New scene for London's Arab diaspora among Park Royal's industrial estates

The once-drab area has become a cheaper, quieter and more community-driven centre for Arab businesses

Over the years a previously drab industrial estate in north-west London has become home to an array of Middle Eastern food and beverage businesses, challenging well-known Edgware Road as the centre of Arabic culture in the city.

Park Royal is better known for having an abundance of articulated lorries and grey steel warehouses than places to socialise.

But in the past decade the district has become popular among members of the Arab diaspora.

Dotted along its factory-lined streets are Arab-run lounges, cafes, bakeries and supermarkets that speak to an entrepreneurial shift away from London city centre.

It is a trend captured in Pipe Dreams Zine, a digital and print project that maps the story of Park Royal through interviews and photos of businesses in the area.

The Arts Council England-funded publication was part of this year’s Shubbak Festival, which celebrates contemporary Arab culture.

Nabil Al Kinani, a researcher and writer on the project, moved to the UK from Iraq as a child and has been hanging out in Park Royal since he was a teenager.

The area is cheaper than Edgware Road and caters to a different crowd, he said.

“Park Royal and the businesses here really strive to make the experience of Damascus, Lebanon, Iraq, etc more accessible to the wider community,” Mr Al Kinani told The National in front of Bamboo Lounge, one of his favourite shisha spots.

“So as a young person I would come to Park Royal because I could afford to, whereas Edgware Road is a little bit out of the way."

The presence of Arab businesses in Park Royal is not new.

The district first came on the radar during early waves of Middle Eastern migration into London, particularly to the west of the city, that followed several regional conflicts and the surge of oil money in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sweetland, a bakery specialising in Arabic desserts, opened in Park Royal in 1997 and is one of the oldest businesses on the block.

It was set-up by Lebanese Houssam Haddad, who came to the UK in 1984 at the age of 14 to escape the civil war in his homeland.

More recent conflicts in the region have led to a new crop of commercial enterprises.

Sameh Asami arrived to London in 2016 with his family as part of the UK’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, after fleeing the war in Syria.

Three years ago, he teamed up with two other people to open the Levant Book Cafe in the middle of Park Royal’s warehousing estate.

The beautifully decorated cafe sits alongside car repair garages, dead-end alleys and storage units on the one hand, and Middle Eastern supermarkets and bakeries on the other.

The cafe is a journey to Mr Asami’s home city of Damascus.

“Every Arab here has lost something of his heritage and homeland when he left his country so we wanted this place to be another homeland,” Mr Asami said.

Various handcrafted Syrian wares fill the cafe and he has made painstaking efforts to create an authentic experience.

Jars of fruit preserves, made by women in Syria, sit on a glass counter. On another, traditional Arabic ice cream handmade using a family recipe and covered in pistachios tempts customers.

Shelves hold boxes made from hand-carved wood and mother of pearl, with a large portion of wall space taken up by dozens of Arabic books for customers to borrow and read.

The soothing sound of trickling water emanates from a miniature marble fountain – similar to those found in the courtyards of traditional homes in Damascus – as Arabic music plays in the background.

There is even an olive tree outside, a comforting contrast to the corrugated iron of the surrounding buildings.

Mr Asami said he chose his Park Royal location because it was quiet and offered more space at a cheaper price.

“It also already had an Arab presence with several supermarkets, so we wanted to create something nice to add to that," he said.

He buys a lot of his supplies from nearby Salam Supermarket, which was opened two years ago by another Syrian.

“I know all the places around here and we’re all friends. They’re all hard workers and many of them have already expanded their businesses,” Mr Asami said.

Mr Al Kinani says the Arab uprisings of a decade ago explain the area’s more recent surge in activity.

“We had an influx of people from the Middle East and North Africa coming into London and wider parts of the UK.”

Mr Al Kinani said people yearned for home, increasing the demand for a taste of home.

“The importance of these businesses is very much cemented by the people,” he said.

But buildings and infrastructure also play their part and the area is set for big changes.

Park Royal is at the centre of the UK’s largest regeneration project and two of the city’s new major transport links will meet there.

There are concerns these developments will displace local businesses. Sweetland had to move to another part of Park Royal after a compulsory purchase order was issued.

Mr Al Kinani hopes the development plans do not upend the multicultural community that has been built in the area.

“Buildings are just bricks and mortar, it's people that create the culture," he said.

“So there's a hope and belief that whatever development happens within the area, they cater for the existing organic culture and they make room and space for that rather than replace it with something that isn't as good."

Mr Asami's plans for the future include turning the Levant Book Cafe into a successful brand that “wins over people”.

“This place is a part of my soul. When I walk through the doors I forget that I am in Park Royal or even in England, and feel like I’m back home in Damascus,” he said.

“I go back to my memories, my childhood, to my old house. And I think our customers get the same feeling when they come here.”

Updated: September 13th 2021, 9:13 AM
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