The van draws closer to Nawal, who tries to walk along the street a little quicker. Her brother Hassan follows closely behind, half-quietly infuriated by the fact that these men have tried to insult his sister; half- too engrossed in the game he is playing on his phone to do anything about it. Besides, according to the Qur’an, Muslims are meant to respond to words of ignorance with words of peace. He comforts himself with this thought: he is no coward – only an intentional pacifist. The human Switzerland in almost all disputes.
The van stops following Nawal. She is all the way at the end of the street, at this point. The driver rolls down the window and addresses Hassan.
“My name’s not Abdul,” Hassan sighs, finally looking up from his phone, in reluctance and quiet fury. “Is your name Tommy?”
“How come youse lot are allowed to look at our women all you like, but we can’t look at yours?!”
Hassan has a strong feeling that the words he is about to utter will be uttered in vain. But maybe it is worth a shot, he thinks.
“Well, we’re not technically ‘allowed’ to freely look at ‘your’ women,” he explains, adjusting the strap of his messenger bag slightly. “And, I mean, it’s not like all Niqabis wear the Niqab – and yes, Tommy, they are called Niqabs, not letterbox costumes, not Batman masks – because we ‘make’ them wear it. And -”
Hassan’s lengthy monologue is interrupted by an aggressive shout of “F*ck off, Paki! Go back to the desert” right before the van speeds off into the distance. “Pakistan isn’t located in a desert! Maybe if you opened a book from time to time, you would have known that!” Hassan calls after it. By this time, he has managed to catch up with his twin sister.
“Eh, let him think that our country’s a desert,” Nawal remarks, as she presses the WAIT button at the pedestrian lights. “We don’t want the likes of him ruining our country by visiting it now, do we?”
The bus’ doors swing open abruptly; it hisses as it lowers itself to allow a pram on.
“Alright, love?” the driver winks at the lady who wriggles onto the vehicle with the pushchair. Her phone is between her shoulders and her ear; she is too busy to respond.
“Morning,” the driver says to the old man in the tweed jacket.
“Alright, mate?” to the next person: a young man carrying a large backpack, presumably filled with study materials.
Hassan, by contrast, just gets a stare of indifference. There is perhaps a hint of hostility in this stare, too. Hostile indifference. Something Hassan is just indifferent to these days. Hostilely indifferent.
Now, Nawal. She greets the driver.
The driver sighs an audible sigh. “Hurry up!” His face has suddenly become pink with what would appear to be…fury.
“Alright…” Nawal responds, hurriedly extracting her Oyster card from her coat pocket.
“F*cking Pakis,” the driver mutters under his breath. “Don’t know English, don’t know the rules of this place. Bloody terrorists.”
Nawal stares at his face in alarm, for a few seconds. She is shocked, but not at all surprised. “What you looking at?” the driver asks her. Her eyes well up a little; she never really expects them to, in moments like this. But they almost always do.
[Funny, isn’t it? How, often, it is precisely when people attempt to rob us of our humanity – whether by insulting us or even by hitting us – we are reflexively made to show them just how human we are: we cry. There is probably nothing more ‘human’ than the act of crying.]
At home, Mrs. Shah-Jalal is tending to her plants. Her chilli plant is doing particularly well this month: five perfectly ripe chilli peppers currently dangle from a luscious green stem.
The doorbell rings. She wipes her hands on her jeans and rushes to answer it.
Her beloved son and daughter are standing at the door. They seem cold, their faces bitten by British winter. She feels their cheeks with the backs of her hands, and accelerates their entry through the door. But then, something catches her attention.
“Nawal, sweetheart. Have you been crying?”
“Some racist bus driver,” Hassan explains, in his sometimes-laconic way.
“I’m fine, Mum,” Nawal sniffles. “Honestly. I don’t know why I let these stupid things get to me.”
“Sweetie, you know the Niqab isn’t compulsory for us, right? As long as you wear loose-fitting clothes and a Hijab, it’s all good,” Mrs. S-J explains.
“I know, Mum. But I want to wear it. I’m struggling and striving, in Allah’s way,”
“But what if you get really badly hurt, one day? Just stop wearing it. Is it really worth your safety?”
“Ma, I’m not gonna change my lifestyle to befit the expectations of ignorant people. If I did this, my life would be based upon others’ ignorance, and not upon my own truth. I won’t stop wearing it.”
In this moment, Mrs. S-J is proud: she has managed to raise an incredibly wise young woman. She is still deeply concerned, but she is also rather proud.
“Hear that, Hassan? Your sister doesn’t care about the opinions of others. She wears the Niqab in spite of all these idiots,” Mrs. S-J chuckles. Hassan does not look up from his phone. “So maybe it’s time for you to consider growing a beard…”
Hassan considers it for a few seconds. If he really were to commit to this – to not committing a razor to his facial hair, as he currently does, every two days, the “F*cking Paki” jibes would probably increase in number. But then again, maybe some cute girls would come to think that, with a beard, he looks quite a bit like Zayn Malik…
Sadia Ahmed, 2020