If You Can Survive Exam Season, You Can Survive A Post-Trump World

I was a pint-sized fourteen year old when I took my GCSE mock exams in Fulham Cross Secondary School for girls. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I’d never live past sweet sixteen. It’s a dramatic thought given school is supposed to educate rather than inculcate thoughts of death, but hardly surprising given my age and the heightened hysteria exams stress induced, particularly in an all-girls school. I was convinced I would leave the black metal gates in a pine box, my dreams and aspirations cryogenically frozen into the unique candidate number and illegible scrawl on my exam paper. Writing this more than ten years on is almost like speaking “beyond the grave”.
In those days, the worst of secondary school problems were about acne; buying into the latest trends of McKenzie hoodies and Nike bags; how hanging glass dummies around your neck was the biggest fashion faux-pas of the decade; and formulating ways we could dupe our parents into endorsing soft porn by purchasing stationary with the Playboy bunny logo. There were no Kardashians then to dictate to the obliging masses what to wear – only disapproving high-school girls who would shred you to pieces with one dagger as they scanned you from head to toe. Everyone just wanted to “fit in” to the human jigsaw puzzle that would become disfigured the moment we left our sequestered little school bubble. So you can imagine how it was that exam stress was the final straw that broke the teenage camel’s back.
Exams were always held in the gym. It was in these four walls, the centre of our scholastic universe, where dreams were made and broken, and where generations of students ruefully froze their butts off during the winter. The first day of exams was always the worst. Completing day-to-day activities was lost to us students. The ability to form an orderly cue for example, which comes innate to any Brit, became impossible as we huddled outside the gym like a group of Emperor penguins braving the arctic winds, shuffling sheepishly side to side as we counted down the seconds until the gates of school purgatory would burst open.
After manoeuvring her way through zombie-faced students, the deputy head stood in front of us with her arms crossed, her lips pursed, and a steely look in her eyes: “You are the worst year we’ve ever had!” she said. There was no kissing of the teeth from the bolder students, the ultimate teenage sign of disapproval, and there was no high-pitched screeches of “Later!”, a euphemism for “What the hell are you talking about?”, amongst other less pleasant things. Whether it was because we’d heard it so many times before or because the year group had spent half the night snoring on top of their CGP revision guides, with its dry jokes nestled at the bottom of the pages that only knocked us out even more, no one responded. There was just an eerie silence. Even the hardiest, most anarchic Fulham Cross gal was grim-faced and mute.
The clock struck twelve and the year elevens, the big fish of the school, came streaming out with the morbid expression of someone who had just walked out of a funeral. One girl’s eyes were puffed up and swollen red as if she had had an allergic reaction to the exams. She was flanked on both sides by friends who rubbed her back and nodded like those Churchill dogs with less enthusiasm and more sympathy, as she wailed tearfully about how hard the biology exam was that she had just sat. I found myself secretly wishing I had learned those duas, prayers my mum told me to recite before starting an exam. It used to be a classroom joke that a funeral was taking place in the old graveyard adjacent to the school, prompting gullible school girls to look out of the window in search of the hearse. There was a funeral that day except this time, it was our own. Didn’t I say teenagers were Class A melodramatics?
Eventually, it was time for my year group, the year tens, to enter the gym, where the handle of the clock was God, the exam invigilator was the devil in plain clothes, and our wooden desks were our salvation from sinking like the Titanic into the laminated flooring – Jack be damned of course. The small desks we were designated, personalised with our names typed onto a sticker on the top left hand corner, were placed at regular intervals in the gym. Like pieces of driftwood floating in a sea of oestrogen, we clung on for dear life as our fate was determined by the knowledge spilling out from our over-saturated brains, and whether our glutes could withstand the numbing sensation of sitting on planks of hard plastic for a few gruelling hours.
As the invigilator laid down the rules of what we could and couldn’t do, I ran my hand under the side of the desk. An expression of disgust crumpled my face as my finger came into contact with dry chewing gum, smooth and fossilised, waiting to surprise the unfortunate fingertip that brushed over its surface. You could trace letters scratched frantically onto the surface of these desks with the sharp tip of a compass, by generations of students who etched an eloquent obituary to their youth years before. “Gemma woz ere 2004”. Teenage vernacular was always short and to the point. The ghosts of students from the past descended on us, whispering of exam elation, despair, and complete boredom, sending shivers down our spines. Other girls etched the names of their boyfriends, past and present, their love immortalised in a cursive heart which enveloped both their initials. I remember fleetingly contemplating whether to etch Aragorn’s name into the desk, but was torn by my admiration for Legolas’ golden locks. My loyalty to fictional lovers back then was fickle. “You may now begin.” Suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of pages turning and nervous scribbling as two hundred pens simultaneously came into contact with paper.
The first page of the exam would set the tone for whether you would succeed or fail. The eyes of the girl sat on my right bulged because she didn’t revise the content needed to answer the first question. Exam suicide. Another student repressed a squeal of joy because two months of burying her head in a book and sacrificing her social life had finally paid off. One of the school teachers masquerading as an invigilator frantically walked past his star student several times, wondering why she sat staring at the first question for five minutes with a blank expression on her face. His fears were subdued eventually when he saw a smile ripple across her face as she experienced a Eureka! moment, scuttling off happily with the gait of an Irish leprechaun, assured the ink spilling from her pen would not let him down.
I have boxes stuffed full of old exercise books and exam papers written by the old Aina, the Aina with the illegible scrawl a teacher once said rather curtly, that she had to use a magnifying glass to read. Her assassination of my handwriting still piques my pride to this day. I look for the foolish teenager I used to be in the pages of my schoolbooks or the comments teachers left behind. But like wisps of smoke floating from a candle as you snuff them out, cutting across the room like threads of spider webs shot into the dark, she has vanished. Similar to the girls who scribbled the names of their lovers or their own names into the exam desks, I also wrote my obituary to my youth long ago, I just didn’t know it then. At least now, standing on the altitude of adulthood looking down on a world where a human Oompa-Loompa has become the most powerful leader of the free world, it has finally dawned on me that exam stress was nothing compared to the trials and tribulations that were to follow.

Meet the Headmaster of the School for Afghan Refugee Girls


Meet the man known as “Ustadh” or teacher, the headmaster of the primary school for Afghan refugee girls I visited in KPK.
Originally from Kabul, he has spent the last 20 years in Pakistan as a teacher.
Not only does he lead the school. He is also an elder of the Ahmedzai, a tribe of Pashtuns. In a community gathering of elders known as “shura”, his word has a lot of sway. Immunisation and polio vaccination for instance is point of distrust for some Pashtun communities for numerous reasons. Some local scholars have issued fatwas claiming it isn’t permissible for Muslims. The belief that polio vaccinations are a guise to sterilise children is a conspiracy theory which persists there just as it does here in the UK. Ustadh uses his influence to negotiate with other community elders and encourage them to protect their children.
Whilst there was much to be hopeful about, the future of some of the refugee children is not. I asked the headmaster what hope he sees for the future. He said, “There is nothing beyond primary school for these children. They don’t have citizenship in Pakistan, and there aren’t systems in place to educate them at a higher level. They can’t dream about being a doctor or an engineer.”

“Even A Smile Is Considered Charity”


Laal, a young Afghan girl l met at the primary school for Afghan refugee girls, suffers from epilepsy. In Pashto, there are no equivalent words for medical jargon and terms like epilepsy, so her mother described it in terms of shaking, or the “illness of the brain” as she called it.
“She collapses on the street, into the gutter sometimes. She has no control over herself, it’s so humiliating. Isn’t there something you can do?”
I asked about whether she had seen a doctor. One of the health workers accompanying me told me how some private medical practitioners in Pakistan are like modern day equivalents of the Sheriff of Nottingham. They suck the poor dry of what little money they have because they know they can. Even 20 rupees (about 18p in British currency) is a large sum of money. There was nothing I could do. Hell, if I were armed with a medical degree, I would try.
I told her mother how bubbly and energetic she was despite her illness, and she only beamed as mothers do when you compliment their child, asking me if I wanted to take Laal’s photo. Laal of course was only too happy to pose for me.
There I was, frantically trying to think of some way I could give to them. But true to the prophetic narration, when the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stated that even a smile is considered charity, it was Laal that gave me something with her smile.

Houses in the Rubble

The remnants of these buildings were once homes which belonged to Afghan refugees. As part of the Pakistani governments efforts to repatriate Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan, they’re now abandoned for the most part, although some families actually still live here.
The adults are nowhere to be seen, but beautiful children with golden hair, golden eyes, and sunburned skin came out from these buildings and swarmed me, curious about the stranger trying to blend in with her western shalwaar kameez. As soon as I took out my camera to take a photo of them, they scuttled back into these buildings like startled mice.
One man tells me that the wooden roofs of these buildings were taken down by the families who used to live in them. “Why on earth would they do that?”, I asked him.
“It’s because they have nothing in Afghanistan, wood is all they have.”

On Afghan Women and Their Tradition of Tattoos

In the Khyber Pakhtun Khwa (KPK) region of Pakistan, I traveled to a primary school for Afghan refugee girls to meet with Afghan mothers whose children had received polio vaccinations, and to speak with the women (or Lady Health Workers as they’re known) leading community sessions which sought to raise awareness about immunisation, nutrition, and other things besides. These communities are entirely destitute, so education of any kind as you can imagine, is gold dust.
As I walked into the school gates, fashionably late, I saw more than eighty women sat waiting in the school courtyard listening to a female health worker talking about the importance of nutrition. She entreated them warmly, speaking in Pashto: “Sisters, if you don’t look after yourselves, how can you expect to take care of your babies? It’s your fard (obligation) to yourselves to eat well.”
One of the ladies working at the school greeted me and told us how these women had been waiting five hours just to meet me and the photographer I was travelling with. I had to swallow a lump in my throat as I became slightly overwhelmed, watching these women from the back although they braved to look at the curious idiot every now and again, crumpling her face in an effort to hide any emotion. I wouldn’t wait an hour for someone I had never met, let alone five hours.
The health worker finished her session, and introduced me. I suddenly felt incredibly small as eighty pairs of eyes bore intensely into my bumbling face. My facial muscle has a mind of it’s on when I’m nervous, so it started to involuntarily contract. What an idiotic Brit I must have looked, coming in with my anglicised, Pakistani dialect of Pashto and my jerky body language. I apologised for keeping them waiting and asked them to bear with my poor language skills as I tried to speak in their mother-tongue. All eighty of these women laughed affectionately with me, telling me I was their sister and that I was welcome. I felt like a stand-up comedian for a split-second, with a not-so-common audience of Afghan women who wore the burqa.
As I went around to speak to these women, I noticed many of them had dots tattooed onto their faces and their hands. I asked them what they were and they explained how it was tradition for young Afghan women to have these “khaal” or dots tattooed before they hit puberty.
In Afghanistan there are no tattoo artists with professional tattoo guns at the ready that look like hairy bikers, just an elderly woman with her pale blue burqa flung behind her head like a cape, poised to prick the skin with three needles dipped into dye sourced from a plant.
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
One of the elderly ladies laughed jovially, and said “Well of course it did!”
I urged her to allow me to take a photo of the tattoos on her face. “Your face is so khashta (lovely), how can I not?!” I said to her.
This woman in her 70s suddenly became so bashful like a newly-wed bride who had just been complimented on her radiant beauty, it made me laugh. She smiled and covered her face with her saadar (scarf), and said I could take a photograph but only if she covered her face.
At the risk of producing another Orientalist image which would add to an already overflowing pile of stock images of seductive, oppressed Afghan women with beautiful eyes and a burqa veiling them from the camera lens, I decided to take a photo of her hands instead.

Rabab: The Oldest Instrument in the World


The rabab, a sort of Pashtun guitar, is one of the oldest instruments in the world.

Afghanistan is known for little else other than the Taliban and the war which has destroyed and traumatised generations of Afghans. When it was known as Khorasan, few people know Afghanistan not only gave birth to Rumi, perhaps the greatest poet to ever have lived. It also gave birth to an instrument that resurrects its stunning heritage of poetry and music every time its strings are plucked by skilled musicians. Rumi even penned (or inked) a poem about it:

“Do you know what the voice of the rabab is saying?
Come follow in my steps and find the way;
Since through error you’ll discover what’s right,
Since through questions you’ll end up with answers.”


Twenty-three year old Shauqat is a rabab player from Peshawar.
I was sat outside a cafe in Islamabad when he appeared out of nowhere and started strumming away on his rabab.
A security guard approached him after ten minutes or so of his playing, sighed in awe and said to him in Pashto “Yarra, tu za ma sarr khre dee sarra”, which roughly translates to “you’re eating my head with your music”. From waiters, security guards, to restaurant goers, everyone was silent, watching him intensely as he jumped from one song to another, making us forget for a moment we were sat in a cafe named (hilariously enough) after Tuscany, a region in Italy. I couldn’t resist asking him where he learned to play so beautifully.
“When I went to school, I was never really into books. But there was an elderly person who used to come in and play the rabab. I went in one day and asked him how to play.
There was alot of affection between me and my teacher, so I picked it up quite quickly. He told me I had talent, and that I should go further and learn how to play properly. So I did. I learned how to play and then sat down with masters to learn from them. Now when I go back to Peshawar and I see him, I call him “ustadh” (teacher), because he was the first one who taught me. He just laughs at the title. He’s a really good man, I owe him a lot.
Before I knew it, people started to get wind of my rabab playing in my area. they would knock on my door and say: “Ho Shauqat! So-and-so is getting married, come and play for us!” I used to climb out of my window, and that was it. I was off playing inside someone’s home, or at someone’s wedding.
My parents know I’m a professional rabab player, but to this day, my father hasn’t ever seen me play. He hears it from people sure enough, but he’s never watched me perform.
I moved to Islamabad eventually after I signed up with a company. I teach guitar sometimes to kids. But you know, people don’t listen as much to the guitar here. The thing is about the rabab, if you play with love, the people can hear it. That’s why they love it so much.”
After I took his photograph, he asked: “Did you get my ring in?”
I got all sentimental and asked if it belonged to his father or a relative who passed away.
“No, no, it just looks good.” 😂


From Peshawar to Islamabad, you can hear the soulful sound of the rabbab on the streets, as Pashtuns who migrated to Pakistan brought the love of their music with them.

I’m sat here trying to satiate my sweet tooth with a molten chocolate brownie. As much as I crave sugar, even sugar addicts like me can eventually tire of it. The threat of an acid attack on my teeth compels me to stop eating. But could I ever get sick of the sound of the rabab? Never. The Pashtun in me compels me to keep my mouth shut, and my ears open.

The Artist from Lahore

Bilal is an artist from Lahore. I spotted his art hanging on a fence outside a local park on a last minute shopping spree.
He was never formally trained, but he inherited the business from his father who started it all up in 1991 when the family moved to Islamabad. 
He used to own the cafe across the road which he used as a shop, but he eventually sold up and starting selling on the streets. 
People in Pakistan struggle to get by with regular jobs, let alone unconventional and unstable professions such as that of an artist, so I asked him how he manages to make a living. 
“When you sell on the road compared to a shop, people don’t value your work as much. Four or five years ago, business was good, but these days, people aren’t buying, not even foreigners.” 
“Why do you do it then?”
“Dil Se”, he said in Urdu. Because he does it from the heart.