Writer Ayisha Malik lived in a small English village while researching her new novel This Green and Pleasant Land. Here, she reveals what it was like being the only visible Muslim in the area.
Muslims (the women, particularly) can be masters of disguise. Our attire can be more baffling than our practices, as was the case when I trundled off to spend a month in West Dorset in my hijab.
I pulled up outside what could only be described as an architecturally castle-inspired mansion. It was pink. I was to live in the west wing. Naturally.
My friend Shai Chishty – a visual artist who explores notions of ‘otherness,’ particularly of Muslims in Britain – had joined me for the trip. As she had recently undertaken a project which required wearing a niqab (the full face veil), I wanted to balance things out a bit, so I often wore a baker-boy cap when we went out to do our respective research. The groundskeeper saw a hijabi and non-hijabi walk into the house one day and a niqabi and cap-wearing person walk out of the house the next.
“Who exactly are they?” he may very well have asked.
When I had conversations with people in Dorset to tell them I was writing a book about a man, Bilal – or, more accurately, Bill – who’s trying to build a mosque in a village there were some pursed lips, a lot of “oh… hmm… ah, I see”, and probably an all-round latent fear that I was laying the groundwork for building a mosque there myself. I would always wave my hand and say: “Don’t worry! I’m not here to do that. Well, not yet, anyway.” I often threw in a wink. Occasionally, I did get a chuckle.
What interested me, though, was not their alarm, but the fact that any kind of change seemed to be akin to corruption. It appeared that the rigidity of routine was the only thing that prevented the collapse of the village’s micro-civilisation. There was an accident once behind a bakery because a car drove past a van that was backing out of the driveway.
“Why didn’t you check where you were going?” the car driver exclaimed.
“I back out of this driveway at 10.30am, every day. You should’ve known I was coming,” retorted the van driver, incandescent with rage.
If something didn’t abide by village rules, it seemed things could get fatal. However, there’s something to be said about this level of consistency. I attended a local parish meeting and whilst we, on the outside, might chuckle at the idiosyncratic nature of their preoccupations, everyone present had their role and duties to perform. And, in this way, the foundation of democracy was secure. Shit got done. The people I spoke to were keen to help. I was a passer-by, made relatively interesting by my own interest in the village.
But, one day, we walked into a café in Dorchester and there was a palpable pause. People stared. Shai was in her niqab, which she had worn only a handful of times because, while she’s steely, even she has her limits: she feared how people would react. And her fears had proven correct: even I could see how her being clad in black, coupled with a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, was disconcerting in a sea of white faces.
We were searching for a table when one man, white, in his 50s, called us over, making space at his table, telling us there was plenty of room. We expressed our thanks.
“Not everyone makes room for people like me,” said Shai, laughing.
“I don’t have a problem with you, love. It’s those glasses that kill your outfit,” he said.
“You’re Muslim then?” he asked.
“What gave it away?” I replied.
We laughed. He told us about his time in Afghanistan while he’d been in the army. He’d met plenty of Muslims there; according to him, we weren’t all bad.
“There’s no reason we can’t all get along,” he declared. “We just have to be good to each other.”
I filled him in about my book’s research, and he gave me helpful tips about planning permission and needing enough Muslims to warrant building a mosque.
“Wouldn’t you mind a mosque in your village?” I asked.
“No,” he said, nonplussed. “I don’t care about your skin colour or what you want to believe; it’s about who you are.”
People continued to stare at Shai. She had to lift her veil every time she sipped coffee, while our new friend continued to talk about tolerance and community. I – with my brown skin and inoffensive baker-boy cap, coupled with Shai in a shroud of black – wondered why we Muslims have to shed parts of our attire in order for our skin colour to be palatable to others.
We continued to talk about light-hearted things like identity, terrorism, and Brexit. Shai was chalking this up to a positive experience – one of the very few she’d had whenever she wore the niqab. She had voluntarily othered herself and appreciated any kindness she received. I had voluntarily made myself more palatable and was resentful of any looks I got.
Finally, it was time for our friend to leave – his parking meter was running out.
“It was lovely meeting you girls,” he said. “You have a good time here. And I just want to say something – whatever you do, never, ever, ever…”
We leaned forward, ready for his words of inspiration, anticipating the rest of the sentence… think things are hopeless; stop doing what you’re doing; feel anything other than British…
“Please never,” he continued, “turn to terrorism.”
I think I laughed out loud. But he wasn’t telling a joke. It turned out we were having two different conversations. We had thought we were putting the world to rights; he had thought he was saving the world from another terrorist.
“It’s like the van backing out of the driveway,” said Shai on our way home.
I nodded at her metaphorical prowess. “Yep. We should’ve known it was coming.”
This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik is out now (Zaffre, £12.99).
Images: Getty, Bonnier Zaffre