Tradition and ‘Cultural Appropriation’

Pictured: Great Mosque of Xi’an, China

‘Appropriation’. The term refers to taking something for one’s own use, usually without first obtaining permission from whomever the thing in question ‘belongs’ to.

Recently, on Twitter, the conversation surrounding the notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ would appear to have been re-ignited: this time, from certain (online-presented) corners of the Muslim world. White reverts* being accused of the crime, as a result of, for example, wearing thobes to the masjid.

            These are just my own personal views on the subject, but frankly I think that such accusations are absurd. I find it especially uncomfortable – ridiculous – that some individuals are childish enough to treat individual white people as though they are guilty for some of their ancestors’, perhaps, misdeeds.

Firstly, in Islam, we are reminded (through the words of the Qur’an) that those who have lived and passed on have lived and passed on: the people who are alive today “will not be asked about what they used to do.”

“That is a nation which has passed on. It will have [the consequence of] what it earned, and you will have what you have earned. And you will not be asked about what they used to do.” [Qur’an, (2:141)]

Accusing somebody of ‘fetishising’ a ‘culture’, because they have donned a scarf or a dress or a coat or something that tends to be associated with that ‘culture’ is quite unfair, and it would appear to be rooted in a mentality that is quite… ahistorical. This attempted ‘reification’ of culture; this (quite modern) idea that ‘nations’ and ‘cultures’ are these solid, solidly consistent, entities. That these food items, artistic tendencies, clothing styles ‘belong’ to these cultures; those ones ‘belong’ to those.

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other.” [Qur’an, (49:13)]

There is a clear difference between mocking what is associated with a group of people, and with appreciating something that may be common among them. ‘Blackface’ belongs to the former category. A white revert wearing a Moroccan-style thobe… is, most likely, of the latter.

The Muslim idea is that every human being in existence had been born of, by Allah’s decree, a single male, and a single female: Adam and Eve. Every single group of people – every nation, every tribe – had eventuated as a result of this primal partnership. We were made into various “nations and tribes”, in order to recognise one another; in order to learn from one another; in order to interact and converse with one another.

In conversations between people, we become inspired by what others do. We learn from them. We often proceed to (sometimes subconsciously) imitate what we like, of them. Some of the things they may say; some of the ‘life hacks’ that they may swear by; some elements of their clothing styles.

And this phenomenon of conversation and exchange is precisely what takes place on the macro level, also. Like the way that ‘Karak chai’ – a cardamom tea beverage that is extremely popular across the Arab world – had come about as a result of South Asian expats drinking their masala chai in the Khaleeji nations. ‘Vimto’, also, a drink commonly associated with ‘Pakistani culture’, apparently (as I learned this week) had actually originated in Manchester, England. What we, here in the West, refer to as night robes (or, as ‘housecoats’) had actually been inspired by robes that are commonly worn in ‘East Asian cultures’. Things – and new styles, developed ways of doing things – come about as a result of being inspired by other things; through people’s, and nations’, and tribes’, interactions with one another.

The vast collection of stories that make up human history. Some of these subtle tales find themselves woven into our languages. Another random example: the word ‘camiseta’ in Spanish, which means ‘shirt’. ‘Shirt’ in Arabic is ‘قميص’ (‘qamees’). In Urdu, one of the words for ‘shirt’ is ‘kameez’. And then, in Bengali, we also say ‘kameez’. Fascinatingly, the word ‘camisia’ is ‘shirt’ in Late Latin. Awesome sauce. The links between parts of Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. Nations and tribes, getting to know one another: through trade, through friendships, through marriage, (through bloody wars). Taking on the things they have liked, of one another.

Tea, also. Tea ‘is’ Indian, and it is Chinese. British, and Arab. ‘Tea’ is ‘té’ en español, ‘te’ in Danish, and ‘tee’ in Afrikaans. ‘Chai’ in Hindi; ‘shai’ in Arabic; ‘cha’ (or ‘sa’) in Bangla; ‘tsaa’ in Tagalog. The result of different nations and tribes, coming to know [parts of] one another. Sharing tea; sharing words, and more.

Am I ‘appropriating’ – taking something that is not mine, and without permission from whomever it ‘belongs’ to, if, say, I wear the clothes I had bought while on holiday in Turkey? Am I ‘appropriating’ if I enjoy some mint tea in a ‘Moroccan-style’ cup? What if I had a bag with some Japanese floral artwork on it? If no, then would the rules have to somehow be different for me, if, say, I were white?

Is ‘cultural appropriation’ only a thing of clothes? Or is it meant to extend to other things – like food, recreational activities and art – also?

Human personalities are certainly not solid, reified entities that are set in stone. As time goes on, we are ever-changing, ever-learning and -developing. The same thing is true for what humans are on larger scales: nations, tribes, societies, ‘cultures’.

Identities are living, breathing things, almost. [‘Culture’ is defined as ‘the complete way of life of a particular group of people’, and so therefore:] Our ‘cultures’: micro (e.g. the nuclear families that we belong to) and macro (e.g. ‘Desi culture’). We are theirs, and they are ours, and none of it is set in stone! We, past and present (and ‘future’) are constantly in active conversation with, affecting, one another.

I know that I, for instance, as a second-generation Bengali (Sylheti) immigrant, here in East London do not speak, nor think, nor even eat, the same (things) as my grandmother does. So what is ‘Bengali culture’, then? Well, it is my lived – living – experience, and it is also her own; it is millions of others’, too. It is the age-old traditions that we accept and follow, and it is also the things we change, and/or introduce, as a result of our interactions, our conversations, with various other people(s).

What is important, for us, is our conscious adherence to Objective Morality. Everything else is not really set in stone. There is so much room for discovery, and for creativity, and for individuality; for learning, inspiration, and development. [Islam is not ‘the Arab man’s religion’. You can keep whatever is yours, granted it fits into Islam’s moral frameworks, and be 100% Muslim. If you are a revert, you can keep your name, also!]

Some white British Muslims, perhaps, like to wear thobes sometimes, and classic tweed jackets at other times. Some Bengalis love the taste of ‘Korean-style’ chicken; find it so fascinating that some Bengalis have the (generally-associated-with-Portuguese-people) surname ‘Pereira’, as a result of certain historical interactions between the two places, and so on.

Tres cool, tres cool indeed. And instead of closing our eyes to these truths, and defensively seeking to present our identities as being solid, untouchable entities that somehow ‘belong’ to us and only us (probably out of insecurity, fear of losing them, somehow), perhaps we ought to act more in line with our belief that… everything in existence is from Allah. Some things we do, we have learnt from what our ancestors have done, perhaps for centuries. And some things we do are newer.

(So let the man wear his jubbah and Converses to the masjid in peace!)

“This story has not happened before. […]

Let the future begin.

Anne Carson

*We tend to use the term ‘revert’ to describe people who have come to Islam from other faiths. This is because we believe that every human being is born upon Fitrah – the innate disposition – naturally, as a Pure Monotheist.

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Once in a lifetime, these moments do come

You know when it is raining, suddenly, in the darkened part of an otherwise busy city? Even at this moment in time: here in lockdown. The cars jetting past, and you can almost hear exactly what the pitter-patter might sound like, from the inside of each and every one of them, inhabited by different people, coming from entirely different worlds.

That feeling of being snug, and warm. In good old-fashioned checked pyjamas, maybe; safe from the cold, and from the wet, the racing, the Anonymous and Alone.

On rainy evenings, it seems like everybody is simply in a rush to get home. Umbrellas look drizzly and forlorn; streetlights glow orange, while makeup, we find, begins to drip into something a little grotesque. Suits, also, at such times, do not look all that comfortable to find oneself wearing.

            Some shield their lacquered heads with newspaper, or scarves; crouch and, in the whirring, pouring noise, make that face: the one that looks rather like disgruntlement. Phone pressed to their ears; water getting hopelessly into their eyes.

Children, in fur-coated hoods, fixate on the excitement of puddles; stoop towards them, in fascination, ready to jump and splash and see themselves again (much to the annoyance of their parents, whose primary concern it now is to get home as quickly as possible, and to make something suitably comforting to eat). Faces rippled: recognisable, and yet, at the same time, hilariously zig-zagged and distorted.

Wellington boots, roof windows for a better view, and acrylic-coloured mugs of hot chocolate. The ‘little’ things, but why on Earth are we known to call them ‘little’? What might the ‘big’ things be, then, in contrast? The… loud, the shiny, the demanding-our-attention? The distracting; things that are extravagantly hard-to-get, the hundred-things-at-once, or the… once-in-a-lifetimes?

This here moment is a once-in-a-lifetime one. Even if it is quiet, and seems ‘unremarkable’, and ‘everyday’: it will never, ever be here again. Not like this, anyhow. And everybody you know and love is getting older, and this here world of yours will never be the same again:

Everything, dear friend, is going to change. As they always have done, and as they always will do:

(until the End, that is).

And I hope we get to see the rain again. Here, perhaps, and in another place;

Another time, another age, and maybe in an altogether different way.

Alhamdulillah for the rain, though. And for the feeling of it on our hands and on our cheeks: Barakah, Rahma, and hope. And for the ability to go home. To close the door. To feel warm, and dry; your entire world, and that you are not alone.

Because it is a big, big, big world out there. Bee-lines, and busy bees. Loneliness and exhaustion; superficiality and disease.

Tall shiny buildings, buzzing away with productivity. A million and one things to buy, and to own, and to try to feel powerful — seen — through. Cars racing through traffic, and the like. But would this life not be… a little unbearableterrifying, actually – without this peaceful slice from all that madness,

which we are thoroughly fortunate enough to call our own?

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.


Another thing that I have learnt during these first two decades of my life is about giving people (and, indeed, oneself) chances. We change and we grow; it is not (not ever) a solid, reified, definable ‘you’ or ‘I’ that follows us through time. Our ships are always being developed, rebuilt. We find that some things work; we may wish to keep them, and hone them. Some things, we come to discard. We look within ourselves, think about who we are; some things, we change. Some things, we allow to be kept the same. And Time does not stop for anybody.

Besides, all human life is stories, and what are stories without character development? 

Of other people, we may only see glimpses. And then, we might hear of them from the mouths of others. Words are ascribed to them. And words – definitions – by nature, limit. They facilitate the fastening of certain characteristics and ideas to certain people. We might come to hear of one or two things a particular individual has done, way back when. What we may not hear about are all the extra contextual considerations. We may forget that they are only human, just like us; they will necessarily slip up sometimes. We might not listen to and accept additional information, about how these people have changed, for example. We really ought to give people a chance to do so – to be messy, sometimes, and to grow and to change; no human being’s character is a necessarily reified and consistent-through-time thing. Nobody is perfect; people do not suddenly become the picture of evil as soon as they do something wrong.

So is it not foolish to portray individuals in such ways, in our own minds – as if they in their entirety are only the one, or two, or five, or sixty, individual picture frames you have seen of them – or, worse still – heard of them? As if they are either wholly ‘good’ or wholly ‘bad’?

I have certainly fallen into similar traps before. Hearing about various things about a certain person. Blindly believing it. How can we meaningfully come to determine which side of a story is the most valid, the closest to Truth? 

People do change; it is in our nature to. So now, I guess, when I hear about the doings of certain people from five years ago, or even from five weeks ago, I try to stop myself from forming any sort of judgement that may feign, in my own mind, being solidity or holism. Doing so would be quite unfair.

I have known – and really liked, actually – certain people whom others have loathed. Stupidly, at times I allowed myself to become swayed by popular narratives.

She’s so annoying. My blood boils whenever she speaks. She must be evil too.” And they proceeded to make fun of her and to eat all the brownies she had made for them, and to speak ill of her as soon as her back had been turned. They, and their daily Starbucks drinks, and their chronic inability to be funny, their astute ability to convince everybody that they were just so nice. But hey, then again, that is just my opinion of them, based on what I have seen.

The most popular opinion is not necessarily the truest one; likewise, I suppose, the most ‘popular’ people are not necessarily the ones whose characters are most beautiful. I thought she – the one who made them brownies and biscuits and cookies all the time – was quite lovely, actually, but for some reason, in light of what they had said, I found myself questioning my own thoughts about her.

And is it a sign of loyalty, to dislike the people your loved ones may dislike? Hmm. I guess we just need to accept that a human being, in his or her entirety, is not a singular and consistent being. We are holistic and social creatures; we are fluctuation, development, and a range of different social personas.

So why not give people a chance to be human. At the end of the day, you will look at them through your own eyes, through your own perspective. They are who they are, to you, witnessed through your personal relationship with them.

It is completely natural to make judgements about people, internally. We gauge their actions, make decisions on who to trust or not to trust, decide on whom we are willing to grant the most ‘chances’ to. I think it is reasonable to choose to look at people’s behaviour – how they are towards you – and to focus on this, in lieu of ever taking others’ comments as gospel. And yes, ultimately, we only have access (through fallible eyes, fallible minds) to people’s speech and behaviour. Allah (SWT) has access to people’s hearts; He knows each of us best.

“The merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.”

– Prophet Muhammad (SAW)

Note to self: forgive people, and try to have mercy on them, even when you are alone and inside your own mind. You are not the Judge; you are fallible, and you do not know anybody in their entirety.

A person who is despised by hundreds upon thousands of people may just be completely beloved by God. So, I guess, we really must be careful about trusting our own judgements of others, and about relying on what others say of them, or of past versions of them. To quote the theme song of ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’,

Everything is not what it seems. 

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Privacy

What does it mean, to be a ‘private person’? And is this – being ‘private’, keeping things ‘lowkey’ – truly a virtuous trait? Why do we claim to admire such people so?

It is true – that trite statement that tells us that we “live in a society”. We are, at our cores, social creatures. So, so much of who we are is not independent of others: we develop our personalities and such in light of others. We all want to earn the approval of certain people; be loved by our loved ones; impress certain other people.

The ‘private’ person, then. Just does things, theoretically without other people in mind. I wonder if this can ever actually be the case. It could be the case for misanthropes and hermits, perhaps. But I do think that attempting to go against human nature by closing oneself off from ‘society’ makes people miserable.

I mean, it is true that some people are super public. They do most things ‘for show’, so it would seem. They lose things like what we may term ‘authenticity’. I think an obsession with being popular and being famous just cheapens things.

And then, there are those who obsessively say they are guarding themselves, somehow. By not sharing their work; by refusing to talk about details of their own lives, with others. How arrogant. Maybe both – the excessively ‘public’ and the excessively ‘private’ are driven by pride.

Hmm. I think it is important to be more or less the same person in private and in public. Worrying not about being popular and public and such; also not worrying about hiding oneself and one’s goodnesses. It’s when you’re anxious to either be public or to be private, when it just seems a little pathetic, methinks.

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck! 

(Let’s see what might spill from that mind of yours, when it is forced, under time constraints, to speedily think and write…)

Sadia Ahmed J. 2020



There is something that is rather special about this generation of ours. I am saying this, now, amid the period of the notorious coronavirus, and of the race-related uprisings. I am saying this having finished watching ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ – a series that looks at prominent social issues in what might be seen as a rather ‘raw’ way – and while partaking in a Zoom seminar organised by a friend of mine, on the topic of ‘Racial Disparities in Mental Healthcare’. 

I may be generalising massively here, but just look at us. We are young, and, yes, we feel a little damaged. There is a fire within us, though, and oh, how it burns. We are trying so hard to be more real, and to be better. A heightened sense of empathy, and a willingness to learn and to self-educate are what characterise us. We yearn for justice, and for healing; we care about dismantling all those frameworks that fail to serve us.

We are the children of immigrants; of religious Facebook users; of helplessly devoted ‘what-will-people-think?’-ers. Of people who are ostensibly quite afraid of their own selves, and of truly facing themselves; who have shaped our worlds to seem as though what might matter most may be… how publicly consumable it all is, or may appear to be… that the ‘undesirable’ things simply go away if you put them away somewhere; if you just paint pretty pictures on top of the rot, perhaps.

Some of them had been jealous; fiercely competitive; often quite emotionally unintelligent. What a mess, with all due respect, we find that they had made. Now, we are here, and we are trying to pick up all the pieces, in the best ways we find we can.

My beloved generation: we speak, often, of matters of race, and of gender. Of anxiety and depression. Some may say we talk about these things far too much, but I mean… why wouldn’t we? We know, from firsthand experience, how ineffective, how damaging, the whole stiff-upper-lip pretend-it’s-not-happening-and-it-will-simply-go-away thing. We are saying, we are fed up of it; of all of it.

Yes, as children, we often ‘played pretend’. Now, though, we are members of the real world – decidedly in it, decidedly of it.

People are suffering quite deeply in this world, and all around it. And maybe it is true that we do not want to pretend anymore; these grand lies, we find that they are irredeemable. The preceding generations – maybe (it could be that) many of their actions had stemmed from some really good intentions, but… they had surely lied to us about certain things.

Did you know, for instance, that the average [American] high school student of today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient from the 1950s? [Leahy]

What had all these dreams really been, that they had been selling us all this time, and why are we finding so many faults upon seemingly arriving at all of it? Why is darker skin still being frowned upon; why do we see some individuals as being superior to others on the basis of mere lineage; why do they say that women who demonstrate femininity in certain ‘other’ ways are somehow ‘doing it irrevocably wrong’?

Why do they tell us that we are intrinsically ‘not enough’, and why do they convince us that mere ‘hard work’ might allow us to ‘make up for it’, somehow?

We are angry,

and rightfully so, methinks. And how can we learn to be angry, but in ways that are with grace, and not without it?

I want my generation to know that we are absolutely ‘enough’ already. I say, we must try not to take much advice nor criticism from those whom we undoubtedly do not want to become like. We start from here, and from ourselves. Self-regulation and self-improvement are wonderful things to commit to, but we must start from ourselves, rather than from expectations that may be utterly alien to who we are, whom we cannot otherwise be — at least, not without the presences of myriad internal conflicts and detrimental frictions.

It is not a shameful thing to struggle – as humans do [and nor is it a bad thing to just write, or paint, or sing badly, sometimes!]. Furthermore, it is the farthest thing from repulsive, to allow ourselves to be real — to begin from there.

“I am human; I consider nothing that is human to be alien to me.”

– Terence 

I think it’s really interesting, actually, how the best conversations of all are those ones that just feel like they are the most ‘real’: the ones, I suppose, that do not stem from premises of obsessions with particular image constructions and/or maintenances.

Human beings are really quite… awfully real things… and I kind of love that about us — don’t you?

And it is true that some of the stuff of these lives of ours can be quite humouring at times. What a wonderful thing laughter is: it is emblematic of a body failing to contain its own joy!

But – and – life is also necessarily grief, and this, too, must be known. Sorry to be morbid here, but life, in addition to those moments of simple glee… it is also the thought that, within this lifetime of yours, you may have to attend the funerals of one beloved person or two. Things begin; they end. But we must always have faith in the things that may come after them.

You know, it is rather cool indeed that no two moments in our lives will ever be – nor even look – the same. And we shall never again get this very time back – never again.

And this day, much like Life itself, it is going, going, (gone). I really hope that, in the meantime, the waiting days, and on these days of action and of adventure…

I hope love, even on the days that you feel intensely lonely — I hope it finds you in all those little moments between the confusion and the grief, interweaved between all of Life’s gifted damages, a satin ribbon.

I hope we always find it within ourselves to be brave, and to be honest, and, dare I say: this, in a beautiful way. You know, there is much beauty in you; nobody else does Beauty the way you do. So, from here, may we begin, and, no matter what, may we never lose ourselves;

and as ourselves, may we keep moving, and breathing, and being.

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 


We each look at the world through our own eyes – through our own subjective perspectives. The way we view others, how we process things that happen to us and around us, the ways in which we examine the beings of the very humans whose eyes meet our own when we look into the mirror. All this, we witness through lenses of varying colours and tones, which may change with time, and which are determined by the cognitive frameworks that lie in place, in our minds. 

Many of us were imbued with certain ideas when we were younger, whose psychological and behavioural repercussions may be quite evident now, in adulthood, but some of which we are now wise enough to recognise as having been quite… detrimental. They were never really necessary in the first place, and we find, now, that we can actually happily do without them.

One of these unhelpful cognitive frameworks, for example, may well be the one that focuses excessively on appearances in lieu of substance. This insidious, suffocating, anxiety-ridden ‘What will people think?’ mentality. In childhood, its beginnings may have come about as a result of excessive scolding from caregivers, for (things that are retrospectively identifiable as having been) pretty harmless things. Outrage and ensuing fear, and the laying-down of certain cognitive frameworks.

I firmly believe that every human being has a ‘core’ in terms of individual personality. We can seek to categorise them (MBTI tests, Enneagram tests, Temperament types, Harry Potter houses, and the like) while also being fully cognisant of the fact that our personalities, in truth, are too complex to be wholly contained by such concise definitions. I do think our ‘core’ personalities were imbued in us by God; I also acknowledge that ‘who we are’ is ever-changing… though the core does tend to remain intact. When we were children – when we were little tabula rasas (relatively speaking; not entirely so) – we were almost undoubtedly closest to our ‘core selves’. Some of us were curious and outgoing and loved playing in the mud; others of us were shy and bookish and neat. And (hopefully) nobody really told us that it was not okay to be like this – to be who we are/were…

Until (presumably) somebody did. Some of us may have faced this phenomenon of personality-based antagonism earlier on in childhood. Maybe some of us never faced it directly, but did so as a result of insidious media influences during fragile points in our development. And, bullying. Maybe from people at school, maybe from siblings, or even from our parents.

What are three – or more, or less – negative attributes that you believe you have?




Some of our self-reproachful conceptions may be founded in some truth. We are undeniably each flawed creatures. But said conceptions become an issue when they are not really founded in reality; when they are a cause of ongoing anxieties; when they hold us back and make us feel like we are, in those respects, far worse than our fellow human beings.

Maybe you have believed, for years and years and years, that you are insurmountably socially awkward and strange. Or not clever at all. Or not ‘masculine’ enough, or ‘feminine’ enough. Maybe when it comes to certain things, you perpetually feel ‘too much’, and for others, you deeply feel ‘not enough’.

Where did these ideas come from? And how, in light of these origins, are we going to find a way to quiet these thoughts, and to put an end to them altogether?

If these ideas have come from another, or from a group of ‘anothers’, it must be known that, just as you view the world through your own cognitive frameworks, others view the world through theirs. People are often quite prone to, for example, projecting their personal insecurities in the form of hurtful statements against others, particularly against those whom they are either envious of, or whom they have deemed to be less powerful than they are.

Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, we must acknowledge that hefty criticisms (whether they were explicitly transmitted, or done so more implicitly, for example through backbiting) should only really be given any validity by us if we truly respect the people dishing them out. If you do not want to ever become like a certain person, why should their analyses of your being even matter? If anything, disapproval from somebody you want to be rather unlike is a good thing!

People look at you relative to how they look, both at and through, themselves. So if there is an ongoing ‘problem’ with you, it is more likely that there is an ongoing problem with you relative to them. I am not advocating for the display of unreflective and obnoxious behaviour, here. All I am saying is that sometimes ‘issues’ are made into – reified into -issues, quite gratuitously [yes, I very much love this word].

We cannot leave the custody of Truth to people; we cannot democratise it, for this can often lead to the championing of falsehood. It is rather telling that some of the best men to have ever lived had scores of opponents and ardent critics who were obsessed with them. In the same vein, some of the worst men to have ever lived had been surrounded by ardent admirers and supporters. We do not leave the determining of truths to the people: we leave this to God, the source of objectivity.

“Since I’ve learned (the reality of) people, I don’t care who praises or criticises me, as they’ll be excessive in both.”

– Malik ibn Dinar 

Are you okay as a person? Is who you are fully ‘okay’? Well, a good way to determine this would be to think about those who are actually worthwhile seeking to please or emulate. What is your current relationship with God like? If you are a Muslim, how do you think Muhammad (SAW) would respond to who you are, and to what your behavioural tendencies might be? If you are Christian, what would Jesus say? [If you are atheist, what would… Keanu Reeves…say?]

Granted that your perceived deep, dark, exceptional, all-encompassing negative traits are not…actual deeply negative traits that harm others, I am sure we can find ways to almost poeticise all of them. Books and movies are replete with characters whom some may deem ‘unintelligent’ because they don’t necessarily flourish at school (but who are intelligent, for instance, ‘street-wise’); characters who may be misconstrued by other characters as being ‘annoying’ because they are very curious and outgoing, or ‘boring’ because they are quite quiet a lot of the time. But fiction certainly teaches us this: the way we come to define people is a matter of perspective. Often, the protagonist of a tale is presented as the ‘good one’, and it does not matter what he or she does: the commitment to seeing and presenting them as the ‘good one’ has already been solidified. Confirmation bias ensues, and this is also true for those characters who are ‘villains’. There is a certain ‘unchangeability’ that is associated with them, for instance through their ‘villainous’ tattoos and facial structures and such. Some real-life people are known to construct heroic and villainous characters out of other people, in a similar regard; we can tend to be rather obstinate with our perceptive definitions of others. Although everyone is deeply complex and ever-changing, we seem to like to cling to stubborn categorisations.

And, we also often see in fiction (which does not entirely represent human reality, granted, but it can certainly be helpfully reflective of it) that certain evidently ‘good’ individuals are not appreciated by those who form major parts of their immediate environments. Take Matilda for example: relative to those around her, she is seen as a show-off, and as an abnormality, among other things. But a change of her environment demonstrates that oftentimes people can only really flourish when given a true chance to; when they are loved.

To love (oneself and others) authentically is to take a balanced approach when it comes to matters of personality. It is to know that we each have our flaws and our unique traits – whether good or bad. It is to commit to self-improvement, without being too harsh on oneself, or on others. If you and another human being are not compatible in terms of who you both are, this is okay. Nothing wrong with them per se (unless there really is, e.g. if they are a narcissist) and nothing wrong with you (unless you are a mean narcissist). We must concern ourselves with that which concerns us: admitting to our weaknesses but in moderate ways, and to our strengths, also in moderate ways. We must not seek out the opinions and the validation of the masses: we should tend to the opinions of those whose opinions are truly worth caring about. And even then, our loved ones (can only) see us from their own perspectives: no other human being will ever be able to hand you a holistic definition of ‘who you are’ on a plate.

To a very high extent, you decide who you are. Who your friends are, how you spend your time. The thoughts that you dismiss, the feelings you nurture or work your way through, the books you read. These things all determine the colours and tones of your personal reality.

See, humanity – both wider, and our own – is merely a collection of stories. The stories that others may tell us, and also the stories that we tell others and ourselves. At a certain point, we come to realise that others do not hold the pens through which our own stories are authored. (After God’s supreme authority) we hold our own pens.

It may be hard to stray from certain modes of writing that our stories have become a little accustomed to, over time. Other authors may have had power over our tales in childhood, and perhaps later on, in cases where one’s personal boundaries were not respected. But we can go back in time, with red pens. We can realise that these people had been influencing our narratives in such ways through their own eyes, their own pens – and projecting much, all the while, perhaps.

When it comes to human experience, we often find that reality is very much what we make of it. But this fact should not function as a cheap way of telling people to simply “Get over” certain things. Let the author of the story dictate what hurt him or her; let him or her decide how to go about making the necessary corrections, moving forward.

Maybe it is true that the past backwards is ‘set in stone’ – in ink on paper. But the past informs everything: the past forwards is what we refer to as the future. Once we make the decision to claim authorship and autonomy over our stories, we can make poetry of it all; fight duels with our pens with anybody who seeks to forcefully impose their own voices over ours. And, we can choose to invite those who truly love us, in.  

Sadia Ahmed, 2020 


Hādil: the sounds that pigeons tend to make. Cooing, as it is otherwise known. Hādil pours some more birdseed from her palm, into the tray of the feeder. Several birds, who had been hiding in the surrounding trees, flap their wings excitedly, and flock toward her. They encircle her, at first, as she gazes upwards in delight. Then, they – all five of them – direct their attention more towards the little feeder that dangles enticingly from the little apple tree. Today, it does so lazily, and yet with much purpose. Today, the painted flowers on its roof beam with a particular pinkness, under this uninhibited orange Spring sun.

The largest branches of the apple tree jut outwards, forming for Hādil the perfect place to go and sit, and to read, and to draw, and to marvel at the tiny forest that she is fortunate enough to call her own – it is, for the young queen, a humble throne, propped up against the backdrop of her miniature kingdom. She sits there, clasping her knees, humming, and awaiting the instructional hiss of the teapot on the stove. The clouds float by in utmost tranquility; politely tip their wispy hats to her, and then they continue on their ways, to some Glorious Nothing. Some feint whistling comes from inside: Danyal, taking a break from the novel he has been working on, rather industriously and at the kitchen table, has decided to bake for their dessert a cherry pie. Later, the two of them will devour a misshapen pie from the same plate – the baking tray itself – while their bodies are doused in its sweet aroma.

Hādil: when the humans in their midst are quiet, the pigeons are known to coo a little louder. They take their food in rounds: peck gently, ferociously, at the opening of the feeder, then fly around, darting from one garden wall to another. They perch atop branches and plant pots, and then waddle across the garden floors, upon which Hādil currently stands barefoot, her cotton white dress tickling the very tips of her toes. And then the tiger-like birds fly away, almost as quickly as they did arrive.

And Hādil often wonders where they go, these little pigeons. Everything they could ever possibly need is right here, surely, in her little garden? What adventures do these pigeons seek out by flying for miles and miles, elsewhere, towards something else – when the little wooden feeder, the fountain, the needle-like trees – are all right here? Does it even get any better than this? Hādil does not know; right now, with her book in her hand and the taste of spring upon her lips, she finds she is simply too content to ever want to know.

I am an immigrant

I am two people. I am Bangladeshi and I am British. The first version of my identity stems from the fact that I am the daughter of two immigrants. I say this with a tremendous amount of pride. Especially in recent months, the word ‘immigrant’ has come to be a dirty word, synonymous with images of filthy, diseased, impoverished people who ‘drain the economy’ and refuse to integrate into society. As the product of two immigrants, I can safely say that this is far from the truth.

My mother came to this country at the age of eleven: she left her friends, her beloved grandmother, her livelihood behind, because her father (my grandfather) had made the brave decision to move to England to start anew. He worked at a coat factory, laboriously attaching buttons to coats to provide for his family.

My grandfather (may he rest in peace) first came to this country when he was a teenager. Alone and almost penniless, he travelled to a country that promised work and stability, in the aftermath of World War Two. He often told me stories of how, during the coldest winters here, he and his friends would attempt to identify their houses beneath the many inches of snow, by leaving bricks beside their homes. These simple but endearing stories reminded me of the fact that my ancestors suffered for me to have this life, and for that I am eternally grateful.

My nan’s story is perhaps the most heart-rending of them all. She was born to a poor family with six other children. My great grandmother often went for days without food in order to ensure that her children did not starve. She would tell them white lies, insisting that she had eaten, to fool them into thinking that there was enough food, but there was not. Miniscule rations of rice and lentils were shared sparsely, and eventually, my nan saw through her mother’s façade of strength. The women that I am fortunate enough to be a descendant of are the strongest, most admirable and brave people I have ever heard of, and I aspire to pass their legacies on to my own children.

When it comes to my own mother, I can see that it pains her to retell her story. Her eyes brim with tears when she recounts her euphoric childhood in Bangladesh- how she couldn’t even bear to spend a day away from her grandmother, until a plane brought her to an alien country with people who would look down upon her. My mother started school here when she was in Year Seven. She was forced to learn an entire language with little support, and even then, managed to excel at most of the subjects she took (save for History, which she abhorred). My mother worked ridiculously hard, refusing to let any adversities get in her way: indeed, she was the victim of many a racist incident. Despite this, she acquired a good job, and supported herself through college and extra training. She managed to do all this without much guidance; as supportive as my nan and grandfather were, they were very limited in their English-speaking abilities, and the family’s situation quickly became a case of my mother and her siblings teaching my nan and grandfather. My mother was her own mentor, her own teacher and her own student. She raised me to be inquisitive, resilient and determined. My mother is the definition of strength; she epitomizes the type of magnificence that only women of colour can claim to possess.

My father was also rather independent in his journey. After completing his secondary education in Bangladesh, my father worked a number of temporary jobs at mini cab offices and restaurants, in order to provide for our little family: my parents had me at a relatively young age, when my mother was 22 and my father was 23. They were still finding their way around things: around their identities, around work and around integrating into an unfamiliar society and its customs. Now, sixteen years after my birth, my father owns a successful technology business in East London. He is surrounded by loving friends in a comfortable environment, however I know that deep down, nothing will ever replace my father’s true home, amidst the luscious green fields of Bangladesh. Sometimes when he speaks of his childhood, his voice breaks and he becomes teary. I know that in those moments, my father recalls his mother, who passed away when he had just entered adulthood.

My parents and grandparents have sacrificed and lost so much, in the hope of a better life for my family. The stories they tell are saturated with pain and loss and love and hope, and they have instilled in me values of gratitude, resilience and unbreakable strength. Though I was born here in London, I am the descendant of a family of immigrants. I listen to the tales of their childhoods, I enjoy the aromatic curries that remind them of their former lives, and I enjoy engaging in the hundreds of beautiful traditions that they have imparted on me. I am an immigrant, and I honestly could not be prouder of my identity.