New figures reveal that more than 20,000 knife crimes were committed in the UK last year. Peter Evans was shocked to discover he knew one of the latest victims
His full name, which not many people realised, was Hamouda Bessaad. When I heard it on the BBC news last month, I didn’t make the connection to the man I knew.
A television bulletin was the last place I – or anyone else who met him – would have expected to hear his name. To me he was simply Hambi, a waiter at Locale, my local Italian restaurant in East Dulwich.
“I am haunting you, sir,” he told me the first time I lunched there. “Like a ghost, sir.” He saw my look of puzzlement. I have trouble with faces.
“It’s me, Hambi, sir,” he jogged my memory. “I serve you at our restaurant in Blackheath, sir. Many times. Now I am here. It is promotion for me. One day I will be manager, I think. No – one day I will be manager, I hope. You see, I am learning to speak like a real Englishman… never to be boasting.”
His eyes were playful, schoolboy’s eyes, although there was something much older, and maybe far wiser, behind them.
A hard-working Tunisian immigrant, determined to get ahead, I’d known him for a couple of years – not well, but well enough to know a little about his interest in sport, especially football. He was a Chelsea supporter. “You do not get more English than that, sir,” he smiled.
He loved telling silly, childish jokes: “What is the highest building in New York City? The Public Library. It has the most stories.”
He’d been married for five years, to an English girl called Lorna: “Like Lorna Doone,” he once told me, proudly explaining that she was the heroine of an English novel he’d been reading. “The story happens in Exmoor, that’s in Devon.
I will go there one day. It sounds like an interesting place to visit.” He added that there were many interesting places he wanted to visit in England. “I have made a list,” he said, promising to show it to me the next time I came in.
He was a tall, good-looking man who, although not naturally gregarious, was instinctively friendly and trusting. “I never heard him grumble or complain. He believed in helping those who needed help. He had such a sense of decency, you wouldn’t believe,” said a friend.
He faced the problem of assimilating in a new country at an age when most young men are settling down, buying their first homes, starting families. But he was proud of the roots he was putting down in England, the friends he was making, and his steady progress in the restaurant business.
“It is hard work, but I love it,” he said. His enjoyment of his steadily growing status, the trust his bosses had in him, was palpable.
He was proud, too, of the fact that he was able to send regular money back to his parents in Tunisia. “His mum and dad meant the world to him,” Lorna told me. “He was a wonderful husband and a good son.”
But the other evening, when I phoned to book a table for dinner at Locale, I was told that Hambi was dead. He was the man whose full name meant nothing to me when I heard it on the 10 O’Clock News: “Hamouda Bessaad, 34, was found by police officers last night with stab wounds to his upper body in London’s Old Kent Road. Mr Bessaad, originally from Tunisia, was pronounced dead at the scene.”
According to the police, it was a case of mistaken identity, or perhaps he was the victim of a random knife attack.
A man in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were appealing for witnesses. His death, on June 30, did not stay in the headlines, or lead to public protests, as with the recent stabbings of others – French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez, or 16-year-old schoolboy Ben Kinsella, the brother of the former EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella.
“Hambi’s killing was too commonplace to cause a fuss, I suppose,” said Lorna. “Just another stabbing in a London street, what’s that? He was a quiet man, a private man, a fantastic person. There are no vigils for him. No one’s demonstrating in the street, no one’s protesting at his senseless death.
“Hambi wouldn’t have wanted a lot of attention, but I’d like people to know what a special man he was, that’s all.”
The most poignant thing is that Hambi would still be alive today if he had not worked so hard: on the night he died, his manager, Cherif Nehlil, sent him home early.
“We were not too busy,” he told me, “and he looked tired. He was house-sitting a friend’s flat in Southwark. He said he would drop by an internet café on the Old Kent Road to call his parents in Tunisia, and then have an early night.”
A waiter who had worked with Hambi for nearly three years told me: “We are all going to miss him terribly, and in a flitting, footloose business like ours, that is about the highest tribute a man can be paid. He only saw the good in people. Hambi was a gentle guy, the sort of bloke who would always walk away from trouble. He was just a peaceful man.”
It is always shocking when you hear of yet another random death of a young person on our streets. But only when you discover that you knew the victim, even as casually as I knew Hambi, that the wastefulness and sheer futility of the death strike home.
Too old to be remembered among the toll of those stabbed to death in their teens, but yet not old enough for us to judge what sort of man he might have become, Hambi died in the arms of a nearby shopkeeper, also a Muslim.
“They said their prayer for the rite of passage together,” said Lorna, who is a Christian. “Hambi was not a practising Muslim, but he would have taken comfort in that final prayer.” She added, quietly: “I do.”
When I told her that Hambi had told me he was haunting me, she smiled in understanding sadness. “He could really do that,” she said. He was a man who could leave his mark on you, on a room, just by having been there.
“He had these little rituals, at home, working in the restaurant – the way he would place your plate on the table, or refill your glass, or move a chair out for you to sit down. They were very special Hambi habits. When he was alive, you hardly noticed them.
Now he’s gone, I realise that they were part of him, like the childhood prayer he still said before eating, the little habits that made up his life. You can imagine missing somebody’s smile, or the way a person laughed, their familiar jokes, but nothing can prepare you for missing the way a person hung his jacket on the back of his chair, or how he squeezed the toothpaste.
“One day you hope you will forget the shock of the moment the policemen knocked on your door to tell you that your husband has died, knifed to death in the street, and one day, please God, maybe you will. But the pain will never go away. I don’t want any other family to go through such grief caused by a lack of respect for another human life.”
When I once asked Hambi about his ambitions, he replied: “I am just waiting to see what gifts the future will bring me.” Normally, I might have forgotten his face as easily as I had the first time I walked into his restaurant in East Dulwich.
Now he will haunt me, like a ghost.
From the Telegraph.co.uk