You’d think your parents would be the first to tell you about your heritage, your sense of belonging, who you are – your identity. Not in my case. I had always assumed I was of a West Indian/Jamaican background, or at least part of me was. The only indication that I was of Pakistani heritage was in the accent, manner and cultural apparel of my mother; a lone foreign voice within a British and integrated family. If I barely knew my ancestry, why would I even think to consider if I had any religious beliefs. Yes I was dedicated into a mostly Jamaican Pentecostal Church as a child, but being four years old at the time, Church for me meant Sunday School: synonymous with singing songs and colouring in pictures of fishes, loaves and a figure on a cross. I’d heard the terms ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’ and ‘God’, but that’s all they were – labels and abstract concepts – but nothing real nor tangible.
We struggled as siblings, growing up in a city that never seemed to accept us. Being someone who could never get her head around numbers, I found my place and confidence in words, so naturally became a bookworm within my first few years. But even though I loved to lose myself in book after book, the decision to do so was not really mine. School was a place where I yearned to make friends but I soon discovered I was avoided by the other Pakistani children, which reduced me to sitting in the Reading Corner during playtimes and lunchtimes during most school days. By the time I reached seven years old, I’d made enough make-believe friends in the fiction books I would read, but this never transferred into my reality. My Pakistani classmates’ retraction from me, left me with solely black and white people in my life and I convinced myself that I’d repelled them all away. From the day of my birth I have carried a birthmark in between my left eye and top of my nose and since no other child possessed such an imperfection, I was certain it had scared them all away. For years I resented that birthmark and even to this day I don’t like to acknowledge it, as it reminds me of a very confused, irritated and angry child. It never occurred to me that the non-Pakistanis were not repulsed by me and I certainly never thought of myself as a Christian at that point. Why would my lack of belonging and acceptance bowl down to this ‘Jesus’ figure, when every time my face flashed in a mirror, I saw a dark brown spot no other child possessed? I was much too occupied with being a restless and unsettled child, trying to make sense of this alienation and was too busy trying to fit my lone brown face in the mix of so many black and white ones.
Most people don’t recall much of their childhood, too many memories for a small child to remember I suppose. My four siblings and I could probably count the number of blissful childhood memories on our left hands. Five fingers for each of our memories.The only cherished memory I have is one of my older brother and I riding our push bikes, up and down our street. Too simple and obvious to be regarded as a happy memory, some may say. Disagree. Soon after that we were never allowed to play outside and were to remain largely inside the confines of our home, which was to become a prison for the next six years. As my childish innocence began to tarnish, I began to notice the initial hostile glares and muttered curses emitted from the eyes and mouths of our neighbours on our street and nearby streets. It started to occur to me that the hostile environment we grew up in, probed much deeper than ‘those unfriendlies that stare at us on the street daddy’, and I no longer accepted that the bitter, contemptuous looks and isolation both at school and home were of a mere coincidence. Our family clearly stood out – were marked out – and I never needed a birthmark for this to be the case. If I never knew my sense of belonging, it was to be found in the ostracisation of my family by the surrounding Pakistani community, overwhelming us to the point that any outside contact extending beyond our front door was barely an option.
It will always be difficult to articulate in words just how rapidly and adversely life started to spiral out of control. The start of the new millennium kicked off an anti-Christian tirade that still follows my family wherever we go. Only now, as a twenty year old do I realise and accept that this vile hatred towards apostates will never alter – as it would require an irrevocable cultural, social and religious reprogramming of many mindsets of the Muslim community. Realistically then I accept this as my life. The six year old me however could never understand nor accept the endless smashing of our home and car windows, at any given time and to the point where my siblings and I were not allowed to remain in our sitting room. Life became routine, clockwork controlled and mechanical, draining us of our humanity and leaving us to exist and not live. I could never understand why missiles (in the form of bottles and stones) were hurled at us during our play in our back-garden, despite the erection of a six foot fence by my father. This put a definite end to any outside play and we were trapped like rats inside our own home.
I never understood, walking out of the house hand-in-hand with a sister or father, why our walls and windows were scrawled with the words ‘Fuck you!’ ‘Jew Dogs’ ‘Fucking Christians’ ‘Christian Dogs’ in ugly, black and permanent graffiti – marked out for the whole world to see. I didn’t see why so many Pakistani children at my school could look me straight in the face and tell me ‘we can’t play with you because my parents said you’re a Christian’. Nor was it acceptable to me, when they set fire to our neighbouring abandoned property, in order for the flames to lick across our house beams and set our house alight. At least when we had to flee to a local vicarage for safety, we were afforded a few weeks of peace and calamity. I could never accept the verbal and physical attacks on my parents and will never forget as a seven year old, an attempt on my Father’s life. The helplessness and pain that rips through every fibre of your body as you can only look on and cry, as your father wrestles for his life, held in a chokehold; outnumbered three men to one. Any other Pakistani father on the school run with five young children and a cavalry would have come running. But us, we, could scream and shout and run off in five different directions in order to get help and get nothing in return. Pakistani Christians. That’s the difference. Yet not in Pakistan. Not in the Middle East. The United Kingdom: a country built on the principles of Christendom. Not that any of that mattered – we were surrounded with a majority of Muslims, in contempt of an ex-Muslim family and we may as well have been in any of those Islamic countries.
We were well and truly outnumbered and I could no longer be ignorant of my identity, as this ordeal went on for years, to the point where I no longer passed a second thought to the continued violation of our persons and property. When one becomes accustomed to a particular way of life, one becomes completely numb to it. Instead, I began to turn to and develop such a love for this Christian God. A God that had stirred enough hatred, venom and intolerance into enough Pakistani Muslims to make every day that I can distinctly remember, hell on earth. And if our presence alone caused this community in Bradford to react against us in such a manner, without us even lifting up our heads, let alone thinking to retaliate – then we clearly stood for and stand for something unequivocally correct. So does my God. If a man can exercise all the days of his life without facing a scrap of opposition, there is something wrong with that man. I have learned that. To this day, I still walk with my head bowed, yet much of the Pakistani community recognises me as the ex-Muslim’s daughter: that apostate and infidel. Christian. A Pakistani Christian need not be loud about his or her faith and God knows we never were. Our presence alone ignited this anti-convert campaign that haunts us, irrespective of our location in this city.
My English teacher at school once asked me if I was happy being a Christian. I never felt that it was appropriate to cry nor show any emotion at home, since the whole family were suffering alongside me. Depression, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, constant shaking, nail-biting and bed-wetting. Social worker after social worker – all proving fruitless and frustrating. They could never understand. Doctor prescriptions for Valium and Prozac for my parents, of which only my father could resist. Crying at home would have solved nothing. Instead, toilet breaks were reserved for my self-alleviation but during one of our library lessons, I was unable to contain myself. My immediate response of ‘yes’ to his posed question saw my teacher walk away, probably thinking that I was just as religiously indoctrinated as the usual Pakistanis he came across. But I’ve had my whole life to ponder this very question: Am I happy following this Jesus, Son of God? Am I satisfied identifying as a Christian?
My genuine answer is YES. The fact that I was unaware of my Christian status, until made to realise by our attackers, shows just how ‘indoctrinated’ I was, as I was slow to come to my faith. And there is the difference. We are not and have never been taught to be religious and neither of my parents are of a religious mindset. I am who I am because I am governed by faith: not religion, faith. I have chosen, through my lifetime of being persecuted to follow Jesus Christ as my Personal Lord and Saviour and care neither for religious rites or rituals, but trust in the words of the Bible and have seen the very truths of its content spill out before my eyes. Religious hatred and the spirit of religious drives people to forcibly convert people, resent them should they choose to leave it and do whatever it takes to ‘win’ them back. The Islamic Sunni group of ISIS for example, marking out the Shias and Christians in Iraq at this time of writing are a prime example of this. The hatred towards the infidel – the unbeliever- and the need for a mass proliferation of Islamic adherents shows in my eyes, the sheer lack of conviction and insecurity found in religion, most notably in Islam. They may have force but do not yield power. Not over the 2,000+ Christian converts found in the UK, not over my family and certainly never over me.
So let’s not call this city Bradistan just yet.