Arts

Lauren Booth: Tony Blair and I were on separate buses – and he was headed to Tel Aviv

Journalist, political activist, one-time I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here contestant and Tony Blair's sister-in-law, Lauren Booth is one of these islands' most high-profile converts to Islam. Ahead of her visit to the Rostrevor Literary Festival this weekend, she spoke to Noel McAdam

Lauren Booth – it is the big events in life that really shape our character and how we learn to cope
Noel McAdam

SHE is the sister-in-law of Tony Blair, the former prime minister who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. But Lauren Booth made the longer, and more perilous, religious journey from being a fervent Catholic in childhood to Islam.

The 51-year-old, who has been a Muslim for almost 10 years now, is coming to Northern Ireland to talk about her new book Finding Peace In The Holy Land.

Booth and her half sister Cherie share a father in the late actor Tony Booth, still best remembered for his role as the 'Scouse git' son-in-law of Alf Garnett (played by Warren Mitchell) in the long-running television comedy 'Til Death Do Us Part.

A year ago Booth held her father's hand as he lay on his death bed. He finally passed away at the age of 86; she was reciting the Koran.

"He opened his eyes and looked at me and said 'That's beautiful'," she tells me when we chat by phone ahead of her forthcoming return to the north. "My dad was a lapsed, perhaps very lapsed, Catholic. He kept a belief in God but questioned how God was presented by the organised Church, which made so much money."

Even as a child, Booth recalled her mother, Susan Wylie, saying she was a "weird kid", always heading off to her room to pray.

"I was very religious as a child," she recalls.

But she never prayed to the Trinity. "I always felt the confusion about dividing into three. I just didn't buy it. I knew there was one God."

Booth has been to Northern Ireland before, though only once – in 1998 for an appearance on UTV's Friday night Gerry Kelly show. Now she is looking forward to coming back to attend the Rostrevor Literary Festival this weekend and hoping to see "a bit more of the green".

"I am so excited," she tells me.

Her impression of Northern Ireland, however, remains dominated by "barricades and bombs" even all these years later.

She has also twice been in Dublin, with the Muslim Sisters of Eire, and hopes to visit them during her three-day visit.

"The south was viewed much more with a rosy romance," she says.

Her last trip to the north was at around the time of the Good Friday Agreement, more closely associated with her politician brother-in-law who discussed spirituality and borrowed theological works from the late Lord Bannside, Ian Paisley.

But Blair and Booth, despite their shared interest in religion, never had a discussion "about God," the latter reflects.

"The book is not about the Blairs, although the first section does mention them – out of politeness, really, because they were very good to me. But really politically Tony and I were on separate buses. And he was headed to Tel Aviv."

Nonetheless, although Booth had carved out her own successful career as a journalist and broadcaster, being Tony Blair's sister-in-law provided a platform which allowed her to speak out as she began to become drawn towards Islam.

The mother of two children – Alex (18) and Polly (15) – she had travelled as a reporter to the Holy Land, and Jerusalem, working for newspapers which portrayed Muslims as violent.

She first became aware of Islam in the year 2000 when a picture came on TV of a young boy throwing a stone at a tank in Palestine.

"The boy died seven days later, shot by Israeli snipers. As I got to report from the West Bank, many of the stereotypes I had been fed on simply melted away. Then, driving from Tel Aviv to Ramallah [in the Israeli-occupied West Bank] the Palestinian taxi driver Jamai told me he wasn't allowed to cross the checkpoint.

"'But that's Palestine,'" I said.

"'You don't understand,' he replied. 'I have Israeli papers that don't allow me to the West Bank or Gaza.'"

Published at the end of September, Booth's book was many years in the making.

"The book really tracks a journey of resistance. By the time I had my second child I had become very materialistic; I had jumped on the good ship 'lifestyle' and sailed it as far as I could, becoming very hedonistic. But all the time I wondered what had become of the younger me."

She has since written about the great lie of modern times, that consumerism will bring lasting happiness.

For Booth, writing in The Guardian in around 2010, her experiences of Islam prompted her to pose questions such as why don't people cry more often in public? Or hug each other more? She says the Irish are way ahead on that score, however.

"I think the Irish are very different. You are more likely to cry, and to laugh and to hug. I think the English idea of self-containment and restraint never really caught on with me," she laughs.

Booth does not want the book to come across as a serious theological study. It is "funny" and an "adventure life story" which also takes in her I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here phase with Neighbours pop idol Jason Donovan and her skirmishes on the outer edges of the Labour Party.

"The book is more a dissection of the realisation that it is the big events in life that really shape our character and how we learn to cope," she says.

The biggest misconceptions Christians and others have about Muslims, and which anger Booth most, include "the lies" that her faith includes female genital mutilation ("It doesn't.") and that it is male dominated.

She wrote in an article: "Believe it or not, Muslim women can be educated, work the same deadly hours we do, and even boss their husbands about in front of his friends until he leaves the room in a huff to go and finish making the dinner."

Rather, she says, as she has said many times, her conversion gave her a new sense of respect.

:: Finding Peace In The Holy Land: A British Muslim Memoir by Lauren Booth, is published by Kew, priced £9.99. The Rostrevor Literary Festival takes place on Saturday November 24 at An Cuan on the Shore Road in the Co Down village, from 10am to 5pm; admission is free (with funding from the European Peace IV programme). Apart from Ms Booth, participants include author and poet Nessa O'Mahony, poet Frank Ormsby, John Sheahan of The Dubliners and Skyler Jett of The Commodores.

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