SCARBOROUGH restaurateur Alkas Ali talks about his life - his family, religion, work, sport and admiration for U2 frontman Bono. Reporter Dave Barry recognises a kindred spirit.
ONE of the most memorable moments in Alkas Ali’s life was sharing a stage with U2.
As a supporter of Bono’s charity one.org, which fights poverty around the world, Alkas tells fans about it at U2 shows.
Instead of asking for money, he solicits support for online campaigns, petitions, etc.
“We walk round the audience before the show and ask people to sign up and take email addresses on a laptop,” says Alkas, who first saw U2 at Band Aid in 1985. Since then, he has seen them in Spain, Italy, Ireland and Scotland.
“It’s amazing what pressure can do; it’s one of the reasons why I like U2,” he says.
At the Glasgow show, Bono invited Alkas and about 20 other volunteers on stage. They each held a mask of Aung San Suu Kyi on a stick, walking around the stage in front of 100,000 people while U2 played Walk On, dedicated to the Burmese democracy campaigner. They were then allowed to watch the rest of the show from backstage.
Alkas is a humble, compassionate, unassuming and broad-minded humanitarian with a well-balanced view of the world and its problems. He has travelled widely, although not as widely as he would like, and hopes to visit Australia and America when he has more time. He is going to a wedding in Poland next month.
He identifies closely with Bono’s CoeXisT campaign, advocating religious tolerance. CoeXisT is written with the C shaped like an Islamic crescent moon, the X like a Jewish star and the T like the Christian cross.
“Because I was born in Bangladesh and brought up in this country I can see both worlds and help charities in both countries,” says Alkas, who speaks English, Bengali, Hindi and a little Arabic.
Alkas can talk to anyone, which is a useful attribute for a restaurateur, and one which springs from his friendly, altruistic disposition. “I can communicate with European, western people, and I can understand people in Asia. I respect people from different backgrounds and religions.
“I feel privileged to be able to understand; it enhances my life as a human being. I can co-exist with anybody; I like to think I can get on with most people.”
As a practising Muslim, Alkas prays every day and has taken his family to Mecca in Saudi Arabia on an Umrah pilgrimage; they will go again in April. He feels the time is not yet right for him to undertake the Hajj, the world’s largest pilgrimage, and one which every able-bodied Muslim should do at least once, if they can afford it. “You have to make sacrifices. It teaches you to be a better human being. Emotionally, I’m not ready yet; I need to be more aware. I have a lot more to learn.
“If you have family and religion you no longer have a broken society; it keeps you humble. My Asian and European culture and religion keep me in contact with reality and make me feel we’re only human. It’s a very peaceful religion. It gives me peace, harmony and a sense of belonging.”
In Sri Lanka, his inquisitive nature took him to the Temple of the Tooth, one of the biggest shrines to Buddhism. In Rome, he made a beeline for St Peter’s Church, one of the holiest Catholic sites.
Alkas says he has never drunk alcohol or taken drugs - “I never had the need.”
He is on a committee which aims to create an Islamic centre in Roscoe Street. “We’ve bought the building and got planning permission. Now we are looking at ways of raising the money we need.” The centre will cater for the town’s small Muslim community, numbering about 100. If you would like to make a donation, write to Dr Al Safa at PO Box 308, Scarborough.
In February, Alkas will visit schools in his birthtown, Sylhet, accompanied by a teacher from the all-girl Beverley High School. They want to build a link between the school and one in Sylhet. “It will look at different cultures, how they affect teaching methods, how we can help them improve teaching, and we will support them,” Alkas says.
Alkas and his wife Nurun married in 1987 and have three daughters and a son. Nasima, 22, qualified as an accountant last year after completing a degree-level Association of Accounting Technicians course while working at Winns. Nazia, 20, is in her second year at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, studying midwifery. Ruhul, 17, has just finished at the Sixth Form College. Romisha, 12, is at Graham School. “She’s her daddy’s spoilt girl”, Alkas says. “Asian and Muslim people are very family oriented,” he adds.
Alkas ranks his memorable moments as the birth of his children, visiting Mecca and sharing a stage with Bono, in that order.
Alkas was born in 1967 and emigrated to the UK with his parents and three siblings seven years later. Their first British home was in Burnley, where Alkas’s parents still live for half the year, spending the colder months in the warmer mother country. As a British citizen, Alkas must get a visa whenever he wants to go back to Bangladesh.
The family lived in Scunthorpe briefly before moving to Scarborough, following Alkas’s cousin Mahmud Ali, when Alkas was 15. He attended Raincliffe School and, after leaving, found his vocation while working at Indian restaurants, learning the ropes and gaining experience. He worked in Scarborough and two places near York: Jinnah on the A64 and the 200-seat Jaipur Spice in Easingwold.
In 2000, Alkas and his nephew Abul Ali took over Scarborough Tandoori in St Thomas Street. It had been opened by Mahmud in 1981, when it was the town’s only Indian restaurant. But it can’t claim to be the first as there had already been one on Falsgrave, which had closed by the time the Tandoori opened.
When the neighbouring property occupied for many years by Burkins cobblers closed, the business partners jumped at the opportunity to expand. Now the restaurant has 130 seats on two floors and is being refurbished in time for the launch of a new menu in the new year.
Two years ago, Alkas and a second business partner, Sahed Ahmed, opened Saba Thai, a short distance away.
“The biggest thing you need in this trade is enthusiasm. It’s a demanding business and you need to keep evolving,” he says. One of the ways Alkas tries to keep ahead of rivals is by conducting research abroad. In 2000 he visited the spice gardens of Sri Lanka to learn more about cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, etc. When he goes to Bangladesh in February, he will check out restaurants and talk with chefs with a view to creating new dishes.
Alkas’s other passions include sport, with football at the top of the list. He used to play in the local leagues and supports Manchester United “through and through”. He works out in a gym, and needs to be fit as he is a workaholic, usually putting in over 60 hours a week.
He loves cricket and is helping to organise a team of staff from three local Indian restaurants to play in Scalby Cricket Club’s second annual charity tournament on Sunday. The other teams are the host club, a group of teachers and a group of medics.
Favourite food: Indian and Thai
Favourite music: U2
Favourite film: Lord of the Rings trilogy
Favourite holiday destination: Sri Lanka
Favourite TV programme: Spartacus series
Favourite place in Scarborough: seafront
Three people you would invite to dinner: Bono, Nelson Mandela, Diego Maradona