Where I used to live, before marriage, there were relatively fewer Muslims than where I am now. The community was smaller and therefore everyone knew everyone. Mostly. There were a few exceptions: the Somali community kept to themselves and the very small Bengali community there was became overshadowed by the overpowering Pakistani majority. Now, over five years since I’ve moved away, I’m sure it’s very different: people change, places move on; fresh faces probably fill the wedding halls of yesterday and the streets of old are more than likely paved with other races.
At the time, a big event in the local Muslim calendar was the community Iftar: a gathering where we got together and broke fast. It almost always took place in a church hall, had a religious reminder before the food with some Quran recitation; food served, prayers offered, paper plates dished out and black bin liners stood alert; that was the usual drill. On the surface, it seemed like an excellent way to bring the community together; a way to unite us all, feed us and send us away high on religion and the “sisterhood.” Obviously the men had their own community iftars, mainly at the same time as us, but in separate locations, often the local masjid. Theirs were run in a similar way: a religious talk by one of the organisers, Quran recitation, food, prayer and more food. It sounds amazing right?
Except I began noticing little things. At first it seemed like paranoia, but then things just got more and more obvious; Stepford-Wives obvious. It wasn’t until a massive bout of food poisoning revealed the ugly truth; the meal began to stick in my throat and I was glad I wasn’t attending anymore.
Initially, I noticed that some women from the community were absent: friends of the organisers who really would or should have been invited. I explained it away: they were busy, had other places to be, were visiting families. But it kept happening: the same ladies would organise the Iftar and none of their friends attended. Food was served to us, Islam delivered, Quran recited and no sign of these women. I remember once my Mum asked about their absence and it was met with some mumbled response that I can’t quite recall.
One year, I attended in a church hall local to my house; I was excited; I had made some friends through these meals and they really gave me that spiritual high I wanted during Ramadan. The anticipation of attending bubbled in my stomach and I made sure I was groomed, dressed and perfumed. Mum and I went to the venue early; Mum wanted to help out this time; I could tell that last time the ladies got into a flap about serving food and she wanted to show them how to set up a production line to serve so many at once. You know what mums are like right? They just want to help out; I made sure I told mum not to meddle; no one likes a meddler and I was there to make friends. The hustle and bustle of preparing the hall with tables and chairs was under way and we picked our way through towards the kitchen. Some of the food had already arrived and the ladies were busy sorting it out; others milled around, socialising, greeting each other, comparing clothes, shoes and handbags. Mum did her rounds and I followed dutifully. To me, these were our friends. As Mum spoke to one of the main organisers, I couldn’t help but over hear a conversation, in Urdu, in the corner of the kitchen.
“Yes, we don’t normally come to this one, but you know, she wanted us here. It looks good to these people if they see people like us here.” She adjusted her dupatta, slung loosely around her shoulders.
She was clearly from Pakistan, the way her bare feet wore flat, toe-post sandals to match her brown cotton shalwar kameez. It was muted, understated and so-drab-it-was-fashionable, unlike the garish pink tones of the shiny kameezes worn by the local women. I remember thinking about her toes; my toes recoiled in sympathy, the Northeast of England was no place for open-toe sandals. But she had brought Karachi with her: the brown, dull tones of her clothes, her open-toe flat shoes and loose dupatta all stank of the biggest city in Pakistan, rather than the stench of curry wafting from the local Pakistani women, most of whom were from the heathen town of Mirpur (you must wrinkle your nose, say it disdainfully and possibly sneer at the same time) originally, and had all probably cooked for families before getting ready to come out.
“It’s difficult though. Most of them don’t speak Urdu and are not very educated at all. I mean, their level of education is so low that I bet they don’t understand half of what is said during the talks.” Equally understated, she wore similar brown, open-toe slip ons, except her toes were maroon.
Maroon and groomed. Rounded at the ends and protruding a few millimetres above her toes, they reached forward towards her friend, like fasting fingers reaching for food. Clearly her toes had grown since she had painted them as the maroon polish reached forwards, displaying the clear arcs of her regrowth; reaching towards her friend, desperately clawing thir way towards her, they betrayed her need. She sought her friend’s approval, her validation; I could tell by the way she leaned in when she spoke, but the way she positioned herself so she could see her, and only her. I could tell by her desperately earnest maroon toes.
Fashionably-Drab spoke again, “We normally go to the one that the doctors organise. You know, my husband, he works with her husband and…”
I tuned out here, I was confused. I thought this was the Iftar the doctors organised? I thought it was the community iftar, for everyone?
“Well, I will definitely see you next week then. It’s on Friday isn’t it InshaAllah?” Maroon and Groomed wanted to make sure she was invited and she hadn’t just imagined it. Her toes leaned forward, towards her friend’s. I imagined them touching their bare toes together in an expression of mutual love and comraderie. I don’t remember much about their faces, except that they matched the drab, brown, dull tones of their clothes, as though their clothes were made from the same skin, grafted from their bodies, for their bodies. Their toes however displayed what they really were: they were different.
I glanced over to where my mum was standing, gesticulating with her arms to demonstrate how she thought the food should be distributed to so many women. She was loud, Mirpuri and trying to be helpful. I could see the lady next to her, a lady I always referred to as ‘Auntie’, standing next to her, nodding. Except it wasn’t just a nod, she was nodding and smiling, robotic and polite. All of a sudden I saw it all for want it was: we were these people, my Mum and I. We were the ones who didn’t speak Urdu (not very well,anyway); we were the ones who were not very educated; my dear old Mum, who didn’t go to school because my Nanni was worried she’d be abducted on the way, had taught herself to read basic Urdu from books handed down by her younger brothers, was suddenly out of place in the kitchen.
I needed to get her out of there. To save her from herself: she was clearly making a fool of herself trying to help with her uneducated ways, speaking loudly and gesticulating while the ‘Aunties’ stood smiling politely, not listening to a word she said. I stopped and mentally shook myself. Mum didn’t need saving. But we did need to get out of there. I couldn’t convince Mum we needed to go home; she wanted to stay for the talk, for the food, possibly help out with serving if she could. I knew they’d never let her help; she wasn’t dressed right: her clothes were not brown, but gold and ostentatious, shiny and satin, her toes covered with socks, feet swollen from years of standing in servitude of her family, thrust into sandals that matched her outfit. Her covered toes and shiny outfit were staying.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur: I couldn’t focus on the Islamic reminder and the words of the Holy Quran swam around my ears and didn’t touch my soul like they should have. I spoke to people, I was polite, I nodded, I smiled. I joined in the congregational prayer after we broke our fast and I ate the food they provided us with. I forced it down my throat, though it was sticking, washing it down with large gulps of water, willing it to stay down. We were these people.
The following week was the Iftar that Fashionably-Drab and Maroon and Groomed were discussing and my Dad had been asked to arrange food. With all his contacts, he knew most of the Asian caterers in the North and the organisers, most of whom had only been living in the area a few years, needed his help and expertise. He obviously wasn’t these people when they needed help. Dad passed on the number of the caterer, but also got them a good deal.
However, the company of doctors, engineers, their wives and other persons of high educational standing from more acceptable parts of Pakistan like Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, couldn’t stomach the food. The caterers had transported it from another town, and they’d not stored it properly and every single one of those doctors, engineers, their wives and other persons of high educational standing from more acceptable parts of Pakistan got food poisoning.
How did I know? Because the day after their Iftar, there was another community Iftar, arranged by them, for these people.