Saj Mahal: Meeting the man behind the hit TV show promoting community cohesion and celebrating Lancashire
The first memories Sajad Ajmal Butt has of the United Kingdom are tinged with an unshakable negativity. Having arrived on these shores from his native Pakistan in 1969 as a 10-year-old with his family, he remembers the 'open racism' to which immigrants were cruelly subjected. "In those days, it was tough," he says. "The kind of treatment we were given was disgusting.
"We never felt it was our country," adds Saj, now a youthful 62. "But, over time, it did become our country and we're proud of that."
From an early age, Saj cultivated a deep-seated passion for sport (he uses the phrase 'my beloved Manchester United' at least twice during our conversation) and for Lancashire itself. He fell in love with the area. "My favourite view in the whole world is the view from the top of Pendle Hill in Lancashire," he says. For Saj, that view represents home.
He also fell in love with learning and became the first member of his family of his generation to go to university, obtaining a raft of qualifications from the UCLan in Preston including degrees in engineering and in business as well as a Certificate in Education. A Master's in education management at Leicester University followed. Teaching was his calling.
After a stint at Nelson and Colne College, Saj went on to work in management and as an IT lecturer at Lancaster and Morecambe College for almost a decade in the '90s before taking up a position with 3B Systems, the computing company he co-founded with his brothers Ijaz and Moushad, where he has worked ever since. But, for Saj, something else is on the horizon.
"The fact remains that Muslims get a lot of negative press," says Saj. "So, I wanted to show the positive contributions the British Pakistani community has made because, fundamentally, there's a lot of good stuff being done by our community and a lot of good people here doing tremendous work in Lancashire. We just don't hear about them."
To that end, since September Saj has been hosting a weekly TV show on Takbeer TV, a free-to-air Islamic network on Sky, and on YouTube. Playfully titled 'Saj Mahal', the programme focuses on topics such as social integration, community cohesion, sports, business, politics, and everything in between. But it always comes back to a central tenet: positivity.
And so far it's been wildly successful.
"I want to highlight how successfully the British Pakistani diaspora here has integrated whilst also showing off the area which has become my home," explains Saj, whose inaugural episode saw him discuss the power of sport to break down barriers and his beloved Paak United FC, with which Saj has been affiliated for some 45 years as a player, coach, and manager.
Founded more than 50 years ago, Paak United was the first Asian football team to win the Burnley and District League in the face of fervent and often racist opposition. In the episode, Saj - himself one of the UK's first semi-pro footballers of Asian heritage - spoke eloquently alongside the likes of fellow Paak United stalwart Haji Harun Zaman and current manager Mashuq Hussain OBE.
"Sport has been such a big part of my life; football made me into who I am today because I used to be quite a timid and shy kid but, because of football, I developed confidence," explains Saj, who also tells the story of playing football with strangers in front of the White House in 1987 off the back of being awarded the Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship Medal.
Presented with the prestigious award by Lady Soames in London, Saj subsequently embarked on a two-month outreach trip to Canada and the USA, visiting various businesses and educational establishments. And there was no way that the football-mad Saj was going to go two months without having a kickabout.
"It goes without saying that sport is a universal language," he says, with another of his episodes having featured an interview with Accrington-born Purves Ali, the founder of the Professional Football Scouts Association (PFSA). "At the White House, I spotted a group of strangers playing football nearby and asked to join in.
"That's why I encourage young people to participate in team sports, because that's where you foster a real sense of comradeship and fellowship."
But it's not all football: one of the more enlightening episodes turns the sporting focus onto the Pakistani diaspora's involvement in rugby league with Saj speaking to the Lancashire-born former rugby league player Brian Foley, who coached the likes of Kevin Sinfield, James Graham, James Roby, and Rob Burrow as well as the Burgess brothers George, Sam, and Tom.
"If you asked the Pakistani diaspora about their favourite sports, they'd likely say cricket, hockey, or boxing," says Saj, who does turn to cricket in an episode with Qasim Ali, the former lead coach at Lancashire County Cricket Club's cricket centre and current Head of Cricket Development at the International Cricket Council's Dubai academy. "No one would mention rugby.
"But I spoke to a guest called Ikram Butt, who was the first British Asian guy to play rugby league for England and who went on to captain Pakistan," he adds. "That told me there was a lot going on in terms of immigrant communities integrating, but that very few people were talking about these stories."
Telling those stories is what Saj set out to do in the first place and, so far, he's relishing the opportunity to speak to such engaging people. "It's funny how things work out," he says with a chuckle. "I was actually due to have an interview for a job with the BBC about 35 years ago, but I had a proper flu and, in the end, I wasn't able to go. That's always been a regret.
"So, when this opportunity presented itself, I thought 'I'm going for it'," he adds. "I've always had good presentation skills from my teaching background and I'm just a people person: it's all about mutual respect in a conversation. You have to give people opportunities to speak and I have real empathy for my guests, so they open up.
"The programme goes out to over 170 countries worldwide and the first programme we did got a live audience of half-a-million, while the repeat the following day got 2.4 million," Saj says. "And we've had people calling in from as far and wide as Ireland and Qatar, so we're talking about things which interest people."
Perhaps one of the most hard-hitting tales from Saj Mahal so far took place during an episode on inclusivity and multiculturalism. Saj recounts how, in 1985, he suffered an almost-fatal head injury which included a fractured skull and a bruise on a brain. For a while, it was touch-and-go as to whether he would even survive. Pure humanity took over.
Treated by a Hindu doctor and a Christian nurse and with a Muslim family praying for his recovery, Saj recounts how the incident stuck out for him as a demonstration that people have far more in common than that which divides us. Even an atheist friend said that he had prayed for him. "It was simple," says Saj. "They all just wanted an ill person to get better."
And embracing those commonalities is what Saj is devoted to.
"We can be individuals with our own faiths and cultures, but we have to come together to celebrate what unites us," he says. "That universal truth is what I've loved about doing the programme: telling people stories they wouldn't normally come across but which bring us together. Because we should all be proud of Lancashire - it's a beautiful and wonderful place.
"And I want to show the world what we're about."