Tales of an Eternal Outsider is a blog series that tells stories exploring ideas of belonging and the situations that inevitably arise when stereotypical expectations are not met.
I had just finished my first-year exams at University, and it was finally summer! Well, technically there was still a month of spring left, but summer was not just a mere season then. Summer was a state of body and mind. Its advent never signalled by any meteorological or astronomical definition, nor by what clothes I could wear. It was better indicated by how easily I could draw breath. As if there was a compartment in my lungs rendered accessible only by its arrival.
Exam seasons were always gruelling experiences for me, they somehow injected my life with a consuming paralysis. I wouldn’t really prepare for exams nor would I do the things I normally did. Instead, I took shelter from a world that offered both the reminders and the possibilities of my incompetence and imminent failure by retreating into my own mind. In my quasi-vegetative state, I would vividly imagine a life in which I was unburdened of those reminders, making mental lists of all the things I would do after exams as I daydreamed. These formed short and frequent respites from the self-inflicted nightmare I usually found myself in.
I would be jolted back to reality, materialising in a stuffy library in the middle of the night, with a pristine and lonely book propped open in front of me. The words and figures rendered almost unreadable under a harsh fluorescent white light, only amplified by a sudden magnetic surge that sought to connect fluffy pillow to weary face.
Without fail, as soon as I finished exams, the instant rush of freedom would evaporate the fog of those daydreams. The summer plans I had set for myself as carrots, would be overshadowed by the sudden relief from the constant whooping of sticks. However, one daydream I managed to fulfil was to visit Thorpe Park; a theme park in Surrey.
We had picked the perfect day for this. The British sun, usually tentative ̶ as if worried it might offend ̶ had shone unapologetically. It was a weekday and the school term had not yet ended, meaning we wouldn’t spend most of the day queuing for one or two rides. I wore navy shorts and a white polo shirt, realising too late that this made me look like a child that had decided to skip school. However, I felt this gave me permission to feel the sort of unadulterated joy kids felt when they went to theme parks.
I agreed to meet my friends at the platform at Euston station where we would catch the train to Staines. My enthusiasm had gotten me to the station with time to spare, so I went to the sweet shop to get some snacks for the journey. I picked up a large Doritos and a Haribo and placed them on the cashier counter with a strident smile. The man behind the counter, a tall figure with shiny hair and a patchy beard, regarded me with an affronted suspicion. As if I had placed the carcasses of two lifeless animals in front of him, instead of the two snacks.
My smile had slowly retreated as an awkward silence took place.
He finally said “Are you moozlim bruv?” with an Asian British accent brimming with incredulity.
I realised where this conversation was going. It was not the first time someone had inquired about this sole dietary requirement due to my tanned complexion. Some Haribo contain pork gelatin rendering them un-halal for a ‘moozlim’. This particular impasse was usually manifested in restaurants where the staff were keen to be culturally sensitive, but somehow almost always came across as patronising by the surety in which they had decided my faith for me, by assuming I didn’t know what I was ordering or yet even worse that I was trying pull one over the people around me or even my god by pretending that I didn’t know. Sometimes an eye roll sent in my direction would portray an indignation that signalled an accusation of hypocrisy. An absurd situation where they decided my faith based on how I looked, and then decided that I wasn’t adhering to it based on what I ordered.
Not having been prepared to have my faith interrogated ̶ a complicated proposition on the best of occasions ̶ let alone in a confectionary at a rail station and by a complete stranger, I hesitated. I then came to the conclusion that a monosyllabic ‘no’ would save me the hassle of a fruitless discussion where I would have to lay bare the intricacies of my beliefs and ultimately be judged for them. I reminded myself that I wasn’t accountable to this guy, and I was no longer in Saudi Arabia where people can exert their will by shaming me for not adhering to supposedly common beliefs.
I said “Umm, no” almost half questioningly but also with a measure of indignation.
He said “You ARE Moozlim! I’m not selling you this”
This was a first. I was momentarily stunned! What could he gain from not allowing me to buy it when he made sure I knew what I was getting? Then it dawned on me; he despises the fact that he has to sell this ‘filth’ and this was his way of rectifying this apparent contradiction. A hypocrisy far greater than any I could be accused of.
“It’s fine, I don’t care” I said.
“I care, not selling this to you!” he responded petulantly.
I countered with a signature argumentative style that I reserved for such occasions; a calm and informative voice that was designed more to antagonise than to inform:
“Just a suggestion, if you care about selling food that is not halal, maybe don’t work in a place where that’s literally your job”
He stayed silent.
I then followed it up with “So you’re not selling me this?!”
He shook his head with an animated frown.
I looked at him with a sense of deep resignation, I sighed and said “Oh well, I’m just going to return these to their place”. I flashed him a cheeky smile before slamming a two-pound coin on the counter and lunging away from the shop with two swift leaps, running with a snack in each hand!
He gave chase and was shouting at me as he did. I was sure I would be grabbed by a police officer at any point and even if they let me go, I’d miss the train. However, that didn’t happen. When I got to the beginning of the platform I saw my friends somewhere in the middle. They looked at me with confounded amusement as they saw me running towards them. I ran past them into the train and they followed suit jumping on hurriedly, as if they knew what had just taken place. The doors closed behind us a minute or two later and I was finally safe!
My friends laughed and shook their heads at me for taking such a risk for a bag of Haribo. I laughed with them and shrugged. Of course, it was never just about the Haribo. It was shear stubbornness to resist definition based on how I looked or where I came from. I’m not sure if this excuse is much better.
I would then open the Haribo and commence a familiar ritual. First picking out the sour cherries, then the cola bottles, then the crocks and whatever remains would be stuffed in my bag and consumed only when hunger outweighed their relatively inferior taste.
I would ponder for the first time at how this seemingly innocuous activity had and would continue to pour upon me such derisive contempt. One that people who looked differently or came from different parts of the world would never come to experience. Some Muslims had somehow developed values of tolerance for non-Muslims but as a ludicrous compromise grew more intolerant to their own or to people who they had decided should be Muslim. I realised my faith ̶ or lack thereof ̶ would always be a topic of speculation and judgement wherever I went and for a variety of reasons. I can never really stop that, but I would never allow myself to be shamed for it and I would be the only one who would determine if divulging details of it was at all relevant.