'Tis the season
It's Christmas party season and everyone at work is bounding with Christmas cheer to the point that it has become annoying. I am not a grumpy grinch, but Jesus Christ people go overboard. If it’s not a themed type of dress day, it is daily emails about the upcoming themed type of dress days. When you aren’t reading the emails, you are talking about the emails. When you’re over the email chats, it’s the "Are you looking forward to the Christmas party?" chats.
I swear if one more person asks me if I am their Secret Santa I am going to lose it. I love Christmas, I do – in a "leave me to sit in my pjs with my mince pies and Baileys" kind of way. I’ll put a fake tree up and decorate it every year and maybe even put the ring thingy on the door. I will admit that the mulled wine and cheese Fridays leading up to Christmas are worthwhile. They go all out with at least 20 different cheeses (some smelling deadlier than others), green and red grapes, as many types of crackers to complement each cheese, nuts, crisps, the works. Ok so they are not so much worthwhile as they are deliciously decadent. And I don’t mean that in a depraved sense, but more towards being luxuriously self-indulgent. My office colleagues are genuinely lovely people, and everyone gets on as a close family would. Dan and Tom (the big bosses) have always fostered an open, friendly environment and some people have worked there for over ten years, some for twenty.
We resell cyber security products for the major vendors around the world, so we actually do alright financially, and have Christmas parties to match. For a relatively small company of about sixty people, a £30,000 alcohol budget is no joke – but we certainly rise to the occasion. I am not much of a drinker to be honest and so the idea of free booze doesn’t entice me to attend such events, but I do, for the camaraderie. This year I had resigned myself to absence because it was going to be an hour and a half drive each direction unless I stayed at the lavish hotel. My husband had committed to other plans for that night too, so it just didn’t seem sensible to go alone. I tried to explain this to Dan, who also happens to be my boss, and he wasn’t having any of it. He actually seemed wounded. He decided on the spot that he would pay for a driver to get me there and back, so that I had no journey related excuses and didn't have to stay in a hotel alone for the night. It was hard to say no after he had made such a generous offer. It was obvious that he really wanted me to be there, which meant that I now had to actually think about what to wear to the affair.
In the days leading up to the party, the office was abuzz. People were excitedly scheduling haircuts and facials, doing last minute diets ensuring they would fit into their tuxes and cocktail dresses, planning the day after (when they would maybe do a round of golf) and there I was – lazy, moderately obese – doing nothing of the sort. Subconsciously, we all knew that no one would be sober enough to get through the first tee anyway.
I had bought a black velvet dress for last year’s party and only wore it the one time, so it seemed reasonable to wear it again. My close friend was mortified! It just wasn’t done. It was unacceptable. How un-girly of me to wear a piece of expensive clothing more than once! I didn’t care; it was the practical thing to do and it was decided. The day of the party came. I put a solid effort into getting my fancy face on. My hair was another story entirely; as a black naturalist, I need to dedicate a good three hours to washing, drying and styling for a swanky hair do, and I couldn’t go through that for one night. A low ponytail with curls was going to have to do. I finished with a red cocoon dress coat and I was ready.
Dan’s idea of paying for a driver was more like me ordering a taxi, paying for it myself and then putting it on expenses. Uber was my only option and I didn’t really mind. I was still grateful. I contemplated an Uber black and thought it might be taking the piss a bit, so I confirmed my UberX trip and patiently waited. My trip was accepted and declined a few times (probably because they noticed that they would be on the motorway in peak traffic for over an hour) but eventually I got a phone call from one of the would-be drivers. He wanted to know the precise details, which I confirmed, and said that he would do the trip. Finally.
When I looked at the app again, Muhammad was on his way. I’ll be honest, I prejudged the man and told myself that he would be a chatty Cathy and that I might need headache tablets for prolonged exposure to incense. I also probably wouldn’t understand him very well because of a very strong accent. As soon as I thought it, I felt ashamed. I was a hypocrite because I hated it when people made assumptions about me, or about anyone. I would always speak up against it and call it out, but here I was doing the same thing.
My thoughts were interrupted by Muhammad calling to say that he was outside, and that he had been for a few minutes. I scoffed at his subtle chide and immediately decided that I deserved it for being a prejudiced cow.
He was parked out front in a 2018 Toyota Prius Hybrid (as just about anyone would have guessed). I walked up to the car, opened the door and I was met by an additional 25°C. I got in, said hello and I was met by a smiling middle-aged man. He had large brown eyes hiding behind an old-fashioned pair of glasses, short, curly hair and surprisingly clear, smooth skin.
“Hello, madam. Ingrid?”
“I am Muhammad Ali, like the boxer but not at all.” Funny. “You smell really nice if you don’t mind me saying.” I thought more likely a compliment than flirting so I thanked him and said that it was nice to meet him. I also noted that he had more of a British accent. D’oh! He continued, “We are going a long way today I see, so we might as well get comfortable. Is the temperature ok?” I laughed internally at myself and wanted to be polite, but I answered that it could do with being turned down a few degrees if he didn’t mind. Thankfully he didn’t.
“Music? No music? You can connect your phone to the car if you prefer playing your own?” The guilt of my presumptions started to settle in, and I said that Heart radio (which he was already playing) was fine. We set off. “I note your accent is not from here – where are you from? And what do you do?” Here we go. I disclosed that I was from South Africa and that I was a cyber security consultant. He nodded, looking at me through the rear view mirror and said, “Wow. You must be really intelligent!” I smiled. “I don’t normally get women customers who are in cyber security.” I wasn’t surprised. Most people get this confused, questioning look when I tell them what I do, and it is usually followed by: “You must be really smart!” or “Oh, fancy.” Women make up 17% of IT specialists in the UK and black women are a fraction of that. More often than not I find myself to be the only woman in the room. Representation matters, and until then I adapt and raise awareness.
“I am not surprised, Muhammad. Most people have that exact reaction.”
“I am a doctor – a GP.” He laughed. “I am sure you must be thinking, what the hell are you doing driving an Uber?”
Which I was. He had finished his degree in Pakistan over 20 years ago. My horror of discovering that he wasn’t from the Middle East at all – that Pakistan wasn’t even in the Middle East – can only be described as mortifyingly and appallingly ignorant. Pathetic really. When he moved to the UK, he was instructed to complete two additional courses, to allow him to work as a GP in the NHS. However, he needed to pay about £10,000 for these courses which he decided he would never be able to afford. He had been working odd jobs here and there, basically living hand to mouth to send money home to his family who were still in Pakistan.
I ventured to ask about his family’s circumstances and he described small farm owners living in the mountains and off the land. I had figured that Pakistan was mostly a dry, flat, desert land – but to my amazement I learnt it was the opposite in remote areas north of Islamabad. His family were surviving on a farm of goats, sheep, a vegetable patch and the sheer will of their small but close community. He would never choose his own ambitions over their welfare. I offered that he would be able to provide a lot more, earning more money as a GP, which he rebutted. He couldn’t get a loan or get a credit card because of his credit status and by the time that he had saved up enough, even for the deposit, his family would likely be homeless. They relied on him to survive; to stay alive. This I know resonates with people paying black tax (as it is known in South Africa). He didn’t know it to be a common thing amongst westerners but found that most Asians and Africans were obliged to do the same thing, even to their own detriment.
I shared with him that I felt quite fortunate in that my family could sustain themselves. “My father has his own logistics business and my mum teaches at a private school. My sister is currently piloting for a small airline in Tanzania and my very close cousin – who might as well be a sister – is a working Psychologist. If anyone ever needs anything, they simply ask. Which I know is not the situation for 90% of the people back home.”
Muhammad had not seen his family since he had left 20 years ago, and he relied on their very occasional letters and Aljazeera news to keep him updated with what was going on over there. I smiled at the thought of my mother complaining that I had not texted her in three days. I couldn’t fathom the idea of hearing from her maybe twice a year in a letter. It was his constant worry that he would find things out months too late and even when he would eventually hear about a family member dying, the letter would say to not worry and to not come home: “We are ok.”
He shuffled in his seat and I watched the profile of his face sadden somewhat, I imagine at the thought of being so far away, missing them, feeling guilty for having a better life, but he didn’t say it. He continued, “In a recent letter that I received from my mother, my distant brother committed the honour killing of his own daughter, my niece.” I felt ill and enraged. It was barbaric, incomprehensible, disturbing, horrifying and shocking at the same time. His tone changed. Sounding angry and helpless, he said, “How do they still do this? Why would you kill a little girl, only 13 for refusing to get married, in this day and age? It makes me so angry that people still do this!” I sympathised and voiced that I was sorry to hear about his loss. I was unsure of myself, expressing my actual thoughts; I didn’t want to offend him. I asked him why he thought his brother would do such a thing and I admitted my unawareness of their beliefs and way of life. He resumed.
“Honour killings are murders. They are not of Islam and they are against Sharia law. They have nothing to do with our religion or with our laws. It is violence of the sickest proportion and we do not condone it. They should get punished but people don’t report them. I hope he gets punished.”
“I didn’t know that. I always thought that the law warranted it, but I never really looked into it. They should get punished, for sure, even when they are family. I lost my sister because of the negligence of the hospital staff that were supposed to be treating her. They removed her from a ventilator – supposedly in error – while trying to make space for emergency accident victims. She was taken too soon because of a senseless act, although nowhere near as violently as your niece. I can’t understand how your brother can do such a thing.”
“I am deeply sorry for your sister. What happened?” He paused. I explained that she had a brain tumour and that she had just had a biopsy surgery. She was only six years old at the time. A nurse removed her from the ventilator, and we later found out that she had done this with no approval. We tried to speak to her doctor, who was in another surgery, but before we could get anyone’s help, she was gone. My parents didn’t sue the hospital because it wouldn’t bring her back, but we were assured that their negligence was addressed.
“I don’t know what is worse, dying from negligence or dying from senseless violence. It’s all just a tragedy; needless death. Where my brother is concerned, as much as you believe that he is wrong, he believes that he is right. His belief is as deep as yours, as strong as yours. He believes with his whole heart and mind that what he has done is the right thing, the honourable thing – both for his family and in God’s eyes. As much as you cannot understand his ways, he cannot understand yours. Who decided that the west should be the moral compass of the world? It angers them when someone who to them has questionable beliefs themselves, interdicts and oppresses what they know in their soul to be just causes." He paused to glance at me.
"Some of their oldest conflicts stemmed from the western world intervening where they believed that they had the higher moral ground. They used their considerable power to oppress and enforce it on people who undoubtedly felt that that the west was wrong. Taking the Qurans texts out of context is not a matter of question to an extremist, their belief in them is absolute and resolute. Think of the Catholic church and how they slaughtered other Christians hundreds of years ago based entirely on their version and interpretation of their scriptures. They adapted and changed over many years where in the case of these extremists, it is still very relevant today and forever. I don’t condone it, but it is the world that we live in.”
“What do you mean by taking the Quran’s texts out of context? I thought the Quran said to ‘kill the infidels’?”
“It doesn’t, madam. Not at all. So there is a much larger context to the text. The texts translate the word to idolaters or polytheists, not infidels or non-believers. The history of this verse is that when Prophet Muhammad began preaching the unity of God he was persecuted for 13 years, much as Prophets Abraham and Jesus were. Muslims who were being persecuted were encouraged to leave for safer areas, rather than create disorder. Muhammad(sa) and his followers migrated to Medina. After they left, the Meccans attacked them in Medina on and off for a period of nine years until Chapter 9 was revealed. The script says '…accepted are those with whom you made a treaty among the polytheists and then they have not been deficient toward you in anything or supported anyone against you; so complete for them their treaty until their term. Indeed, Allah loves the righteous. And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them go on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Above all, we must live righteously, peacefully and mercifully. There will be no reward for them; they will be judged and go to hell.'”
He continued, “the bible has many such texts that promote violence and death to the LGBT community and genocides to different groups of people. In this day and age, it can’t be taken literally because the bible also says to follow and respect the laws of the land.”
“We are so dark aren’t we? It looks like it's supposed to be a happy occasion today. Let’s talk about something happy, let’s talk about love,” he said. I giggled.
“Sure. What would you like to know?” He wanted me to tell him everything. I blabbed on that I had been married for nine years to my husband Scott. He smirked that I must have been quite young – which I was, because I had married him at the tender age of 22. “We met in South Africa. He is white and nine years my senior.” Muhammad was surprised at that statement and thought that it was quite interesting. He wondered whether we had a difficult time being in a relationship because of our interracial status in a post-Apartheid South Africa – and he was right because we did, initially. There was never violence towards us. What we got in spades were stares, gapes, head turns, avoidance and questions of betrayal, usually to me. How could I have betrayed my race in such a way after all the things that the white man had done and were still doing to us? Muhammad could relate to their concern, however he was more nervous about our cultural differences and upbringing, which I clarified to have no impact on our relationship at all.
We were very different but we both shared the same values, grew up speaking the same language, both technically astute with technology backgrounds. We had what we thought were the important things in common. The rest were just details. We didn’t have different religions or traditions to contend with; for him it was an apprehensive father-in-law who grew up during the Chimurenga war in Zimbabwe. “Oh dear, I have taken us on a dark route again! What about you? Is there a special Mrs Muhammad?”
“Well, we are only half-way there so I might as well tell you the full story.”
“It’s that good is it?”
“I’ll tell you everything and you can decide. About 25 years ago, before I left Pakistan, even before studying, my mother and I were working for one of the local families. My father and brother remained on the farm. They were a rich family – very well off – and my mom cleaned the house and I maintained the gardens. Over time, we got to know the family and that the head of the family was the owner of gypsum, copper, limestone and marble mines. He had a son and a daughter who was just a few years younger than I was. We didn't interact very much with the family. We kept our distance, did our jobs and went home at the end of the day. They were good paying jobs, so we didn't want to risk any inconvenience.
"The mansion was on a large piece of land, with beautiful gardens and there were a few other gardeners working with me. We all had different tasks and assignments and one particular day I was assigned to the furthest part of the property. I was working that day, minding my own business, and then I noticed a young woman walking in the garden. It looked like the owner's daughter, so I tried to avoid her. She walked up to me, in a very polite way and said, 'Hello.' She was so beautiful, madam. I can't even explain how beautiful she was. I knew her name was Amira, but I didn't want to impose. I greeted her and asked if there was any way I could help her. She replied that there wasn't, she was just taking a walk in the gardens as she needed some fresh air. I smiled and she smiled back, and I told her that if I could help with anything, I would be happy to be of assistance. I wished her well on the rest of her walk.
"It started happening more often that, wherever I was assigned, she would walk by – just to say, 'Hello', just to say, 'How are you?' and I would do the same. I didn't think she was interested in me in any way, but I continued to be polite. One day I finally got the courage to ask her why she always looked so troubled on her walks, what was on her mind? She was thinking about school, about studying psychology overseas. She was thinking about the expectations her mother and father had of her and who she would marry. They wanted to make sure that she had the best in life, and they had started talking to families with sons in similar situations. She didn't feel like she wanted to be married yet; she felt like she had more to explore in the world. It was bringing her down because she also didn't want to disappoint her parents. So, she just spent the days walking and thinking and worrying and wondering what she could do about it. I didn't offer advice and wished her the best of luck. I hoped she would have a clearer view soon.
"The next time she walked by, she asked me about me, which was a real surprise because normally people in such privileged positions don't really care about the workers or interact with the workers on a personal level. So when she asked me about my family and what my aspirations were, I was caught by surprise. I revealed to her that I wanted to be a doctor and that I was planning on studying to be a doctor soon. I was working towards saving for the studies and my whole family were all working to try and contribute to those studies. They'd been saving all of their lives. It was what they hoped for me and what I hoped for myself. So, once I'd saved up enough money I was going to study and hopefully become a medical doctor. I had already been accepted to university after I passed the entrance exam with flying colours.
"Now she was quite surprised. She didn't expect that the man cleaning the garden would end up in such a vocation. She found that very interesting and she started asking more questions about my family, about my history and I started doing the same. She was very friendly, and we enjoyed talking to each other. The head gardener caught us talking once and after she had walked away, ordered me to know my place. I defended that it would be rude if she started talking to me and I ignored her, but he insisted that I know my place. If I was caught again, then I would be punished, so I promised him that I would do my best. At the time I didn't know that the head gardener had informed my mother and also wanted to inform the family that I had been talking to their daughter. Once I found that out, I was concerned that it would have an impact on our jobs. My mother confronted me about it and also warned me to know my place. She didn't want to have a conversation with Amira's family, and she didn't want to risk us losing our jobs.
"For some time I made every effort to avoid her and when she tried to communicate I would tell her that I needed to focus on my work. I also warned her that if she kept doing this, she could risk my family's work. She stopped going for walks altogether. I didn't see her for many days, and I kept wondering where she was. Eventually we found out that she had been meeting other families and the gossip from the cleaners was that she had been getting introductions to young men in the hopes of one of them being suitable to marry. I still didn't know her very well at the time, but it hurt my feelings when I found out that she might be looking for a husband. Sometime later she came back past me on one of her walks and I asked her how the marriage introductions were going. She rationalised that they were going well, and that she had met a lot of good people. She was expected to get to know everyone and she was very grateful that her family gave her the opportunity to choose. She didn't feel any of them were for her. She started walking and coming by to find me again, and we continued our talks for months to come. Nothing happened with any of those families, so we just talked and talked. Madam, I can tell you I was sure that I was falling for this girl, but I knew that she was out of my league. There was no way her parents were going to agree for me to marry her. So it was very difficult to maintain a friendship with her, knowing that it could not become more than that. I also did not want to disrespect my parents. She was hoping to be friends throughout medical school, but it wasn't going to be possible. Her parents had insisted that she make a final decision and if she didn't make a decision, they were going to make the decision for her. They set a deadline and she had to commit to someone.
"She tried to speak to her parents about giving her more time so that they could get to know me, but her parents were not going to accept me, with no money and without a respectable family (in their eyes). So I helped her decide on how she should move forward and who she should move forward with. It broke my heart. We weren't invited to the wedding, but the preparations were lavish. I can say it was one of the hardest things that I had to witness, but I knew it was the right thing to do."
“Oh no! That is so sad, I thought you were going to tell me a love story. Did you ever see her again?"
“It is a love story. She was my first love and my only love.”
“What do you mean? Did you not ever meet someone else?“
“Let me continue the story.”
“Ok, ok, what happened next?”
“After I finished medical school, I became a doctor but what also happened at the time was the Kargil war with India. This was in about 1999. It devastated us because our farm was very close to conflicts. My family used the last of what they had to send me away, which is how I ended up over here. I wanted to stay and help with the war relief, but I was not given a choice.”
“Why didn’t they send your brother with you?”
“He didn’t have any prospects you know, and they needed him to stay behind to help with the farm. To be honest, he did not want to leave them and wanted to find a way to help fight in the war. By the time that he had found his way, the war was over.”
“What happened to Amira?”
“She was not so affected by the war; her family survived it. She contacted me about a year ago, after bumping into my mother at a market. I tell you; I was so surprised to receive her phone call. I didn't really know how to react at first, but the conversation became so natural. We spent hours catching up about our lives and the last 20 odd years. For me it was very simple because I was alone and all I did was drive Ubers, but for her, those years had been very difficult. She got married and she had a son. Her husband was also a rich man, in retail. They were together a long time before he started beating her badly. He was a very cruel man to her especially after they had a child. She didn't get divorced, for fear of dishonouring her family, but after some years he died from a heart attack.”
“We don’t believe in karma as Muslims. That is a Hindu concept. For us, it is ‘kifarah’. He will be judged fairly by Allah.”
“So, she had been alone for the last seven years, depressed, picking up weight and getting pressure from her family to find another husband to marry. Her parents died quite close to each other not too long ago and her brother moved overseas to America. We have been talking every day since she first made contact with me. What is also nice is that she told my mother that they can come and use the telephone to contact me whenever they need to, so that I don't have to wait for letters anymore. Now I finally have a chance to see my family after so long. I'm going to visit in the next few months and I'm going to ask Amira to marry me.“
"Oh wow – how romantic! So, all this time you didn't marry anybody, you've been single?" He had believed that the right woman would come to him at the right time – in God’s time. He knew in his heart that now was the right time for him.
"So, when you go back to Pakistan, you will ask her to marry you? Wow. I hope that she says yes! And I hope her brother will agree.”
"That is all I can hope for, madam. And maybe now I can also have a family of my own if God permits."
“What a lovely story.”
“Well, that’s my story. We are almost at the venue now, and it will be a really long journey getting back." I offered that if he were to hang around, I would be happy to give him another trip back to make the journey worthwhile. He was all for it and scheduled to pick me up at 10pm.
The Christmas Party
Upon arriving at the bustling venue, I was met by an already plastered Dan who needed to tell me what an amazing person I was, and how I was just so cool. I do love jolly Dan. We had welcome drinks, speeches, followed by a three course dinner which had a delectable duck dish. Secret Santa’s were declassified, twerking lessons were given (albeit with great difficulty for those with nothing to jiggle) and the penis apron made its way around the dance floor. All in all, it was a rather typical affair. 10pm arrived with a shocking vibration from my phone and I said my goodbyes. Muhammad was already waiting in the driveway and – in a sharply contrasted twist – our ride back was spent in a wholly un-awkward silence, each left to our thoughts.
I hoped that I would eventually bump into Muhammad again, but I knew that it wasn't entirely realistic to expect that, because you don't often get the same Uber driver. Not more than once in a short space of time anyways.
It was quite a long time after I had had this encounter with him that by chance I requested an Uber – this time to go a relatively short distance to the train station – and Muhammad was the one to pick me up. I was really excited, because I was curious to know how his life had turned out and what had happened with Amira. He rocked up, greeted me with, “Hello madam” but I could instantly tell that he didn't recognise me. I probed him to find out if he remembered who I was, reminding him that he had driven me on a long trip to Windsor. He apologetically told me that he met so many people that he couldn’t always recall them.
It made me sad to think that he didn't remember me at all and so I felt awkward to ask him about how his life had unfolded. I noticed while I was sitting in the front that there was a picture of a woman holding a baby, and a teenage boy. I commented on how adorable the picture was. He thanked me and he told me that they were his family, his wife and his sons. The youngest was only a few months old. I got a lump in my throat. We didn't have much time to catch up, so I asked him what he did when he was not driving an Uber, making polite small talk.
He told me that he was almost done with courses to become a doctor. I couldn't believe it. When we had first spoken, he was convinced that he would never be able to save up enough and that he would never be able to do it. I didn't remind him of what he had said, although I did wonder if maybe he had got the money from his wife's dowry, as I recalled that women were the ones to provide one. I congratulated him; it was after all quite an achievement. I wished him luck as we swiftly arrived at the station and we went our separate ways.
I thought about Muhammad’s story for a long time after meeting him – the way he spoke of his family, what he had gone through leaving Pakistan and starting over, what he had gone through with Amira. He showed me a different kind of resilience and determination – a love, faith and patience that I had not witnessed from anyone before. He taught me a lot about my perception of the world around me, of people and their complexities, about how I look at situations, understand different points of view and how it's never easy to get what you really want in life. I mean, even though it seems obvious, you always have to put in the work, you always have to be persistent. You have to have the drive and the resolve. Waiting 20 years for anything just seems unimaginable to me, and yet Muhammad was able to wait to become a doctor, wait to see his family, wait to meet the love of his life, again – all the while hoping and praying that it was attainable, and it was. It all was.
Our conversation had such an impact on my life, but for him, I had no impact at all.