Friday, April 24, 2020

My friend Sabir

I learned today that my dear friend, comrade and fellow councillor Sabir-Hussain Mirza has passed away from the Coronavirus.

I first met Sabir when we were both selected as council candidates for Lye Valley ward in Oxford in 2002.  The whole council was up for election and we were chosen to stand together.  We were an unlikely pairing: neither of us having stood for election before, Sabir a community activist and taxi driver, and me a final year student who arguably should have spent more time revising and less time knocking on doors.

Sabir was warm, friendly and charismatic.  We immediately hit it off and spent the next few months going round introducing ourselves to voters across the ward.  And on election day in May 2002, Sabir topped the poll and I came second - a tribute to the respect he had across the community, and also to the fact that 'M' comes before 'P' on the ballot paper.

Over the next four years, we worked together as fellow councillors - helping constituents, working to improve the local area and supporting each other through some mind-numbingly tedious meetings called "the Cowley Area Committee".  We did a lot of good together, and Sabir's kindness and decency was a constant source of inspiration.  I was very lucky to have a fellow councillor who was so talented, was trusted and respected by so many people, and so easy to get on with.

Sabir was a great host, and I remember many a happy afternoon or evening at his house on the Cowley Road.  I learned a lot about Kashmir where his family was from.  I discovered that Sabir had enormous respect for those who were dedicated to public service, no time at all for those who were in it for themselves and a keen eye for the difference between the two.  I can still hear his voice and remember him talking about some pompous character or other, telling an ancedote about them, and then dismissing them with a cry of "that XXXX, he is such a bullsh****r", and roaring with laughter.

Sabir served as a local councillor for eight years, but that was only a small part of the contribution he made to Oxford and its communities.  He was active in bringing people from different faiths together, along with his friend and neighbour Martin who often popped in when we were round at his.  He was chair of the mosque and the Muslim Council of Oxford, and was a community leader in the true and proper sense of that word - someone who gave his time in service to others and earned respect as a result.

In 2004, it was my turn to be up for election on my own.  It was the aftermath of the Iraq war, which Sabir and I had campaigned against.  Across the city, voters wanted to send a message to Tony Blair and Labour councillor after Labour councillor got voted out.  But in Lye Valley, Sabir worked tirelessly to support me and persuade people to stick with Labour.  Together, we persuaded enough people who had previously supported us, plus local residents who weren't natural Labour supporters but valued the work we did, to get me re-elected.

Two years on, it was Sabir's turn to stand again for election.  I still have some of the old community newsletters we did from that election - with thrilling articles such as "Hollow Way road hedge cut back" with a beaming picture of Sabir beside a nicely pruned hedge (the result of months of campaigning to get the local golf club to undertake its responsibilities).  It was the top target for the Liberal Democrats and they put everything that they had into the campaign (for younger readers, the Liberal Democrats used to be a political party which were very effective in winning local elections).  They were very confident of beating Sabir, which made it all the sweeter when Sabir got more votes than we'd got in 2002 or 2004 and held them off by 21 votes.

The last Lye Valley Labour newsletter I have is from the summer of 2006.  It has a picture of Sabir, me, and our two county councillors Val Smith and Barbara Gatehouse.  As time goes by, I realise more and more what a privilege it was to serve with three such remarkable people.  It breaks my heart to think that none of them are still with us.

The fact that Oxford is such a flourishing, diverse and welcoming city is not an accident, something that happened by chance or coincidence.  It happened because of those who worked tirelessly to bring people together across communities, to strive for social justice and to use their talents to help others, while at the same time enjoying life and laughter.  As a citizen of Oxford, a representative of the Labour Party, and as a leader in the Muslim community, Sabir embodied these values to the full.

After I left the council and moved away from Oxford, we didn't see so much of each other.  But each time we did, we would get chatting and it would be as if I'd never been away.  I knew Sabir as a true friend, one who I knew would always be rooting for me and on my side, someone who spent his time helping others, and someone to laugh and share happy memories with.  I am going to miss him terribly.

Farewell my brother.  Rest in peace.