The view from here: Maryam Azam
Stories from Western Sydney
MY UNCLE’S COMPACT Suzuki Mehran rolls out of the narrow laneways of Muslim Town. My uncle is driving and my father is sitting in the front passenger seat. In the back my mother sits in the middle, and my younger brother and I sit on either side of her.
The night is hot and speckled with lights from cars and shops. Through the rolled-down window I concentrate on the sounds of Lahore – the constant car honking like bickering siblings, the put put put of three-wheeled rickshaws, and men on the streets shouting that the mangoes are too expensive. I see all of them wearing the same wheat-coloured shalwar kameez like a uniform: cotton shirts to the knees over baggy pants.
In the middle of a row of dusty, ramshackle shops a three-storey department store sticks out like a woman in jeans in the old parts of the city. I nudge my brother and point at its yellow sign that reads ‘Decent’, and we both snicker.
‘Who names a store “decent”?’ I say for the third time since I’ve been in Lahore, though I was beginning to think it was a decent name for a store.
We pass a popular sweets shop, Butt Sweets, which teems with people buying boxes of gulab jamun, laddoo and barfi to take home and have with chai. Others wait around huge vats of hot oil with sizzling orange jalebis being tended to by sweating, lean men, their kameezes spotted with oil stains.
At an intersection, a mother with a swaddled baby approaches my uncle’s window asking for money. The bundle in her arms looks like a pile of dirty laundry. The baby, thin and dark-skinned, is asleep, its head lolling on its mother’s elbow. My uncle waves her off and she makes a face at him and moves to the next car.
‘How can the baby sleep with all the noise?’ I was used to my baby cousin back in Australia asleep in his bouncer, waking with a cry if I whispered too loudly.
‘The mothers give their babies drugs so they stay asleep,’ says my mother, patting my knee. I stare intently at the baby, trying to see the drugs coursing through its veins.
The traffic light turns green and the mother hurries to stand next to it, watching the traffic stream past with kohl-lined eyes.
We drive past a group of barbers clipping away with large scissors that have turned orange with rust. Their clients sit on directors’ chairs on the grassy median strip of the road. Not far from them a circle of labourers, whose clothes are several degrees grubbier than everyone else’s, sit cross-legged, laughing and joking together. I crane my neck to look back at one whose face droops past his jaw on the left side, as if it has melted. The sagging skin repulses me. The man talks and gestures dramatically and his friend slaps him on the back.
We pick up some ice-cream at a roadside juice stall. The pista kulfi is creamy and grainy with bits of pistachio. A scruffy boy with no legs lies on his stomach on a skateboard and uses his hands to wheel himself from customer to customer, begging for money. No one gives him any and my father also shakes his head at him from the passenger seat window of my uncle’s car, until a worker at the stall comes around and shoos the boy away, saying ‘dafa ho’, ‘get lost’. I watch the boy wheel himself over the uneven dirt to another stall a few metres away. He looks like a daddy-long-legs.
I tug on my father’s striped kameez. ‘Why didn’t you give him any money, Baba?’
‘He’s not collecting the money for himself, bache,’ he says, taking my hand.
My father tells me that beggar masters intentionally maim children, knowing that the sight of them pulls on the heartstrings of naive tourists who can’t help but open their wallets for them.
My uncle pulls over outside the Bata shoe store. My father wants to buy some Pakistani sandals, which I call ‘cockroach shoes’ because they look like cockroaches. My brother and I lick our ice-cream in the car while my parents and uncle go inside.
We hang out of our windows ogling at the people walking past. A man holding a stick with plush toys tied along the length of it approaches us. He pokes the stick through my window, waving the toys in my face.
‘Nahi chayeh,’ I say in my Aussie accent and shake my head.
The man pulls the stick away then thrusts his other arm through the window and says, ‘Guriyeh, paisa dedo’, ‘dolly dear, give me money’. The hand before me looks like a brown tennis ball of flesh with three little gumballs where fingers should be. I scream and then my brother starts screaming as we scramble to the other side of the car and press ourselves against the windows like the kids in Jurassic Park.
I STAND WITH my mother, brother and father in a queue in the hot, crowded NADRA office in Lahore. It reminds me of the Commonwealth Bank branch in Roselands.
‘Why did we come here again?’ I ask my mother, stamping the Pakistan National Identity Card application with my thumb. Last week, we packed up our house in Hurstville and moved to Pakistan.
‘Because no one rips hijabs off here.’
My friend Zainab’s older sister Hawa had her hijab yanked back by a white man in a plaid shirt at Arncliffe station two days ago.
‘If it ever becomes too unsafe for you or your brother to live in Sydney, or you can’t get a job, you have here, you have the Pure Land.’
I know my mother is thinking of my cousin, Mohammed, who applied for an internship at a Sydney law firm. They knocked back his application. He changed his name from Mohammed to Michael and submitted the application again. The next day they called him in for an interview.
I reflect on this discrimination while I sit the exams at The City School Gulberg campus. It is 45 degrees outside and a fan pushes the hot air around the room. Ayahs walk along the aisles offering glasses of unfiltered water to students. I shake my head politely, my tongue so dry it’s sore. I can only drink bottled water. Across the aisle is a dark-skinned Punjabi girl with the thickest braid I have ever seen. The maroon sash on her white shalwar kameez is falling off her shoulder. After the exam I smile at her and she asks, ‘Are you Muslim?’
I raise my eyebrows and point at my headscarf.
‘You don’t have to wear that here,’ she says, and I realise she is really saying, ‘This is not a backward country.’
One afternoon, I come home from school to find my mother crying on the couch, a glass of anar ka juice in her hand. She had just come back from an interview for a teacher-training position.
‘The director said I would have to take my scarf off if I want the job,’ she says.
Maryam Azam is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, and a high school teacher in Kellyville. She completed a Bachelor of Arts (Deans Scholars) from Western Sydney University and graduated with Honours in Creative Writing in 2014. She also holds a diploma in the Islamic sciences. Maryam was the recipient of a 2015 WestWords Emerging Writers’ Fellowship. Her debut poetry collection, The Hijab Files, will be published by Giramondo in 2018.
Photography by Bethany Pal.