HASTINGS, ENGLAND // Even without a murder, this Victorian seaside town on England's southern coast was battling with its own issues of race and community cohesion. But with the deadly attack last Friday on Mohammed al Majed, a 16-year-old Qatari student, in what police say has been a race crime, the town was overcome by glum resignation. "This place has gone to the dogs," said one elderly man on the seafront. "It's like the Wild West here at night, particularly at weekends. This sort of thing has happened before and it'll undoubtedly happen again."
Mohammed, from Doha, was barely 100 metres from the language college where he had been studying English, when he and about a dozen friends were attacked by drunken youths chanting racist slogans. He died in hospital in London on Sunday night, 48 hours after he received fatal head injuries, and became yet another statistic of this town's gradual decay. Mohammed was typical of many young men who come here from the Gulf to study English and eventually go to college. But in one dreadful evening, he fell to the growing racial tensions and hooliganism that has overtaken many British towns.
"When we left the kebab shop on Friday night, these boys were shouting: 'Are you Arabs? Are you Arabs?' " recalled Majd al Ghannamah, 19, Mohammed's roommate. "Then they started chanting, '**** off you Arabs. **** off you Arabs'. I couldn't believe it. They were crazy. They just attacked us and kept punching, kicking and shouting. "They called me Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. I was shocked. We just wanted to get away, get home, but they attacked and we couldn't get away."
Mr Ghannamah himself was punched in the face and sustained a black eye. Another friend, who preferred not to be named, needed six stitches to a head injury. "I blame myself for not saving Mohammed," he said, close to tears. "But where I come from, we are not used to this kind of thing happening. At home, we never need to defend ourselves like that." In Hastings, though, there are too many times when drunken groups roam the streets at night after leaving town-centre nightclubs and bars, and residents feel the need to defend themselves.
Hastings has fallen on hard times and is now one of the most deprived areas of south-east England with high unemployment and a high crime rate. Once-trim, 19th Century boarding houses, catering to holidaymakers enjoying two weeks by the sea, have now been turned into hostels for the homeless or, increasingly, for foreign students, more than 30,000 of whom attend courses at the numerous EFL colleges that have sprung up in the town over the past 30 years.
Last year, there were almost 50 reports of foreign students being attacked in the town, though police said this represents a marked decline over previous years. In the two weeks leading up to Mohammed's death, assaults on three foreign students had been logged by police. Det Chief Insp Graham Pratt, who is leading the murder investigation, said that Mohammed died as he tried to escape from the fighting. "He has fallen and hit his head, sustaining serious injuries," he said in an interview with The National at the scene of the fight yesterday.
"We are still trying to ascertain whether he was punched or pushed. And we are still trying to establish how much race was a motive." Three youths, aged between 17 and 20, have been arrested and released on police bail. A fourth - aged 18 - remained in custody last night. Remzi Tanriverdi, 43, who owns the kebab shop near where the fight started, said the trouble began when some local youths gathered on the wide pavement outside and began drinking alcohol. He asked them to move on but they refused and verbally abused him.
"After I asked them to leave, I noticed a police car pull up outside. I asked them to keep an eye on the boys and they said they would, but then left," said Mr Tanriverdi, a Kurd who moved to Hastings five years ago and said he has been assaulted more than 20 times since. "Less than an hour later, Mohammed, who was like a brother to everyone here, had been beaten. The attack was completely unprovoked and without reason."
Mohammed's father and brother, who had flown from Qatar to the specialist brain unit in a hospital in London where he was being treated, returned to Doha yesterday with the young man's body. Mohammed had arrived in the United Kingdom about five weeks ago and had spent three weeks studying in Hastings before heading to Cambridge for another course. He and some friends returned to Hastings on Tuesday of last week and were due to fly back to the Gulf this weekend.
Brian Farrington, 70, who owns the house where Mohammed stayed, described him as "a marvellous kid". "Mohammed was a very smart, presentable young man. He was extremely polite and well mannered, like all the students I host. "He hadn't even unpacked his case after returning from Cambridge. The whole thing has come as such a shock to me and all the other boys staying in my house. They're just devastated."
On the streets of Hastings yesterday, there was a nervousness among students still in the town. "I called my parents last night and told them what had happened and they said that I should come home now," said Sultan al Dossary, 15, from Saudi Arabia. "I have been in England seven times and I have always felt safe here before. I don't anymore. I will come back to Britain in the future but not to Hastings - it is too dangerous. The people here don't like us."
Ameen al Obedan, 17, also from Saudi, said: "I don't think anyone from Saudi Arabia or any other Arab country will want to come here again. It is far too dangerous." Hastings is only too well aware of the dire consequences that Mohammed's death could have. The Sussex Observer, a local weekly newspaper, commented: "The streets of Hastings remain a dangerous place." "Police chiefs may tell us that crime is falling in Hastings, but this will do grave damage to the image of Hastings abroad and will have a big impact on the thousands of foreign visitors we welcome each year.
The murder follows recent news stories of 16 attacks on women in Hastings. The paper said. "The kebab shop owner reckons he himself has been attacked 25 times. What the hell is going on in Hastings, one must ask? "This is truly a terrible tragedy, first for the family and friends of the dead teenager. It is also a tragedy for Hastings, a town desperately trying to regenerate." Ironically, Mohammed and his friends chose to return to Hastings after Cambridge because they had such a good time there on their first visit.
"At first we liked it, but now we know the truth," Mr Ghannamah said. "This is a very bad place." @email:firstname.lastname@example.org