Different – Yasmin O’Mahoney

Winner of the Orwell Youth Prize 2017 (Junior Prize)

Yesterday evening my small family of four sat eating dinner at the kitchen table. My parents have always insisted that dinner be a meal that is eaten together with everybody enjoying the same food, but this day was an exception.

My dad and brother ate a roasted sweet potato each with kale and grilled chicken and my mother and I sat beside them eating paya. To us each of our meals seemed perfectly delicious and exciting,  but I had a feeling that, had anybody else walked in, they would have been confused or maybe even disgusted. Paya is the word for lamb-foot curry in Urdu. My mum laughed as she realised the humour of the situation. My white, Irish father and red-haired, freckled brother on one side of the table and myself and my Pakistani mother on the other. Situations like this remind me how special and rare my family is.

My mum told me recently about the first time that I realised I wasn’t like the other children in my tiny school in Brighton, a town known for it’s overwhelming white population. I must have been seven or eight years old the day I came home and asked her, “Why can’t I have blonde hair and blue eyes like the pretty girls?”. She explained that my black hair which back then reached my waist, and my dark eyes along with my darkish complexion were all the result of my grandparents leaving Pakistan and giving up everything they had to move to a country where their children’s lives would be better and wasn’t that the most beautiful thing of all?

A few weeks after this conversation, my school had an assembly on Eid – a Muslim religious festival. That day I stood in front of the whole school in the traditional red, sequined, Pakistani salwar kameez that my grandmother had bought me, a bindi on my forehead and I told the school about the beautiful culture from which my family blossomed.

Over the years, my hair and skin have grown lighter and my heritage is less noticeable at a glance. I am past the age where young Muslim women first begin to wear a hijab, and have chosen not to wear one not because I’m ashamed of who I am, but because I just don’t feel it’s necessary for me. Because of all of this, people are led to believe that there’s no way I could ever be a truly dedicated Muslim.

Quite often I will be sitting in the school canteen with my friends and somebody I don’t know very well will sit beside me. They’ll see that I’m eating some lonely, wilted vegetables instead of the delicious sausages and mash that they’re enjoying. They’ll pause and I will almost hear the cogs in their brains turning. “Are you vegetarian?” they’ll ask. I’ll tell them that I’m not vegetarian, I’m a Muslim.

This is when the questions start and I realise I have to be a spokesperson for Muslim people everywhere. They ask me why I don’t pray five times a day, why I don’t wear a hijab, if I believe in science (one of the stranger questions) and if the religion is my choice or if it was forced upon me.

Then come the questions that are harder to answer because of the minimal amount of thought that’s gone into asking them. What do you think of the bombings that are happening? Why don’t Muslims do something about it? Are you ashamed of your religion?

I’m 15 years old and I’m no expert on my faith. I do know however, that it’s not what many people believe it to be. My grandmother reads the Qu’ran and prays five times a day. She’s one of the gentlest people I know. My grandfather was the same, as are all Muslim members of my family. We are all disgusted and terrified by what some people who call themselves Muslims are doing in the world. In fact, I think the worst effects of their actions is upon us Muslims. Our faith is being villainized and we are being threatened.

I have two Pakistani cousins with beards. My grandmother is always telling them to shave because she fears that people will recognise them as Muslims and that can be dangerous. She is scared. We are all scared.

Hate crime against Muslims is on the rise and every time a Muslim is abused, we fear for our own safety. When will it be our turn? I’m protected by the disguise that my mixed-heritage has given me, but what about hijabi women and bearded men?

In all of this I feel helpless and insignificant. I do my little bit by telling those who will listen what we Muslims are truly like, but I get the feeling they don’t see me in the same way they see other Muslims. They see me as different. Maybe I am.