East and West

In which The Author finds himself torn between cultures

On New Year’s Day, when I should have been out with my ‘girlfriend’ Jenny, I was having a meal with another female friend entirely. It was her idea, and I couldn’t really say no.
Shanara and I have known each other for a number of years, we get on well, and over the last few months we’ve spent a lot of time together. However, three external factors serve to complicate the situation:
  • She’s much younger than me
  • She’s a Muslim
  • She’s married
The first one isn’t really a major obstacle – she’s still older than Jenny, after all. Sometimes I find myself mentioning something from when I was younger, and then having to fill in the historical background. Then again, I have to do that at least once a day in uni, so I’m getting used to it now.
Her religion isn’t a huge consideration either. I keep an open mind when it comes to spiritual matters, in spite of having a scientific background. I know enough about Islam to be able to at least hold an intelligent conversation with Shanara (and occasionally her sisters) and still learn something interesting. She doesn’t try and force it into the discussion. We even have lively debates about evolution and cosmology, always agreeing to disagree but without any animosity. She’s far from ‘radicalised’, after all.
She’s been brought up in Britain, and enjoys films and TV and music and clothes as much as any other girl of her age. She likes coming to the pub, drinking soft drinks, reading the tabloids, and getting to know my friends.
On New Year’s Day she was late coming out, because she had to perform her afternoon prayers, and left early for evening prayers at her aunt’s house in town. It’s one of the few occasions when she’s mentioned her faith in her everyday life. Her parents are from Bangladesh, but as far as my friends are concerned she’s just a generic ‘Indian’ girl. She could equally well be Hindu, Buddhist, Parsee or even (at a pinch) Christian. It’s not an issue.
The big problem, of course, is the fact that she’s married. It’s an arranged marriage. Her husband works long hours in a restaurant, living on the premises, so they only see each other a couple of times a week. Even so, the family pressure is starting to bear on Shanara. They’re wondering when she’s going to start having children. She’d rather concentrate on building her own career and start a family when she’s older – a far more ‘Western’ approach to parenting.
I sometimes feel uncomfortable when we’re out together, because in the back of my mind I’m always aware that she should be at home with her husband. I’ve met him briefly a couple of times; he’s not much younger than me, and very quiet. He seemed quite uneasy about the fact that Shanara called me over to chat. I felt awkward, too.
I’ve got to try and bear in mind that traditional Islamic culture has very different mores about the relationships between men and women (especially married women) than our liberal Western society tolerates. Even walking through town, Shanara insisted that we took the back streets. I teased her that she was only worried in case her aunt spotted her out and about. She agreed completely.
She said, ‘My aunt will start telling me, “It’s no wonder you haven’t got children, when you’re wandering around town with your male friends.”‘
Shanara’s got a foot in each culture, and I think she feels a bit torn between them. When she and her husband are together, she tends to wear traditional Asian styles of clothing. When she’s on her own, she’s happy in jeans and a sweater. Her sister Naj started wearing hijab about a year ago, but the side-effect of that was that Shanara’s parents started telling her she wasn’t a good Muslimah for not covering her hair. She complained to me on the train one day about the situation. After a few months, Naj stopped wearing hijab. The pressure was off again.
We were out again on Monday, and Shanara was feeling insecure about her size. She’s tiny – only five foot and a fart, and very slim – but because she’d borrowed her sister’s trousers, she’d managed to convince herself she had love handles. As Martin in the pub and I joked, if she was ten years younger we’d have been dragging her off to the doctor with an eating disorder. To try and cheer her up, I told her that if I took her into the Pickled Pepper on a Saturday evening, she’d be the smallest and prettiest girl in the place.
As soon as I said it, I knew I’d ventured into forbidden territory, but she didn’t challenge me on it. Even so, it’s true. Shanara’s one of the most beautiful woman in Aberdare. I get an ego boost whenever we’re out together, partly because I can’t believe that such a fantastic girl would want to spend time with me, and partly because I know that people get jealous when they see us together. But she’s completely unattainable, and I know that.
Even if I were lucky enough to get close to her other sister Tasnin to find myself in a similar situation, it would be a non-starter. A Muslim man can get involved with a Christian woman, and that’s not a problem. It doesn’t work the other way round. The weight of tradition bears down heavily on the girls as well. Naj got married a few months ago, and that was arranged years ago when she and her husband were still children.
Tas isn’t married yet, and doesn’t seem to be interested in getting married. Her family are convinced there’s something ‘wrong’ with her as a result. But Tas has got her career and she’s still young enough to give them grandchildren for a long time to come. It’s a strange situation for Tas, and a very frustrating situation for me, as I’d love to get to know her as well as I know Shanara. But it’s not going to happen, not even if I live to be a hundred.
In the meantime, my ‘girlfriend’ has gone completely off the grid since I deleted her last text on 2 January. I don’t know whether she’s read the previous entry yet, and I don’t expect she’ll be too pleased when she reads this either, but I don’t care any more. Given the choice between a female Walter Mitty, a beautiful but unattainable Bangladeshi babe, or continued singledom, I know which is easiest all round.
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