Chunks of a Shia Muslim childhood

I was six. Thoughts of a new house delighted me more than anything else ever had. New rooms, a new garden! New crevices to explore and hide in with my sister. It was not really going to be ours, we were merely renting it. But still. That did not concern me. I wanted to see how Mama could transform another brick and mortar structure into a comforting, cosy haven. Those antique candle-stands and drapes and knitted mats. Her vivid paintings of the sun and the moon and everything in between. They could create magic anywhere. I was sure. We waited while Baba picked up a pen to sign the final papers. The bougainvillea branches seemed to be smiling at me, frolicking in the wind. I smiled back. The prospective landlord squinted at the aqeeq ring on my Dad’s calloused finger. Dekhein jee (See mister), we have changed our minds. We cannot rent this house to Shias. He crosses his arms. No further words are spoken. The discussion is rendered fruitless. Everyone quietly piles up into the car. I do not understand.

Grade five. During recess. Seven girls from my class crowd around me while they hold their lunchboxes. I must explain to them why Shias drink blood. I am a Shia Muslim so I must know. But we do not drink blood, I start out. The tallest of the bunch smirks at me. We know, you know. You cannot keep it hidden or anything. Why are you guys so disgusting? I close my eyes and remember a conversation I had with my uncle. Why are there always almost no Shias in school and so many Sunnis, maamu jaan? There is no one to support me when someone bullies me. I feel lonely and scared. My uncle just smiles. I press on. Kisa beta, one Shia equals thirty Sunnis okay? Not that we are better than them, everybody is equal, just the same as each other. But we have much more knowledge than them, jaan. We learn and relearn our religion for two months straight every year when we have majlis. We have discussions and analyze the viewpoints of so many scholars. That makes us very powerful. Never forget that. I look at the seven jeering faces eyeing me expectantly. Well, we drink blood because we are vampires, I shrugThe horrified expressions as I bite into my sandwich are hilarious.

It is Ramadan. On one of the days, each year, my grandmother prepares trays of iftari to be distributed to all our neighbours. Many of them do the same, and we get lots of iftari. My cousins and I argue over who gets to carry the tray. Everyone is eager. Faryal is the eldest so she gets to carry the tray. I however am the second eldest so I get to ring the doorbell. The other kids eagerly tag along. We do house after house one by one. We get to Captain Sahab’s house. This was the house of a sailor. It fascinates us no end, owing to the faded steering wheel of a ship attached to one of the outer walls. Captain Sahab has passed on; however his children and their spouses now occupy the place. A smiling lady opens the door. Come inside! she squeals. She makes us sit on the kitchen table and talks as she transfers the food from our dishes into her tupperware. What are your names? Which house are you from? You all are so cute! I love kids. We shyly tell her our address. She stiffens up. Mr. Abbas’ house is it? The smile vanishes and she stands still as if she is unsure of what to do. Come here, she beckons my older cousin. Pick these things up and go. She points to our dishes. But you did not take all the food, my cousin begins. Pick these things up and go.

I listen to the different ring tones on my Dad’s new mobile phone. Over and over again. Nothing could be as entertaining as this. It is a Samsung E330. Incredibly thin and it flips open. Shiny silver. Colourful blinking lights. My little mind could never have fathomed that thirteen years later this model would be a trivial invention. It is precious. I love it. I handle it more delicately than I handle the china tea set for my cloth dolls, only using it on the table where it rests to charge. The colourful lights keep flashing. There is an unread text message. U r shia, u r kafir. Behanchod, get out of dis country. We will kill all of u. I look up at my Baba. I have never felt this scared. I could never have imagined someone would hate us enough to want to kill us. It is just a joke probably, my Baba says. Either my terrified tears blur my vision, or our eyes don’t really meet. I feel too uneasy to ever play with the phone again.

I get six out of ten on my Urdu poem. My heart breaks into pieces. Urdu is my favourite subject. Why does this teacher hate me so much? My poem cannot be bad. My nana checked it. And rechecked it. We pored over my lughat (Urdu dictionary) together, writing and rewriting. I recited it for all my family members and they were all filled with praise. I must have done something horrible to make this teacher hate me since the beginning of term. I must have. Because I had tried to explain to her that the silver bracelet on my wrist wasn’t ‘for fashion’. I was wearing it because of Ashura, to commemorate the chains the family of Hussain were put in. Yet she had confiscated it from me and told me I was a stubborn disobedient child who was never getting it back. A teacher wouldn’t just say that for no reason. I must have angered her. The next time I receive my Urdu notebook, the six is scratched out. Now there is a big red ten instead. I feel puzzled and recheck to make sure. Surely, the marks cannot have changed? The teacher bends a little and whispers to me. Why didn’t you tell me that you are the principal’s daughter, silly?