On Afghan Women and Their Tradition of Tattoos

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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

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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.

On Surviving Aeroplane Turbulence, Junaid Jamshed and Rumi

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The statistical probability of a plane crashing is one in a few million. But it’s funny how a little bit of aeroplane turbulence can quickly turn the feeling of elation you get when you’re flying, into one of panic. You might be sailing imagined gold-guilded ships into cloudy seas. You’re assured of your safety because you’re you, and bad things, unexpected things, don’t happen to you.
But these thoughts vanish like a puff of smoke when turbulence strikes. As the plane goes through several air pockets, like a toy plane in the hands of an infant that drank too much coke, it shudders from side to side. Before you know it, you’re prematurely reading the Shahadah, the declaration of faith Muslims recite before they die, and the initial sense of adventure you had is dampened by your fear of mortality. Irrational fears be damned. If it happened to Junaid Jamshed, the father of Pakistani pop music, it could happen to anyone.
So here I am, sat on a flight to Islamabad. Large ripples appear in my glass of mineral water not because of an approaching T-Rex, but because of the wind. Fumbling with my seat belt like a magician undoing the straps of a straight-jacket, I quickly reach for both ends as the seatbelt signs glow in response to the turbulence. The safety advert flickers onto the screens. It turns out Qatar airways has partnered with Barcelona FC, to direct passengers how to keep safe in the event of an emergency. I’m already struggling to click both ends of my belt. The last thing I need is to be distracted by hunky footballers when I should be focussing on the safety procedures.
Just as quickly as it comes, the rumble in the cloud jungle is over. The tannoid sounds, and the syrupy voice of the air hostess instructs passengers: “You may now remove your seat belts.” I almost praise God aloud by saying “Allahu Akbar”, God is great. But then I think about #flyingwhilstmuslim, swallow my religious zeal and say it inwardly instead.
The fear begins to simmer down, and the storm clears. Even the aeroplane exhales a sigh of relief as it breaks through a field of clouds and into rays of golden sunlight. If Hollywood is anything to go by, this must be what heaven looks like: a cloudy castle in the sky guarded by angels who wear white Armani suits and smile like Robert Redford, although I’ve yet to spot them. Snowflakes like dandelion heads begin to bloom on the oval-shaped plane windows. Down on earth, mankind is the king of the castle. But up here, the clouds, the sun, and God if you believe in him, reign supreme.
The man sat in front of me is lodged into his seat, man spreading his gangly legs. He kicks off his Nike trainers, and the stench of his odorous feet fills the cabin. To the horror of my nose, the aeroplane has now become a gas chamber. All of a sudden, Liam Neeson’s line from Taken comes to mind, and I have the urge to threaten this pungent stranger:
“I don’t know who you are, but I will find you, and I will smother you with my Qatar airways pillow if you don’t cover your feet.”
It seems like a good idea for a moment, but the air condition kicks in and the cabin becomes breathable once again. I want to say Takbir again, but, well, you know the drill.
The lady sat next to me removes a book from her backpack and places it in the wired pouch in front of her. Trevor Noah’s Cheshire Cat grin peeks out from behind. I make a remark about how he came to London recently, and how brilliant he was. She says she wasn’t able to go because of work, but heard his jokes on Donald Trump were particularly funny. After some small talk, I ask her what she does for a living. It turns out my neighbour is a young Sudanese doctor from Leicester. She talks candidly about the state of the NHS. She reduced her hours despite a big cut to her pay check because the work load became all too much. You can hear the resignation in her voice.
One seat down, a British expat living in Malaysia joins in the conversation. He tells us how he’s turned into an insomniac because of the fajr athaan coming from the mosque he lives next door to in Penang, waking him up at the crack of dawn everyday. He says the religious sermons he hears on Fridays from the speakerphone, sounds really “angry”. I tell him persuasive oratory often means you have to change your intonation to pull the congregation in, and that it’s not exclusive to just the Muslim community. “You should invest in some good earplugs” I add, half joking, half serious. He narrows his eyes at me slightly, turns away and buries his head back into the book he was reading: “Why Talent Isn’t Enough” it says in large red font.
The sun is beginning to set and the horizon is ablaze with orange, red, and yellow ombré nestled under blue skies. A single ball of fire which looks like Sauron’s eye, burns in the distance over the Turkish pass of Dilezi Gecidi. Grey mountains stretch out from east to west, as if a giant trailed its finger tips through grains of sand, creating a maze. If the Turkish Frodo is out there, I hope the clouds obscure any view of his curly locks as he makes his way across the plains, a red fez perched on his head and loyal Sam running at his side, rationing their dwindling supply of lembas bread and baklawa.
We’re passing over a city in Uzbekistan now. Lights lining the streets and pouring out of houses, creates an ordered chaos of orange and red. It’s as if a master tailor from the subcontinent sat down to map out these cities with intricate embellishments, meticulously hand stitching them one by one. Every brick is a bead, every road a gold thread, and every light a sequin.
As I sit in my ivory tower gazing from high above, it’s hard not to wonder how people down below live their day to day lives. What languages do they speak? What kind of food do they eat? I wonder what that ball of flame really was, whether it was a lighthouse guiding people lost in the dark, like a minaret close to home which can be seen from miles, draped in a veil of fairy lights like a new bride waiting in anticipation for her groom.
Thinking of lights and home reminds me of something Rumi wrote: “If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.”
If home is a place of belonging, where you feel at peace, then you can find it in so many things. The four walls of our physical homes, our family, friends, lovers, even entire cities.
But for a few hours at least, I can sever the kite strings anchoring me to the earth, and float thirty-six thousand feet in this cloudy no man’s land that is my new home, with only the lights of strange cities and the smaller, but stronger one radiating within myself to guide me to a new home, wherever it might be.

Nusrat Fateh Ali-Khan Meets Lagos on the Tubes of London

The woman sat in front of me on the train has the most silky, golden hair I’ve ever seen. I can’t see her face, only the back of her head. But already my mind is racing to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her face. My brain is so saturated with popular images, it’s hard to think she must be anything but a combination of Giselle Bündchen and Charlize Theron. Imagine my shock as she turns to the side to reach inside her bag, revealing a bristly, gingery beard erupting from the side of her face. It turns out she, is in fact a HE. 
A knawing feeling of jealousy begins to bubble in the pit of my stomach. It’s one of the smaller trivialities in life which irk me: when men have better hair than I do. The slinky lusciousness of his golden locks would make Loréal models feel “unworth” it. Good thing for me, I wear a hijab.
The seats we’re sat on are terrible in both appearance and in how comfortable they are for the glutes. The covers, a dull grey to match the concrete of the city which hovers like a ghost on the horizon, are flecked with green, pink and yellow square patterns. It’s like Tetris on the train, minus the sound effects and pixelated blocks. It’s a laughable attempt to add some much needed colour. The luxury of complaining about poorly designed interiors makes me think about how these are first world problems at their very finest. 
I screw my eyes shut, hoping that despite the mechanical chugging of the train, I’ll get some sleep. That’s when the baby beside me, surrounded by Christmas gifts wrapped and ready to be placed under a pungent, emerald fir tree, decides to knock one of the bulkier gifts down. A seismic wave ripples across the train causing the mother to yell, “NO Levi don’t do that!” The cry of sleepy hell never sounded so motherly… 
After an hour, I’m off the train, and whizzing off to the tube station. I’m fully awake now. The harsh voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali-Khan is blaring in my ears, beckoning a feeling of light-headedness and an irrepressible urge to clap and sway like a genuine Muslim hippy, minus all the psychedelic drugs. 
“Yeh jo halka halka, suroor he!

Yeh teri nazar ka qasoor he.”
“This mild intoxication, 

It is the fault of your gaze”, he sings. 
That’s when an elderly lady waddles past me, two carrier bags stretched to burst weighing down her short arms. Just before she flings her shopping bags onto the escalator, I offer to carry one. My intentions are purely selfish; my gym membership lapsed two months ago, so my biceps and triceps are in need of some serious toning. 
She says her thanks, and beams at me as only jovial old ladies do. Her accent is heavy, Nigerian I’m guessing, so I ask her where she’s from. Lagos, she tells me. 
“Is Lagos as busy as London?” I ask her. “Oooooof! Busier!” The melo-dramatic tone in her voice is a welcome burst of life as we’re swarmed by a shoal of grim-faced commuters at the entrance to the tunnel. 
When I ask her if she misses Lagos, she nods her head and smiles nostalgically as you do when you remember an old friend. Lagos to London and still, Lagos is on her mind. 
I ask her whether she’s familiar with the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, and cringe inwardly at how many others like me who know nothing about Nigeria, name-drop Chimamanda’s name in a bid to show they know something about the country. “No, I don’t think I know her!” Her shopping bag suddenly feels a lot heavier and before I know it, I’m waddling too. So much for toning those muscles. 
As she takes a seat on the tube and closes her eyes, I can see her whispering thanks to God. I find it so moving, yet funny how of all places, God found his way into the yellow-tiled tunnels of London.

The Muezzin of Bradford

Almost everyday, the voice of an old man reciting the call to prayer or adhan floats across the cobbled streets of Bradford in my neighbourhood, from a speakerphone perched on a mosque nearby. 
I’ve never seen him, this mysterious muezzin, but I imagine he is a Muslim Dumbledore in my overactive imagination, wearing a crisp, beige coloured shalwar kameez scented with sweet oud perfume. A pleated fan shoots out from the delicately wrapped turban he wears around his head, making him look regal, almost like a peacock when its feathers erupt into shimmering colours of green, gold and blue. Any trace of white in his long, wiry beard will have been dyed a fiery ginger with henna, in honour of prophetic tradition. A large silver ring engraved with Allah, a name Muslims give to God, and his beloved, the prophet Muhammad, sits just above the knuckle on his small finger, brown, rough and lined with the years. He is a radiant man, spiritually and quite literally, especially when the thick lenses of his glasses glow white as they reflect light from the bulbs dangling above. He is a stoic man, dedicated to anchoring himself to God through his devoted prayer. His is a generation at dusk. 
I can imagine him shuffling his way up a minaret to recite the adhan like the muezzins did of old. The reality is of course much less embellished and much more modern. Like the Muslim X-factor, he stands in front of a microphone placed on top of a Persian rug smelling of dust, feet and musk, a sea of worshippers gathered behind waiting for their conductor to begin. The speaker phone crackles to life, he silences the congregation gathered at the mosque with a single, authoritative cough. He clears his voice, pauses, and the following words in Arabic blossom from his mouth:
“Allahu Akbar.

Ashhadu anla ilaha illa llah

Ashhadu anna Muħammadan Rasulullah

Hayya ‘alas-salāh

Hayya ‘alal-falāh

Allahu Akbar.

La illaha illallah!”
In English, it simply means: 
“God is great!

There is no God but God 

and Muhammad is his messenger.

Come to prayer!

Come to success!

God is great! 

There is no God but God!”
Whilst my life revolves around the digital chime of my iPhone and the tick-tock of my watch, his life is bound by his dedication to God. The simple obedience of praying on time, somewhat of a massive feat if you know anything about Muslim Standard Timing, leaves me in awe at his dedication. Prayer is the foundation, the mighty pillars which prop up the skeleton of his faith. Whether it’s the inevitability of being young and idiotic or being too ambitious, my work life is the scaffolding which has taken over mine.
The only time you don’t hear his voice is during the morning prayer. It begins so early, the poor man would probably be arrested for disturbing the tranquility of the neighbourhood. But there’s no doubt his forehead touches the carpet of the mosque affectionately every morning as he prostrates, just as you can surely find me sleeping in the warm sanctuary of my bed as the birds outside my window tweet at me, urging me to do as he does. “Get out of bed you lazy sh*t, if he can do it, why can’t you?” Why can’t I indeed? 
It’s the evening now, and the sun-blushed sky has cast a rosy glow on the concrete pavements. The sun is making her quick descent home, plunging into the sprawling mosaic of houses, church spires and mosque minarets which look like miniature Lego bricks in the distance. It’s rush hour. Headlights. Horns honking. Punjabi music blaring. The smell of smoke, exhaust pipes, and fried onions sits in the air. It’s all chaos outside. That’s when the old man brings order in the dwindling twilight hours by reciting the adhan. 
To some it sounds like just another voice to add to the layers and layers of chaos enveloping passers by. But today, his words cut through the air, sharp and heavy. His husky voice shakes as he elongates each syllable, Arabic words married with the phonology of the sub-continent. Over fourteen centuries of Islamic tradition are bound and wrapped in each of those letters from when the first muezzin, Bilal, stood under the fierce blazing sun of Arabia to call Muslims to prayer. Compared to the velvety voices of the young muezzins who hail from other mosques across the city, his voice is like the scent of mothballs my grandmother used to pack in her suitcases she brought from Pakistan; old, familiar and strangely comforting. 
His voice silences the internal cacophony in my mind about work, relationships, family matters, things which occupy the mind of many twenty-something adults. A fleeting moment of tranquility hovers over me like the dust that covers the spines of my books, and I’m left standing still for a second to soak it all in. 
The whoosh of a car hurtling past brings me back, and I have to remind myself that I’m not standing in the holy city of Makkah or Jerusalem, but Bradford: a sacred, hustling, bustling city in the north of England, where divinity is found in seemingly unremarkable moments in the here and now.

Coming of Age in a post-9/11 Britain

“Bin Laden’s girlfriend!”
The words came rocketing out of his mouth, each one purposefully sewn with the other, each one a stick of the pen-knife in my childish ego. 
At first, I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. Try telling any ten year old Muslim girl that her boyfriend is a middle-aged, Saudi-Arabian man who looks a bit like her mosque teacher, and just so happens to be a mass murderer. It’s the last thing on earth she would want to hear, least of all from the mouth of the popular kid who dribbled footballs like David Beckham. 
A swell of anger came surging up from the pit of my stomach. I stood there, shaking with rage, and I reached for the only thing that I knew otherised him.
“Well you’re… black!”
With a dramatic turn of my heels, I ran off before he could reply.
Up until September 11th, my Muslim identity was completely invisible. The only time I felt obviously brown was when instead of taking quintessentially British fish and chips for World Food Day, my mum would send me to school with freshly fried pakoras instead to the delight of my teachers. 
But that day the super-power of invisibility I had wielded for so long vanished much like Bin Laden did. 
As a naive ten year old, I couldn’t fully understand the repercussions of 9/11. But I knew the hijab I wrapped around my head “Mother Theresa-style” as my brothers liked to tease, had something to do with being called Bin Laden’s girlfriend.
As the stone-hewn eyes of Bin Laden peered out from the world’s television screens, a global audience stared back at a man who had overnight become the most reviled human being on earth since Adolf Hitler. It’s no surprise his face would be used as a template to screen other potential terrorists skulking in the shadows with their beards, their turbans, and their melanin-rich skin. 
After 9/11, Osama Bin Laden and the Muslim community at large were no longer made up of individuals. Every Muslim was Bin Laden, and Bin Laden was every Muslim. It’s the kind of Kafkan metamorphosis made of the stuff of nightmares. Even the hijab of an unsuspecting ten year old obsessed with Pokèmon became a barometer of extremism, tying a young Muslim girl from London to a man who orchestrated the deaths of 2,996 people. 
The end of the school day arrived, and kid Beckham’s mother had inevitably approached my mother to ask why I had called her son black. As the details unraveled, our mothers, both exceptionally sensible given the sensitivity of the situation, made us apologise to one another, and we both went on our way; a very amicable resolution if you know anything about how messy playground politics can get. 
We didn’t know it then, but 9/11 marked a coming of age for many young British Muslims like myself. Life became less about obsessing over Aragorn or Final Fantasy, and more a defensive one where you would have to justify the theological, social and political underpinnings of your hijab, your faith, your very existence.
Not only do we straddle dual identities as British Muslims, Muslim Brits, whichever order you prefer. We straddle two time phases: pre 9/11 which we look back at almost nostalgically when Islamophobia hadn’t fully made its debut on the world stage, and a post 9/11 world in which we became perpetual defenders of Islam, whether we wanted to or not. 
This was of course before ISIS materialised onto the global stage. 
My younger sister’s generation, the millennial generation, are now living in a post-ISIS world. If this is our coming of age for young British Muslims, then we’ve got a lot to be worried about. Our youth should be worrying about acne, fleeting school crushes, or buying their next pair of Nike trainers. Instead, they’re having to think about Islamophobia, integration, extremism, Prevent and so on. 
September 11th will always be a sombre day of reflection on the nightmarish events that unfurled that day fifteen years ago. The reverberations of 9/11 are still felt across the pond to this day. 
But for me, as a British Muslim, it will always be a reminder of how Pandora’s box was opened for the Muslim community that day. 
When the lid will be slammed shut to stem the Islamophobia that has been pouring out from it since, only time can tell.