Photograph by Brian Moody
Shad Ali, an ex-social worker, is a British Pakistani who has lived and worked in Nottingham all his life. In July 2008 he was attacked when he came to the rescue of two Pakistani women who were being racially abused by a passing pedestrian. Six years later Shad met his attacker at a face-to-face restorative justice meeting.
One warm afternoon in July I was cycling through Nottingham city centre when I heard a man being extremely aggressive towards two Pakistani women who had done nothing to provoke him. I tried to calm him down but this seemed to aggravate him even further, and so realising I was not making any progress, I made the fatal error of turning round and getting back on my bike.
The next thing I remember was being punched with such force that I fell to the ground unconscious. Whilst I lay there the man started stamping and kicking my face repeatedly. I was told later that he had to be pulled off me by members of the public who probably saved my life. By the time I was taken to hospital I had brain fluid coming out of my nose and was in excruciating pain.
Within four days I’d had major reconstruction surgery – as a result of which the right-hand side of my face is still full of titanium. In the months that followed I had several more operations. I also had emotional and psychological problems. The trauma took a huge chunk out of my life.
When eventually my assailant was arrested he pleaded not guilty. The first trial lasted a week and remarkably there was a hung jury but when we went back to court a few weeks later this time the defendant realised the trial wasn’t going his way and knocking on the glass window he announced he’d decided to change his plea to guilty. At this point he raised his hands to me in the public gallery, put his hands up against the glass and with tears rolling down his face, asked for my forgiveness.
He received a five year custodial sentence under an IPP (indeterminate public protection order). But I felt no sense of satisfaction. I knew from my own life journey that locking away these kind of men without correct input was totally futile.
Forgiveness for me began long before that. It began the day after the attack when I woke up in my hospital bed feeling remarkably at peace, but surrounded by family and friends, who were all distraught – particularly my male friends who wanted retribution. But having been on the receiving end of violence I couldn’t conceive of inflicting similar pain on another human being and made quite sure they knew this wasn’t what I wanted. Forgiveness came from wondering how on earth someone could inflict that kind of pain on another human being without feeling anything.
Although my attacker had been using foul, racist language, I didn’t believe that his violent actions were racially motivated – he was so full of rage that I think he would have reacted in the same way if I had been white. I couldn’t help feeling that he was also a victim of some kind; something had happened in his life which had manifested itself in this horrific, violent outburst.
I received a huge amount of criticism and confusion from friends and family who didn’t understand why I wanted to forgive – especially from my wife who initially felt nothing but hatred towards this man. In spite of this, forgiving has really helped me move forward after the attack. It has been about me and has nothing to do with the man who attacked me. And yet, from the beginning, I wanted more than anything to meet my attacker.
After years of persisting with my request to visit him, I was finally allowed to exchange letters with him, and I found out that he was full of remorse and wanted to meet me, too.
I tried not to have any expectations of what the day would bring. Once we shook hands, we spontaneously hugged, which was totally unexpected, and I became very emotional and started crying. During the conference we shared our individual experiences from the day of the attack and also a bit of our life stories. By the end of the meeting, it felt like we had become friends.
Restorative justice introduced an element of humanity into a situation which had dehumanized both the attacker and myself. The process may seem difficult, but I think victims and offenders can get so much out of it. The only way to resolve conflicts between people is to sit together, talk, and find a way to move forward.