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LONDON TIMES  Friday November 12, 1999

Cat Stevens was one of the most popular musicians of the Seventies. Twenty-two years ago he turned his back on the music business and became a devout Muslim. Today, as Yusuf Islam, he has finally acknowledged the value of his earlier career and admits that he regrets losing contact with people he cared about. Interview by Nigel Williamson



Times99a.jpg (7878 bytes)Cat Stevens:
I miss being able to sing to people

It was more than 20 years ago that the young Cat Stevens sang "Remember the days of the old schoolyard". Today, as Yusuf Islam, he stands on a grey November afternoon in the playground of one of the four Islamic schools in North London that are funded by the profits from his long-abandoned pop career.

"I wrote a song once about a schoolyard not unlike this," he says softly before his voice trails away. The sentence is unnecessary, for everybody remembers it. He wrote another equally well-known song, Where Do The Children Play? Then there was Father and Son, Oh Very Young, Moonshadow and Tea For The Tillerman, all of which made him one of the most popular singers of his generation.

Yet to the dismay of his fans, Stevens embraced Islam in 1977. His conversion was not of the faddish pop star "this-week-I'm-a-Buddhist" school. He adopted his new faith hook, line and holy rote, turning his back on his old life with the zeal of the convert. He auctioned his guitars and gold records for Islamic charities, changed his name and denounced his old songs as akin to blasphemy. Worse, he became associated with the most fiercely fundamentalist forms of Islam, a stern and humourless dogmatist, apparently intolerant of those who did not share his faith.

That he has brought us to the old schoolyard because it reminds him of a pop song he wrote long ago represents a significant softening of the hard line. At 51, more than two decades after the denunciation of his former existence, it seems that he has learnt to live with his past.

"As I look back at those songs they are an open book," he says. "It was a time of learning and growing. When I first embraced Islam I rejected everything. I wanted to make a clean break with the past. But on reflection there are many things in those songs that remain true today. My music still stands as something gentle and meaningful and significant."

It is a profound moment. The first time in 22 years that Yusuf Islam and Cat Stevens have publicly kissed and made up. The patriarchal beard is imposing but with a shave he could pass for a man much younger. There is an almost boyish twinkle in his eyes and his skin is incredibly smooth. He is dressed in khaki cords with neat turn-ups, brown loafers and a calf-length coat. He carries a walking cane.

Softly spoken and courteous, after we have walked around the school (at which his 17-year-old son Mohammed is a pupil), he drives his shiny 4x4 to the Islamic hotel that he owns near by in Willesden. This was once a police hostel; he turned it into an hotel three years ago. Rooms start at 36 per night and the profits are ploughed into a trust to sustain his schools. Usury is banned under Islamic law so he cannot leave his money accumulating interest in a bank. Putting capital to work in other ways, however, is encouraged.

This week his old record company releases Remember Cat Stevens, a 24-song collection of his best-known hits. In the new year - to coincide with the end of Ramadan - he will release his own new record, A Is For Allah. It will be accompanied by a children's book of the same name, which he thrusts into my hands. "I don't think I ever said popular music was blasphemous. But there are two opinions in Islam. The common view of most scholars is that you should stay away from music and frivolous activity. But there are other scholars who say that the Prophet allowed music at certain times and on special occasions. It took me all this time to get to that balance of understanding," he says.

He was born Steven Dimitri Georgiou, to a Greek restaurateur and a Swedish mother. He grew up in London's West End and went to a Roman Catholic school in Drury Lane. His first hit came in 1966 when he was 19; pictures from the time show a foppishly handsome young man given to dressing in lace and crushed velvet. He enjoyed the life of a Sixties pop star to the hilt, partaking liberally of the drink, drugs and girls that went with the territory.

Then in 1968 he contracted tuberculosis. In retrospect, this was the wake-up call that changed his life. When he emerged from hospital a year later he was much changed, reinventing himself as a sensitive troubadour rather than the brash Top of the Pops hip-wiggler he had been. "People have times in their lives when they are forced to examine themselves - trauma, illness, accidents. You stop and think 'it could all disappear tomorrow and where would I be?' That was the beginning for me of that process of thought."

A series of gold albums followed throughout the Seventies. Their phenomenal success eventually forced him into tax exile in Brazil for a year, although he donated the money he saved to Unesco. Increasingly his songs displayed an interest in the spiritual, most obviously his arrangement of the children's hymn Morning Has Broken.

He recalls an occasion when he nearly drowned while swimming off Malibu Beach and cried out to God to save him. The tide that was washing him out to sea turned and he took it to be a sign. Yet he found no answers in the Bible and it was not until his brother David gave him a copy of the Koran in 1977 that he found his new direction. By the end of the year he had changed his name and given up his career.

"What I was really rejecting was the business - agents, record companies, the rat race, competitiveness. I didn't want to stick around in that environment. I was just happy to have the keys to get out."

But his fans felt rejected, particularly by the ferocity with which he denounced the songs they loved. Today he has come to regret the fierceness of his attitude. "It was the rush of liberty. I had been talking and singing about freedom and here it was. I could break free from the machinery that was choking me. But I do regret losing contact with the people I cared about the most and who I think cared about me the most - not people who were making money out of the music but people who were listening to it."

A recent letter from a female fan telling him that one of his songs had saved her life seems to have softened his attitude further. "She had been suffering from depression. She said one of the songs had helped her to regain her faith. That's positive."

He has also been surfing the Internet websites devoted to him and seems touched by the affection in which he is still held. "I turned my back and I can see how the fans felt. There was a breaking of the connection between souls, and that was the biggest sadness for me - which is why I am now happy to reconnect and say to people I haven't really gone that far away. I'm ready to communicate and I don't want to lose touch."

There is some routine blaming of the media for the reaction that greeted his conversion. "It was 'Islam - what is that?' And the Ayatollah came into the picture at the same time and I was overwhelmed. I was treated like an alien."

He is still mistrustful of the media and I was carefully vetted before he agreed to be interviewed. An article I had written about Sufi music which had criticised the negative stereotyping of the Islamic world had apparently done the trick. But did not some of his own comments contribute to the negative image of Islam - in particular when he appeared to endorse the fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989?

"The connection with the fundamentalists was accidental and maybe that was intentional on the part of the press too. They prefer to take a particularly microscopic view of Islam and mist over the larger picture. That issue wasn't really connected to me and I had very little to do with it."

He even blames the press for the infamous book-burning in Bradford. "It was the journalists who first suggested to the protesters to burn the book to get a good picture. It was about a photo opportunity and a headline, and it created a crisis. There was an immense amount of civilised protest that took place before that and I hope I represent mainstream Islam. But the media is not interested in simple Muslims who go about their lives getting up to pray at five in the morning and fasting. There has to be sensation."

But it depends, surely, on your definition of mainstream? Yusuf Islam is a firm advocate of banning alcohol and gambling, which is hardly a moderate position.

"The biggest problem is not drinking or gambling. It's a re-examination of the human being as he should be. That means a connection with the divine. In gambling the majority lose and very few win. Yes, we do want to ban drinking. Every doctor will tell you that it is damaging to health and to society. You know how many wives get beaten up because the men are drunk."

These are the areas where the flashpoints are most combustible between Western liberal opinion and Islam. Gambling and drinking may be damaging pursuits but whatever happened to free will?

"We didn't come about by our own will," he replies. "There is a higher will that brought us here and you have to recognise that presence which is God." It is the sort of circular argument that is difficult to counter because you can't break into its self-supporting internal logic. Particularly when he maintains that Islam is not a prohibitive creed. "In Islam the general rule is that everything is allowed except the things that are forbidden."

He has one son and four daughters by his wife, Fouzia Ali, whom he married in 1979. He is not, he says, a strict father. "I don't think you can be these days. The society in which you live dictates the general culture, even in the home. You have to be more lenient and be a friend to your kids."

Yet his daughters, all educated in his schools, wear the veil all the time. "It's basic modest dress as you would have found everywhere in England not long ago. The veil protects family values. There is this natural instinct when we see a beautiful woman to gawk. The veil is to stop that.

"If the family breaks down society is lost. Maybe the next generation will turn more puritanical. Things have slipped so far it may be the time for that. I'm happy that my children have taken a look at society and said 'you're right Dad, it's pretty bad out there'."

Semi-arranged marriages are already under discussion for his daughters, although they will have the right to say no. "We're consulting now. I had a choice of two wives and I introduced them to my mother and asked her. I knew marriage was not just a selfish thing between two people but about a bonding between families. So I wanted to make sure my mother had a say."

Although he was then 30, he married her choice. Does love play a part? "Of course. We believe that love really blossoms after marriage but there has to be attraction. It's the miracle of life and you can't deny it. But it has got to be guided and God has given us rules for that."

He lives with his family in Willesden in a style he describes as "moderate". He would take the bus if he had more time, he insists. He recently took the train to Cambridge and found himself on the Tube in rush hour. The experience sent him flashing back to Matthew & Son, about commuter alienation.

"There are so many people still on that line. I miss those issues, to be able to sing about them and give a little boost to someone who feels lost."

He doesn't own a guitar and says he doesn't even sing in the shower. "But sometimes I remember song lyrics. Backstabbers by the O'Jays suddenly came into my head the other day. There's a lot of people out there stabbing each other in the back." He singles out Moonshadow from his own work. "It is a highly prophetic song. It says no matter how bad things are there is always a positive side. I believe that is part of the legacy of my songs. I'm glad about that."

What we have just witnessed is the rehabilitation of Cat Stevens in the eyes of his sternest critic. Yet clearly the process hasn't yet gone far enough for Moonshadow to be played in the hotel lobby. As we take our leave the appalling strains of Muzak float across the hall. The tune is Don't Cry For Me Argentina.


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