[As told to Yasmine Seale.]
I’ve lived in Oxford for eleven years. I’ve been cutting hair since I was a kid but that’s not what brought me to this country. I came here to study law — to bring justice to my nation, Palestine. I’ve never lost sight of that goal but the road to justice is steep and paved with obstacles. My family are all in business; they’re hard-working, and they taught me to value education above all else.
The hairdressing started as a hobby. I used to experiment on my friends, my family — they were my first victims. I liked the feeling of being in control; I could transform someone’s look, make them look wonderful — or I could chop their ears off! It was up to me. I liked the boldness of it. I think I get it from my father — he really prized creativity. I was a fearful kid, too scared to climb trees, but he always pushed me to be more adventurous. He taught me the important things: to learn from whatever you do, to try to love and be loved, and never be a slave to a book. Before I left home my father said: “Make me proud of you wherever you go.” So I try. With every step I take I think of my family first.
When I worked in an office, my colleagues would get me to cut their hair. They trusted me; I could play around with different styles. Then a friend suggested I go professional; I’d fallen in with a crowd of hairdressers and they encouraged me to make the move. Eventually I quit my office job and started working in a salon. The first day was terrible; I was so nervous that I kept spraying the customer with what I thought was hair lacquer but turned out to be the product we used to clean mirrors! It got better after that — I spent my days observing, learning from the other hairdressers, and I gained in confidence.
In the meantime I continued to study law. That’s another thing my father taught me: the importance of education. “It’s your capital,” he would say, “invest in it.” He had eight children and educated them all. He said: “I would die for your education.” He wanted us to be united, without ever having to depend on each other, so he made sure we were all self-reliant. Of course, you don’t realize this as a teenager — it’s only later that you understand. Now I appreciate why my father was so concerned with our education. I understand why he devoted his life to spreading peace and knowledge; and it makes me want to kiss his feet in gratitude. We respected him but it was a kind of respect mixed with fear. Isn’t that always the way with fathers? Your mother’s your ally — she covers your back. But I know my father is proud of me. I know it when we’re out together and he introduces me to his friends. “My son the lawyer,” he says.
After I graduated, the job offers started coming. My friends all went to earn money in Saudi Arabia and urged me to follow them. But I learned from my father not to rely on anyone, not to be an employee. We’re all born to follow a certain path and I feel I was born a businessman. It’s inside me. Wherever I travel, I’m always looking for business ideas to bring them to Oxford. But you know, if I were to lose everything tomorrow, I wouldn’t care. I have my education — I could start again. You know that Umm Kulthum song? “Wathiq al-khutwa, yimshi malaka—” Trust in your step and you’ll walk like an angel. As a Palestinian, that’s important to me. We are known for our knowledge, for the scholars and prophets we have produced. I came from Gaza and I ended up in Jericho, Oxford — named after the oldest city in the world. I’m settled here now; I have the right to be in this country, to exist as a human being. I am protected by the law.
The secret of my success has always been to rely on myself and not on others. I try not to give anyone the evil eye.
Italy is my passion; I go ten, maybe fifteen times a year. I did a course in artisanal gelato making. You have to learn from the experts. The secret is the quality of ingredients — but that’s no secret. For instance, we import pistachios from Turkey because they’re the best in the world. Everything is authentic, organic, low-fat. Two scoops of sorbet — that’s one of your five-a-day! We’ve also started making ice cream for diabetics: chocolate and vanilla.
I always felt Oxford was missing a gelateria café. I wanted to create something unique, somewhere you could hang out in the evening, not too expensive, with an Italian atmosphere. It really fills up after dark, and the clientele changes — it becomes more Mediterranean. They’re the dedicated ice cream eaters; they buy it by the box! We’re also serious about our coffee. The brand we use is from Trieste. Because of its name, Hausbrandt, and because the founder lived in Austria for a while, people try to claim it’s not Italian. But it is; we care about authenticity. They’ve been making coffee since 1892. Somewhere like Oxford needs that kind of tradition, that expertise.
I like to employ other Palestinians — they’re my friends, they understand the field. I also sell baklava made by a friend who has a factory in London.
It took a long time to decide on a name for the café. I wanted to call it Pistachio — it’s my favorite flavor — I even opened a business account under that name. Look; I kept the credit card as a souvenir. But names are hard — you have to capture the world you’re trying to create in a single word. My colleagues kept coming up with traditional Italian names: “Delezia,” “Casa del Gelato,” things like that. But those seemed a bit bland. I wanted something sillier, something dream-like — a name that would reflect my personality and my conception of ice cream. It never occurred to me at first to use my own name. My real name, Mu’ath, is too complicated for English-speakers — especially the ‘ayn. So my friends call me Mumu. As we were still discussing names for the café people just called it Mumu’s and the name stuck. It’s catchy. I don’t know if it attracts people or not, but at least they’ll remember it. I had to call the manager to tell her we’d changed the name from Pistachio to Mumu’s. It was a difficult conversation. We had to open a new account, look — [He pulls out another Barclaycard, this one embossed with MUMU’S].
I spend my days between the gelateria and the barbershop. It’s not just a barbershop though; we also sell leather bags. There are mirrors everywhere and stainless steel — I love stainless steel, I don’t know why — so everything is reflected. When you’re sitting and waiting for your haircut, you can see the bags in the mirror. People like to shop while they wait. They buy gym bags for their wives. Sometimes they even bring their wives with them, but then they regret it. And sometimes the women come on their own, just to shop! “Tell my husband I want this one,” they say.
The ice cream takes up a lot of time but I still cut hair on occasion. I can’t cut women’s hair though — they’re too sweet, I’d melt.