To the uncles who are going to murder me

IMPORTANT! THIS IS A FICTIONAL PIECE IN PREPARATION FOR PROJECT DOLLHOUSE – A NOVEL I’M WRITING TO EXPLORE RAMPANT SEXUAL ABUSE IN SOUTH ASIAN HOUSEHOLDS.

EXT. COFFEE SHOP SOMEWHERE IN LONDON. She sits with two other brown girls who hail from abusive households.

NISHA: Um, I don’t know what to say. It’s just been getting really, really hard.

So last night I took my meds and I fell asleep really quickly. Mum, half-asleep, saw me the next morning and told me to take a shower. When she saw that I wasn’t doing what she said, she started screaming and wailing.

Yesterday, she was explaining how her aunt’s husband became crazy because he studied too much. That’s why, she said, you should take it easy and you should go take a shower. She was proper panicking, about to cry, about to scream. I just left the house.

FRIEND 1: What the hell?

NISHA: My parents blamed their mental illnesses on us — if only you did this, if only you did that.

FRIEND 2: Textbook abuse, I’m sorry.

NISHA: And the thing is, I’m the selfish person for not listening to them. I’m the selfish person. But to be honest, I’m terrified that if I do anything they are going to kill themselves. My poor daughter, Mum said, she kept her sexual abuse a secret for so many years. But then she says, don’t you love us anymore? Don’t you care about us?

How can you say that? The only reason I didn’t tell you about the abuse was because — because — I didn’t want to hurt you.

And when I started speaking about it to others and my mum heard about it she demanded me to stop saying – among several other reasons – that when your uncles hear about this, they are going to murder you.

Well to that I say join the damn club.

I remember sitting a paper on The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The extract in question was on the brutal rape of Hassan by some street bullies. Amir, our narrator and main character, then and now could not properly name the horror of the crime against Hassan and his body, and simply referred to it as the thing that happened back then. Words were not enough.

When I was fifteen I finally found words that could somehow name the horrible thing that was happening to me. I quickly dismissed them; those words were terrible. Child molestation, paedophilia, sexual assault, rape, incest. They made me feel uglier than I already did about what was happening to me.

I grew up feeling different – wrong – compared to everyone else around me. I am terrified of sexual feelings, and felt that what they did to me made me a disgusting person. I also grew up angry, especially once I found the words. I saw myself as damaged goods, saw the arch of my future stunted and harrowed because of the self-hatred. I lamented how healthy my sexual life could have been, and how my relationship with my body and my emotions could have turned out if that horrible thing didn’t happen to me.

Even though I found the words at fifteen, I was too afraid to even think about them, let alone speak them out loud. I kept their secret for fifteen years. What prompted me to spill it out was the years of dismissals and silences that I had stuffed inside me to pretend that everything was okay. That, and I read about women who were starting to speak up about their experiences – and I realised that what they were doing to me was wrong.

I broke down. The first time I uttered this secret I felt a profound sense of relief. But I also immediately recoiled. I was like those people, I was a victim of abuse and all the connotations that came with that occupation. While I grew up with women speaking out about rape I didn’t think that I could apply that term to myself – I was disgusting, I didn’t resist, I let them do that to me, I didn’t stop them.

Justice will always be an issue. I don’t have any evidence, and as much as I hate them I’m scared for my mother’s health if she has to go through having her husband and son on trial. You see, when I told my mother about what they did to me, it was very hard for her to take it. While she believed me, she also wanted me to forget what happened – saying that all I can do is go on and be more careful.

But I couldn’t forget. I told everyone I could. To me this was defiance in the face of my abusers who specifically told me to keep this a secret. Fifteen years’ of suppression led to an overflow of words.

And somehow the news reached my aunt. Who immediately called my mother up. My mother demanded, in between tears and short breaths, that I stop talking about this. Among several reasons she said that that if my uncles found out about how I was marring their brother’s (and by association, their family’s) reputation they would murder me.

I tried my best to keep quiet after that. A few months passed by and I got increasingly ill to the point of going to the hospital for suicidal ideation. I stayed there only a night because I wasn’t ready to leave. I had to give my family another try.

It’s been around eight months since then. I’ve tried incredibly hard to re-assimilate myself with my life before the telling. I had come back to my religion, Islam, and I had decided that I was ready to start looking for a husband in a year’s time. Whenever my mother or my aunt brought the abuse up it was to attribute my depression to the bad thing that happened to me, or to advise me not to tell anyone else because they might bring it up during my recovery process and cause further damage to my psyche. Those conversations often ended with my agreement and promise to not speak about it any more.

I am so tired of pretending that everything is okay. I am so tired of feeling ashamed.

When I started speaking up about my sexual abuse the repercussions shook across the delicate web of my loved ones and friends. I had girls – for we were girls when these horrible acts occurred to us – from all levels of friendship and acquaintances reach out to me to speak about what happened to them or someone they knew.

I can list ten instances of sexual assault I was told of by the hands of cousin brothers, uncles, fathers and family friends off the top of my head.

In my culture and through my religion women are taught that we are under the care of men. Under the care of fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands. That this was part and parcel of a peaceful Islamic society. Somehow it is not only our wills that these men hold but our bodies too. They hold rights over our bodies, too.

And yet this very same society was, in reality, rampant with this horror that I couldn’t properly find the words for. They get away with this because their victims are children. They get away with this because children can keep quiet for years through a sense of obligation to their elders. They get away with this because they know how shameful sex is considered in our culture and through our religion, and that it is much more dangerous for the victims to speak out than it is for the men to do this to them.

I am twenty one years old. I’m nearly finished with university. I have the possibility of moving out – maybe. Perhaps not from a cultural or Islamic view where the family is the closest and most tight-knit unit in society. I will be shamed for breaking my parents’ heart like this. They will see my moving out as abandonment, as a kick in the face.

Or they will use the excuse of my depression to take ownership of my body and my agency through the proviso that I am too ill to make sane decisions. Because, after all, what sane brown girl would wilfully leave her parents’ side if not for a husband?

I am not responsible for my their wellbeing. I am the one I should love in these circumstances. I was becoming more and more ill the more I tried to shut the fuck up. I refuse to seal my mouth and my mind any longer.

To Amir from The Kite Runner I say this. What I have learnt about words is that while they are not enough, they do hold power. They are testimony to your agency as a free-thinking person. And whether you will find the right words or enough words it is no matter because ultimately words will set you free.

AUTHOR’S NOTES

  • I know this sounds a lot like me, I’m still trying to develop Nisha’s voice. I don’t want her to sound timid but at points she needs to sound really oblivious.
  • Again, I’d like to emphasise that this is a fictional account. A lot of what I’ve written here is drawn from my research. The research is depressing and makes me cry but that’s another reason why this novel is important.
  • I’m still working on the schematics for Dollhouse – and I’m really horrible with names and titles so they’re provisional.
  • To give some context: Nisha has been sexually abused by her father and older brother for a period of fifteen years. Yeah, it’s pretty bad. Her mother didn’t know this was happening. Nisha finally got the courage to tell her mother and friends when she turned twenty.
  • Yes, this did initially start out as a script for a play but I grew bored and uncomfortable with that style (it’s very new to me) so I tried exploring Nisha’s feelings and thoughts around the sexual abuse through a blog-post style piece.

Photo by Jarrod Winkler on Unsplash

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From the unofficial religious mulla to the borderline ex-Muslim

In Year 9 we had to once debate if God was rational or irrational for our Humanities lesson. I was put on the side of the people who argued that God was irrational. I remember feeling like lightning was going to strike me down any time soon. How could I spit these lies about the one being I loved more than anything in the world, the one being who taught me to love all equally? I sat down after the debate, sunk into my chair, and dug my nails into the insides of my palm to distract from the humiliation.

In the years since, I’d honed my debating skills and found a way to argue for that motion without betraying my beliefs. God is irrational, because God existed before the laws of rationality did. God created the laws of nature that we all abide by, and considering He existed before that surely that means that God comes from the irrational? It’s a stupid argument but give me three minutes and a school team and I’ll have won you around.

During my school years I was the intelligent one, both in terms of academics and in terms of my religious beliefs. While I was impressing teachers with near-perfect test scores I was also the fastest reciter of Qur’an, completing the Qur’an at the young age of eight years old. I was the first to wear hijab and to be praying five times a day, too. When I went to secondary school I remember being the only girl to wear traditional hijab of a scarf and an abaya in my entire year.  I was the first in my extended family to attend an Islamic weekend school. I learnt about the rules of wudu and how to hold a conversation in Arabic and most importantly, at the age of ten, I had started the endeavour to become a hafiza.

This proved to be seismic. I had given my parents a burst of confidence, and in turn I felt that too. The entire extended family were supportive of my decision to become a hafiza and I remember being asked to lead them to Jannah with my efforts. I was asked to recite during family gatherings, and to teach their kids the importance of Qur’an and Islam too.

During school my academic and Islamic education came to a head. In class I argued for feminist ideals in Islam, I argued to debunk stereotypes about Jihad, arranged marriage, and the hijab. I inspired many of my classmates to start wearing hijab and abaya, and a lot of them came to me for advice on all sorts of things from how to deal with their parents, to reciting Qur’an better, to whether I thought music was haraam or not.

Growing up like this you can imagine how much it got to me, the responsibility of being one of the first in the family to seek accurate knowledge about Islam instead of the word-of-mouth education my parents and their families have been getting and abiding by. My extended family historically didn’t seek out formal education in Islam. They received their education from their communities, from their parents and from their grandparents. The sciences of Hadith, the practicalities of Qur’an revelation, they were all beyond the way my family viewed their beliefs. It was often up to me to instruct my aunts, uncles, and my parents on what I’d been learning in madrasah, on what ‘real Islam’ constituted. Of course, as a young child who had yet to accept a morally complicated world, I had a very narrow, black-white understanding of Islam.

Eventually this knowledge did not become a burdensome responsibility on my shoulders but rather a way to feel better about myself and to justify my weaknesses. I used this knowledge as a way to show that I was an expert on the Islamic lifestyle and that all other ways of practicing Islam came from a place of ignorance. Knowing that my friends had far more liberties than me (they could visit their friends’ houses, eat outside, were not obligated to come straight back home from school) it was easy to turn my Islamic knowledge into a justification for the not-as-eventful life that I was leading. As my parents and I grew more and more comfortable in our newly minted identities as the ‘religious family of the block’ we grew further and further away from the people we loved. Or at least, the way we showed our love changed. Now the conversations were tinged with a sense of superiority and self-righteousness. We believed that for some reason the people around us did not have or want the same access to the ‘correct’ Islamic knowledge that we had, and so it was up to us to spread the truth and waft away the hypocrisies and lies of our culture.

We weren’t just the dream team though. There were internal politics. As a teenage girl I wasn’t allowed out of the house much. I weaponized my well of knowledge about gender equality as stated in Islam in order to get my way. To be honest just being able to see my parents, the epitome of authority during my girlhood, ask me for help and respect me for my Islamic knowledge, listening to the opinions I have and what I have to say, made me feel really good. Don’t hit or raise your voice against your children, the Prophet would never want that. We should look to better sources for our halal meat because it seems that this authority is cutting corners. Boycott all of these companies because they support Israel.

Of course, once I moved away from the nest the dream team and all its politics broke apart. For the first time in my life I was in a new place with people just as excellent (if not more) academically. I was no longer surrounded by my fans who sought so much guidance in their teenage years from me. I met people with whom I could test out the ideas I’d been having from too much exposure to the internet. Ideas like do women truly have to only be in charge of the maintenance of the family home, do they really have to have children, why are gay people hated so deeply?

Given that they weren’t informed of my reputation as religious icon, I wasn’t afraid of the gossip. I could soundboard what I thought about the imams at the local mosque, the rampant sexism in my Muslim community, and honestly why are gay people hated so much?

Often the people I spoke to were as informed if not more so about the ideas and contentions I brought up. My words weren’t taken so literally and my ideas were contended. I didn’t have such a strong foundation to dictate my opinions from.

What was surprising was how moving even half an hour away from my parents to go to a prestigious sixth form when previously everything I did in my life from madrasa to school was within a one-mile radius of our home, would have such a big impact on my ambitions in life and more importantly on my religious beliefs. Those two years I spent accepting that I had little to no idea of what ‘real’ Islam consisted of. I lost my confidence in my abilities as the expert, developed less rigid political ideas, and I lost my interest in both being academically and religiously superior. My cousins joined madrasa. I no longer recited at home, let alone at family gatherings. Rather, going out during the school day as I pleased to get lunch, to shop after school, to have a bit of money to spend, to act in charge of my body and my time without my parents’ knowledge – without anyone’s knowledge – this taught me what it meant to own myself and to own the responsibility of parenting myself.

Soon enough I was wondering whether the life my parents and I had once wanted: a job that I would give up or change to take care of my kids, a husband, having children, was the right one for me. I got more and more upset with how constricting my Islamic knowledge had become. Questioning how women had to travel with their mahrams, questioning how I seemed to go from being under the care of my parents and then exchanged to being under the care of my husband. I realised that there were more possibilities to my life than what I had thought was allowed: I could travel around the world, I could refuse to get married, I could do whatever I wanted. My value system was changing. The sense of superiority that I used to take pride in when it came to my intelligence felt claustrophobic and threatening. Who was I to assume myself as expert of other people’s’ lives? I stopped dictating what I believed people should do to make the world a better place, and started listening.

During that time, I started to move away from my religious identity. I despised the superiority that came with it and that I now saw in my family. I had been humbled, and was much more focused on how I was responsible for my own well-being and future. Was Allah even real? What purpose did it serve me to believe when my relationship with my Islamic knowledge was no longer based on superiority?

It’s been a year since I left my sixth form and moved back to the one-mile radius of home to attend university. I struggled through my first year. The value I placed on aspects of my identity to do with being Muslim and being intelligent was missing now. I was changing the way I wanted to measure the successes and failures in my life. During that tumultuous time I listened more and spoke less. What opinions I did have were timid and not as assertive as they used to be. I stopped listening and reading the news. I started interacting with my loved ones on a more regular basis. Most of all I tried listening to myself.

My relationships and sense of self no longer come from a sense of superiority. I don’t use my knowledge as a way to hide my flaws and boost my strengths. I live much more openly, with more confusion, more questions. I’ve started to focus more on the compassion and mercy in Islamic rhetoric, and on how so much of Islam is about our relationships with Allah, with ourselves, and with our communities. In this confusing world I’ve started to trust Allah more and have tried to relearn the way I view my Islam so that it is no longer toxic and no longer political. It is natural for me to believe, it is what I’ve been designed to do so. So now, I keep my Islam a natural extension of myself instead of something I can wield to exert control over others.

Perhaps if I knew this during that Humanities class I would not have been so flustered even without the loophole argument I found years later. Allah has always existed and will continue to exist. I hope that I would have realised that how my peers viewed me because of one Humanities class had nothing to do with that.

no amount of sugar will sweeten a cortado

When I was twelve years old I decided that I would try my hand at writing fiction to make money. Since then (it’s been eight years) I have been an unsuccessful writer. And yet, I keep on going on. I have yet to finish a book. I have a few ideas I’d like to see through. My first ever work was titled Shooting Options. What I’m posting here is an exercise I wrote years after I abandoned that story in a bid to try and salvage it. Recently I’ve decided to put Shooting Options down forever. The title of this blog post, of course, is simply testimony to the fact that OH MY GAWD I SUCK AT TITLES.


There’s a notion out there that the most successful among us are those with bad childhoods. While this may provide children with a haunted past the fuel they need to keep on hoping, the others might be disgruntled.

Why did my parents not deprive me of this and that? Why did I have most of the things I could ever want (yes, spoilt children have bad childhoods – if mostly because they can’t see past their ingratitude and so even if it is just in saying).

So when I reflect I can’t think of a bad childhood per se. Mum and Dad were always there for me and apart from the usual ragamuffin arguments they had with me (and with each other) everything was pretty good.

They scream at each other, murderous intent glistening in their eyes. It was incredible, how they transformed from humans into monsters.

It all started when Dad lost his job as a designer  for Successive Graphics. My parents had me young – too young – I was the surprise that forced Dad to pop the question and for the trapping ring circled around Mum’s ring finger like a handcuff. They got married within the week, and announced the pregnancy to the rest of the world (immediate family members knew of course). Dad came from a family of more conservative English people, while Mum’s Latina upbringing didn’t allow for unannounced pregnancies.

With Dad pressured to find some way to pay off all the debts and costs their new unwanted house and new unwanted life brought to them he flung himself into a job that shackled him to the desk forcibly. Gone were his dreams to travel the world. Similarly, Mum – who wanted nothing more than to become a writer and “make love to the arts” as she so brazenly exclaimed had to settle with abandoning her Fitzgerald for baby-caring manuals and struggle with nothing but a life of potential nappies, broken sleep and a disgruntled husband who she isn’t even sure she likes let alone loves.

A part of me – the bitter part – mocked my thoughts: oh, I should be so grateful to them for not aborting me before I turned into an even more costly creature.

Dad, in his breaks, would read up articles on how to be a good father…and also articles on how much it costed to have one kid. He would do sums in his head (a maths major…well he was supposed to be one at the time but couldn’t finish school) about food and water and all sorts of bills right up until I would turn eighteen and could finally, thankfully, move out of their home.

Up until I turned fourteen my parents were happy, and if somewhat dissatisfied by the life they had been forced to live in order to take care of me, they didn’t let it on apart from a sigh or two and a few stifled conversations once Dad came home for dinner. Both of my parents made my childhood a good one – a happy one – we would travel to all sorts of places in the holidays. Every weekend Mum would take me out and we would traipse around the city aimlessly.

All it took was a year to turn my world around. After Dad lost his job he seemed to have been at the end of his rope. For a few days after Mum’s pushing him he started scouting for more jobs, but he couldn’t find any that would pay well enough to support us. Mum was in the middle of an English Literature major, but she had to drop that. Dropping university courses seemed to have become a trend in my family. During this year when my peers would post of the new phones/clothes/trips to exotic places I lived the life of the dirt poor sucker who had pulled her parents into a life they never subscribed to. Well, I’m not sorry for existing, I think. Such thoughts are useless. Soon enough Mum started working as a teaching assistant for the local primary school. Dad found a job as a taxi driver, yes, even my uneventful town was big enough and populated with enough people in order to  demand taxis.

I remember Dad once waiting to pick me up from a trip that lasted into the evening. The girls went over to their Dads, and Dad heard the conversations of one of the “rich kids” who complained about the glitches on her iPod, and Dad’s facial expression of nonchalance sort of cracked. Merely  a second went by and his memory came back, leaving me to think that I had imagined it. Maybe those “how to be a good father” books weren’t packed with good advice. If I had to write those articles my first point would be that if your child loves you, you’re a success.

How ironic. I’m quite sure I’m bordering on hating my father these days. What changed? The first few weeks of scouting for new jobs left Dad disappointed. Before he lost his job Dad didn’t really let on how much this life was affecting him. When relatives, more successful, far richer than us, came over for dinner last Christmas Dad had a permanent grim line etched into his face. Their talks were the stuff of dreams. Always wanting to be away from the in-crowd, but never in the undignified way he had been forced to (“what’s Successive Graphics?” to “hah! You draw cartoons for a living?”) really dealt a lot of damage to Dad’s ego, his sense of self-preservation keeping him from spewing all sorts of vile stuff he would spew at us instead once all the guests had left. He was a mad drunk.

Soon enough Dad kept more and more of his time and evenings at the pub, wasting away what little money Mum tried to save up from her small job. It wasn’t enough of course. By some miracle Dad was finally offered a job as a media designer…this time he was designing websites and fixing web glitches that fourteen year olds had complained enough about to their rich fathers that people, like my Dad, were paid to “do something about it”. As if he could not have hit another low.

The worst part, I guess, is Dad’s sense of dignity and honour. I had a Pakistani mate when I was thirteen (she moved to the Islamic school down the road in the same year Dad moved to “Fix Webs”) who would speak about the dignity and honour her family was obsessed about when it came to the girls in her family. She would vehemently point out that they didn’t bat an eyelid when the boys came back at ungodly hours with the excuse of a study session at a “mate’s”. She would talk about her Mum’s most commonly uttered phrase – her catchphrase so to speak – that went along the lines of “what would the people say?” Dad had been, for as long as I could remember, way too affected by what people would say.

I don’t know. I really don’t. I could analyse every single thing I know about my parents, I could pin the blame on my existence, I still do despite it being absolute nonsense. But somehow, for some reason, or maybe for many reasons all smushed together, my parents decided that on the seventeenth of February they had had enough of fooling each other that the life they were living was something they could live by. Dad started bringing these stupid ideas from the pub about this guy who would talk to him about God, about how all humans were united under God and that everything would be well if everyone just obeyed a certain number of rules. Every job would have dignity and every person respected.

It’s sickening, speaking of his transformation from an okay father who cared lots and lots to this abusive, drunk maniac always angry and full to the brim with crazy ideas that would never come to fruition, but he didn’t believe that.

For a full month after his new job, the unspoken words between all of us crept together and chanted a magic spell that turned my Dad into an old, miserable monster. He was unhappy but both Mum and I got hugely irritated with his jabs and insults towards at. First time I handed him my school report and he just scoffed at it, “Charlie has a nephew that’s around your age. He does much better than this. Such a disappoint, now go to your room and do some homework.” I, like most teens, screamed in frustration and didn’t speak to him for a day. The anger helped hide how much it hurt, coming from the one person who always motivated me to do my best and whenever I was disappointed a hug and ice cream would do wonders.

Mum’s Latino side came out soon enough. She would get all flustered, cheeks and ears red with her fury, as she flapped her arms about while Dad stared ahead, the complete picture of “I don’t give a shit”. Soon enough Mum came home after school one day in order to tell me about this new class she had discovered which taught women about empowerment. Dad could escape her wrath no longer for Mum had decided that she had sacrificed enough for the man who continued to disrespect her and her child. There was no way her Latino blood could tolerate this any further.

They screamed at each other. Dad, an abusive drunk, started hitting her and slapping her. Mum was heartbroken the next day but those empowerment sessions soon got her back on her feet. The next time Dad hit her he got a bloody nose. The other time I called up an ambulance after she smashed a wine bottle on his head.

It was too much, too fast and this was something I could escape from, thankfully And so I did, on the very evening I had planned to leave to Abby’s, they had another argument. Mum punched Dad, his nose bled, he recovered and wrapped his arm around Mum’s neck. She kneed him. They were both angry, blazing, tears dripping down their faces whether from pain or hurt who knows. The blood thrummed through my body, deafening their cries. I left without a word. I did not look back.

Somehow and in some way I would come back for sure, with a solution in my mind on how to fix my life.

To carry on, attempts at starting anew are always sullied by the stench of the past. How do people stay in places of discomfort – in a state of discomfort – without crumbling? I’ve learnt that they do not. Mum and Dad had played Mummy and Daddy, husband and wife for too long. They wanted their lives back. One complication: I was still alive.

What a pity they couldn’t murder me and be done with it.

To carry on, this is novel one, back to the beginning, back to the twelve year old who started this all. We come full circle to the lady who wants to use this gift for pocket money because she thinks she’s poor and being mainstream is the only dignity she can pave for herself. Not true. I like original people. Original people like me.

To carry on, new beginnings are likely not new at all. This has all been done before. Yet, you are not the same person. I used  to read heartbreak magazine articles although they were focused on romantic relationships, there were semblances of truth to be applied to the disintegration of my family until no love existed at all – we were strangers.

I know I digress. I know I’m repetitive. I’m fifteen years old. Age is nothing against experience. There are multiple overlapping layers that I am made of. Even then, that I have left them, it doesn’t seem like a beginning – new or old – at all.

To carry on, the story had been set in motion years ago.

Shooting Options – bratty child whose problems seem to instead of dwarfing her or consuming her, give her self-importance. Her father has succumbed to the siren of Islamism and it has torn apart their family. How? It was the trigger that offset the dominoes that had stacked up to the picture of disaster through the years. There were strings of arguments, with no happy moments for the warmongers to lick their wounds, or for the innocent to get a sense of the situation. Natalie Johnson was the innocent in this war. The blood, both real and figurative, splattered on her cheeks. Her eyes saw her sweet, loving parents transform into demons – righteous demons the most evil and the most common. At the age of fifteen, Nat had not yet met anyone who would shed blood, maybe even their own, for a cause they did not believe in. She had yet to set eyes on the horrid anguish on the wielder of a shaky heart but a confident sword.

Um, so, driven almost to the point of insanity, she finds herself at a crossroads. She could stay and not do anything, but she did not believe in her family anymore. She did not believe in herself anymore. The pillar that ran through her and supported her was made out of love and stability – it had crumbled into powder. She did not even know where to begin to bring her core back, she had lost the emotional backbone that would have allowed her to keep her head high.

This, my friends, is the story of the day and night she ran away from her problems, armed with a rucksack packed with non-perishables, two tins, one swiss pocket knife (from her father’s toolbox) her phone (plus charger) and the clothes on her back.

This is the story of her nightmares, of the loneliness of the human condition and the courage in every situation.

That morning was like all other mornings. God, the memories of what occurred that day are so squished together that I can barely describe how I felt that day. Except that the clouds were grey, pregnant with rain and, of course, bad news. I did the usual morning stuff, muffling out my parent’s incessant shouting (they woke up earlier than me, coffee and ice packs all around). The kitchen was a mess I refused to clean up on the principle that if I ignored the problem it wasn’t there in the first place. As coping mechanisms go, it’s not the most original, however there’s something about disaster that makes me…lazy almost if not disheartened, lifeless.

As far as life-altering decisions go, this one wasn’t accompanied with fanfare, rather it played to the tune of the humdrum. I started with cleaning my room to dance music, with stars such as “marshmallow” and “OMFG” sculpturing the structured folding and putting away of clothes, of dusting, of making the bed, of wiping surfaces. It was the big inhale I needed to fake the optimism of “yosh, here we go, to another day!”.

When the dust once again settled I climbed back onto the bed, black coffee in one hand, my journal in the other. I stroked the pages softly.

Okay, other scenes. There’s a new map. Sort of like a short story, if a short story could map 70K words. I’m guessing it can. Nat runs away for two days. A day then a night she crashes somewhere and then another half of a day, until, starving, she follows her father into a mosque in order to talk to him. During the night is the pivot – she crashes in the park but can’t sleep because she had accidentally come across some drug dealers and was scared for her life.

However that is not what I want to focus on. Even if it is only two days’ worthy of events I want to show the world how it feels to be so out of control, like waves in a tide. How calming that illusion of regularity must be and also how weird. Natalie Johnson is a white kid. I don’t want to write about white kids. I don’t understand them, they aren’t me, we aren’t going through the same struggle. I want to describe rooms so that they bring out the grittiness, the grunge, the dirty black pallor of the world. Also, I want to talk about the brightness of life, how creamy it can be – that sort of luxury that isn’t fresh and zingy and ORANGE!, rather factory-made perfection. Most of all I want to focus on the loneliness of the human condition – what does that even mean? Will I ever find out? Also, I want to write in third person, in different viewpoints. I want people to understand what it’s like being so lonely, but people already know that. People react to their own innate loneliness in a variety of different ways, gosh, I want to be profound. I want this to stink of literature.

After and before. What should be written? They lived in a studio apartment, the three of them. Or did they? She ran away, broke her parents’ hearts in want of freedom she never thought to talk to them about – a yearning for something bigger that had she pushed enough they would have allowed her. Instead she ran away, and when she came back she thought everything would change. Does that happen? Do things change – isn’t it way more subtle than that? Her absence brought them together again. Here we have many stories, like shooting stars falling in succession. We have an after and before, we have the parents, the friends and the acquaintances. We have a whole life of loving literature ahead of us.

We have people who would fight for us. Who would believe in us, from all the corners of the world, speaking of the glorious celebration humanity has to offer if it would just believe in itself the way we do. There is someone out there who believes in the greatness, then, in that case, isn’t being a shitty version of yourself simply because of how lazy you are an injustice especially to the efforts of those who would lay their lives down so that your right to live would not be taken from you – in that case isn’t it love that gives a person superiority over another? No, in that case isn’t it love that allows a person to let themselves become inferior to another person’s needs? What the hell is the human mind? Why…this feeling of being trapped comes in bubbles, y’know. Actual freakin’ bubbles, physics: from the tiny bits to the very large ones – that’s how many bubbles, in how many sizes and in so many situations. How on earth will the protagonist plot her way out of that? Out of the pages, almost.

A story about the loneliness of the human condition, the complexity of life, of everyday psychopaths.

Is it so revolting to have so many sides to oneself that there’s no such thing as an innocent life. Even the noblest intentions become ordinary soon enough. Not everyone believes in humanity. Not everyone gets what that is about. The main character of this novel doesn’t, also. There are purchases that should be made before we get into the real meat of this story – such as etymology, that of names, so that the names of characters are well-suited for them. Like plucking out the juiciest grapes and offering them with a slightly dazed, distracted and peaceful face promising no harm just honest and pure delight.

There are adventures that I wish to write too, and this is another outlook. Isn’t life a big adventure, then why shouldn’t our main character go through an adventure, wading through the strongest of places in her own home town, I want her a Muslim. No father racked and brainwashed over Islamism. I want her a Muslim who feels the shackles of her self-made prison constrict her, a free bird caged as she is, she runs away to experience the best of her life. I want this to be a story about the unfair sexism placed in our culture and how she has to overcome that.

The story is supposed to flow out of the heart as though I am a caged bird singing. The golden notes would stream out, with it my tears, my pain, my humanity. The suffering that gives me ego, I have suffered immensely.

During the summer night, while the neighbours either side of her serenaded to Michael Jackson, smoked weed wrapped in cigarette paper, she’d lie in bed cradling a fluttering heart that ached for more. This, loves, is the only story she knew for a very long time.

It’s very unsettling the first time one figures out that they aren’t the only one with a multi-faceted personality and that others around them are similarly inclined to be so horribly and achingly human in the best way possible wherein they seemed they decide which mask to put on, which face should I reveal today? Ah, the horror. Like being doused with cold water it is, every single time it happens.

She was Mariam, each morning she woke up, put on her clothes for the day, and plunged into a world she knew all too well. Every single one of us, she thought as she ironed the next batch of laundry her mother handed to her, every one of us is waiting for something more than the life we have been given. But someone, surely, had paved the path to freedom somehow.

Everyday Mariam would wake up, a determined look in her eyes that stung in want for tears she refused to cry. Her position was not so bad: home, parents who love her, food, all the clothes she could ever want, all the books she needed, given one thing: she had to earn her right to be in the family.

Millions of us, she thought as she made her father another cup of tea, stirring the tea bag with all the zest of a possessed woman, millions of us go through the same thing everyday, trapped in the lives that were sculpted for us centuries ago. She brought the cup of tea to her father, smiling graciously at him. A small hum of warm love rose from somewhere within her depths as she listened to her parents laughing in their own conversation, twenty years and going strong their marriage was. But I’ll leave them, she thought to herself, I’ll leave them one day out of my own will – I’ll find a way to break through this cycle.

Mariam devoured books as one would devour great delicacies – hungrily. She scanned the pages, whenever she could, about ways to get out of this day-to-day humdrum. Her favourite books were, naturally, about protagonists who ran away from home.

There’s more to her than that though. This is a coming of age story for a protagonist who is suffocating under all the labels she has allowed to get to her. Mariam has a carefree, careless arrogance. She thinks she can suspect how people think of her. She’s yet to discover that people, also, are worried about how they will be perceived too – and there’s too much arrogance, too much of “you know me”when they predict what you do, how you think. Mariam – she is plagued by everything she is expected to be and every stereotype she fulfills. She has a strong sense of justice and is quite idealistic compared to those who act as though they know all the realities of the world they fit in effortlessly and our Mariam has become completely saddened by this.

No longer! It is on a sunny Sunday morning that Mariam, having decided that she wants freedom, a taste of more, decides to do the one thing her heart desires more than anything. She has decided to listen to the little whispers of her heart and finally run away from home. Why would she be compelled to do so? Her family wasn’t like others. Her parents’ marriage was going strong. This pen is shit. Absolutely! GAH! Okay, until this page and then we can go and get a new pen. Mariam will learn a lot in this story. On her travels she will meet a lot of people, she will put some on pedestals and then realise they are human once she learns of their grit. She will wonder about what grit means, really. Also, she will wonder about what could have been hadn’t she left and then chalk it up to fate, her accountability somewhat absolved – she was meant to do this. Nevertheless she will feel sad, and will more often than not yearn to be back. Towards the end she will follow her father into the mosque and she will cry when they kick her out, deshevelled as she is. She’ll learn not to regret her experiences because they were proof that she was brave enough to go out there and experience – while the rest of us write our hearts out, angry pennings that mean so much but are meaningless. What is a writer if they can’t push people, affect them so with their words, that, instead of just reading and writing about how they feel the reader would be compelled to go out there, plunge their hands into the dirt and monstrous darkness of people and do the things they’ve never even known they could do. However maybe she’ll realise that being a bookworm, containing all these words, were like whispers to the heart and that they moulded a person into more than what they believed to be. Perhaps the books were the guides, the parents of the ‘venturers.

Nothing happens on Sundays. Except that the buses fill choc-a-bloc with black people adorned in decorative and spectacular royal clothing – church-goers as she knew them to be. They wouldn’t sit next to her if there was space but Mariam didn’t mind. In her new quest to thrive for the freedom of herself and her friends she could barely acknowledge their loud fanfare as she worked up method after method to overrun the patriarchy of her own Bengali community here. Cue history of British Bengalis here in London.

Right. So the first Bengalis came here as workers, immigrants of course. Back when there was something called the British Empire many Indians served Queen Victoria. There were quite a few Bengalis who, during her reign, became buddies with the woman…but many also returned home once their time in Britain had come to an end. There must be something about home that compels a person so much to abandon whatever riches and luxuries of this land. My home, although, is here. There’s no way I’d abandon my life here to spend it in Bangladesh, which, despite my parents’ wishes, can only hope to become my second home, my home away from home. I will always belong here.

Belong. Strange word that. More than the materialistic ties that pin me down, there’s the promise I had made to myself not so long ago. Quite a while back the dreary plasticity of my actions, my loved ones’ actions had gotten to me. I found myself yearning for the more that I could get, that I could bring to my friends – girls, who too are different to my other acquaintances, tied down as we were by our Bengali upbringing. In some ways I love my culture, built on the backs of fishermen, we were coastal people. Now we are better known as the armpit of India ransacked with poverty but we get by. Bengalis back home after all live luxurious lives, waited hand and foot, even a mere shopkeeper can own acres of land and legions of servants.

Nevertheless, I, like many visionaries who have come before me, belong to a cause. My cause – it consumes my thoughts from dawn until dusk – in my waking ours, in my sleeping hours, I think only of ways to be on level with my male counterparts, how to tweak the scale so it measures us as equal, both by lowering the power they have in the community and raising the power our voices have. My community needs this and I am bold enough to be a representative. But it makes me tired. My friends think I’m mad, I reply, the fury flames under my tongue, that yes I am mad – completely mad at how unfairly we are constantly treated. It makes me shake, how little we’ve progressed as a society. A big part of me wishes to join the common movement, where the general patriarch is finally paying attention, it would make it easier for me to fool myself into thinking that I am doing something when I am not.

However the general patriarch doesn’t understand no control the layer of society that I fall under. And for that society I’d do anything so that we change and we become so good that we’d break the glass ceiling and the general, white, common patriarch would learn of the victories we’ve made on our turf. I guess, then, in a way I am right-wing. Right-wing on the side of Bengalis though. Is that weird? Not really, it’s just not very out of the box. I don’t think many things are.

Same as how city people feel allegiance to their city while also supporting Great Britain, I support the common cause but my allegiance is to my British Bengali community here.

And despite my young age, or because of it, I finally know what to do. This scares me but fear has long since become my comrade and ally. It tells me I am right.

Being a visionary seems maddening. There are psychopaths all over the world and it puts me on par with them, doesn’t it? I already have the charisma needed to trick most people into believing that I am this wonderful, put-together and refined young lady. Mothers sigh with longing when I pass them to have me as their daughter-in-law. It’s only recently, perhaps from the beginning of this year, that they’ve become wary of the glint in my eyes. My relationships with my relatives have suffered as a consequence of my need to speak out against all the side remarks and assumptions. I rally the girls I know and love to be bigger than the life their parents have ordained to them and I see them as role models in their own rights – I love them to bits. Yet, as this story progresses and I slowly take on the cocky loudness that is Natalie Johnson’s voice, I’ll come to realise that I know next to nothing of the world where there is no such thing as finite knowledge. I will meet people who will push me to see truths I didn’t even know existed and learn about life’s unpredictable nature. Would that I could but I can’t, despite somehow thinking that I can, I can’t allude to the future. I don’t know where I will go or even why I will go there. There are millions of things that are out there waiting to happen to me that have already happened to me, and I need to take the lessons I’ve learnt from them and apply them to my life – however short it may be. The only person I will learn that I can hope to free and the only cage worth the effort in shattering is my own because if I pass inhibitions, my worries, my fears, the assumptions that I have made I will finally be able to believe that I can be whatever I want to be.

you have the space

i have titled this ‘you have the space’ because it’s true. it’s not that long ago, and tbh i don’t even think that’s over, that i was thinking about having my own place. i wanted to buy a house in the japanese countryside. i wanted some sort of stone barn thing that was massive and all mine.

i wanted space. my space.

which is tricky to think about now, because it’s what i demand. it’s what i’ve been demanding all this time and it really hurts inside. this cry has caused me a lot of pain. this insistence to be seen.

and i think about how beautiful we are so anonymous. how life is gorgeous and frightful regardless of status and show and visibility, i guess.

it’s uncontrollable. and i know space is important. but i have space here. and there are different ways to go about getting space.

the guy at the needs assessment centre said i needed a place where i could be myself and i think that’s a dream. to be truly myself even in my own head. what would i do with my own gigantic space but sit in the same room, in that same corner of the bed, with my laptop and my phone.

the great (and possibly temporary but fuck that shit) thing about the internet is i have all the space in the world to be myself here.

and to be honest i am great at demanding for space. i didn’t like how coddled i got following my brief successes – i didn’t like how many people wanted to ride on that “help me” yes, but it’s their victory. no. i said no, and i swooped into a great depression but maybe that’s giving me space too.

and now, in a few days, i’m going to be going to a place where my mind will be allowed to soar. where i will limitless and very incredibly content.

i think about my culture a lot now. my culture and space. i guess it comes back to the idea of freedom from and freedom to. i will never be alone. and i will always have love here. it can be ugly. but that’s life here. it is ugly and i’d rather not kid myself about that. there is so much beauty here, too. i don’t want to leave and “live my life” because my life is here. with you, and with my family. with all the things i have taken for granted forgetting how temporary all this is.

it’s not that i’m scared of the risks in breaking off. i mean, of course i am. i mean, sometimes i feel like i’m sort of using this as a justification for being cowardly. but these days i don’t think so.

i’ve been struggling with this life for so long i may as well make my peace with it and live through it curiously and with splendour. whatever the fuck that means.

la ilaaha illallah and altab ali park

I come from immigration

Second generation

Like a hereditary disease

Or just plain inheritance like

Fortune and houses and Shires.

I come from La Ilaha Ilallah

From a is for apple and ko is for komlah

I come from the Streetz

Yes, with a z and primary school

Custard and cake and cuss battles

And arm wrestling that lasted break and lunch

I come from the tallest, the strongest

From the most average Spot the Dog book

I come from Fizz and Jake who cries and

Bossy Bella and Milo

And the sea and rocks

I come from a family of diaspora

Manchester, Sylhet, London

And from a Bengali minority in Assam, India

I come from all the way across Whitechapel Road and

Stinking fish with the smell of old books

I come from chewing gum, Badmans,

I come from borrowed fried plantain,

From the lizard lady in Doctor Who

I come from deep green carpet, a family of uncles who died at sea

I come from not getting up in the morn,

From high-tailed scandalous humorous affairs

From strong, international proposals

Old and old and, oh, old

I come from piano and guitar and the recorder

From drums, from singing Jesus songs, from fights

About custard and cake, and deep green carpet

Lizard ladies, Badmans, Altab Ali Park

a different class

“Son of a bus driver”

A black man featured on a literary news outlet with his display picture: him in the forefront and graffiti in the background, obviously

Watching Macbeth with the baddie in a cockney accent

And finally Skepta’s Shutdown.

They are all evidence of how our work is undermined because of where we come from.

At a launch party to kick off National Hate Crime Awareness Week the MP of Tottenham remarked that we should look on the positives. That at least there’s progress. He said “Look a hundred years back. People then could not escape the circumstances of their birth. They were stuck in their backgrounds. Now, we have moved past that,” he said.

According to him we are no longer defined by our backgrounds.

Well (drag it out, like a question), consider this:

We are filled with awesome aspirations, we are do-gooders, get-goers, people with promise and potential and brilliance.

Council flat kids.

For us, success is a double-edged sword.

Why? Because every role model out there whose great achievements had proved to us that we could aim to be great as well – those brilliant role models of ours? They’re despicable.

Sadiq Khan, you demon. Why did you show me how tolerant London can be? Because despite your ambitions, despite your title as Mayor of London – you have taught me that if I try as hard as you did I will end up known as the son of a bus driver!

Sabo Kpade, how dare you work so hard on your writing talent, curating beautiful pieces so great that The Literary Consultancy appointed you Showcase Author of October 2016 – with a picture of you, Nigerian man,  and graffiti in the background! Thank you, Mr Kpade, for teaching me that I can write the best book out there and end up with a profile picture of Yaq21 sprayed in the background – an East London signature justifying my very existence.

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I mean while everybody else is stuck with the bland beige

wall you get a personalised background for free and a chance to represent your beautiful slummish culture.

A culture appreciated by the posh dudes at the art studio over at Tottenham Court Road,  where one of my street’s best graffiti pieces was placed behind expensive polished glass, permanently barricaded from my viewing. They, who regarded Banksy’s vandalism as so exquisite an artistic expression, might just photoshop me out of my own profile picture so that they could cuddle that little piece of Banksy background to themselves.

See? This is not all that bad having my existence justified by a cockney accent on one of the dumb mercenaries in a production of Macbeth at the Globe. He, as the stupid cockney lad with the fake leather jacket and the slack jaws. You get me, fam?

We can joke about this, right? It is no matter how hard we have worked to get to where we are. Our cultural literacy will always be lacking, our view on the world always blinkered, and our worth always ridiculed for where we come from. Yet this ridicule solely exists on paper, and in fear, and in politics. But thankfully not in the day-to-day goings about of people, and definitely not in our humanity. It is clear that I think the MP of Tottenham got it wrong. We are defined by our backgrounds – but it is up to us to give this definition meaning.

Let’s think about Grime MC Skepta whose most recent music album is now the object of my obsession mainly because BBC News did a feature on him after that album got the Mercury Prize. Gave it a sense of legitimacy and all that.

I’m kidding, I loved Skepta’s new work way before that because in his song Shutdown he had an excerpt from a woman who enunciated her words very well, saying:

A bunch of young men all dressed in black

Dancing extremely aggressively on stage

It made me feel so intimidated and it’s just not

What I expect to see on prime time TV

And following on from that spectacular piece of social commentary, Skepta elevates his redefined background, asserting:

“I’m in a different class.”

WHITE WOMEN

From the sports commentary site Deadspin we have The Complicated Story of American Olympians and the Hijab

From The Atlantic we have What American Women Who Wear Hijab Want You to Know

And from Aeon we have: Clothes and Daggers

“British missionaries hated the sari; US feminists would ban the burqa. Why do empires care so much about women’s clothes?”

These are a few of the articles that come up should you do a quick google on the phrase “Muslim Woman”. These headlines and articles are almost always about the hijab.

Now this is a fairly innocent connection to make until you see the manifestation of the burkini ban in a photograph of a Muslim woman forced to undress on the beach as she was held by gunpoint by at least three men looming over her. Certainly the media storm surrounding the burkini ban fiasco came and went, leaving in its wake the millions who are still affected by it today.

What disappoints me is that, while reading about this picture, it took a Mashable article titled “The real dangers of banning the burkini” in order to highlight how the release of the photo should ignite a feminist response and that this photograph fully situated itself as a feminist issue. This article argued that the burkini ban was a feminist issue because women should have the freedom to wear what they choose and not be prosecuted for their decisions.

After realising that, yes, yes, of course. Of course a woman forced to undress herself because of the way in which her clothes, as ever, do not comply with society’s standards is a feminist issue. I waited for the feminist sources to write up a storm about this. I waited for the outrage.

As someone who grew up in a more patriarchal environment I am very much so about feminism.  Its cause, its definition, its purpose I do agree with. Wholeheartedly. I want equality: political, social, economic equality of the sexes. I want everybody to be treated with equal worth no matter what gender (or non) that they choose to subscribe to. I want respect.

I persist with feminism even after my friends have become dissatisfied with the movement. I have stuck through with feminism for so long no matter how distant feminist conversations are from what we are going through. I persist because I love the textbook definition of feminism: equality of the sexes.

Know, that I waited for the outrage that didn’t come. I waited for the feminist cry which ended up sounding more like a gurgle, to be honest. I waited for all of my beloved feminists to come together and comfort the woman in the picture and every woman like her, to comfort me.

There was no outrage. I am wary that many of you don’t even know what picture I am talking about.

And after waiting, I have realised how the articles that denounce feminism and how my friends’ slow disconnection from feminism make so much sense. I have realised that feminism is a people’s movement and that mainstream feminism undermines the experiences of non-white, non-middle-class and even non-straight women.  Let’s think of it like this: The Suffragette movement may have given me my voting rights but the Civil Rights movement made sure I was considered a “woman” in the first place.

When you consider all of this you will realise that there is a very damaging distinction made between white feminists and non-white feminists in feminist discourse. The silence of white feminists has hurt me. This woman forced to undress, crouching on the sand taking her swimsuit off because of the new burkini ban – white feminists have hurt me the most when, from all my glorious feminists, that picture was released and all I got was static.

And it felt incredibly more hurtful knowing that in feminist discourse the hijab is only ever  disputed or ignored. Imagining the level of humiliation that woman must feel right now and must have felt undressing – imagining the level of humiliation I would have felt if the same had happened to me, and then knowing that this movement which I had expected to jump to my defence and fight for my rights would just sit and watch, perhaps some of them shocked at the aftermath of all their hijab-is-oppressing arguments encapsulated in this one photograph of three men looming over a woman, forcing her to undress, and then the rest of them keeping mum…

A quick google on Muslim women brings up article upon article about the hijab. It seems that the only way to talk about my experiences, and follow and read and appreciate the experiences of Muslim women from a feminist perspective is to exclusively talk about the hijab. Given that we wouldn’t get a word in without doing so. Given that mainstream feminism does not, as of yet, have a place for the Muslim woman who has much more to say.

And this is just another thing that makes the life of a Muslim woman that much harder, putting that much more pressure on them to work harder and be perfect.

I once saw a line from a poem by Ron Padgett that had been humorously taken out of context and stuck into a book, with smiling Muslim women drawn around the cut-out line. This line read: “know that the desire to be perfect is probably the “veiled expression”.”