How long have I been standing here? The book I had brought along to read on the tube feels heavy in my hands and I can feel the scents of Tooting sweeping into its pages. A White shopkeeper, often called a foreigner by locals, calls out, ‘You lost, Love?’
I blink back.
Perhaps thinking I didn’t understand English he asks again slowly.
‘Have you lost your way?’
I glance up the street to where a group of young boys are handing out pamphlets and calling out to the public to fight in Iraq and Syria.
‘I’m not the one who’s lost,’ I say.
The man spits on the sidewalk and mutters something about immigrants before returning to his pitch.
I walk towards the cries of Save Iraq. Not a hint of Arab in them, I think, as I pass the boys.
‘Sister, please make a donation for our Palestinian brothers,’ says one.
He speaks with an East London accent and his sandy complexion, grizzly beard and prayer cap, send chills down my spine. He is talking to me with his eyes to the ground.
I don’t want to support a war that is not my own war. I don’t want to see the bigger picture. I don’t want to be responsible for the entire Muslim Ummah. I don’t want to be the savior. I want to stay aloof.
No Thanks, I say as I walk past without reaching into my purse. In a shop glass I look at my reflection and think, uninvolved. I want to think of myself as me, immigrant to the first world, holder of a newly printed British passport and then as a Muslim and much later as a woman.
But could I really?
Here in Tooting, surrounded by the Punjabi and Urdu words, the black hijabs, the aroma of curries, the cries of ‘Stop the war’ mixing with the pungent call to prayer, I question myself.
To steady myself I clutch the inside left pocket of my coat. This is where I keep my new found passport. I run my fingers over its smooth texture and feel a strange sense of abandonment. Like the Arabian nights flying carpet, this magical booklet could take me wherever I wanted to go. I was far away from the poverty, the humiliation and the struggles of the old country. The fight for democracy wasn’t my fight any more. The flies, the gutters, the overflowing stench of poverty was not my headache. Let the ones who got left behind fight the honor killings. I had other things to worry about. Like how to say house without h.
I feel a thrill race up my spine. It’s laced with guilt.
Above me, the grey sky hovers unsteadily. It runs into tall brick buildings and races above tunnels decorated with graffiti, litter and dead rats.
‘Paki go home,’ says a wall.
I look the other way and walk on. I wasn’t a Paki. Not anymore.
I hug the passport closer.
‘Nor are we,’ echo the grey faces of Asian boys in hoods and baseball caps, leaning against the graffitied walls.
I retrace my steps to the High street and standing at the Broadway crossing, the intersection seems like a prophecy. East, West, Pakistan, Britain. Paki, Paki British, British Pakistani, British? Maybe that’s why the kids on the campus used to call themselves Muslims instead of choosing one or the other or both like me.
‘Sailing in two boats, trying to be both’, my mother would have said. Curious, open, refusing to choose, I would like to think.
Why shouldn’t I be both?
‘Be what you would seem to be,’ said the Duchess, ‘”—or if you’d like it put more simply—”Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”’
At the crossing, waiting for the green man to replace the red, I stub out the cigarette with my heel. A group of girls in black head scarves pass by. They look at me sideways and whisper. One of them turns back to smile. Envy or pity, I wonder.
A sudden gust of cold wind makes my skin shiver.
‘The sun here has no warmth,’ says a shop owner. He is stroking his long thin beard. He seems to be talking to no one in particular, his creased face bearing that timeless quality of someone for whom time has ceased to be a measure. He could have been a young man waiting for time to pass or he could have been an old man unaware that time had already passed him by.
There are many like him here, I think. Disillusioned shopkeepers, who sit outside their shops on solitary stools, stroking their beards and calling out their wares by making hopeless small talk to passersby. Unlike the busy bazaars of the old country, they don’t shout out the prices here. The price is to be judged by the appearance of the customer. Pound each for the poor and filthy asylum seekers. Pound fifty for the Blacks, because of whom Almost-Whites like them have to suffer. ‘No bargaining, only fixed price’ for the infidel Indians. For the old masters of the board, the Goras, who venture into the ghetto for the occasional curry, the price is irrelevant. But not so for the ‘White Trash’ who are here to make life hell for the ‘Paki.’
‘They prowl the street looking for a Paki to look them in the eye,’ the lady at the threading parlour had told me. ‘And then there is trouble. Later you could bleat racism all you want but could you bring your son back to life?’
I sense the shopkeepers’ gaze on me and I am reminded that there are also those of us who have forgotten their roots and committed the unforgivable sin of assimilation. For them there is only contempt.
In this old man’s eyes I can see the unabashed pride in prejudice. I break away from his vacant gaze and cross the street. He will always be a stranger at home.