Struggle of a Pakistani British girl in UK

Struggle of a Pakistani British girl in UK

Grasping the door handle, I steadied myself against the walls of the moving railway carriage.

"Now!" my father called out. "Squeeze it hard, go on, squeeze it!"

Despite the urgency in his voice, I held back. The train didn't look as if it had dropped enough speed for me to open the door.

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yasmin hai

Liberal upbringing: The teenage Yasmin went on marches with rainbow-painted hippies

The faces of the passengers standing on West Hampstead station platform were still fuzzy blurs.

"What are you waiting for?" my father shouted impatiently. "Come on, come on."

This time, I clasped hold of the lock and with gentle pressure attempted to slide it to the right. Despite my clammy hands, it gave way.

I had done it - the train door was open! A small achievement, but for me, at the age of 11, a significant one.

This was the third day in a row that my family had made the train journey from our home in Wembley across London to Camden.

The mission: to familiarise me with the new school journey that I would be making from next Monday. Nothing could be left to chance.

Camden School for Girls was, I'd been told, one of the best schools in the country, with a high entrance rate to Oxbridge and a reputation for producing writers, lawyers and doctors. I was thrilled to have a place.

If I was delighted, however, my father - who had been a professor of English in Karachi - was even more so.

For him, the key to the school's appeal was its English middle-classness: apparently all the girls who went to Camden came from good backgrounds and spent all their spare time reading Shakespeare or playing the flute.

No one had played musical instruments at my junior school in Wembley, unless you counted the tambourine during country-dance lessons. I couldn't wait to get there.

The first thing I noticed as I walked through the gates was that there were no Samiras or Muniras running around.

All the girls were very English indeed: a host of Sophies and Beckys and Celias who soon became my friends.

Theirs was a world, I discovered, where anything and everything was up for discussion. In these North London liberal surroundings there were no adult/child boundaries.

Subjects like sex, drugs and rock and roll - all taboo topics in Wembley - were openly discussed. And in art class we painted nude models.

What would my neighbour Mrs Khan say about that? Or what would my father say about the essay written by one of my classmates which explored whether it was possible for mothers to fancy their sons? I shuddered to think.

When we gathered in the school hall, we didn't pray or sing hymns like we had done at Sudbury Junior; that would have been unthinkable. North London liberals didn't believe in God.

Instead, during assembly time, teachers and guest speakers would talk on lofty subjects ranging from nuclear proliferation to designing one's summer house in France.

One time, a teacher even gave an assembly defending why she was leaving Camden to teach at a private school. We all sat there, shaking our heads, as she went redder and redder with what we hoped was shame.

I started to become a bit of a North London liberal myself. Soon, I was spending every weekend trudging from one demo to another, marching against nuclear bombs, apartheid in South Africa, the bombing of Libya.

My father was delighted - as a Left-wing intellectual, who had been forced to flee Pakistan because of his beliefs, he revelled in the chance to talk about politics with me.

My mother, however, would hover in the background, fuming. "Mr Hai! No politics,"she would warn. "You want her to end up in prison?"

"Mum, this is England!" I would cry out, rolling my eyes at my father, who would wink back at me.

My peace-loving Camden cronies would have been surprised, however, if they had ever seen me out shopping with my old friends in Wembley - an experience as different as it's possible to imagine from my marches with rainbow-painted hippies.

One Saturday, my neighbours Afshan, Shazia and I were waiting for our bus home when a group of five or six white girls tottered by and shouted: "Paki!"

As Shazia and I began yelling back, one of the girls grabbed my hair and yanked me to the ground. I tried to punch back, but she was already on top of me, kicking her stilettos into my ribs and then in my back.

"See how these Pakis speak English?" she said to her friend as I screamed at her to get off. "That's 'cos their own language is cr*p."

I suddenly felt paralysed, too ashamed to open my mouth. For she was right, wasn't she? English wasn't my language, was it?

My language was Urdu, and the reason I hadn't spoken it for years - on my father's orders - was because it was considered "cr*p".

For days afterwards I was so upset that I wouldn't go out. I kept to my room, replaying the incident over and over again in my head, dreaming up revenge scenarios.

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Yasmin and her father

Growing up, Yasmin's father gave her a liberal upbringing and encouraged her education

When I did finally venture out, I felt terribly nervous and found myself scouring the street, looking for angry white faces.

If I saw one that looked potentially hostile, I crossed the road, hating the fact that those girls had reduced me to a coward. But then it changed.

I suppose my friends Shireen and Perveen and I we were being rather loud as we cut across Wembley Square that Saturday afternoon, playfully shrieking at each other.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of two English girls following us. And although they weren't saying anything, my highly attuned antenna sensed menace.

"Shuuuuuuuuuuut uppppppppppp!" I suddenly heard one of the girls cry. My heart jumped.

Perveen and Shireen turned around to look. "Yeah, you!" spat one of the girls, glaring at Perveen. I must have let out a deep sigh, because suddenly the girl turned to me.

"You wanna slap, Paki?" she said. "Why? Do you want one?"

I retorted, slightly taken aback by the confidence of my voice. But then it was a scenario I had rehearsed countless times in front of the mirror - and now I was getting to play it out for real.

The girl was marching towards me, her heels slapping the ground hard.

I put my arms up to ward her off and somehow the abruptness of my movement ended up shoving her away.

Much to my horror, the girl went flying back onto a middle-aged man passing by. He quickly collected himself, apologised and walked off.

I froze, frightened by what I had just done. Tears of regret stung my eyes. But instead of retaliating, the girl looked thrown by my actions. "Just try that again," she said. But her voice sounded muted.

I had gained the upper hand. I - Yasmin Hai, studious, gentle, Yasmin Hai - had managed to unsettle this girl. I suddenly felt emboldened. It was a watershed moment. Was this all one had to do to fend off trouble?

At Camden we walked around chanting "violence is wrong". But in Wembley violence worked. No verbal attack could have ever delivered the satisfaction I felt when I made a racist girl cry out in pain.

I had discovered that sometimes standing up for oneself was all that was needed to put these bullies in their place.

My father died of a heart attack one cold and rainy February night when I was 17 years old.

I was busy preparing for my A-levels, and that evening he and I had been out to the shop to buy some chocolate to help me with my revision. We talked about politics all the way.

Just after midnight my mother rushed into my room screaming. I didn't ask what was wrong. I knew.

As I ran to call the ambulance, I saw my father lying on the bathroom floor. I quickly averted my eyes: I didn't want to see him looking so helpless.

My family had never been good at expressing emotion. As a grey dawn broke through the winter sky, my mother, brother, sister and I sat around our living room in silence, avoiding each other's eyes, fearful that any contact between us might cause our fragile guard to crumble.

My mother took my father's British passport out of the cupboard because the hospital had asked for it.

As she flicked it open, we scrambled to her side, desperate to catch a glimpse of our father, as if it were evidence that somewhere he still lived on.

Seeing his earnest face staring back at us, we burst into tears. My mother reached out to hug us and we awkwardly allowed ourselves to be consoled.

But soon we were back in our places, each of us alone. Thank goodness for a ring at the doorbell.

It hadn't taken long for news of my father's death to get round the mahalla - the Asian community - and within just a few hours our house was teeming with neighbours who seemed to know exactly what needed to be done.

In the living room all the furniture, including the big wardrobe that dominated it, was quickly pushed aside and white sheets laid out for guests to sit on.

Soon, a huddle of men were sitting on the floor, prayer hats on their heads, reading the Koran. Extra copies of the holy book rested on a table in the middle of the room.

Upstairs was transformed, too. The beds were pushed against the wall and scarf-clad women sat in the centre of the room, keening with grief. One of them was my mother, wailing uncontrollably.

Any woman not praying was in the kitchen, churning out snacks and cups of tea for the steadily arriving mourners.

Every few seconds the doorbell rang, delivering more guests with Tupperware boxes of food. Many of them I'd never seen before in my life.

I was starting to feel like a stranger in my home, if not my own body. When Mrs Khan had kindly placed a black scarf on my head, I didn't resist, numbly allowing it to lie there.

And when my Uncle Waseem informed my brother and me that the funeral had been arranged in the Muslim section of a local cemetery, I just shrugged.

It was a situation I would have to get used to, I discovered. For over the next 40 days this was how things were going to be.

"Forty days?" I whispered to my mother, when we finally settled down to sleep, late that night. We were in the same room, as some of the aunties had taken over mine.

"That is how we do things," my mother replied wearily.

"Who does things?" I asked, gingerly. I knew what the answer was going to be. And though I had been avoiding hearing it all day, I was now ready. "We Muslims,' she whispered, drifting off to sleep.

And there it was. My father, Syed Samsamul Hai, might well have dedicated his whole life to fighting for a Marxist revolution.

He might well have fallen out with his own family over his contempt for religion - God didn't matter to him, education did.

And he might well have brought his children up not reading the Koran. But now that he was dead, none of his oddball ideas mattered.

As far as anyone in the mahalla was concerned, my father had been born a Muslim and he would also die a Muslim.

Did I mind? You would have thought so, given the deep distrust of religion I had inherited from my father.

But as this difficult day had gone by, all my hesitations evaporated. In fact, the whole Islamic spirit of the occasion seemed to make total sense.

I needed answers to alleviate the pain boring through me. The mahalla, with all its rituals and ceremonies, was offering those answers.

Under its influence, amazing things began to happen to me - like the day when Aunt Syeda asked me where we stocked our boxes of Kleenex tissues.

"Over there," I said, pointing to the big wardrobe. "And watch out for the towels, they keep falling down."

What was amazing about my reply was that I had said it in Urdu, not English. After all these years of speaking English, the words just tumbled out of my mouth and my diction had been spot on.

It was as if part of my brain had been liberated. Despite my father's efforts to stop us from speaking Urdu, I could still speak my mother tongue. It was extraordinary.

For the first time ever that year, I decided to observe Islamic ritual and keep the Ramadan fast. It fell in the summer, which meant long, hot days without food and water.

Still, it was well worth the sacrifice to see the look of pride on my mother's face. When we went to the mosque to celebrate Eid, the festival at the end of Ramadan, nothing will ever compare to the exhilaration I felt about being part of the celebrating crowd.

For those few minutes, surrendering my individuality to be part of a bigger whole was one of the most powerful sensations I had ever experienced.

I felt a big weight lift off my shoulders. And the tears of grief for my father, which had eluded me since the day of his death, finally came.

I have been told that for many months afterwards I walked around with huge dark circles around my eyes. My father's weighty absence permanently resided in my heart. But he was gone. It was time to navigate the world without him.

The years that followed were ones of huge change in my life as I completed a degree in politics and modern history at Manchester University and then moved back to London to launch my career as a journalist on the fledgling TV Asia station.

I couldn't help feeling a flicker of pride on my father's behalf when I landed my next job, as a researcher on the BBC's Newsnight. Wasn't this just the sort of thing he had brought me up to do?

It felt to me like a huge achievement, and of course I was thrilled at the prospect of working alongside journalists considered to be some of Britain's finest. But it was not always easy.

"Get a mad mullah, get a mad mullah!" the day programme producer screamed at the desk staff one day in April 1995.

She was so excited she could hardly contain herself. News had come in that there had been a bomb attack on some American government offices in Oklahoma City, and it was big. "Get a mad mullah!" she screamed again.

I looked over my shoulder at the programme producer, unsure quite how to react. Part of me couldn't help wondering why we needed a mullah in the first place, let alone a mad mullah. No one had yet taken responsibility for the bomb.

But everyone else seemed to agree with the day producer, because already they were poring over the database looking for experts on Islamic terrorism.

Great, I thought. Muslims finally make the news - and look what it's for.

As she shouted again I think I must have let out a frustrated sigh, because I suddenly saw the producer sitting opposite me turn to his senior producer, who then turned to the day producer and fired her a sharp look before jerking his head towards me.

I didn't turn round to see her response, but she suddenly stopped, and a strange silence enveloped the newsdesk.

When it was later announced that some "mad" Christians had been responsible for the bomb attack, I felt a great sense of relief.

But these issues were not about to go away. The years which followed September 11, 2001, were among the most conflicted of my life as I tried to work out what being an ordinary Muslim in Britain meant.

I was also dealing with some issues in my personal life, many of them centring on my mother.

She found it hard to accept that by the time I got to my late 20s not only was I not yet married, but I was also living away from home - something that as far as she was concerned only "bad girls" did.

Matters came to a head during one painful conversation around ten years after my father's death. The subject of marriage came up again, and she accused me of always being angry with her.

"You know what your problem is?" she'd said. "Your father gave you too much freedom. Now you have seen too much."

That evening, for the first time ever, I had found myself questioning my father's ideas and how he had chosen to bring us up.

All my life I had blindly followed him. When he had ordered us - as children - to be English, we had become English.

When he had demanded we drop our mother tongue, we had dropped our mother tongue. When he had encouraged us to educate ourselves, go out into the world and be independent individuals - well, that is exactly what we had done.

But what peace had his ideas ever brought me? None at all.

Look how it had left me with my mother. Hard as it had always been to admit, I knew I was never really going to lead a life that she could be totally part of.

We were too different. I would always be an outsider in my mother's world and she an outsider in mine.

I wanted to be angry at my father for the situation he had put us in, but by then it was too late. He was dead.

It's true to say, I believe, that I didn't think about him for years after that. I mean, really think about him.

And I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until he'd been dead for nearly 20 years that I finally visited his grave.

The idea of doing so came from Paul, the American film-maker who became my husband when I finally - to my mother's delight - got married at the age of 33.

"Are you OK?" Paul asked as we searched the cemetery for the Muslim section one tranquil June morning.

I nodded, stoically. But I didn't feel that way. I knew that I had a block about my father, and it seemed that I'd spent a good deal of my life feeling conflicted about him - at times, ashamed.

As I stood and looked at his gravestone, I tried to recall some of the anger I had felt for so long, hoping to provoke cathartic tears.

But none came. Instead, confronted with his resting place, I felt a peace descending upon me. How, I wondered, could I have allowed my memories of him to become so clouded?

I thought about everything he had done in order to belong, to be English, and realised how much I had to thank him for.

Yes, he put me on a path towards assimilation, and he never understood why embracing my "other self" - my cultural heritage as an Asian Muslim - was so important. Sometimes, the price one pays to belong can be too high.

But that cuts both ways. Today, I lament how some of my old friends in the mahalla have compromised their individual selves, ready to go along with every diktat or folly of tribal politics in their desperate need to "belong" as a Muslim.

My father gave me the tools to take control of my life and to resist the easy answers - so alluring in these confusing days. What better gift, in the end, could a father pass on to a child?

Extracted from The Making Of Mr Hai's Daughter, published by Virago on April 3 at £14.99. Copyright: 2008 Yasmin Hai. To order a copy p&p free, call 0845 606 4206


Source:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-543928/Sex-drugs-rock-roll-No-topic-taboo-girls-trendy-new-school-But-WOULD-Pakistani-father-say.html#ixzz1Rd1Oaveh



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