Discs To Desks
- Sunday Express
- November 16, 1986
- Written by Mark Palmer
- Courtesy of Linda Crafar
The hair is still black and
disheveled, the beard unclipped, the eyes dark and winsome, but theres little else
about Cat Stevens that remains as it was. Gone are the acoustic guitars which helped him
become Britains 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.
Its the school,
Islamia Primary, in the London borough of Brent, which Yusuf Islam likes to talk about.
Its 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
"I hope the school
answers question in the song," he says, sitting in his grey abaya robe in the
headmasters 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.
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 wasnt always possible in the music business. You had to keep the
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
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 DArbanville, 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
"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.
"I dont look
back with any sense of loss. Art and music arent 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 childrenoften with a little help from Yusufwill
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
simplewhoever comes first gets in first," says Yusuf, who is the democratically
elected chairman of the schools board of governors.
Brent Councils acting
director of education, Dinah Tuck, says she has been impressed by the schools
curriculum and by the quality of the teachers. She has also been impressed by Yusuf, whom
she refers to as Brother Yusuf Islam.
"Hes a very
engaging personality and he sells the project well. He has charisma and hes clearly
very committedin 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.
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 councils 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 doesnt 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. Ive 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.
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. "Id rather not," he says. But Ill write her a note and invite
her to the mosque. I would feel more comfortable with that."