I remember Saeeda. Every day. Sometimes at night, sometimes during a coffee break at work, sometimes as I eat my tea with the TV on and occasionally in the pub on a Friday night. But especially on this day. On this day I always remember Saeeda.
I’ve come to this road. Coventry Road. The rain drizzles on its whale grey surface and the cars splash past, headlights piercing the winter gloom, wipers slap-slapping in an eternal quest to brush away that which we do not want. But the pavements are quiet. The shops – those few that are still shops and not converted into the castles of Englishmen or the digs of down-at-heel students and labourers – sell sober, restrained wares: settees, tools to help you do-it-yourself, bottles of cider and lager at a discount rate, chewy sweets bursting with preservatives, pasties enveloped in plastic, stationery bearing the names of the latest boy band.
But though this is the road now, my eyes see it as it was, two score years before when the shops were festooned with lights and laden with the treasures of the Orient: saris and shisha, abayahs and Arabic inscriptions, Kashmiri kebabs, Somali spices, unknown fruits, indecipherable books, CDs of bouncy, frenetic bhangra.
And it was not just the shops. The lampposts laden with adverts of meetings in mosques, talks on Tawheed, performances by pirs and Bollywood heartthrobs. And these pavements, so empty now, only a handful of umbrella-holding housewives, their coats wrapped warm against the winter cold, on their way to work, passing pot-bellied pensioners rushing to place fifty quid on Bolton versus Southampton. Back then they were full, crammed with be-turbanned Sikhs, veiled ghosts only a shrouded outline of dark eyes visible, kids in orange, pink, green and yellow salwar kameez, white-thobed East Africans, a ginger-bearded convert. A dozen languages and two dozen nationalities all vying for attention, jostling for space, weaving in-between displays of fruit and clothing and mobile phones that spill out of the shops into the public space. Yes indeed, I remember Saeeda.
That was then, but now is now. Now nothing remains. Well, almost nothing. Between a sandwich shop that once sold dosa and a bookmakers that once peddled Qurans there is a tiny, rain-soaked brass plaque with a date on it. The date is twenty-three years ago today and in front of it lies a wreath of flowers, laid this morning by a sombre delegation of repentant vicars, stoic councillors, concerned citizens of the progressive hues and a token headscarf-clad girl from Lahore who is there to prove that those who are so obviously gone are not in fact absent. But it is a lie and they all know it and today that girl will not shop here nor will she sleep in anything other than a hotel tonight.
You cannot turn back the clock, you cannot rewind history. One headscarf cannot replace a hundred thousand that were consigned to the flames. Cannot replace Saeeda.
I go into the curry house, yet more proof to show the world that we are not as bad as they say we are. As we know we are. The walls are livened with paintings of smiling, Indian children, fishing boats on the Ganges and the most famous monument to love. “We’ve embraced their food!” How often was that maxim repeated as proof of our tolerance? “Our national dish is Chicken Tikka Masala!” one lying politician announced. No it isn’t. I have never eaten it. I have always been more of a Lamb Madras girl.
You don’t need the people for the food you see, that is what they always forgot. Like all those Jewish restaurants where the tourists eat in the old ghetto in Krakow. You can learn the recipes and techniques and then dispose of the teachers. And this curry is as good as any cooked by an Asian. Today the chef is Andy. So why does his creation remind me of Saeeda?
As the rain bounces on the pavements of our second city, I think back to those days. To the purple politicians who pedalled hate slowly, cleverly, imperceptibly. Of the papers who taught us to be afraid and to judge. Of the gang that came down our street armed with sticks and knives.
In the car home I don’t remember Saeeda. Instead it is Connie who fills my mind. Black as Bourneville and full of the Love of Christ, she enters my mind even though I wish she wouldn’t. “You don’t know Stacey, you are too soft, girl. You always give them too much freedom and look how they pay you back! In Kenya we know what they are like. They bomb churches and shopping malls. They deny Christ and their prophet was a paedophile, so what do you expect? No, they are backward people, they are a problem.”
A problem solved is what she would say. Probably. I cannot say for sure though. Twelve years ago she too had to flee.
A Fifth Column. That’s what the politicians had called them, citing veils that separate, martyrs that murder, preachers that poison and large families that leech off the state, off you and I. But I remember Saeeda. Saeeda never wore a veil or even a headscarf; she never murdered or preached; Saeeda only had two children. Was she a Fifth Column foot soldier?
And if not, why was she treated as one?
Sitting at home, alone, on the evening of the February 27th, 2037, I remember Saeeda. I take out the box that she thrust into my hands before the mob reached her and her husband and her kids. As I open it up I remember her anguished eyes, the shame on her husband’s face; the shame of a man unable to protect his family, the cries of their children.
There is not much inside. A few photographs of unknown relatives, an invitation to a wedding, some gold jewellery, an inscription from the Quran. All that is left of a family, all that is left of a culture, all that is left of a piece of my homeland, the land that I love, the land that I grew up in.
I sit back and stare into space. Should the girls have taken off their veils? Should the preachers have been silenced? Should the freedoms have been taken away? Would that have changed anything or would they have just thought of another excuse, concocted another stereotype, chosen a different scapegoat?
There’s a programme on TV tonight. It tells of another people extinguished. It tells us to remember. Anne Frank was integrated yet it did not save her. Anne Frank’s neighbours did their best but it was not enough. I was a neighbour. Saeeda was integrated. I did not do enough.
And that is why I remember her.
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