“I’m Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?” asks a blindfolded man, arms out wide, to mourners at the focal point of tributes to victims of the Manchester bombing.
The request has had Mancunians stopping in their tracks at the city’s St Ann’s Square, which has become covered in flowers, balloons and cuddly toys in honour of the 22 people, many of them children, killed in Monday’s blast at a pop concert.
The masked man drew a curious and eclectic crowd, with bearded hipsters, mothers, schoolgirls in uniform and an old Indian gentleman in a grey suit looking on.
Some viewed the request, written on a placard, with hesitancy, while others dived in, including a young boy, nearly knocking the man down with his enthusiasm. “Oh thank you, have a blessed day!” responded the human hug-dispenser.
“We could use the warmth,” said a middle-aged lady, eyes reddened by tears.
The square has become the scene of a continuous and sombre procession of mourners, eager to pay their own personal respects to the dead.
They included a woman in a rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt and black glasses, who laid tulips as her daughter grabbed her waist, and a schoolmaster offering drawings made by his pupils, carrying the words “we are thinking of you”.
'Such a great community' A uniformed policeman stood in line to pay his respects, with one of his off-duty colleagues among those killed at the concert.
Meanwhile, a veiled woman and her little girl tended to those waiting, offering a tray of small homemade pastries.
“Take one, you’ve been standing for a long time,” she said, successfully tempting a well-wisher.
Meanwhile, the small man offering hugs waved his arms like a conductor, drawing a growing queue into his grasp, oblivious to who was on the receiving end, with his eyes covered for the whole duration.
He wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the Manchester worker bee, a historic mascot of the city that has come to define the tributes, and the slogan “Manc and proud”.
After an hour and hundreds of cuddles, the young man flagged.
“Thanks to you all, it means a lot to me,” he told the remnants of the audience, who applauded.
“Sometimes when bad things happen, the wrong people get blamed, you get stereotyped… Thank you!”
The man later revealed his identity to AFP as Baktash Noori — “Bako” for his friends — explaining he was 22-years-old, the same age as Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber.
Likewise, he was born and raised in the city.
“Isn’t Manchester a beauty? Such a great community,” he said.
The newly graduated computer engineer said he got the idea from social media, and was deeply moved by the response to his small cardboard placard.
“Less than a minute into it, straight away people were coming up to hug me,” he said.
“I could tell some were tearing, it was sad. When you don’t see people but you have that connection, it’s beautiful.”