Written by Maryam Khan. Follow her on Twitter at @MazHalima.
It’s June 5, 2017 and it appears to be a normal Monday morning. I wish I’d taken my jacket off before I got on this train to work – the carriage feels like it’s rocking slightly with the weight of the people it’s carrying, crammed like sardines in a tin. I’m starting to sweat as the June sun and the intense collective body heat become all I can feel.
To my right is an Indian man with Hugo Boss glasses and an expensive suit, leaning his weary head on the glass divider. An English woman on the other side of the divide is sitting down, filling in her eyebrows with one eye on her pocket mirror and her other on the clock. Most of the other passengers are attempting to read the commuter-focused free Metro newspaper, catching up on all that occurred over the weekend.
We’re all on a train heading toward London Bridge. There was something comforting in the calm and silence on that train, as we all read about what had happened on Saturday, June 3 – one of the warmest nights of the year so far, an occasion any Brit knows to make the most of.
People were out enjoying life when three terrorists drove onto London Bridge, deliberately hitting pedestrians with their van. They then got out and began stabbing people. As reports currently stand, seven people are dead and 36 are in hospital – 21 of those are in critical condition. The terrorists were shot down by the police in a matter of minutes.
I can’t find the mental capacity to write about what happened in anything but a robotic way, because I’m traumatized. I’d like to mention to those who didn’t get the memo, that I’m a Pakistani-British Muslim.
I was on my way to the beach on a Sunday morning when I heard what happened. I didn’t say much and decided not to read into it too heavily–what was the point? What could I do about it? But all day, I didn’t feel right. It was when I got home that night and read in detail what happened that I cried until my throat felt raw and my nose was stinging and there was nothing else to do but to go to sleep.
I live 15 minutes away from London Bridge. I pass there frequently and despite having lived in South London all my life, whenever I get the train into central London, I never sit down. I’m always standing with my nose pressed against the window, trying to spot the Shard, looking at the blur of water and bridges and building work as the train speeds on ahead – it gives me a feeling of euphoria, pride, excitement to think of what I might witness when I get off the train. Being as multicultural as it is, London is the closest thing I have to a social nirvana. I belong nowhere else.
People on social media, on television, on the radio, all seem to be saying the same thing – Muslims living in Britain must integrate more, they must report suspicious behavior in their community.
But what do I do with this information when my community is a plethora of the world combined? I live on a street that is predominantly white, with around 5 percent being of an ethnic minority. My best friend is a Jewish woman of Jamaican heritage. Another is a Hindu woman. Another is half-English, half-Pakistani Christian. In fact, her mother’s family helped set up the first South Asian concentrated church in Southall, England. Another close friend of mine is a Catholic of Polish descent.
I know Muslims who are gay, Muslims who drink alcohol, Muslims who dance in nightclubs. They exist, whether it’s an embraced fact or not. I and my friends of a Muslim faith have been in London Bridge many a time, having the time of our lives. And yes, we’re just as Muslim as people who judge our actions that stray against what might be considered as the Muslim norm. We are all varied results of a diaspora. Not everybody’s result will be the same. I can’t relate to the type of Muslim I hear about in the media, and yet the kind of a person I am assumed to be is narrated to me every day, with no alternative box for me to tick.
I try to feel all terrorist attacks, whether they happen in Manchester or Kabul, with the same weight of grief. Any life lost is a tragedy and one doesn’t trump the other because it took place in the western world. But I won’t lie – this London Bridge incident has hit me differently, and I can’t change the way I feel. It’s the closest to home it’s ever been for me personally.
My dad rang me last night to tell me not to wear headphones when I am out for a while. “You know why,” he said, and I knew why he wouldn’t say the reason out loud – he was at his local pub quiz night and didn’t want to make his indigenously English friends uncomfortable. But of course, I knew. It was the same reason that I don’t stand anywhere near the edge of a tube (subway) platform anymore. Brown people are being attacked from both directions.
I think of my mother who works for NATO in Belgium. She was close enough to Brussels Airport in March 2016 to hear the bombs that went off there. Her steadfast British attitude meant that she assumed it was a car backfiring, and carried on walking to work. I think of my sister who commutes to her job at Westminster Council daily. I think of women who wear the hijab, which has now become an act of courage in itself. We call each other, console each other and then have to end the call with a warning that people who are not of my complexion don’t have to worry about.
One of my Pakistani friends told me his sister took her hijab off before heading to work after the attack. His father, a cab driver based in Central London, decided not to work the following night in fear of being attacked by someone who could potentially be drunk and angry and not know any better on seeing his father’s brown skin.
But imagine this – when I heard the news of the attack, my mind was whirling. One of my thoughts that flew around, just momentarily, was that maybe I should wear a hijab, then if an attack happened maybe I’d be spared. How scared I felt in that moment that I’d consider wearing a headscarf to avoid being stabbed in the street by someone who claims my religion in their own evil thought process. The fact that that entered my mind even for a moment really disturbs me.
The other day, following the Manchester tragedy, I was in my local supermarket and was looking for halal meat, which wasn’t in its usual place. For some reason, I found it too awkward to go and ask someone who worked in the store where the halal meat was. I didn’t want to draw any more attention to my identity. Never mind that I can’t speak any language but English, that I barely know the Qur’an, that I feel deeply British – it’s not enough.
I’m a relatively small female, but I feel the need to appear less threatening. I wear more pink than I ever did, I smile far more than I can be bothered to, my hair is in pigtails as I type this, I’m making an effort to not look defiantly like me, but Afghanistan can be found in the colour of my eyes, Pakistan is evident in my complexion and my features. I’m at somewhat of a loss at both ends of the spectrum.
It’s an indescribable feeling when your hometown is attacked. I cried for strangers that could have been family, I checked in with my loved ones, and yet I felt more alone, more isolated than I did before it happened. As selfish as it sounds, I think that’s because the possibility of it happening to me is getting closer. And everybody has to face death alone – no ifs, no buts, no maybes. That is an isolating thought if you allow yourself to really contemplate it.
But I’m fighting that feeling. Today I embrace the chance to live another day. I’m going to continue to fight the fear with love, understanding and positivity – because that’s what Brits do. And even if some people don’t realise it yet, it’s also what Muslims do.