My primary school teacher once asked me, “Who are you?”. I gave her my name. “No”, she said smiling, “I mean, how would you describe yourself using one word?” I looked up at her from my cross-legged position on the floor. My classmates around me started to shift and fidget. I took a moment to decide and said, “I’m Muslim”. I smiled shyly at her, but her face crumpled a little and she shook her head. This was not the right answer. “No. But who are you?” she insisted. “Are you British? Scottish? Pakistani?” The smile fell from my face as I edged backward from the slow, steady spread of urine puddling gently toward me from the boy in front. I felt the eyes of the class burn into my skin as I grappled with the existential crisis that had been forced on me at the ripe old age of five. I said nothing. And the class moved on.
From an early age I knew I wanted to be a writer. I have tattered old jotters in which I penned, what I thought at the time were my masterpieces. Stories about magical worlds, treasure, adventure, which were, for some reason, set in Ecuador. They are hilariously terrible. And yet, it’s obvious to see that the girl who wrote them was loud and bossy and felt free and full of confidence. Then they stop. And what follows is the self-conscious writing of a secretive teenager, furtively attempting to write a novel while looking over her shoulder. The effort was short lived. What was the point? It was never going to happen. Yet still, in the dead of night, I would set down my secret scribblings on paper, creating my very own version of Frankenstein’s monster: the truly awful, angst-ridden poetry of youth.
It was only much later in life, when my first child was born that I realised I was setting a terrible example. I wanted him to be bold and fearless and work towards achieving his goals and so I began to write. A few picture books, random snippets of short stories but nothing complete. It was then that the half-formed thought began to germinate and take root and I realised that you need to know who you are before you write. It doesn’t feel like long ago that I struggled with this basic premise. What was I going to write about? Who were my characters going to be? Being the ‘coconut’ of the family, I didn’t fully identify with Pakistani culture and yet I knew I didn’t really belong in the space that I inhabited. Growing up in the 80s I just thought I was like everyone else. I was too young back then to understand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that came with being brown. You learn the rules. You need to integrate, conform, be grateful that you’re even here. But then the rules change. You try to be like everyone else but wait. Why do you live here? This area is too good for you. This shop, too expensive. The arts? I don’t think so. Stick to ironing shirts and making curries hen. That’s what’s expected. Don’t upset that. You have nothing of value to say. Well, maybe, if you take off your headscarf, wear more makeup, heels, tighter clothes, perhaps then you might be interesting. So, integrate, but know your place.
Some people say this country is not racist or Islamophobic and will reject anecdotal evidence of those who have lived it. It’s just people being oversensitive, maudlin. Especially those women. With their relentless words and their hormones and their feelings. To those people I would say, you aren’t there when we are pigeonholed, labelled, stared at, judged and abused. When the super-friendly service turns icy cold when you’re next in line. When you’re spoken to very, very slowly. As. If. Being. Brown. Makes. You. Thick. It can be painfully obvious what is expected of me based on my gender, race and religion and certain assumptions are made about my language skills and intelligence.
These experiences are exhausting and have made me feel isolated and invisible as a writer. And then I began attending the ‘Storying Relationships’ workshops at Glasgow Women’s Library, a place which became my creative sanctuary. The warmth and passion of the fabulous people who work there draw you swiftly into its embrace. This is where I met other people who knew and understood, who shared and listened. I had the privilege of learning from the confidently creative and talented women who led the workshops, Safina Mazhar and Sara Sharaawi, who challenged and guided us, supporting us in our writing journey. I finally had the time and space and freedom to write, and share my writing, to get feedback and ask questions of others and myself, to respond and laugh and dream. And I was hooked. The week dragged on until our next session and as I waited for my next hit, I couldn’t stop writing. I felt lighter than I ever had in my life, as if something had been unlocked in my heart and words were pouring out of it.
These workshops and the subsequent ‘Writing for Performance: Muslim Women’s Stories’ project, along with the indefatigable support of the Glasgow Women’s Library have provided me with so many valuable experiences that have helped me in my writing journey and made me believe it was possible. I have had the chance to develop my ideas with other talented Muslim women and see my work being read on stage by professional actors at the library’s fantastic celebration event. I have been tirelessly mentored by Sara who has so kindly given up much of her time to read and comment on my work, as well as working with the fabulous folk at Stellar Quines Theatre Company. All of this has made an indelible impression on me and has meant so very much. Without all of these experiences I would not have been able to write my story, ‘Rearranged’ that has been published in the anthology, ‘A Match Made in Heaven’ (Hope Road Publishing, edited by Claire Chambers, Nafhesa Ali and Richard Phillips). I am so proud to be included in this stunning collection of stories. After many years of searching I can now say with confidence what I knew about myself all those years ago: I am a Muslim. And I am a writer.