Sin & the Single Hijabi
Cover Art by Ash Collins
Copyright © 2016 by A.M. Sardar v1.0
Suitable for all ages.
* * *
My niece Shazia,
The Warrior Queen of Acocks Green.
* * *
I’ve never been kissed.
Oh, I’ve been kissed plenty of times; parents, uncles, aunts and all the flotsam and jetsam relatives of an extended family. But I’ve never been kissed like that. To kiss like that is gunaah, to even think of it is gunaah.
As you can surmise for Muslims gunaah is a big thing. Gunaah is, to give its English meaning, sin. Sin rules my life. Not the indulgence of sin but the avoidance of it, from the wilful debauched dirty kind of sin to the accidental sin; sin this and sin that.
It’s a sin not to pray, it’s a sin a to show your hair, it’s a sin to paint your fingernails, it’s a sin to wear lipstick, it’s a sin to look at boys, it’s a sin to wax your legs, it’s a sin to cut your nails except on a Friday; everything is a bloody sin. How is a girl to survive?
“Noorie beti, it’s time to pray!”
That’s my mum, giving me a not-so-gentle prod to get my arse in gear and hit the prayer mat. A physiology paper tomorrow at 9 sharp and she’s badgering me about praying. And what will I ask Allah after I’ve prayed?
‘Allah, help me pass my exam.’
To which an ironic Allah will no doubt suggest the advice that perhaps I should have studied more and prayed less.
I can feel her hovering at the foot of our stairs, listening for me to get up. When I obstinately refuse to budge I can hear her slowly climbing the stairs cursing under her breath.
I brace myself for the inevitable lecture.
The door opens and before I can say anything she starts up, “Uff, Allah, my knees and you made me come up. Why aren’t you doing your Isha prayers?”
“I’ve got a paper in the morning mum, I need to revise!”
“Paper shaper! You can’t miss your prayers, its gunaah!”
What did I tell you?
I give her my sweetest smile and say, “But mum, I need to get this done.”
“You’ve got time for both, pray now,” she insists.
“Why? I haven’t had time do any gunaah since the last time I prayed!”
The paper was a bitch. The kind of bitch that attacks you in the toilets with a stiletto shoe trying to take your eye out when you’re having a piss. Afterwards I headed over to the canteen, none of my fellow exam sufferers were in the mood to discuss the paper and we all slunk away, intellectually humiliated.
I was looking for my friend Shazz. She would, as always, have a few choice words on the subject. Shazz was less a subservient meek student and more like a tsunami of aggression, a hijab-wearing head-banger. She never met a problem that couldn’t be shouted, screamed or punched into submission. Youngest, and only sister, of a family of six brothers, Shazz had learned very early she had to fight for her place in the house, at the dinner table and on the sofa in front of the TV.
I didn’t see Shazz but found my other friend Furry, real name Farhat, nursing a coffee in the canteen. Furry was the antithesis of what a hijabi should be like. Strictly speaking she did cover her head but she did only take that as a starting point. Whereas we all favoured plain black or modest scarves lightly tied down Furry was more into the Moroccan multi-coloured, tassled long sheet which circled and circled her head until it rose like a beacon above her head; announcing her chastity in a very immodest way. To supplement the tower of trash on her head her eyebrows were immaculately plucked with nanometer perfection, her face was heavily made up and she always wore bright red lipstick; sort of a hijabi-version of a tart.
She took one look at me and quickly surmised something was up, “You look worried, someone wink at you Dr. No?”
I gave her a withering look, which she casually brushed off like a distracting fly, and she ploughed on, “Go, unload. What’s the matter?”
I hesitated, and then blurted out, “Screwed up my phys paper.”
She thought for a moment and then dismissed the idea, “Nah, you’ll be fine. Swot like you will be alright.”
“You don’t know that,” I replied but she had moved on and was flicking through her phone.
“Trust me you’ll be fine. Might not be top but you’ll pass,” she added without looking up.
“What you doin?”
She looked up and smiled, winked, and returned to her phone.
“It’s not Salim is it?”
She didn’t answer and carried on reading her messages.
Furry’s love life was an air crash about to happen, Air Furry was heading straight into the mountains with a dodgy engine and Stevie Wonder at the controls. Salim, her would-be lover, was a seriously old (nearly forty) bloke with four children who had landed some money (don’t ask how) and was on the lookout for a second wife. A search that had many false starts but had eventually landed on the mesmerizing Furry and her fake-Moroccan tower of trash.
“He’s stringing you along, he’s not serious you know,” I said.
She pursed her lips, gave a sly self-satisfied smile and turned the screen of her phone to me; it was a picture of a beautiful designer watch.
“It’s Michael Kors you know,” she oozed.
“So what? Is that all you care about?”
She sniffed derisively and turned back to her phone, “What do you know? You’ve got no taste!”
“Are you wearing that?” asked Parveen, with barely concealed disdain.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked holding out my arms. The floppy shirt and baggy pajamas were a little loose but the needle-work and threading was beautifully crafted and I liked the deep green colour.
“It’s so old; you wore it at Manju’s,” added my mum.
“I’m not wasting a good suit on this bunch of losers.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be safe from any rishta [proposal],” sneered Parveen.
“Parveen, don’t be mean to your sister,” scolded my mum.
My little sister gave a weak, “Sorry yaar [friend],” and returned to brushing her long auburn hair. I huffed in derision but it lacked any real power, it was true what she had said; I’d be lucky to get any proposals. It galls this writer to admit it, but dear un-hijabed readers, I was what could be described as plain, compared to my beautiful younger sister. My eyes were a little too small unlike her huge cow eyes, my nose was an undistinguished blob unlike her aquiline elbowesque nose, my skin colour tending towards ‘dirty’ unlike her pale porcelain covering and, most annoyingly, I had an overabundance of body hair. It was a constant struggle to pluck, thread, wax and yank the ever-sprouting hairs into any semblance of order.
In addition, I had accrued a rather unfortunate nickname due to my persistent refusal to accept any rishtas; I had gone from Noorie to Dr. No. A name my sister loved throwing in my face.
And so to the Bolton Excellency Centre on Carlton Street, a wedding reception for a minor cousin I had to attend because my mother insisted I needed to be ‘seen’. I had to parade and preen in front of potential husbands and would-be mother’s-in-law, all with just enough immodesty a medical degree would allow; although after that phys paper that could be a moot point.
A uniformed gori with a large turban opened the door and smiled with bored detachment, I smiled inwardly at the irony; a hundred years ago it would have been very different. The wedding hall was designed by a five-year old girl who’d seen too many Disney Princess films; cheesiness and tackiness sat uneasily cheek and jowl with redundant homeland nostalgia. Fake gold palm trees stood guard over frolicking dolphins in the central foyer as four scary-looking horses pulled an old fashioned buggy high above the entrance and an electric rickshaw was being driven by a large gorilla.
Cousins, aunties, uncles and over-familiar strangers all sailed into our family group and insisted on greeting us warmly.
Pakis like to use the word gora a lot, it has a literal translation and a cultural one. Gora literally means white, for men and gori is the female version. It was originally used to describe the British during the Raj but was also used for all other non-brown races. However, with the migration of Asians to England it now exclusively means the English; so now you know.
The ceremonies went on for ages; the bridegroom arrived, the party was garlanded with flowers, relatives wouldn’t let him enter until he had paid all the young girls a token gift and then he had to have a sip of milk from a special glass. Trust me, if you don’t have a horse in the race all weddings are an arse-ache. My sister disappeared with her giggling stroppy late-teens and my mum dragged me around a couple of tables but it was the same old tired faces and I even heard a whispered “Oh, no! It’s Dr. No!”, before we both gave up and went off on our own.
The cooking smells from the kitchen were amazing and my stomach started rumbling but before that we had to endure the actual wedding ceremony with the local Maulvi [priest]. An interminable talker who was relishing the captive, albeit hungry, audience and proceeded to denounce everyone who wasn’t wearing a hijab (most of them), didn’t pray regularly (again most of them) or attend the local mosque (guess what?). Eventually he managed to get to the actual vows, the audience cheered (more in relief than joy) and that was followed by celebratory hugs for the groom from all his relatives, friends and hangers-on. Then it was time for the entrance of the new bride (she had been locked out until the boy said ‘yes’) and the wedding organizers out did themselves. Bored attendants dressed in tiger print ponchos, with black cowboy hats and carrying gold-sprayed palm-fronds lined up dejectedly to usher in the lady of the moment. Two goris [English girls] dressed in electric blue gowns, and adorned with matching white wings, were hoisted into the ceiling holding a silk scarf loaded with rose petals. As the bride stepped forward they wafted the scarf between them and a shower of petals floated gently to the ground and it was all captured by a hundred iphones and a few ipads.
The second her bum hit the crimson-covered throne on the stage, next to her new anxious husband, the waiters bolted from the kitchen with huge trays laden with the starters.
The food was good and we all started piling in, grabbing handfuls of samosas, roast chicken, spring rolls and kebabs.
The service was good too until I noticed this one particular TP boy (that’s short for Typical Pakistani, i.e. a complete tool around girls and a mommy’s boy to boot) who was just a little too attentive.
“Do you want a samosa?” he asked eagerly.
I shook my head and he reluctantly moved away.
A few minutes later he was back and offered some fish snacks, “Do you want some pokaras?”
“No, thank you,” I replied coolly and he shuffled off.
It was on his fifth offering of chutney that I lost my rag. As he approached he gave a big smile and started, “Do you want…”
But before he could finish I jumped in, “…a husband? NO! THANK YOU!”
Perhaps on reflection I was a little too loud; everyone at my table stopped and stared, as did the tables next to us and, I think, I even saw the bride on stage have a quick look.
The poor boy was crushed, visibly shrank before my eyes and awkwardly shuffled backwards out of my verbal range.
“Nice one sis,” smirked Pav across the table, “or should I say Dr. No!”
* * *
“Dr No! Over here,” shouted Shazz from the canteen table near the window. The whole gang was there, in addition to Shazz, there was Furry (conspicuously raising her left arm to show off her new watch), little giggly Ratty (aka Nusrat) wearing her full face-covering niqab and severe Shaggy (aka Shagufta) with her modest scarf.
“I told you I don’t like that name,” I said as I sat down.
“Why not? It’s accurate. I hear Bolton was a blast. You ripping into a TP for no good reason,” she chuckled.
“Who told you?”
She ignored me and returned to her previous topic, “Well ladies, are we going to this Halal Husbands do or not?”
“Halal Husbands? What’s that?” asked Furry distractedly.
“Muslim speed dating. As approved by the Islamic Society,” Shazz replied.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Ratty softly.
“Why not?” asked Shazz violently, “don’t you want a husband under there?”
“Astaghfirullah; you’re shameless,” snapped Shaggy.
“Besides, you’ve got two boyfriends already; how many more do you need?” I teased Shazz.
“Boyfriends are alright but this is for husbands, the real deal,” insisted Shazz.
“You’re just a boyfriend away from an honour killing,” I replied.
“Honour killing my arse! Anyone try that one and I’d batter them,” she said loudly and thumped the table fiercely to emphasize the point.
Ratty let out an involuntary squeak and we all burst out laughing. And just to tease her even further we all started squeaking at her.
“Squeak! Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!”
“Anyway, I don’t know what yer mithering about; I’ve signed all of us up,” announced Shazz as she noisily stuffed her face with a handful of chips.
This was met with a chorus of derision and protests which Shazz blindly ignored. Once she had made a decision it was very hard, nigh on impossible, to get her to change her mind.
“Anyone got the right time?” asked Furry sweetly.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, “your new watch broke?”
She shot me an evil look and replied testily, “No, it’s not!”
The Halal Husbands function was in a backroom in the student’s union building. The first shock was that there was a ten pound entrance fee; something Shazz had conveniently forgot to mention.
“Come on girls, cough up; quality meat in there,” laughed Shazz.
We all dug into our purses and handed over the required amount. Shazz hesitated for a second when Ratty came up and said, “Perhaps you should get a discount, on accounta they can’t see yer bleedin’ face!”
We all marched in and nervously surveyed the room, that was our second shock of the night; there was actually quite a lot of halal meat in the room.
“I noticed you didn’t pay,” I said quietly to Shazz as we lined up to get our forms.
She turned and gave me a sly wink.
“What does that mean?”
She leaned in and whispered, “I get in free cos of you lot!”
We filled in our forms, pinned our names to our lapels and sat down at our designated tables. ISoc [Islamic Society] had decided it was unseemly for sisters to walk table to table, sort of an aisle walker, and had made the boys (preferred term brothers) be the ones to move from table to table. Each boy had five minutes to impress a total stranger into considering them as a life partner; so no pressure there then. Someone blew a referee’s whistle signaling the start and the boys hesitantly moved forward.
The first candidate was Umar, a pleasant looking boy with over-groomed eyebrows. He nodded confidently and beamed a broad smile; unfortunately this annoyed me more than pleased me.
“So, you’re Noorie?” he began.
I nodded demurely.
“What do you do?”
“I’m studying Medicine, fourth year.”
“Oh, that’s…that’s good,” he said unconvincingly.
I sensed something wasn’t quite right here, “What do you do?”
“I’m doing pharmacy, final year.”
I smiled inwardly, it was a truism that failed medical applicants did dentistry and failed dental applicants did pharmacy. I decided to nail him.
“So, children,” I started, “which do you prefer?”
“In what sense?” he replied hesitantly.
“Boys or girls?”
“Boys of course!” he replied without pausing.
“Really?” I said slowly, “and if we only had girls, what would you do?”
“Keep trying,” he replied confidently.
“I see. And how long would we keep trying?” I asked sweetly.
He look confused then, sensing some kind of child-trap, thought for a moment longer, gave a thin smile and said, “Five? No? Ten?”
I returned a robot stare and he panicked, “NO? Eh..”
He flustered a little further and blurted out. “Fifteen?” Appalled at his own answer he tried to backtrack, “No! No! Fifteen is obviously too much.”
“I’m glad you think so, ‘cos most people would’ve thought that after half-a-dozen!”
He visibly shrank into the chair and we both sat silently waiting for the end of session whistle.
Next to me Shazz was giving her potential husband a particularly hard time.
“If I was unfaithful to you, would you do an honour killing on me?” she asked provocatively.
The poor boy gave a blank stare, sizing up Shazz as a bride and obviously thinking if he could start the honour killing now.
She didn’t wait for his reply and carried on, “Would you tell me if you had an STD?”
“What?” he replied in shock.
The whistle mercifully blew and he shot up and swiftly moved away. I turned to my potential suitor Umar and, incredibly, he managed to move out of his chair and slink away without standing up.
The stream of attention grabbers and time wasters continued, either too boring to be a husband or too demanding be a dictator.
Shazz was in fine form and giving the boys hell.
“Do you know what cunnilingus is?” she demanded of one.
“Is that important?” he replied.
“Are you selfish in bed?” she continued.
“A little,” he said with a little smile, “I do like sleeping in the middle.”
“No,” she interrupted and elaborated, “sexually! Are you more concerned with your climax than your partner’s?”
He shot up with a loud, “Astugfarullah! Begarat!” and left her table without waiting for the whistle.
Shazz turned to me and, with a dirty laugh, gave me a broad wink.
The whistle finally blew for the next rotation and a nice looking boy sat down in front of me. He had very fair skin, striking hazel-green eyes and, sorry to confess readers rather good looking.
I checked his lapel but his name tag was missing. I tapped my own name tag and he realized what I meant, “Oh, I’m sorry, mine fell off,” he explained carelessly.
He paused for a moment and then said hesitantly, “It’s Alam Razzaq.”
There was something odd about him which I couldn’t place, but time was pressing and I rattled off my standard questions to which he replied with a bemused grin.
He was studying biochemistry at Liverpool (final year), single child, father passed away but mother was still around and he didn’t speak Punjabi or Urdu.
“What do you think of me wearing a hijab?” I asked
He paused for a minute, gave a non-committal smile and said, “Whatever turns you on.”
“I don’t wear a hijab to get turned on,” I said quickly, “it’s the opposite. It’s to turn men off!”
He grinned at my answer and replied smoothly, “It’s not working. You’ve got beautiful eyes.”
Well, that took the wind from my chadur, and I replied mechanically, “Don’t compliment me, its haram.”
He looked back at me blankly, waiting. I then realized he hadn’t understood what I meant. A suspicious thought took root in my mind and started to bud.
“How many times a day,” I asked casually, “do you pray?”
“I don’t think we can measure our faith in empirical numbers,” he deflected.
“Oh, I think you can, with prayers,” I insisted.
He didn’t answer but slightly pursed his lips.
I persisted, “How many times?”
“Oh,” he said casually, “the usual amount…”
“Oh…,” I could see he was starting to bluster a little, “…eh…”
“Ehm…6…” he replied weakly.
“6? 6??” I said a little too loudly.
“Not 6,” he said with mock laughter, “I meant 7.”
I stared at the Man from Liverpool, one of us was reading too many prayers a day, and I knew it wasn’t me.
I leaned forward, gave a special Dr. No stare and asked sweetly, “You pray 7 times a day?”
“Eh…yes,” he started slowly but then gathering confidence from my lack of objection reiterated it, “Yes, I do!”
I paused, did my hardest not to smile and asked, “What are they?”
“The prayers that you do 7 times a day? What are they called?” I prodded.
“Well…sort of,” he started carefully, “obviously the first one is Sunrise, and then we’ve got Breakfast,” he continued to bluster, “and that’s …uhm… followed by Lunch, and that leads into Afternoon Tea and then you have Proper Tea,” he asserted with unfound confidence, “and then we get Supper and obviously the last one is the Nightcap,” he finished triumphantly.
There was an awkward silence as I glared at him and he continued to smile smugly.
Just then Shazz shouted, “Live with your parents?”
The poor boy didn’t reply but nodded his head slightly at her.
“Do you want me to live with your parents?” she continued.
“Of course, yes; is that a problem?” he asked politely.
She paused thoughtfully and said, “And if I don’t get on with them?”
“You have to,” he replied quickly.
Shazz smiled, “I try but they don’t like me.”
“Then you have to try harder,” he insisted.
“I try my bloody hardest but they still don’t like me,” she snapped back.
“It…” he mumbled, “…wouldn’t happen like that.”
Shazz leaned back and said, “And if it does? What then? Who would you live with? Your parents or me?”
The boy stared at her, giving her the evil eye, and then stood up.
Shazz stared back with a nasty half-smile.
He turned to leave and said quietly, “I think it’s best we all stay where we are.”
I turned to face my would-be suitor and found him suppressing a smile.
When I gave him the cold stare he smiled and asked nonchalantly “Any other questions?”
“Are you a coconut?”
“White on the inside brown on the outside,” I explained.
“That’s not very nice,” he said rudely, “I’m proud of my culture.”
“Proud of your culture? What culture? You can’t speak Punjabi or Urdu, you’ve never been to Pakistan, and you don’t know the first thing about Islam,” I blurted out.
He feigned as if I’d insulted him and said softly, “That’s harsh, I do like Bollywood films.”
Suddenly a thought occurred to me and I said, “Are you even a Muslim?”
“What? Of course I am!” he said firmly.
“Really? 7 prayers?” I said mockingly.
“Okay, I admit,” he said half-smiling, “I’m a little rusty on the old prayer times, but I am a Muslim.”
“Really? I bet you’re not even circumcised.”
“That’s rather personal,” he said, involuntarily shifting uncomfortably in his chair, “I didn’t ask if you have pierced nipples,” he added, provocatively looking straight at my breasts.
I quickly raised an arm to my chest, controlled my impulsive anger, and said, “Let me rephrase that…”
But before I could continue he jumped in and said, “What’s the point of rephrasing? You’re still going to ask about the state of my PENIS!”
He deliberately emphasized loudly the word ‘penis’ and a few of the tables near us turned and looked.
I blushed red, trying to control my embarrassment and anger, but he merely gave a half-cocked smile (unfortunate phrase but accurate) and focused his eyes intently on mine. I broke the stare, sniffed loudly and said, “Thanks, I’ll let you.”
Meanwhile Shazz was going multi-cultural adopting key elements of the Christian faith; namely crucifying the innocent.
“Second marriage? Are you in favour?” she asked sweetly.
“Well of course,” replied the pompous fool and then added, “it’s allowed in Islam.”
“That’s very understanding of you,” said Shazz, extravagantly examining her fingernails, before leaning forward and whispering, “and would you sleep in your room or with us?”
* * *
I’m often asked why do I wear a hijab? It’s something I thought about a lot. I wasn’t asked or pressured in to wearing it, but it just happened naturally. Some people see it as yoke, an obvious sign of my oppression by Islam. And that’s the odd thing, something that I chose to wear suddenly becomes a symbol of my inability to choose. They compare putting on the hijab to slaves willing putting on their manacles. What they don’t see is it’s actually liberating. In one simple act I can defuse any encounter with a man; sex, or its promise, is no longer an issue. That man has to evaluate me as a person, talk to me as an equal. Is this person worth speaking to? Are they engaging? Intelligent? Witty? Or are they a crashing bore? That’s when magic happens; you actually see that person for what they really are. Not because they’ve slapped a load of make-up on or are wearing a tight blouse. That’s the ideal, that’s janat. But alas, we live in a petty minded world and I too often see people’s eyes cloud over and a curtain drop across their eyes. They see me as oppressed, as a radical, an extremist or as a bomber. They wrap all their prejudices and hatred around me and I become less than a human; just a walking symbol for their prejudices.
That’s the irony. What liberates me from their sexuality now defines me even more narrowly as a pariah. There’s the rub, should I be a bimbo or a bomber?
Manchester Medical school operates a PBL course, that’s Problem-Based Learning, where you get clinical experience with actual ill patients with the odd exam thrown in. Our clinical experience involves two-three month rotations with different disciplines; heart disease, oncology, general practice, neonatal units, accident and emergency and so on.
I scraped through the physiology paper, don’t ask how, and I was in a good mood when I met up with my hijabi-Posse in the canteen.
“You married yet?” teased Shazz as I sat down with a plate of chips soaked in gravy.
“Piss off, you nutter,” I replied.
Before Shazz could come back, Shaggy butted in and said, “Did you hear about Mobeen?”
“What about her?” I asked. Moby was a sweet third year dental technician we all knew from the Islamic Society.
Shaggy leaned forward, forcing us to do likewise, and whispered, “She was caught in a car with a boy.”
“Oh no,” said Ratty.
“What happened?” asked Furry.
“What do you think?” said Shaggy, slamming her palm on the table and rattling the plates and cups.
“Oh no, they killed her?” screamed Ratty and swooned like an old Bollywood actress.
“No, worse than that,” replied Shaggy, “they sent her back to Bangladesh to marry her cousin.”
“Oh, that’s not too bad,” added Furry sitting back in her chair.
“How on bleedin’ earth is that?” asked Shazz slamming the table, “the same as going back home to inbreed?”
“I was just emphasizing the point,” said Shaggy shamefaced.
“No you weren’t,” shot back Shazz, “you made her wet her knickers for no good reason.”
“Doesn’t take much for her to piss herself,” side stepped Shaggy.
“Oh please,” I pleaded, “can we focus. You know what this means?”
“More bleedin’ pain for us,” said Furry.
“Yes, they’ll be all over us now. Where you going? Whatcha doin?” I added.
“And who you doin it with?” said Shazz with a filthy laugh.
“Besharam [Shameless]!” giggled Shaggy.
Tuesday lunch time and my learning group, three beer-drinking white boys and me, end up in the pub to discuss next week’s assignment. We have to work together to diagnose a case and work up a treatment. They’ve tried this before, holding a meeting in a pub, and when I refused to come they stitched me up in front of the lecturer. They would start discussing a point, pause mid-sentence, and then turn expectantly to me. I tried to fake it a couple of times but eventually the lecturer knew I was talking crap and gave me a pointed look and a sly comment about participating fully in the group.
So here I am a hijabi, going into a pub with bunch of white boys, burning in hell doesn’t even begin to cover it; I bet there’s a special corner of hell reserved just for me. I ask for a Britvic orange and found the furthest table in the darkest corner. The boys weren’t too bad, they liked to wind-me up, to see how far they could cause discomfort to the meek Muslim girl. They were all sharp, how could they not be, but they were blissfully ignorant about Muslims.
Chris and Barry were still ordering at the bar when Rob came back and placed an opened bottle of orange juice on the table.
I eyed him suspiciously and said, “If that’s spiked you’re in big trouble.”
He blanked me and stared back insolently, daring me to challenge him.
I glared back and we stared at each other in a faux-Mexican standoff.
We held the eye-contact for a while until he burst out laughing and said, “I wouldn’t do that to you!”
The other two came back and we dived into the assignment, a tricky case about a young girl with a suspicious rash. We worked through a couple of possible diagnosis until we narrowed it down to contact dermatitis from a nickel bangle. Satisfied we had nailed it the boys lost interest and wandered off to play slot machines whilst I wrote up our notes, to be honest I didn’t really mind, it was the only way I could be sure they got done.
I was just reviewing the notes, make sure I had everything, when someone stood over me blocking out the light.
“Fancy a drink?” asked a voice.
I recognized the boy, it was Jonathan, another medical student from my year.
My blank look puzzled him and he repeated the question.
“Are you serious?” I asked him.
“Yes, of course. Go on,” he cajoled.
“Are you mad? Do I look like I drink?” I snapped back.
“I’m a Muslim,” I said pointing at my hijab, and when his expression didn’t change I added, “I don’t drink.”
“Go on,” he said with a smile, “I won’t tell anyone.”
“I don’t drink coz I’m worried about you gossiping,” I said sternly, “it’s a deeply held religious belief.”
He batted away my concern and smiled, “Go on, it’ll make you relaxed.”
“I’m plenty relaxed enough; I don’t need a toxin in me.”
“You’re too tightly wound up,” he expanded, waving his pint in the air, “this’ll loosen you up.”
“I’m fine,” I spat, got up and tried to push past him. He stood his ground and wouldn’t budge. He leaned forward and leered, “Make you more friendly…Be part of the team,” he added holding up the beer bottle.
“No thanks,” I said angrily, “the only poison I put in my body is chocolate.”
He started to speak but Rob came up and dragged him and mouthed a weak ‘sorry’.
And that’s the rub. These uptight students can’t be friendly until they’re drunk and then they get too friendly, and they think I need a drink to fit in. It’s their social lubricant not mine. And what happens is they get drunk and I remain stone cold sober. It’s not much fun for me and by the end of the night they’re falling around drunk and I’m sat there sober.
How do you make friends with a bottle of beer on the table? I don’t have a choice, either give in and fit in or stay strong and live on the fringes; not much of a choice, is it?
I half ran out of the bar, the whole episode had made me angry, I felt ashamed and dirty even though I hadn’t done anything.
Storming out of the bar I ran straight into a man coming the other way, my folder went flying and I landed on my backside.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going!” I shouted.
The man didn’t reply but just stared and then, with a smile of recognition, he said, “Noorie, isn’t it?”
Something about his tone seemed familiar but I didn’t recognize him. He gave a charming smile and said, “It’s Alam!”
“What?” I asked weakly, still stunned by the collision.
“From Halal Husbands the other day,” he said offering to help me up.
I waved his hand away and got up myself, it was strictly haram to touch a stranger.
He stood awkwardly for a moment and then bent down to gather my papers and handed them to me. He looked at me, did an exaggerated look from where I’d come and then smiled at me knowingly.
“It’s not what you think,” I said defensively.
He smiled again and said, “I didn’t say anything.”
“It was my tutorial group, they try to wind me up by going in there,” I explained. I didn’t need to explain but I couldn’t help myself.
“You sure you’re alright?” he asked politely.
“I’m fine, just landed on my arse. Not to worry, plenty of padding,” I added brushing my backside.
“No, it’s a lovely…” he began but I didn’t let him finish.
“Don’t, even start!”
He grinned and tried to hide his smile, “Can I buy you a coffee?”
When I didn’t reply immediately he cheekily added, “to sober you up!”
“Why?” I snapped back.
“Oh, no particular reason. A bar-going hijabi is…” he paused, “a little unusual!”
“I’m so glad you find it amusing,” I said and moved away.
He wouldn’t give up and followed after me, “Come on, a quick coffee,” and gave me his most charming smile.
Truth be told, dear kaffir reader, I found his smile intriguing. We ended up in a Costa coffee for a quick cup.
He finally told me the truth, his father was a Pakistani surgeon who had married an English girl and he’d been raised without any knowledge of his heritage.
“He’s a fool,” I said bluntly.
Alam didn’t say anything but fell silent for a while and then said slowly, “He’s a dead fool.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” I said quickly but he waved my apology away.
“I told you when we met last time,” he said softly.
I smiled unconvincingly and said, “There were a lot of boys that day, its hard keeping track.”
“It’s OK,” he replied and started fiddling with his coffee stirrer, it was obviously bringing up painful memories.
We quietly sipped our coffees for a few minutes and then I broke the silence, “What happened to your dad?”
Alam smiled tersely, “It was last year, he had a heart attack just before Christmas.”
I didn’t say anything and waited for him to continue.
“He was decorating the tree when it happened. He started getting weird pains across his neck and face, I didn’t think for a minute it was anything serious but he knew. I could see it in his eyes.”
I waited for him to continue.
“I called the ambulance but it was all too late, he went in minutes,” he said softly.
His head was down but I could see he was struggling to control his emotions. He suddenly raised it, grinned a little foolishly and said, “Shit present eh? Dead dad under the Christmas tree.”
His words shocked me into silence and I saw that was what he wanted.
We returned to our coffee for a few moments and then I said, “I’ve never had a Christmas present in my life.”
It was his turn to be shocked and he said incredulously, “No? Really?”
I nodded with a grin and he said, “That’s horrible!”
“Uhm, no it’s not,” I said giggling, “we’re Muslims and we’re not supposed to celebrate Christmas.”
“Not even a Christmas cracker?”
I waved away his question and asked him, “Let me ask you this, how many Eids have you celebrated?”
He looked lost for words, thought for a moment and then said, “I went to a Holi festival once.”
I smirked and said, “That’s not Muslim, that’s Hindu!”
“Oh,” he said shamefaced, “that’s the other lot, is it?”
“Yes,” I replied patiently, “that’s the other lot!”
“Oh,” he thought for a moment and then said, “what about Diwali?”
“Passover?” he asked cheekily.
“Jewish!” I replied and we both burst out laughing.
The laughter fell away and we sat quietly gazing at each other for a few moments.
“Not much of a Pakistani am I?” he said after a short while.
I felt sorry for him and, without thinking, reached forward and held his hand. He gripped my hand back and smiled back, “Maybe you can teach me?”
I wasn’t convinced he wanted to migrate into a lower social group, “Well, let’s see,” I said confidently, “can you speak Urdu?”
He looked at me with a blank expression, I may well have asked him if he spoke Klingon.
“Punjabi maybe?” I suggested tentatively.
“Oh yes, I speak that,” he replied swiftly.
“Really?” I didn’t believe him and put him on the spot, “alright, let’s hear you say something.”
“Uhm, well,” he giggled nervously, “one just can’t start speaking it like that.”
“Why not? That’s what languages are for…” I began to say until I caught the eye of the boy staring at us from across the room. Something about his face was familiar, I paused, trying to place him. I suddenly remembered, it was the over-solicitous waiter from the Bolton wedding; most definitely a relative. Just then Alam squeezed my hand, my thoughts collided violently with his gesture and I screamed in panic. I quickly snatched my hand back from him and knocked the coffee over his sleeve. He cried out in pain as everyone turned to look at the screaming Muslim couple.
I turned bright red with shame, I had committed a gross gunaah, holding a boy’s hand in public and, what was immensely worse, had been caught out. I apologized profusely, wiped up as much of the split coffee as I could and then stood up to leave.
Alam grabbed my coat sleeve, “Hang on, what’s got into you?” he asked.
I looked up and saw the boy had disappeared. I paused for a moment and said, “I have to go, someone saw me with you.”
He immediately scanned the room and then turned back to me, “Who?”
I smiled, “You don’t know them.”
“What does it matter?” he asked confused, “we weren’t doing anything wrong.”
I grinned awkwardly and pulled my sleeve out of his grasp, “You really are a gora.”
* * *
Are Muslims becoming more mainstream, slowly climbing out of their self-perpetuating ghettos? It certainly feels that way sometimes. The Hijarbie, the Barbie doll wearing a hijab, or the Burkini, an all-over swimming suit, does give a glow of confidence that my particular group isn’t being demonized or trivialized. But a thought nags away at me, is this genuinely a breaking of the barriers or an astute marketing ploy to grab some Muslim money?
The next few days were spent in deep study and even deeper prayer, for every prayer I was on the mat on the dot reciting, not just my obligatory prayers and beneficial prayers, but also my supplementary prayers for my life after death; which, if that boy told anyone, was coming sooner rather than later. As Shazz was fond of saying about praying religiously (an oxymoron if there ever was one, can you pray any other way?), “Smash your head five times a day, maybe knock some sense into it.”
It was on the third night that I had the dream.
I leaned back and felt the large pile of shit in my mouth; I couldn't swallow it and I couldn't spit it out. It just there sat, the foul disgusting turd. I ran into the corridor and towards the bathroom, I tried to pull open the door but it was locked; someone was already there. I started to panic as the retching convulsions in my throat started to choke me. I yanked myself out of my panic and ran frantically towards the kitchen. I ran to the sink and was about to vomit it out when the elderly woman smiled up and nodded her head. I gasped in terror and started to gag. The turd tasted rank and bitter in my mouth, I tried desperately to spit it out but the mass started to slide down my throat, choking and gagging me. With an almighty effort I screamed silently for long, long moments until my chest exploded and I sat up in bed.
A not too subtle Allah was trying to tell me something; and it didn’t take a genius to work out it wasn’t a good thing, but what did the dream mean? I couldn’t sleep after that, I tossed and turned in my bed for a while before I decided to get up early for fajr prayer.
The next day the dream was still playing in my head, a horrible Youtube video on perpetual replay, and I had to ask someone about it.
Shazz and I were both waiting in line in the canteen when I decided to mention it.
“I had this dream Shazz,” I started quietly.
“What about it?” she spat out and then poked the girl in front of her with her tray, “Go on move along.”
“I had this mouth full of…” I paused, hesitating at the awful thought of it. Shazz turned and raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow enquiringly.
I gave a half-grin and reluctantly admitted, “…shit. A mouthful of shit.”
Shazz started to laugh.
“And I couldn't get rid of it.”
“I don't know,” I said weakly.
She paused in line, turned to me and asked, “How did it get there?”
“I don't know,” I replied.
She nodded to me, “Go on.”
“So I run to the bathroom and go to the toilet but someone's already there.”
“So no one locks the door in this toilet?” she asked.
“It's a sodding dream not a film plot,” I hissed back at her.
Shazz snorted in derision and turned to the woman serving her, “Is this halal?”
The mature woman eyed her suspiciously and said “You what?”
“This pizza? It says halal but it's got cheese on it,” Shazz insisted.
“So what?” the woman replied with unconcealed hostility.
“Is it halal?” repeated Shazz.
“I don't know and I don’t bleedin’ care!”
“But you’re selling it as halal. Is cheese halal?” Shazz persisted.
“I don't give a sod, you want some or what?” she asked waving the limp piece in front of her.
Shazz finally relented and said “Two slices!”
The woman served her with ill-concealed contempt and then turned to me, “And you?”
Before I could answer Shazz interrupted and said, “Nah, she’s already got a mouthful!” and started laughing horribly.
I kicked her in the calf and, controlling my anger, said “Same again.”
We finally managed to locate a table and sat down to eat our meal. I was furious with Shazz for her teasing and was reluctant to carry on. After a few mouthfuls she turned to me and said, “Go on then, what happened next?”
I didn’t answer and sullenly ate my pizza.
“Go on Noorie, tell us; what happened.”
“You’re a right miserable cow sometimes,” I said viciously.
Shazz beamed back and me and winked extravagantly.
I couldn’t stay mad at her and started again, “So I go to the kitchen to throw up in the sink…”
“Lovely,” observed Shazz.
“…and someone’s already there,” I continued.
“I don't know!”
“This is your house, isn't it?” she questioned.
“It's a bloody dream,” I pointed out, “anyone could be in it.”
“Of course,” replied Shazz tapping furiously on her phone.
“So…” I asked nervously, “what do you think it means?”
“Means? Means? I’ll tell you what it means,” she said loudly standing up. She turned back towards the food counter and shouted at the woman there, “It's not bleeding halal, it's sodding haram, you cow!!”
“See that!” she continued, waving the phone at her, “Haram! Just like you, you fat pig!”
I sunk into my chair, pretending I wasn’t with her. Eventually, after a furious exchange of insults, she sat down satisfied and resumed eating her pizza.
“I don’t think cheese is haram!” I told her, “besides, that’s the least of your gunaahs.”
She gave me an evil stare and then relented and said, “Go on, what happened then?”
“That’s when I woke up,” I replied.
We ate in peace for a few moments whilst she thought about my feasting exploits. Finally,” she said, “Obvious, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been telling porky pies.”
I just stared at her blankly.
“Big fat stinking lies.”
The dream didn’t return but my sleep was still troubled, vague feeling of unease and distress, as if a silent train of woes was heading straight for me whilst I danced merrily on the tracks. I was just waiting for my mum to receive a phone call revealing everything. I was like a cat with a chilli-covered litter tray, I just couldn’t sit still for a moment.
Slowly the churning knot of fear in my stomach started to subside and my life returned to a semblance of normality.
Language is an odd thing, it defines our culture, it provides the means to express our most abstract thoughts and it has the power to define us. I speak English, Punjabi, Urdu and I understand Hindi but having so many tools at my disposal creates more problems than it solves. Languages are organic, they grow and change with the experiences of a people and the society. Unfortunately, when my parents migrated to England in the early 1970’s they brought with them a snapshot in time of their language. However, like Darwin’s speciation (look it up if you don’t know dear ignorant reader), over time this isolation caused a divergence between what we speak and what people in Pakistan speak. English Punjabi/Urdu speakers assimilated English words into their every day conversation and even started to apply the same grammar rules. For example the pleural of the Punjabi word kuri, girl, is kurian and obviously the pleural of girl is girls. So what have my brethren started doing? They’ve changed the pleural of kuri to kuris, and in an insane way it actually makes sense.
Into my disturbed and turbulent life, a not-so-merciful Allah decided to drop a huge boulder of pain; my sister Parveen received a marriage proposal. My teenage, hopelessly boring, younger sister was going to get married before me.
My life was officially over. I was only twenty four but my life was over. Overlooked at twenty four, too old to wed, left on the shelf of life, past my marriage date. It was considered a huge faux-pas (yes, Pakis do know French!) to skip a daughter, it sent out all the wrong signals. It effectively proclaimed I was ‘Unmarriageable’; I had said ‘No’ once too often; I had become Katherina to Parveen’s Bianca (yes, Pakis know about Shakespeare!).
My Abu, that’s father to you, was old fashioned enough to treat all unmarried girls as potential rape victims or serial-shaggers, so marrying them off young to avoid any complications was just fine by him.
“Are you coming down?” shouted Parveen, “they’re nearly here!”
Dear uncircumcised readers, it was now my farz to greet my sister’s new family and to welcome them into our home. But my main task was to praise my sister’s beauty (over-rated), her piety (non-existent), her cooking skills (poisonous) and her home-making skills (destructive).
I slipped on my most modest outfit, nothing to distract from sister’s alluring, bride-to-be loveliness, applied very little make-up (see previous point) and demurely descended the stairs to welcome the short-sighted, over-hopeful idiots.
The rishta (proposal) party consisted of the boy, his best friend, his two elder sister, his parents and an uncle who’d managed to graduate from one of the minor provincial universities. Mazur, the would-be fiancé, was a slightly dopey looking boy who over-indulged in personal grooming; a perfect fit for Pav.
They were welcomed into the formal parlour where we unleashed our full hospitality on them. A range of Asian sweets, samosas, pakoras, yogurt dumplings, spicy chickpea dishes, three types of chutneys and two platters of mixed nuts; my poor mother had slaved through the night to prepare the lite-snacks.
The procedure is for the sister to be humble and polite and, with suitably averted eyes, to serve the guests and, at a suitably contrived moment, the would-be-glory-grabber to ‘casually’ serve the proposal party. The would-be-fiancé Mazur was pleasant enough, perhaps a little too cocky, his sisters were a little over-weight and over-dressed, parents dull-as-ditchwater, his uncle over-stating his years at a minor University but it was the best friend who stood out.
The blatant way he was staring at me was quite off-putting. Didn’t he realize I was the sister not the prize heifer? I had finished serving the nuts the nuts (no, that’s not a typo!) and was handing out the cups of tea, concentrating to ensure everyone got the right one, as the friend’s attempts to engage in eye-contact with me were becoming ever more annoying. I handed him his tea and was obliged to look at him. He met my gaze firmly, gave a half-smile and then winked. His shameless flirting was too much and just as I was about to give him my Death Star stare blast, oh, wretched unwashed readers, your humble narrator recognized him.
It was the spying boy from the coffee shop; the waiter from the Bolton wedding.
With supreme effort and self-control I managed to hand him the cup of tea, gave a frosty smile and stepped back.
I completed my sisterly duties and moved adroitly off-stage, leaving the stage empty for the most glittering star in the bridal firmament; my horrible little sister.
She smiled, they beamed; she giggled, they cooed; she flicked a stray lock, they over-complimented; she stared coyly at her would-be-fiancé and I mentally vomited.
Afterwards the group started to mingle, it was obvious both parties were willing and the talk quickly turned to formal announcements, an engagement party and the inevitable wedding. I saw the Boy from Bolton casually edging his way around the room, trying to catch my eye, but I faked a stomach cramp and exited swiftly; I wasn’t exactly missed.
The news of my sister’s engagement (yes they formally announced it) had spread amongst my friends and I had received numerous texts asking for details, gossip and general trivial which I deigned to ignore.
Two days later I was in the canteen and it couldn’t be ignored. I grabbed a quick coffee and reluctantly sat down with my hijabi posse.
“You kept that quiet!” said Shazz pointedly.
I gave her a suspicious look, what was she talking about? Had I been seen with Alam by someone else? Was my secret out.
“Your sister landing one,” she expanded.
I smiled with relief, perhaps too much relief because Shazz gave me a funny look, but I slapped it away and said merrily, “Yes, it was all a big surprise to us.”
“Oh yes. So that’s it then isn’t it, you’ve been passed over; you’re on the shelf for life,” said Shazz.
“You’ve said ‘No’ once too often,” added Furry unnecessarily.
“Don’t be mean,” said Shaggy, “maybe Allah wants her to be a spinster all her life.”
“Thanks Shaggy,” I said sarcastically.
“She might get a divorcee,” opined Ratty.
“A balding fat git with a string of failed marriages?” said Shazz, “I’d say ‘No’ to that!”
“Not going to get a rishta now, are you?” smiled Furry sweetly.
“No, never,” insisted Shaggy brutally.
“You’ll be lucky if some dodgy uncle grooms you,” smirked Shazz.
“Shazz!” I shouted loudly and she was suitably embarrassed enough to fall silent.
The silence was broken by Ratty saying softly, “I had an aunt who never married.”
“Really?” asked Shaggy.
“Yes. They said they were looking for the best rishta in the world and they waited and they waited.”
“Who was she? Princess Diana?” smirked Shazz.
“What happened?” I asked, pointedly ignoring Shazz.
“It never came,” said Ratty.
“Bugger that,” added Shazz unnecessarily.
“Go on,” prodded Furry.
“She ended up looking after her mother,” said Ratty flatly.
“You fancy that Noorie?” asked Shazz.
“No, I bloody don’t,” I said quickly.
Shaggy was still absorbing the impact of what Ratty had said, “She never married?”
“Never!” confirmed Ratty.
“That’s not even the worst,” said Furry and we all turned towards her. She paused dramatically, looked at each of us in turn, took a sip of water and then started to get something out of her bag. That’s when Shazz lost patience with her and kicked her in the shins.
“Ow, you cow, what you doin?” screamed Furry.
“Bloody get on with it then,” snarled Shazz.
“Alright, I’ve got three cousins, all sisters, and they never married,” she blurted out.
“Three?” repeated Ratty.
“You’re kidding,” asked Shazz but Furry just shook her head, obviously still nursing her wounded pride.
“Nothing?” asked Shaggy.
“No action?” asked Shazz.
“They were engaged or had understandings,” explained Furry, “but it all came to nothing. Not one of them got married.”
A silence fell on the table as each one of us weighed up the thought of never being married. For a Muslim girl to even consider a relationship outside marriage was gunaah; yes, a sin.
“Do you think that could happen to us?” asked Ratty.
“Don’t worry rat,” laughed Shazz, “I’m sure there’s some short-sighted idiot for you.”
Ratty giggled modestly under the niqab, toying with the idea of a husband.
Shazz turned her attention back to me, oh blessed me, and said, “Is that it then Noorie? You given up?”
“The Eternal Virgin?” said Furry.
“The Solemn Spinster?” added Shazz.
I snapped and shouted, “Shut it you lot!”
“Ohh,” said Shazz with raised eyebrows, “touchy.”
“No, I haven’t given up,” I said quickly, “I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
“We don’t care about your fish, we want the burfi,” said Shazz.
“Yes, Noorie where’s the mithai?” they all shouted.
“I haven’t forgotten,” I replied and fished out a crumpled box of mixed Asian sweets, Diabetes-in-a-Box; if you’ve ever had Asian sweets, you’ll know what I mean.
Shazz gave a derisory jab at the crumpled box and said, “You been kicking this down the road?”
I pulled a face at her and ignored her remark but Shazz hadn’t finished her teasing and added, “Come on girl, you’ve got to show more loyalty.”
“Shut it you, I’ve got to go,” I said rudely and left them laughing at the table.
I stopped to get a bottle of water from the counter when I saw Ratty had followed and was hovering behind me.
“Yes?” I snapped at her and she visibly shrank back. I felt embarrassed for yelling at her and mumbled a weak apology and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing. I just wanted to see if you were alright.”
“Why shouldn’t I be?” I asked suspiciously.
“Oh, nothing like that,” she said pleasantly, “I just thought you were a little …” she hesitated searching for the right word before deciding on, “bothered.”
“About Our Pav?”
“No, just something else,” she said hesitantly, but then her courage fled and she moved back saying, “I’m being silly I’ll leave. Forget it.”
She went to move away but something in her concern touched me and I decided to take a chance. I grabbed her arm and pulled her to one side.
“You’re very astute Ratty,” I whispered, “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
She beamed with pleasure at my confidence in her. Her father was old fashioned, he made Osama bin Ladin look like a Dutch rent boy, and kept a tight rein on Ratty; as a consequence she had become shy and soft spoken, exuding a nervous energy which some found unsettling, and came across as bit of a simpleton.
She leaned forward and softly whispered, “What is it?”
“Thing is,” I began slowly, “I need a bit of help.”
“Go on,” she urged
“Can you help me find out who this is?” I said.
I took out my phone, showed her a picture of Pav’s rishta party and zoomed in on the Boy from Bolton.
She gave him a thoughtful look and then said, “He’s cute!”
“No!” I said desperately, “that’s just it, he’s not bloody cute, he’s annoying.”
She pulled a face indicating she didn’t agree with me.
“Can you find out who he is?
“Why don’t you ask Pav?” she said.
“No, they’ll get the wrong idea if I ask about a boy,” I explained, “You do it and get back to me.”
She thought for a moment and then asked politely, “Is this our secret?”
“Will we get into trouble over this?” she asked a little nervously.
I started to say ‘No’, but changed my mind and said quietly, “maybe.”
“OK,” she giggled, “a little gunaah now and then is good.”
* * *