Cowley Road, Oxford (Creative Commons).
Occasionally one is – more specifically, I am – overcome by an urgent impulse to break through the barriers to achieve a sense of freedom. Because questions and definitions make me claustrophobic. Please tick your nationality, says the form on the table. But how do I define myself? My appearance? My dull brown hair? Shabby eyes? Or perhaps my squarish face?
A Pakistani raised in Britain.
The walls begin to cave in, the words begin to dance around the page and the even the silence becomes deafening. A walk, a pilgrimage or an escape, call it what you may: I need it desperately.
Leaving this house, I always remember when we first moved here, in 2007, I stood beside my bedroom window looking out at this pretty, clean but undeniably dangerous street and replying of course when my mother had asked me whether I could make my way to school from this house that I had to adopt as a home. I lied. I didn’t know where each lane would take me and I barely knew where I was in my life. My few books and clothes were still wrapped in black lined opaque bin bags. I had no idea exactly what was stuffed into them; all I knew was that they were mine, waiting for time to bring them a sense of belonging.
Every corner is full of memories: here are the places we’d trick or treat once a year, cloaked in darkness, here is the path we’d take to mosque. That leads to a whole other life: walking hand in hand with my siblings, eating 20p popsicles whilst the sun shone down on us; the juice would always melt and slowly dribble down to our elbows until we licked it off. We would fly down the pavement on our friend Maryam’s scooter. We would push faster and faster and harder until it was dangerous to carry on. We’d go so fast that the wind would whip the scarves off our heads. On that road we would be equals with the boys, they had no more privileges than us here and that would remain so until we got segregated at the mosque doors.
Even now I like to walk past Mandy’s house. Mandy was crazy. I didn’t know her but my friends knew her because she was a teacher at the other primary school. Mandy was Winnie the Witch: black dress, tights, pointy boots, and the most unruly red hair I had seen in my whole life. Mandy’s house was how I was going to decorate mine: glitter, banners, stars, butterflies – and in the front garden, near the pavement, a magic water bowl where people passing by could drop in pennies. It was surrounded by moss and glass toads and poems set in stone. Of course we took those pennies, my siblings and I. It was justified – we’d take a handful each today and put some in tomorrow. This then funded whatever overpriced goods we brought at the store closer to mosque.
Here, up the right hand corner and across the road, lived the sweet old lady. I never knew her name. Her garden was the most beautiful – it had hyacinths, roses, bluebells and bright daffodils. But we never stole her flowers. Not once. I think, even as children we recognized the devotion she’d put into having them there. We understood that she was alone, no husband nor children, and this beautiful garden is what mattered to her most. I know her bedroom was the top left hand window because every day as we walked to school she would pop her silky-haired head out of her window and say ‘Hello’. it made me happy to see my mother, who couldn’t speak very good English, to converse with her, being nice and friendly, but it also made me sad because she knew exactly when we would pass along; was she really so lonely she had nothing else to do?
And here at last is the church graveyard: green and beautiful. In my childhood, it was mostly abandoned other than by a few junkies. It was encased by stone historic walls, brown and worn down by time. I loved the fact that it was so mysterious; another world I didn’t fully grasp. I loved touching even the outside walls of the beautiful church. I loved the knowledge that regardless of how many rains would fall, my fingerprint would always stay there. I was silently interwoven in its history. I had appreciated its beauty: a sign of rebellion; a young Muslim girl yearning to see the insides of a church. I wanted to know everything about it – the who’s and whys. You’d think I ought to feel guilty.
But I find religion very complicated. As I child, I had no choice but to be who my parents made me be: either I would go to mosque, read the Arabic and learn to pray, or else. In Mosque I wasn’t the trusting Asima, nor the lively Asima from school. I was more obedient, quieter. I didn’t flourish, not even when I left at the old age of thirteen. There, I had to be someone who was taken to a separate room from the men and told to keep my head down and read aloud. I was to learn by heart phrases I didn’t know the meanings to. This isn’t how Islam, a peaceful religion, nor any culture ought to be taught. The threats and the seclusion aren’t the message of the second biggest religion of the world. The prophet was kind and patient – he loved children – this isn’t how he would have wanted his words to be passed onto generations. I had no idea that when I’d grow up the religion I was given would again be tainted by men who were tyrants.
School was my refuge then, and it’s my refuge now: I realise it’s where I’ve been heading. This grubby little school hidden behind Tesco: it made my whole life. I loved to walk to school, with my mum beside me and my siblings far ahead. There I felt like I was at home. I felt safe and secure. I remember the green grass of the playground, the wooden monkey bars. The hills we’d roll down joyfully and the pitch that was larger than life, grainy sand everywhere.
The time comes though when one must return. When I can no longer ignore my mother’s shrill calls, and the school seems cold, and lost in the past.
The cool heavy brass knocker is heavy in my hand. And as I push through the front door and head up the stairs to the room which is mine, I feel lighter, slightly calmer. The form lurking on my desk no longer taunts me. I feel happy as if though I’m not quite as confused about myself as an individual because no one is just one thing. One person has many people within them; disguised as different personalities. And I think regardless of my nationality, my past or appearance, no one word can ever define me.
As I turn around and walk back home, I realize that I had never thought that I would find myself though writing, or harbour this fondness for poetry. I’d never thought that I’d care so much about politics and actually love it. I never knew I’d learn that those who make you laugh the loudest cause the most tears too. I never would have guessed that I’d love to sit alone and reflect, basking in the silence. I never knew I’d grow up to miss my childhood so much.
How I’d actually aim to be someone, go somewhere. How I’d go from being the toothy tiny girl to Me. My mom says that I’m too aspiration; the wind’s gotten to my head, but how do I explain it to her? How all the powerful women, and men, around this world have inspired me. How since childhood I dreamed something good for myself.
Since when did I, Asima Qayyum, begin to write journals and indulge in poetry? It began the day I started being Myself.