The stretch of Wilmslow Road that runs through the Rusholme neighborhood, south of the city centre, is known as the Curry Mile, thanks to the Indian and Pakistani restaurants that have been here for decades.But that label no longer seems to do the place justice.
Kurdish barbers sit next to stores selling shimmering saris. An Islamic bookstore faces a Jamaican supermarket. The air carries the sweet scent of shisha emanating from cafes named after Damascus and Dubai. The food is from Tunisia, Vietnam, and all points in between. These few blocks contain a whole world.
And part of that world are the 10,000 or so Libyans in Manchester, the largest community outside Libya. Many arrived here to escape Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal regime and have been here for decades, a quiet presence in the city, well woven into Manchester’s fabric.
Now, a British citizen of Libyan descent, Salman Abedi, has inflicted the most grievous pain on the place that raised him. On Monday (May 22) night, he detonated a bomb full of nails, bolts, and ball bearings in the Manchester Arena, killing 22 people and injuring dozens more.
He did not just attack a concert venue. He attacked a city and its sense of self as the proudly cosmopolitan, multicultural capital of northern England.
The Manchester still reeling from Monday night’s terrorist attack is not the decaying post-industrial wasteland of the 1970s. Nor is it the Ecstasy-fueled party city that emerged a decade later, or the gang-ridden gun crime capital of Britain that lodged itself in the popular imagination at the turn of the century.
It is none of those things and all of those things. It is the gleaming glass towers of Spinningfields and the hipster bars of the Northern Quarter, the leafy suburbs of Chorlton and Didsbury, the high-rises of Hulme and the uneasy, red brick streets of Moss Side.
It is a city of 530,000 people – in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million – many of them now wondering whether the city really is the exotic, polyglot, and polychrome place they believe it to be. It is smaller than London, of course, and perhaps not as rich or as sophisticated, or as famous, but no less confident or international.
As graffiti on a disused rail depot not far from Piccadilly train station has it, Manchester sees itself as “a haven for heathens, hoodies and hipsters, hijabis and Hebrews, highbrow intellectuals and however-you-sexuals... it’s home to all”.
It is that open-mindedness that first brought Libyans here, in search of their own haven.
“People often call it Libya’s second capital,” said Mr Hashem Ben Ghosal, a Libyan who has lived here since 1976 and who was, for decades, one of the leading figures in the dissident movement based in Manchester after escaping Gadhafi’s rule.
When he first came, he said, he found “no more than a hundred” of his countrymen.
“If you go to the hospital up the road, there will be Libyan doctors,” said Mr Saif Eddin, who moved to England from Libya 12 years ago and has spent the past decade in Manchester. “If you get a coffee at Costa Coffee or Caffe Nero, the guy serving you will be Libyan. There are lots of Libyans who work at Manchester Airport. If you go to the immigration office, the woman who works there is likely to be Libyan.”
“There are a lot of us here, but we don’t live in the same place like the Jewish community,” said Mr Tariq Olilish, 18, a native Libyan raised in Manchester.
Mr Ben Ghosal suggested that could be explained by the circumstances of their arrival. Like him, many who came to Manchester were dissidents fleeing Gadhafi’s repression.
They came there, he said, because it was “cheaper than London, life was not so fast, but it was still cosmopolitan and welcoming”, and it became a hive of anti-Gadhafi activity. Mr Ben Ghosal and his brother, Mohamed, founded the Libyan Constitutional Union, an activist group dedicated to Gadhafi’s removal and the restoration of Libya’s constitution.
Among the exiles, though, there were countless schisms. Mr Ben Ghosal said some were “more religious” than others, and some had differing tribal loyalties. “We were not well integrated among ourselves,” he said.
Even like-minded dissidents were afraid to congregate, unsure who was a fellow traveler and who was a secret agent for Gadhafi. For “security”, Mr Ben Ghosal said, it was better to stay apart, to blend in and to disappear.
Until Monday night, most believed it had worked. “We have been here since the 1960s,” Mr Eddin said. “When did you ever hear about anything like this?”
Mr Olilish believes that his generation is “well integrated”. “It is not like London,” he said. “Nobody asks you where you’re from. It doesn’t matter when or how you arrived. If you live here, people treat you like a local.”
The people of Manchester, Mancunians – derived from Mancunium, the Latin name for the Roman settlement here – are “a family”, he said.
There is embarrassment among the Libyan community that “one of our own”, as Mr Olilish put it, carried out the atrocity. Mr Eddin said he could understand why the city, and the country, might feel as if they had “done someone a favour and been kicked in the face”.
Mr Olilish described the people of Manchester as kind and tolerant, saying he always felt part of the community and never felt discriminated against.
In the aftermath of the attack, even he fears the dynamics of the city could change. He decided against attending the vigil held on Tuesday (May 23) for the victims because “people are rightly angry and upset and I did not want to see that”.
Mr Fawaz Haffar, a trustee at the Didsbury Mosque, where Abedi and his family worshipped, said at a news conference on Wednesday (May 24) that he had received reports of “terrible anti-Muslim acts, ranging from verbal abuse to acts of criminal damage to mosques”.
That is not the Manchester that either the city or its appalled, grieving Libyan community recognises. “The people who have come here have always found Manchester welcoming and accepting of foreigners,” said Mr Ben Ghosal. “That is the Mancunian way.”