Naseem Khan OBE, Friend of Arnold Circus
Behind this lyrical, quintessentially English image of a little girl surrounded by carnations in a cottage garden in Worcestershire lies an unexpected story – because this is Naseem Khan whose father was Indian and mother was German. They met in London and married in 1935 and Naseem was born in 1939. When the war came, they could not return either to India, which was in the early throes of partition, or Germany which was under the control of Adolf Hitler, and so they went to live in rural Worcestershire for the duration, where Naseem’s mother was able to maintain a discreet profile, concealing her true nationality and passing as French.
These were the uneasy circumstances of Naseem’s origin, and yet they granted her a unique vision of society which has informed her life’s work in all kinds of creative ways – including being Head of Diversity at the Arts Council and more recently Chair of the Friends of Arnold Circus, the group responsible for the rescue and sympathetic renovation of the neglected park and bandstand at the centre of the Boundary Estate last year.
Naseem’s father, Abdul Wasi Khan was a doctor from Seoni, the eldest of ten in a struggling family, who won an award from a foundation in Hyderabad to study in London where he completed a further three degrees qualifying as the highest level of surgeon, although as an Indian, discrimination prevented him practicing his expertise in this country at that time. Naseem’s mother, Gerda Kilbinger came to study English at a college in London, and her best friend at the language school was dating an Indian doctor who was “so handsome, so smart,” but when Gerda finally met this paragon who was to become her husband she exclaimed, “Ach, is that what the fuss is all about?” Gerda may have been initially unimpressed by Wasi’s diminutive stature, which matched her own, yet it was the first of his qualities that she noticed which unified the couple as a pair from the margins in British society.
“They were very concerned that I and my brother be accepted, and they thought the best way to achieve that was to send us to boarding school. But at Roedean, where Home Counties girls were sent – destined to be secretaries at the Foreign Office before they found a suitable young man to marry – I was like a fish out of water,” admitted Naseem, speaking softly yet with sublime confidence, and without any shred of resentment, “My best friends were a small group of Jewish girls.”
“At the end of the war, my mother got permission to go and find her parents in Germany and it was very shocking, the damage, despair and the demoralisation.” she recalled, “I was particularly impressed by my grandfather, a man of great integrity, and I would take my own children each year for open house on his birthday. He used to make a great soup, and members of the local football team and the mayor’s office would come. He would garden all Summer long in his allotment and do metalwork in the Winter. He had just a few good books and a few pieces of good furniture and I always liked that feeling, of having nothing superfluous.”
Blessed with a modest temperament and sharp intelligence, Naseem graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and pursued a wide-ranging career as a journalist, including being among those who launched Notting Hill’s black newspaper The Hustler and becoming theatre editor at Time Out when the new experimental theatre erupted in Britain. Invited by the Arts Council to research aspects of immigrant culture, she left her job to write a report entitled “The Arts Britain Ignores,” a re-examination of what was considered as legitimate English culture, which became a cornerstone of policy and led to a further career for Naseem in policy-making. “It was an important period of recognition of difference, striving to find a world in which all sides are possible, contained and honoured.” said Naseem in quiet reflection.
For twenty-five years, Naseem lived in Hampstead and when her children George and Amelia finished university, she found that her marriage had evaporated. Separating on amicable terms with her husband and splitting the proceeds of the family house, she began a new life in the East End eleven years ago. “What I’d missed in Hampstead was diversity, a sense of community and dynamism,” she revealed with a weary smile, “And being closer to the Buddhist centre in the Roman Rd was a plus for me. When I first came to look at this terraced house beside Columbia Rd, it was Summer and the little garden was an oasis and I thought, ‘This is where I could put down my new life.’ – I knew this was where I wanted to be, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I wanted to be in a place of change.”
Over the last five years, as Chair of the Friends of Arnold Circus, Naseem has created a charity with over five hundred members dedicated to bringing together the diverse community of the Boundary Estate. While the renovation of the park – culminating in the joyous opening last Summer – has been the most visible aspect of the Friends’ work, all kinds of other projects including gardening and music-making continue throughout the year. “I think my particular skill is being able to create a space in which people with different skills and different outlooks can work together and achieve what they want to.” said Naseem, demonstrating her innate magnanimity while thinking out loud, “I am a connector and it means recognising the synergy by which different people can come together to create something new.”
Naseem’s work has contributed to a new sense of self respect and pride in the neighbourhood for the residents of the Boundary Estate. In this sense Naseem Khan’s work here is both a culmination of her personal journey informed by her parents’ experiences, while also continuing the ethos of Sir Arthur Arnold who built the Estate – in the authentic and radical tradition of social campaigners who have brought about real change for the people of the East End.
Naseem’s estimate of her achievement is simpler. “When you live a long time, you do a lot of things.” she said with a grin of self-effacing levity.
Read Naseem’s article about Sir Arthur Arnold Who is Arnold Circus?
Naseem’s grandmother Maria Kilbinger with Naseem’s mother Gerda and Aunt Elsa in 1916.
Naseem’s mother’s German school attendance card issued 1913.
Gerda & Wasi, newly married in 1935 in Edinburgh.
Naseem’s British identity card issued 1940.
Naseem with her father, aged eight, 1948.
Naseem’s family and neighbours in Worcestershire in 1951. Her mother Gerda stands in the centre with her father Wasi on the far right and her Uncle Mujtaba standing between them. Sitting in the centre is Naseem’s half-sister Shamim. Standing on the far left is Harold Tolly, the baker, with his wife Myfanwy, the midwife, seated on the right holding Anwar on her lap.
Naseem and her brother Anwar, 1952.
Naseem at Oxford, Lady Margaret Hall, 1958
The Temptation of Buddha, Naseem is the dancer in front on the right.
At a year’s Buddhist retreat at the Upaya Zen Centre in New Mexico, 2007.
Naseem Khan OBE, Chair of the Friends of Arnold Circus