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The Imam's DaughterMy Desperate Flight to Freedom
By Hannah Shah
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Hannah Shah
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy Street
* * *
From my childhood-the images sketchy and opaque, a splash of color here and there among darkness - I remember one thing clearly: my street. East Street, in Bermford, the north of England. Two rows of identical, brick-built Victorian houses and a shady park at the north end like leafy branches atop a blood-red trunk. I saw the gnarled trees as fanged monsters among whose knotted, bestial shadows our childhood games darted.
I flitted-daydreaming, pigtailed, hand-me-down mary janes rubbing the long spine of the cracked sidewalk - from house to house. Doors were always left open, and there was no fear of being robbed. I could wander down to my friend Amina's place whenever I felt like it. I was welcome to stay for as long as I wanted. If I was out for more than three or four hours, someone would come looking for me-my mother or one of my brothers. But it was still a kind of freedom for a little child.
I'd be offered a drink of Pakistani tea-water boiled with tea leaves, hot milk, heaps of sugar, and sometimes cardamom - and something to eat. It was chocolate digestives or Rich Tea biscuits one day and curry or chapattis the next. Hours later I found my way home, skipping past window after window blooming yellow into the dark soil of night.
It was the 1980s. We were Pakistani. We were British. We were East Street.
My mother made chapattis with wholemeal flour. She kneaded it with water to form dough, then took a fist-sized blob, rolled it out into a flat circle on a chapatti iron, and cooked it until dark spots appeared on its surface. She made parathas, rolling out the dough into pancakes and placing them on a long-handled tava pan. as she tossed them in the oil, each one puffed up like a doughy balloon.
We ate with our hands, using the chapatti or paratha to scoop. Mum made samosas with spiced minced meat, or potato and peas. She made pakoras out of slices of onion and fresh chili peppers, coated in a gram flour batter and dropped into sizzling-hot oil. I watched them cook below the surface, watching for them to rise, golden brown, like fried chicken nuggets.
Across the street lived an Armenian family, a mother and her one son-one of the few families on our street who weren't of Pakistani Muslim origin. The Armenian mother tried to communicate with Mum, but her English was very limited. Mum told us to call her "Auntie" as a traditional sign of respect, but Dad didn't agree. He refused to show respect to anyone except other Pakistani Muslims-not even the Indian Muslims who lived around the corner on Jenna Street.
Armenian "Auntie" brought us Armenian food and Mum took Pakistani delicacies to them. Mostly, we were given vegetarian hotpots - aubergines, potatoes, and carrots stewed in a salty, peppery sauce. Before we were allowed to eat, Mum went through the food with a fork, checking for any suspect meat. If there wasn't any, we were free to tuck in.
When the weather was good, Armenian Auntie dragged a pinewood chair into her front yard. She sat there with her son, soaking up the sun and peeling potatoes. We talked in passing, across the green picket fence, but we never went inside. She understood she wasn't welcome in our home, and she didn't invite us into her house, either. Thankfully, she couldn't have known the lack of welcome was because my father hated white people.
A few doors down lived a second Armenian family -mother, father, and daughter. They went to mass at an Orthodox Christian church and growled at everyone else on the street. Several other houses were filled with a rotating cast of renters-black students from the Congo, Cameroon, and Algeria.
Everyone else on our street was a Pakistani Muslim. The adults dressed as they would have in a village in Pakistan: women and men wore shalwar kamiz, a loose, matching smock top and trousers. The women's were more colorful, while the men had baggy trousers, in more sober, masculine colors, like browns, grays, and whites. Dad was always dressed in a white shalwar kamiz with a topi, a traditional Punjabi skullcap, on his head.
Most of the men changed when they went to work. They seemed to shrug on a Western skin when they left our street and entered the city as taxi drivers, policemen, engineers, and salespeople. None of the women of my parents' generation worked, but some of the younger ones took jobs as secretaries or helpers in shops, at least until they married. They always kept themselves properly covered and showed appropriate modesty.
Four doors down lived my Great-Uncle Kramat and Great-Auntie Sakina. They were our surrogate grandparents, for our real ones were back in the village in Pakistan. I didn't entirely like going to their house. I was scared of Uncle Kramat, who could be quite fierce with his long, white beard and bushy eyebrows joining together in the middle. He and Auntie Sakina gossiped about my parents while they drank tea and watched television.
Uncle Kramat and Auntie Sakina had three grown children-two married sons, Ahmed and Saghir, and a married daughter, Kumar, all of whom lived with Uncle Kramat and Auntie Sakina. That wasn't unusual on our street.
None of Uncle Kramat and auntie Sakina's children had any children. The neighbors gossiped darkly that this was a punishment from Allah. Uncle Kramat was not a very religious man-not in the way it was defined on our street. He didn't always go to the mosque. And he smoked all the time, despite knowing that the Qur'an says: "Do not kill yourselves."
Good luck or bad luck was often attributed to someone's moral or spiritual behavior. Uncle Kramat's lack of piety was understood as the reason for his children's infertility; yet the gossipers ignored the fact that Ahmed, Saghir, and Kumar had married their first cousins. In any case, it was agreed the entire family ought to accept Allah's will and stop such nonsense as in-vitro fertilization.
Islam is first and foremost submission to Allah's will. Indeed, a believer is often spoken of as "the slave of God." There is a common misconception that the primary meaning of Islam is peace, but that is true only in that a believer finds peace by submitting to Allah's will.
* * *
My best friend was Amina. She had unruly dark hair that fell to her shoulders in a wild tangle. Neither of us thought it was very pretty, but she had to live with it. Amina's sister, Ruhama, with her thick, wavy hair, was considered by far the prettier of the two. Both girls were paler-skinned than my sisters and me.
"She's so pretty!" people in the street and at school would remark of Ruhama. "She's got such lovely hair, and such pale skin!" When I heard this, I presumed that dark skin was less beautiful.
Amina's household seemed more relaxed than mine. Her parents didn't pray regularly, and apart from her Qur'an lessons Amina was rarely made to read the holy book. Neither she nor Ruhama ever had to wear a hijab, our Muslim headscarf, when they were outside the house.
My father was the community imam, our religious teacher and leader; so I wore a hijab at all times.
Amina, Ruhama, and I played hopscotch constantly. The paving stones were laid in offset squares, so we simply wrote numbers inside each. If our feet touched the cracks in the pavement, we were out. We started timing each other-counting from one to one hundred-and seeing who could do it the fastest. My attention often wandered mid-hop, and I never beat Amina and Ruhama.
My world wasn't always happy, and my only escape was to make another one.
I spent much of my free time alone in my room, reading. I made up stories and drew, over and over, a small cottage with a pretty flower garden. My real home had a tiny backyard where Mum grew mint and coriander; she had no time or space for flowers.
* * *
On the fifth of November, Bonfire Night transformed our street. In the days leading up to the festivities, everyone joined forces to build a massive tower of waste wood, fallen branches, and old packing crates. Each household bought whatever fireworks and sparklers it could afford. November was cold, so we wrapped ourselves in woolen scarves and hats as we waited for the fire to be lit. I loved that moment-the wonderful, tingling anticipation of our woodpile flaring in a breathy whoosh of fire.
The men doused the wood in old sump oil and warned us to stand back. Suddenly-in a throaty whump -burning heat and sparks were thrown across our faces and high into the dark sky. We roasted potatoes and marshmallows over the flames, warmed our hands and faces, and munched bonfire toffee.
It was the one time of year when everyone on our street was united-Pakistani Muslims, Christians, Armenians, African students-everyone except my father. He stood outside our house, watching the flames with crossed arms and a scowl that cast flickering shadows across his forehead. Dad hated seeing people have fun.
Because Christmas and Easter were Christian affairs, our community wasn't allowed to celebrate them. But Dad didn't understand Bonfire Night, because all he knew about his adopted country was that it was a land of immorality, populated by infidels. In his eyes, Bonfire Night was a white English affair, but he couldn't think of any religious justification for banning it. Everyone enjoyed it so much he would have had a real fight on his hands if he had tried to stop the festivities. Instead, he never joined in and made sure everyone saw his disapproval.
* * *
Near the end of our street lived the last white British lady in the neighborhood. She owned a black Jack Russell that we called, predictably, Jack. When he spotted us, he raced out of the house, growling and yapping as he ran. One day, as my friend Saira pounded down the sidewalk, Jack caught her and sank his teeth into her leg.
As soon as we heard what had happened, Mum and I went round to visit. Gingerly, Saira took the bandage off to show us the damage. There were puncture marks where Jack's teeth had gone in, and stitches all around the wound. I was impressed. Saira was given a tetanus jab in her bottom, in case Jack had poisoned her.
Saira's parents were angry. There was a Pakistani Muslim policeman who lived on a neighboring street. Anyone with a serious problem in our community always took it to him, and he told Jack's owner that the dog would have to be muzzled. But Jack never was.
Opposite Jack's place was a run-down house that crouched among thick bushes. It looked dark and mysterious, and my brothers used to say that the Bogeyman lived there. I hated walking past. I knew the Bogeyman was a monster with some horrible disfigurement on his face-why else did he stay inside all the time? I imagined he was a white person, because someone had once said: I saw the Bogeyman; he's white like a ghost. We told each other fearful stories of what the Bogeyman would do if he caught us. Zakir, the oldest of my brothers, said that the Bogeyman ate children for breakfast.
With the park and its monster trees-and Jack, and the Bogeyman-the north end of our street was terrifying. As soon as I approached it, I started running, and I wouldn't stop until I reached the safe end.
But I never really got there, because I lived with the Bogeyman.
Excerpted from The Imam's Daughter by Hannah Shah Copyright © 2010 by Hannah Shah. Excerpted by permission.
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