Me, Myself, and Halwa Puri


It’s 10:30 in the morning, and I’m standing inside Sweet Centre, the first Asian restaurant to satiate the appetites of south Asian men who flocked to Bradford from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 60s, to work in the textiles mills. 

I’ve had enough of bland Weetabix breakfasts laced with honey drizzled from a plastic bottle that looks more appetising than the Weetabix itself. I want some real food, some greasy Desi kaana to oil up my throbbing joints aching from vitamin d deficiency. So I’ve decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, abide by the hedonistic mantra of YOLO (you only live once), and give a calorific, flavoursome Desi breakfast a go. 

The Sweet Centre is located in the infamous Lumb Lane. By day, the road is an artery for cars and buses driving into the city centre. The ghost of Drummond Mills which used to stand across the road behind metal gates guarded by a security guard with a moustache that bristled like a toothbrush, hovers like dust from the debris. The faintest smell of charred concrete and paint still lingers after the raging fire that brought it down. The only shadow the mills casts now is from the chimney which escaped unscathed, a giant overturned cigar standing alone on a flat desert expanse of brown coloured soil speckled with neat mountains of rubble. By night, the red light district kicks its nocturnal sleeping habits and readies itself for the men who come scavenging with an appetite for more than just food.

The astronomical choices available on the menu, typical of any south Asian restaurant, splurge out infinitely like a never-ending Bollywood script. Thankfully, there are only a handful of things to choose from for breakfast:

Seekh kebabs. Samosas. Channa. Pakoras.

But what Sweet Centre serves up best for breakfast is their fabled halwa-puri. Halwa is a sweet dish made from carrots or semolina cooked with a copious amount of butter and sugar. The puri served with it is basically a deep fried roti. If you want to be really unorthodox, you can order a side dish of channa, a chickpea curry, to give it that savoury kick (and some protein) to balance out the grease and sugar. 

There’s more than just the smell of fried samosas wafting through the air right now. The taste of cardamom and pistachio swirling in large hundis, steel drums filled with pink Kashmiri chai, is almost palpable on my tongue, taking me back to summer holidays in my grandparent’s home in Girlington where my grandmother used to boil milk in the mornings for breakfast. 

On visits to Bradford from London as a child, I always heard about Sweet Centre’s halwa-puri from the elders in my family, only ever managing to gobble a few precious bites on special occasions like Eid. For me, halwa-puri has almost a mythological status as the Kohi-noor of south Asian breakfasts. But considering how legendary the halwa-puri is here, the small font on the menu is a modest tribute to its popularity. There are no huge shiny pictures manspreading themselves over the menu, declaring the superiority of halwa-puri over the samosas photoshopped to look like magnificent fried pyramids. The modesty of the halwa-puri is endearing.

It doesn’t take long before the heavy odour of fried food simmering away in steel pans filled with oil starts to sit on my shalwar kameez. My choice of traditional clothing was intentional. Instead of pre-emptively unbuttoning my jeans, the rubber in my shalwar allows room for my stomach to expand three times over. My mouth involuntarily opens like a goldfish to take in the taste of familiarity, the taste of nostalgia. Everything is sparkling with the glossy veneer of a Coca Cola advertisement. 

There are two queues: One for takeaways, one for customers eating in. Luckily for me, I’m standing in the eat-in queue with only one person ahead of me. The takeaway cue trails all the way to the back of the restaurant. Regulars nod their heads at each other in acknowledgement, muttering “Theek hai?” Everyone appears to be half asleep, but there is a discernible gleam in their eyes as they, like me, wait expectantly to order their food. You see, the halwa-puri is served in a frighteningly short time window between 8am-12pm. I say frighteningly short because, well, Asian Standard Timing (AST.) We couldn’t make it on time anywhere if our lives depended on it, that is, unless we’re talking about halwa-puri.

“Next please!”  

I’m up. I suddenly feel like Charlie when he discovers the golden ticket wrapped around a bar of Wonka’s chocolate, except my Willy Wonka is an Asian man with a six-inch beard, a bogey-green polo top, and small square glasses which give him the air of a businessman. I order one portion of halwa-puri and channa, enough to feed two. All for a bargain buy of £5.00.

Whilst I wait for my food (there’s no table service in this restaurant), my eyes scale the blocks of sweet barfi assembled like lego bricks behind a glass counter, neon pink, brown and nude blocks piled beside a mountain of gulab jaaman. It momentarily distracts me from the yells of protest coming from my empty stomach. A young guy working in the back wraps seekh kebabs, samosas and pakoras in grease-proof paper with lightning speed. His hands move fluidly, wrap on, wrap off, Miyagi-style. He hands me my breakfast in plastic bowls placed on a matching plastic tray printed with those common floral designs you see on china, the kind of fancy cutlery my grandmother stores away for guests. I order a cup of Kashmiri chai, “without sugar!” I tell him emphatically. “How can you have Kashmiri chai without sugar?” he says in awe. It’s penance for eating breakfast loaded with a holy trinity of butter, oil, and sugar. Every little less sugar helps, I think…


The architecture of halwa-puri is traditionally minimalistic. 

Here, there’s no Michelin star presentation, no pretense, no pomp in the food. The devil is not in the detail, it’s in the time taken to knead and set the dough for the puri, the time taken to boil and drain fresh chickpeas for the channa curry and for the semolina of the halwa to soak in the yellow of melting butter, all prepared from 5am in the morning.  


The puri, a vehicle for the channa and halwa, is round but not flat unlike normal roti. It starts off thin in the centre, thickening slightly on the edges in slight bulges because it has been hand stretched. I eagerly tear a piece off. It doesn’t look like it’s dripping with oil, but just the slightest touch of the puri, and my hands are shimmering like a belly-dancer. 


An elderly Bengali man sat in front of me, channeling his inner Jinnah-Nehru with the karakul hat on his head embroidered with magnolia coloured vines and flowers, expertly rips a piece of puri, spoons channa on top of it, and pops it into his mouth with the concise movements of a conductor. Unlike this seasoned old-timer, I have the manual dexterity of a four-year old. I’m momentarily tempted to surrender using my fingers and use a knife and fork instead. But no. “They’re colonial instruments seeking to civilise your fingers” my naani-jee once scolded me about using knives and forks. Eating with my fingers is the proper way to do it, so I toss my spoon aside. There’s a decolonial culinary and cutlery rebellion going down today. Puri in hand, I jump straight into the channa, fingers first. 


My fingers wade in the murkiness, skinny-dip in the warm ocean of brown, trying to land some of the chickpeas and cumin seeds bobbing on the surface. Captain Ahab went hunting for Moby Dick. I’m hunting me some chickpeas. I manage to catch two, and the skin off some potato. I shovel some of the halwa on top, and in it goes inside my mouth. 


The subtle taste of masaala and chilli washes over my tongue. The channa is not sinfully bland, so much so it’s worthy of a Goodness Gravious Me sketch. It’s perfectly seasoned, a balance struck only by recipes that have been tried and tested for decades. Fearful for our stomach linings, my health-conscious mother brought my siblings and I up on a diet of the occasional, mildly spiced curry. So the mild spice agrees with my Pakistani stomach, diluted by the British sensibilities of my mother. 


The sweet butteriness of the halwa is almost sinful. It beautifully balances the savoury flavour of the channa. I’ve never been one to have sweet and savoury at the same time. But all of a sudden my senses are tingling, my tastebuds are roaring like raucious football hooligans in approval at the soft texture of the halwa and the perfect marriage between spice and sugar. Suddenly there’s a High School Musical erupting in my tastebuds. They’re soaring, they’re flying. My fillings and cavities of course, are not.


It’s time for some chai to dislodge the grease accumulating in my throat. I take one sip and place the cup down; it needs sugar. I capitulate, stir a little in, and as my eyes follow the train of ground pistachios floating in a boat of milky froth, swirling round and round, ripples begin to erupt on the surface of my chai, a result of the Tyrannosaur footfall of customers leaving the restaurant considerably heavier than when they first arrived. I can already feel a double chin emerging under my hijab, peeping out like one half of a builder’s bum. I might have to forgo eating for an entire week. 

Illuminated under the summer sunlight, I can almost imagine the flowers on the Bengali uncle’s karakul hat blooming with satisfaction as he feasts on his halwa-puri, a serene look set on his face as his taste-buds are flooded with the flavours of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the past and the present, with a helpful dash of nostalgia, all in one bite of halwa, channa, and puri. The golden, messianic glow of my puri reminds me that if ever there was a culinary Jannah (heaven), this must be it, right here, right now. It’s Sunday breakfast hedonism at its very finest. 

Stranger Things Have Happened on the Pianos of St Pancras

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I’m on a train to London, and the train guard is making his announcements in a trusty broad Yorkshire accent.

It’s the usual rehearsed script of where the train is due to stop, the estimated time of arrival, the shameless promotion of overly priced food and beverages before informing parents, lovers and friends saying goodbye to loved ones that unless they want to be charged an arm and a leg for an unintentional trip to London, could they kindly get off the damn train before the automatic doors slide shut, thank you very much.

He pauses for what feels like a few seconds, and proceeds to advise passengers not to hesitate to report anything suspicious.

“Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”

There is a noticeable change in his diction as he emphasises the last few words, the formulaic drone in his voice giving way to a grim seriousness.

On hearing this I feel myself squirming incriminatingly in my seat like a misbehaving child sent head-hanging and red-faced to the headmistress’ office. Nobody has said a word to me, nobody has cut me with a rueful side glance to suggest they aren’t happy with my being there. But today I am overly cautious of the fact that the hijab on my head might bring unwanted attention. I should have worn a turban, but in the mad rush to the train station, an overfilled Ted Baker shopping bag weighing me down in one hand, cracked iPhone in the other, the hijab I flung over my head went from being wrapped acceptably in my trademark Iranian Elvis Presley style, to a monstrous rag with tufts of static hair pointing out front like a mohican. People might take me for an anarchic, hijabi punk-rocker or worse, a Tina Turner impersonator with a hijab. So you can imagine why I am feeling slightly paranoid.

Two hours later, the train pulls into Kings Cross. I still have a few hours before I need to head off to watch a play in the evening. I don’t want to leave without playing on one of the pianos inside St Pancras station next door, a small rite of passage whenever I pass through. My heart is set on one particular piano, a black, sleek beauty gifted by Elton John. It’s like the holy piano of all public pianos, and it’s never not being played. But for once, there’s nobody on it. With nothing between us, I rush towards it to claim my prize. Out of nowhere a woman brushes past, her arms thrust purposefully back and forth, eyes magnified like those pestilent bottle-flies by the oversized Jackie O sunglasses she wears shutting out the sun blazing outside and the world with it, a Mulberry bag looped elegantly around her arm. She wrinkles her nose at me as if she just touched a leper. She’s bad and bougie. Fortunately for her and for my bruised ego, my musical bae is waiting, and nothing can dent this sunny disposition of mine.

So there I am, poking and prodding at the keys of the piano like a fool out of a Morecombe and Wise sketch. Commuters headed from Paris to Nottingham, pull their hand luggage behind them with wheels whirring and spinning over the smooth floor, shooting past on either side of me as I play. I feel like the prophet Moses parting travellers and commuters with the celestial power of my music, but the few bum notes I hit are a humbling reminder I am no bloody Alicia Keys. The tannoid sounds again, this time in the station:

“The threat level has been raised to critical. If you see anything suspicious, please do not hesitate to inform a member of staff or contact the police. Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”

The country’s terror threat has been raised to the highest possible level, but the way the faceless man on the tannoid says it, is in such a matter-of-fact way, you’d think he were an employee at a supermarket announcing a spillage on an aisle after a screaming child smashes a jar of baby food that splatters on the floor like a Jackson Pollack painting, in protest at being refused sweets before dinner. They don’t say “Keep calm and carry on” for nothing; such is the British way. But there creeps that gnawing sense of vulnerability again. Big Brother might be watching…

At this point a woman with long, flowing braids and a green hat perched on her head stops to listen to me play. After a minute or so, she asks if she can film me.

“Feel free, but just to warn you my fingers have a habit of freezing up when the camera is on.”

“I’ll just pretend I’m not here” she says, sitting on the metal railing snaking around the glass elevator the piano is placed in front of.

I’m not being modest. My fingers freeze and the notes stop melding together as I become conscious of her watching me play. After a few minutes, I give up and insist she has a go. She sits on the stool and plays a few songs, all her own compositions which she modestly says are a combination of chords she mixed together. I’m not one who gets emotional very easily, but all of a sudden I’m having to swallow a lump in my throat. Her face is radiating so much joy, so much soul as her fingers dance gracefully over the keys. As she slides off the stool to let on two guys watching on the side, we sit down and talk for a while.

Her name is Sophia, and she is visiting from Chicago. She’s been pining to play the piano for a few weeks since coming to the UK, but couldn’t find one until today. Anyone who loves to play will know that feeling of piano withdrawal which sets in when you haven’t played for a while. We talk about her stay in London so far, about our shared love for theatre and period dramas. The subject of period dramas opens up a whole discussion about how Colin Firth made the best Darcy (apologies to anyone who is camp Macfadyen), and how period dramas are so translatable to south-Asian family politics.

We pause for a moment to glance over at the two guys who went on to play earlier; they’re now playing a duet. Observing how friendly we are with each other, all four of us exchange confused glances.

“Do you guys know each other?”
“No we just met. Do you know each other?”
“No, we just met too!”

That’s when the St Pancras piano gang of two suddenly becomes a gang of four.

Our other fellow piano lovers are Luis and Tawanda. From John Legend, Ludovico Einaudi, Adele, to Alicia Keys, they drop song after song for the next hour. Luis casually flicks his hair to the side, his skateboard tucked under the piano as he plays a song we all recognise with lightning speed. Then Tawanda gets on and blows us away with his cover of John Legend’s ‘All Of Me.’ The sun is blazing, Tawanda and Luis are jamming away, Sophia is now singing like a songbird, and I’m stood here awkwardly squawking the odd words, swaying like a palm tree. I’m not sure what the armed policemen briskly walking up and down in their high visibility jackets make of us, but we’re the most unlikely band going. Here we are, an American, a Zimbabwean, a Londoner, and a hybrid Londoner-Bradfordian, four complete strangers united by our love for music.

What happened to those legendary stone-faced London commuters who don’t stop for anything, I don’t know. All of a sudden, strangers are approaching us, thanking us for playing such beautiful music. I’ve spent a lot of time at St Pancras, but today it feels like there has been some kind of unburdening, almost a heavy sigh of relief as people stop by longer than usual to soak in the sound of the music. Even as sirens howl like wolves in this city, I’m so thankful for the small moments of beauty that float up unexpectedly out of the sand storm enveloping us right now.

Here’s to random encounters. Here’s to strangers who light up your horizon as they come streaking into your life for a moment like flaming comets. And here’s to the day when I’ll finally be able to wrap my hijab like a YouTube blogger.

On the Manchester Attacks, Katie Hopkins, and Moving Forward

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My connection with Manchester happened purely by accident.

I initially started out my undergraduate degree in London. But after a family crisis sent my family and I into a domestic violence refuge, push came to shove and we were eventually forced to relocate to my mother’s home town of Bradford. My university degree, something I had spent so long planning towards, almost went down in flames because no university would take a last-minute transfer. But the University of Manchester tossed me a life-line when I needed it most.

At first, Manchester and I didn’t start out on the best of terms. I almost had a dramatic meltdown on my first day of university after I got lost and couldn’t find my way to Manchester Victoria train station. But for the following three years that I was there, it became a home away from home. It was a smaller version of London with the hustle and bustle of a concrete jungle, and Mancunians imbued with that generous northern spirit we southerners sometimes lack (and envy) at the helm of the city.

On the one hand, I’m grieving for Manchester, a city where I’ve embarrassingly danced the night away, escaped the demands of adult life for a few hours in concerts at Manchester Arena and other venues, just as the victims did last night. I’m grieving for the families who won’t hold their loved ones again, for the people being treated in hospital, and for those who will carry the memories of what happened last night for the rest of their lives. I’m grieving over the fact that as unfathomable as it might be, there are people in this world who can somehow justify detonating a bomb of shrapnel and nails in a crowd of concert-goers who never expected they wouldn’t return home.

On the other, I’m worried sick about the retaliation that some communities will face off the back of this attack. I’m worried someone will scream at visibly Muslim women as they walk down the street, that they need to go back to “f*cking ISIS” because of the cloth on their head as I’ve experienced before. I’m worried about the brown or black kids, the Muslim kids going to school who will mark this day as their premature coming of age because their classmates thought they were related to the big bad terrorist, just because of their name or the amount of melanin in their skin. I’m worried that the kind of corrosive words spouted by the likes of Katie Hopkins will become more palatable to fellow Brits, tired of the fact she hides behind the Union Jack as if she has more claim to this country than I do because whiteness is a barometer for Britishness. I’m worried that despite feeling in absolute turmoil, despite feeling an unbounded rage at what has happened, I’ll have to paint a smile on my face when I see people glance at me uncomfortably, just to show that underneath the folds of cloth on my head, I am not a threat. I feel exhausted, and I know the sickness I’ve been feeling all day today isn’t just anemia dragging me down. It’s a weight that has been dragging down everyone across the country today.

How can we possibly understand the logic of someone who justifies killing innocent people, no less children? There is no making sense of thoughts and ideologies woven out of chaos, no matter how much politicians, pundits and the like theorise and pontificate. The least we can do, whatever our faith, whatever our alliances, is to channel our grief and rage into something good, something useful. The worst thing we could do now is to turn on each other.

I hate that it takes for events like these to mobilise people into action when we’re collectively reeling from the heavy blow of what happened last night. Our country is already hurtling down a rabbit hole of political and social chaos as it is. But if we aren’t calm and measured in our responses, if we don’t show love and solidarity to those who have suffered directly or indirectly and to those who will need it in the coming weeks, then the impact of yesterday’s attacks will be generational.

On my way home from a vigil for Manchester at Bradford Cathedral earlier, I walked past a gravestone specialist shop in Manningham. “IN LOVING MEMORY”, the sign read in rusted gold capital letters. It made me wonder, when we die, what impact, what legacy will we leave? Big or small, we all have a part to play in shaping this world of ours. Whether we choose to use our hands or our words as a hammer for good or bad, is entirely up to us.

Watching the candles burn in the cathedral, and whispering hurried prayers in the darkness of my room, something Dylan Thomas wrote popped into my mind:

‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

From the doctors, the taxi drivers, the police, fire and ambulance workers, the hotel and restaurant owners, the homeless man who held a dying woman in his arms, the concerned people who opened the doors to their homes, to the Mancunians who ousted the EDL from the streets of Manchester, each and everyone of these people have shown that as hard as it is to focus on the positives tonight, there is hope. There is unity and resilience. There are forces of good at work. Don’t you dare forget that.

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

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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”

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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

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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.”