By Daniel Holland
Newcastle’s first ever Asian and Muslim lord mayor says a year as the city’s first citizen has left him “at ease” with his family’s tragic past.
Habib Rahman’s term of office in Newcastle’s highest ceremonial role came to an end last week, having made history 12 months ago as the only non-white person to hold the title in 800 years.
The Labour councillor has spoken passionately in the past about the grief he and his family have endured over the killing of his father, Azizur, who was stabbed in the Wallsend takeaway where he worked just 10 days after moving to Tyneside in 1977.
Having pledged to use his term as lord mayor to fight against hate and discrimination, Cllr Rahman says the experience has left him feeling “relaxed and at ease” – and that the respect that comes with the office has helped give his beloved mother, Ashrafia Khanon, a sense of “pride and reassurance”.
The Elswick ward representative, who did not speak a word of English when he came to Newcastle with his mum and six brothers from Bangladesh in 1985, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “It is the best feeling that any of us, as her boys, could have… She realised and she saw, in her eyes, how respected and appreciated her son was – and therefore if I am, then she is too and we all are too. I think any notion of fear or feeling of bad emotion or hate has been totally eradicated.
“She is not concerned about any of her sons anymore, she is comfortable and confident that her boys are safe.
“But the challenge continues to make our terraces, our city, our region, and our world a better and safer place for every one of us.”
Cllr Rahman’s mother recently travelled back to Bangladesh and “couldn’t wait” to visit her husband’s grave to speak to him about her son’s ascension to the mayoralty.
The former youth worker admitted to feeling a “a weight of responsibility” as the only black and Muslim lord mayor in Newcastle’s history, saying: “It is horrible and it is tough being the first in anything because all of a sudden you have that expectation… I suppose you are mindful of the critics who will inevitably be there to find fault or criticise you in every step.”
But he is hoping that others will soon follow in his footsteps and that seeing him don the mayoral robes and chains will help inspire more people from minority communities to enter the traditionally white and male-dominated arena of city politics.
Cllr Rahman added: “I think we are moving in the right direction in terms of fair representation and proportionate representation of the diverse population of Newcastle. The likes of [newly-elected councillors] Juna Sathian and Miriam Mafemba will inspire more people too, not just women of colour but women full stop.”
The outgoing lord mayor, who has been succeeded by Karen Robinson, says the only disappointment of his term was that Covid restrictions prevented him from holding more fundraising events for charities including Show Racism the Red Card and that he took particular pride in attending citizenship ceremonies at the civic centre.
Cllr Rahman has served on the council since 2010 and says he is “not 100% certain” whether or not he will stand for another term next year.
Asked about his future political ambitions, he said: “I am not going to rule out anything, but I will not say ‘this is where I am going or where I am going to get to’. No two days are the same in the world of politics and you never say never.”