Maryam vs Bun Kebab vs Cultural Identity

I remember being about 6 or 7 years old and it was lunchtime at school. I always got packed lunch, I had a kick ass purple My Little Pony lunchbox, and some awesome days when I was extra lucky my mum would make me a bun kebab. Bun kebab is just a kebab in a bread roll with some ketchup on it. It doesn’t sound fancy but believe me it is really delicious, I still believe in the power of bun kebab to this day. So here I was in the lunch hall with some girls in my class sat around a table about to eat. I open my lunchbox to discover bun kebab was on the menu for me today and I am delighted until I hear…

“Ugh we can’t ever sit near Maryam, her lunch is always smelly”

What I never realised was that kebabs smell because of the spices in them and even cold it was pretty strong. I’d never thought it was bad, they just smell like kebab but for the girls in my class it was weird. Even the asian girls at my table made fun of me for it, their mothers had packed them regular sandwiches after all. I was the weirdo with a kebab. There’s always this voice in the back of your head telling you you’re not like everyone else, that makes you feel ashamed and embarrassed of things culturally significant to your family and when you’re young it feels like everyone is laughing at you. When I got home that day I told my mum that I was never to have bun kebab again, I was ashamed of my culture for making me different.

Growing up I denounced my Pakistani heritage. I was English, when people asked me I always claimed loudly that I was not Pakistani at all, my PARENTS were Pakistani but I was born here and had no tie to any of that. I did everything I could to not have any part of that culture, I  refused to wear any salwar kameez, I didn’t eat Pakistani food and the one thing I didn’t have control of but was significant in the distance I felt from Pakistani culture was I didn’t speak the language. No matter what I did to distance myself from my background it would always be there staring me in the face though. Literally speaking when I looked in the mirror but as I grew up it was not being able to go to gigs, not being able to stay out late, not being able to date and I was constantly feeling like I was the little weirdo. But my high school was mostly South Asian, and there was the other side of the coin when it came to not fitting in with the South Asian kid ideals. I didn’t like the right music, I didn’t dress the same way and there was always an issue with my hair. Maryam Hassan and her massive mane of curly hair that caused her so much embarrassment vs every South Asian girl with sleek, straight, perfect hair. Those are pretty standard teenage issues though, trying to make a space where you work with your peers. The part of me that was rejecting my Pakistani heritage ran a little more deep because I wasn’t properly English and I wasn’t properly Pakistani. I didn’t fit in anywhere, so what was I?

I’ve been to Pakistan twice in my life. Once when I was three and was the baby of the family still so was spoilt wherever we went. I’ve never had so many presents, cake and sweets given to me in my life and I absolutely adored it. We went again when I was 16, after going to Saudi Arabia to take part in Umrah. This was a trip where my parents and I had started to clash about things like dating and they began to realise I wasn’t going to grow up to be a normal sort of muslim daughter. It wasn’t a conscious thing on my part, I just never had that tie to Islam that my brothers had growing up. I feel like we are just forced into religion at a young age, and when that happens very little sticks with you. I wanted to be more than what my parents wanted for me at that time, and I think that shocked them. The trip when I was 16 cemented in my head that I had no connection to my cultural heritage. Although I appreciated the historic aspects of being in Saudi and the food in Pakistan I was so detached from everything else because I couldn’t speak any Urdu or Arabic. When you can’t talk to people in your family, hear the stories of your ancestors, hear the stories of your parents growing up and learn about your culture from that level it creates a barrier and there’s very little that can break through that. You’ll always be on the outside.

The other thing that paid a massive part in this all was not being able to speak Urdu. Have you ever been in a room of people who are all talking in a different language and they are laughing and telling stories and having a great time and you don’t know what is going on? That happens to me on a regular basis. I know some basics, the how are you and the dinner is ready but I can’t have a conversation with anyone in Urdu and I don’t understand anything being said to me. I’m always asked why I don’t know anything, because I guess it’s strange for someone to be so bad at it but my parents never spoke it at home and so I never heard it growing up. I still am quite ashamed at myself for never learning it and I’m still put down for it to this day. The coconut daughter who can’t do anything Pakistani right, she can’t even speak the language so how was she ever going to be good at anything? When I was younger this made me retreat into myself, now I’m older I don’t worry about it so much. I can learn Urdu, and I will at some point because as a teacher it will come in handy. But not knowing your mother tongue creates such a barrier between you and your culture, and it’s really hard to overcome that.

My rejection of my cultural heritage caused a lot of problems for a lot of years within my family. Until I was in my mid-twenties I was frustrated at them for not understanding the person I wanted to be, my mother was terrified of the person her daughter had become and was heartbroken a lot of the time at my anger. We couldn’t understand each other because we were coming at life from two different angles and were both too stubborn to try and see the other point of view. No-one was happy in this situation and I would escape to Chicago once a year to go talk to my aunt. Sometimes you need someone to make you see that although you are not entirely in the wrong about something you have to do something to fix a situation. Making me look back on my cultural heritage and embrace it rather than reject it went a long way to fixing the relationship my mother and I had. I could then look at her side of this story, I could look at what she went through growing up and her life story made me see her differently. The clash, especially in daughters, is something that’s inevitable when growing up in a family like mine. It can get to a level where the relationship is never repaired and you lose contact with your parent, and that has happened in my family too. I’m glad we didn’t get to that point and am eternally grateful to my aunt for helping in this.

Two things got me interested in Pakistan again. One of them was my dad. My dad changed once he retired from his 9-5 bank job. I have always been his favourite, it’s a well known fact in our family that I am, but once he’d retired I began to see what an awesome person he is and I think he began to see me as more than just his only daughter. My dad was totally supportive of me wanting to work in the music scene and take photos, he helped me buy a better camera and took a real interest in what I was doing. But as we hung out more (I had periods of unemployment over those years) he would talk about his family moving from India, his granddad moving from Afghanistan, his family in Pakistan, the village where he built a school and so many stories about growing up in Pakistan and his mother. My grandmother passed away when my dad was 19, he was in England when it happened and I feel like he’s never forgiven this country for the fact he was stranded here when it happened. Pakistan is my dad’s freedom, it’s the place he loves more than anywhere in the world but he’s got his roots in London now so that place will never be where he lives again. He’s goes back a lot, and none of us stand in his way on that no matter how long he goes because it’s so important to him. As Pakistan becomes dangerous and unstable my dad wants to make it better, he talks all the time about how it could be better and he goes over and helps people in small ways. He is my role model, and as I was becoming less self absorbed he was the one who got me to see that this side of me is important in knowing myself. I just had to find a way of jelling everything together.

I got into punk really late (at 24, everyone else seems to get into it at 12) and although I know there are a lot of desi kids into punk in the London punk scene I was one of a few. I’m not entirely alien to the concept of being the only Pakistani person in a room but at shows I didn’t feel entirely out of place. There is always this immediate connection you feel when you look around and see another brown face, I always go and hi-5 them and scare them but punk sort welding my two sides together. I went from being a clash of culture to a perfect blend of them. Embracing my Pakistani side is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my self, it’s made me calmer and more self assured. I am happy and proud to be Pakistani, I have this amazing, rich cultural background from both of my parents and it’s fascinating to hear stories from both of them about their lives growing up in Pakistani, our ancestors lives, where I come from. I am now, at the age of 30, majorly grateful to the family I come from.

Growing up as first generation in the UK, and one without the internet for most of her teenage years meant that I always felt alone. I didn’t think there were any other Pakistani kids that were like me and if there was then I didn’t know where to find them. In an age where we can connect with so many people from the comfort of our own living rooms I think it’s important to talk about how we ended up going against the norms of our culture and how we managed to grow up to be a balance of so many things. As I get older I read more and more about not just Pakistani people who are like me, but Muslims from so many backgrounds. I listen to Podcasts like ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim’ that explore how you are a bad Muslim at home because you date, drink and eat non halal food but outside of your home people see you as the good Muslim BECAUSE you do all of that. There is an actual online community of Desi Punks (it’s actually called that too) which I don’t actively post in but I read obsessively because everyone in there makes me feel like I make so much more sense. It’s about connections and loving that there are people everywhere doing amazing things from art to music to film. Finding my background and finding people to connect with who went through the same things as me made me feel like I belonged. If I can talk about this and make people younger than me feel like they belong too, or at least make things easier then that’s great.

It took me 24 years to figure out that being Pakistani isn’t a bad thing. It took me another 5 years on top of that to fix the damage I’d caused whilst I was denouncing it all and to get to a good level again with my family around me. Being Pakistani is not what makes all of me, and I think when I was younger I thought that accepting it would just throw me into a circle of arranged marriage and kids and nothing in life. I was wrong (and a little stupid). Being Pakistani is an essential block in the things that make me what I am, it joins a whole bunch of other blocks in the lego house that is Maryam. One thing’s for certain now, no asshole is ever going to make me feel ashamed of eating a bun kebab EVER AGAIN.

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