Ayisha Malik on life as a Muslim in the West
I remember walking towards Tooting High Street one day, minding my own business, when I walked past a middle-aged man and heard someone say: “Terrorist.”
Crikey, where?? I thought, turning around.
Except no-one else was in sight. I stopped short. Terrorist? Me?? How absurd. It was laughable if only it didn’t almost make me feel quite violent.
When people ask me what it’s like growing up as Muslim in London I often have to take a moment: what an odd question. It’s the same as it is for anyone else. It’s… you know, fine. And then I remember this incident (not discounting the time I was called a Paki b***h on the Tube, but that’s an essay for another day.)
"Paki and terrorist, of course, are not the same thing, but the feelings related to being called either invokes the same question: is that what you see?"
These episodes have the unfortunate propensity to then remind me of other events; the time someone threw eggs at me and my friend then stole our phones because we were both brown; the time some window cleaners were walking past our home and I could hear them speak.
“What about this one?” one said, giving the number of my house.
“Nah, bunch of Pakis.”
Right. The recollections tend to snowball into something sizeable, which can’t be ignored. Paki and terrorist, of course, are not the same thing, but the feelings related to being called either invokes the same question: is that what you see?
It’s part naivety and part denial when you assume people don’t make judgements based on appearance. We all do it, every day. My headscarf only compounds the matter. I’ve never minded differing from the norm. But it seems to bother other people, and usually they’re people who don’t know me.
Maybe that’s why I like writing about Muslims. Normal ones. Not the ones who force their daughters into marriages, kill them for not complying with family wishes, or the ones who create hell on earth by bombing people indiscriminately because they think they’ll be rewarded with heaven.
There are other challenges as a Muslim, growing up in a secular world and they’re a lot less dramatic. Where do I pray? How do I do my pre-prayer ablution without being caught with my foot in the sink? Is it rude to decline social invitations during Ramadan because you want to focus on prayer and fasting? And will people think you’re a bit of a wet blanket because you don’t drink or go to pubs or bars? Decisions, decisions. Perception, perception. The question becomes not, what do you see? But rather, what do I want you to see?
My second book, The Other Half of Happiness (and a sequel to Sofia Khan is not Obliged), doesn’t really address the above issues in the same way the first book does. Whereas Sofia Khan was peppered with these kinds of questions—lending itself to more comedy than serious discussion—the second doesn’t take much notice of ideas about belonging and identity, apart from whether you belong in a marriage or not.
In some ways, I wonder whether it might be disappointing to readers of the first novel. Sofia Khan wasn’t an “issues” book, but readers might come to expect a more nuanced look at living (and loving) as a Muslim in a Western environment. Except that’s exactly what I didn’t want. Because being a Muslim has little to do with what my character has to face. Yes, there is discussion about faith in the book, but if we want to normalise representation in literature then the faith or colour of the main character should be entirely incidental to the story.
"It shouldn’t matter how people see me because the important ones know I’m not a terrorist"
Growing up as Muslim in the West hasn’t mattered to me one jot. That’s what I want to say. Except that it has. It shouldn’t matter how people see me because the important ones know I’m not a terrorist. I hope. But suddenly, every Muslim has been given the responsibility of showing that they don’t hate “The West,” that they’re not secretly plotting its demise or wishing Sharia law was implemented in England.
I hope that my writing goes some way into showing that “Muslim” is not “other.” It is, like any other character in a book, you or me. You might not be able to walk a mile in another’s shoes, but you can read the words on a page in another’s perspective.
The Other Half of Happiness by Ayisha Malik is published by Zaffre
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