restaurant, and going to school in Drury Lane, 19-year-old Yusuf recorded his first major hit; I Love My Dog, and became an instant pop idol. Less than two years later, he collapsed with TB and was forced to spend several months in a nursing home. Once recovered, he produced a string of successes like Lady D’Arbanville, Wild World, Morning Has Broken, and Moon Shadow.

But he was never comfortable with stardom, or the money that accompanied it. In the early 70s he began giving away large sums to charity and later set up a trust called Hermes, designed to help needy Children. At the time, he said it was really a way to "relieve the conscience".

"In my career I suppose I had done everything I wanted to do. I began looking for something better and so I started seeking by reading books and really looking for my religious identity."

By 1979, he had found it, and two years later he was giving away his guitars and pianos.#2a.jpg (8269 bytes)

"I don’t look back with any sense of loss. Art and music aren’t the essence of life. They are ornamental, but people need this ornament when something substantial is missing in their lives. When you are satisfied with your life and your faith, these things diminish in importance and that's really what happened to me. Today people need some kind of prop to boost their emotions and their feelings because they are frustrated by a modern lifestyle and its pressures," he says.

Yusuf has not, however, been totally immune from the frustrations of modern life. For three years he lobbied local education officials to give his school "church" status, which the council finally agreed to last year.

"We had to work hard for our voice to be heard. It was difficult to get anything done until we

showed that we had strong public support," says Yusuf, admitting that the task was made slightly easier because of who he is.

It is now up to the Department of Education to decide whether to make IsIamia Primary a "voluntary-aided" school. There are nearly 8000 Church of England, Catholic or Jewish state schools but as yet there are no publicly funded Muslim ones. Voluntary-aided status would ensure that the government provides 85 per cent of the funds which will pay for Islamia Primary's expansion of its building, with Brent Council responsible for the day-to-day running costs, including all teachers salaries, meals and maintenance.

Until such a decision is made, the parents of the children—often with a little help from Yusuf—will continue to contribute whatever they can afford to the running of the school.

"There are no fees as such and we never refuse a child for financial reasons. The entrance procedure is very simple—whoever comes first gets in first," says Yusuf, who is the democratically elected chairman of the school’s board of governors.

Brent Council’s acting director of education, Dinah Tuck, says she has been impressed by the school’s curriculum and by the quality of the teachers. She has also been impressed by Yusuf, whom she refers to as Brother Yusuf Islam.

"He’s a very engaging personality and he sells the project well. He has charisma and he’s clearly very committed—in fact sometimes I have had to tell him that one cannot always wait for Allah to provide when something very urgent needs to be taken care of," says Mrs. Tuck.

Mrs. Tuck and her colleagues were satisfied that with three mosques in the borough there was sufficient demand for a Muslim school. For Yusuf, the council’s decision is long overdue and he hopes that it will establish a precedent for the rest of the country.

"There is no provision whatsoever for Muslim children in this country," he says. "The pattern of education given in schools is usually Christian-based and there is a general slant which can be very offensive to Muslims."

It doesn’t bother Yusuf that some Muslims may think Islamia Primary goes too far in the otherdirection. ‘We call ourselves orthodox and we want to make this an exemplary Islamic school. In Islam, things are either black or white."

There will, for example, be no music, something that prospective parents may find ironic considering the school might never have opened without the royalties from Yusuf 's records. And singing will be restricted only to Islamic nursery rhymes, called nasheeds. "The only music I write now is for nasheeds. I’ve made one called A is for Allah," says Yusuf.

Muslim Aid is another of the projects in which he is involved. It was launched in February and mostly helps Muslim refugees who have fled from Afghanistan.#3a.jpg (8365 bytes)

The telephone rings, a builder waits outside to give Yusuf an estimate, a teacher wants a word, classes will soon break for lunch. Yusuf is ready to excuse himself.

"Would you mind signing your name on a piece of paper for a young American girl who adores your music?" I ask before leaving.

Yusuf looks down at the floor. "I’d rather not," he says. But I’ll write her a note and invite her to the mosque. I would feel more comfortable with that."



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