Backstories 2020

Saadia Ahmed

According to Saadia, in Pakistan a student has three options for their future: to become either a doctor, an engineer, or a disappointment. Her story is one of hope, passion, and picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and getting on with it.

Funded by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, Healthway, Act-Belong-Commit, the City of Mandurah and the City of Bayswater, Backstories was a one day multi-sited storytelling festival located in the suburbs of Western Australia held on March 14 2020.

According to Saadia Ahmed, in Pakistan a student has three options for their future: to become either a doctor, an engineer, or a disappointment. Saadia was a bright and ambitious student with top grades and little concern for her future. It wasn’t until she entered university that her well-constructed plans came crashing down. She dragged herself through a degree she didn’t love and began working in jobs she felt no passion for. Soon after, she lost confidence in herself, her relationships, and her abilities. Until one day, she picked up a pen and paper. Now living across the globe in Perth, Saadia is empowering others through the pursuit of her own happiness.

Copyright © 2020 Saadia Ahmed.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Saadia Ahmed. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

View Story Transcript

It was the 5th of February last year. 8:35 am, to be precise. I was at the train station of Chatsford, Sydney, New South Wales. Peak hours so it was busy, a bit too busy. Everyone was rushing to get where they needed to be. On the escalators that would take them to the train of their dreams, for their work, CBD, or in my case, I had to catch a class at TAFE which was 45 minutes away.

Now I was late. I was late like literally every other person in every metropolitan city of the world. The digital clock on the train station had already shown that my required train which was supposed to come at platform one was only three minutes away. So, with my black backpack on my shoulders, my phone in my left hand and my freshly loaded transport card in my right hand, I needed to bring back my running game in order to make it. I was not wasting a minute.

I was halfway up the escalator when my foot slipped. I fell flat. For a moment I did not even realised what’s happened. There was pain, but it was definitely not my focus, because I quickly checked my hands and my phone was still there, but my right hand was empty. My freshly loaded transport card, on which I had loaded fifty bucks, was nowhere. I had dropped it. I needed it and it was gone. Now, there was a strong sensation of pain in my left knee, and burning in my right toe. There was blood as well. A kind lady at my back helped me get up, walk the escalator off at the top. We also had to get down so she helped me with that as well.

Now, travelling past the point where I had dropped my transport card was heartbreaking. Like a movie moment – “No!” – I just wanted to reach out. Tears started rolling down my cheeks due to an overwhelming sense of helplessness. My fourth month as an immigrant in Australia, and here I was bruised and bleeding.

As the lady led me to the train station staff, the first question obviously was “Hey, are you alright? What’s happened?”. I was bleeding like anything, my right foot was bleeding like anything and my left knee failed to cooperate much. I was crying a river with my silent and voiceless tears. Before I could tell them anything, they sensed that it was an accident. However, all I could tell them was, I’ve lost my transport card, I need my transport card back. It has fifty bucks.

“Oh darling, you will be fine.”

Yeah, I knew that, the pain could be sorted but I needed my transport card back. I was lucky enough that day that the train station staff got back my transport card from god knows where. Needless to say, that day I could not make it to my class at Tafe. I walked straight home. The usual five minutes took me fourty five minutes that day, because I could barely move. To be honest, during those forty five minutes I did not think of much, except for my loneliness and helplessness in a new country. All I wanted was my mum, who was sixteen hours away, if I was lucky enough to catch a good flight back home in Pakistan.

Ladies and gentlemen, things had been happening pretty much the same all my life. Not that I had been tripping on escalators every now and then. But the pursuit for financial stability and being who I really was.

Good evening everyone, my name is Saadia Ahmed and I am from Pakistan, as you’ve already kindly mentioned, thank you. I am a writer whose name can easily be googled. My apologies if humility does not come naturally to me, but I have not always had the confidence to say this.

Back in the 1990s, in Pakistan when I was at school, I was a bright and ambitious student who was always striving for the best grades. Maybe, there were only two subjects that I completely sucked at and they were creative writing and sport, maybe because I thought they weren’t important enough for me to get the highest grades. It was all about my position in class and my percentage, there was nothing more than that. Daughters in Pakistan, you would either become a doctor, engineer or a disappointment. There was no fourth option. Stability and respectability were the only factors. So I worked hard, and I ended up getting in to a prestigious public university to study architecture. Despite not having the slightest inkling to what it was all about. It was my first week at the university and I realised I wasn’t meant to be there. Every time I entered the materials and construction class, I could literally smell a freshly baked batch of freshly prepared cement. I would want to throw up and the professor explained the minute details of the air conditioning systems for effective cooling in the scorching months of June and July. By the way I come from the northern hemisphere, so you know it’s reversed there.  The only subjects that I was good at were architectural psychology and the history of civilisations. My self-esteem started sinking in.

I found solace in the company of similar victims like me and together we formed a Facebook group which was called ‘losers united’. Having no interest in the classes, I somehow developed an aptitude towards reading. Wandering down the streets of the historical city of Lahore, discovering the eateries no one had ever heard of, and simply sitting under a tree looking at the ground when the sunshine would fall during the winter afternoons. I was in heaven in those moments.

Since quitting was not an option, as I have already mentioned about this disappointment factor, so I somehow dragged myself through the degree until one day I graduated out of the university with a hope of never having to look back again. Now it was time to apply for jobs, so I applied literally everywhere under the sun from the architectural offices to schools. Until I finally got an interview call from a school. They offered me to teach creative writing which came as a shock to me. I thought I was as creative as a piece of wood. But since the pay cheque was not bad, so I said yes. I knew it was enough to pay for my food and clothes without having to worry much about the funds. As I was living with my parents at that time, that was all that mattered to me.

Little did I know, that while teaching creative writing I would discover my love for it. My time in the classrooms was purely magical. I am unsure what I taught my students, but I am pretty sure that I learnt a lot from them. I was also dealing with the co-curricular side, so drama also fell in my job description. While helping the students for the school annual play, I discovered something changing within me. There was a strong voice inside my head that told me that this was my place to be.

My boss Mano, who later became one of my best friends, was a published author, and she would often discuss her writings with me. It was during those discussions that I began to learn the fine details about the craft of writing until one day I finally started writing for myself. Now, since I wasn’t trained in writing, I wrote whatever my heart commanded me to. My work started getting published here and there, I had a regular day job, so everything was pretty fine. Until, one day it was time to move to Australia for immigration. So I walked down the streets of Sydney, dropping my resumes literally everywhere and getting rejections, even from the local butcher shop. Nothing.

I knew it was time to go back to school. Any guesses what I would have opted for? Any guesses? I opted for human resource management. Stability. Not because I had the slightest interest in conducting the job interviews or preparing the public health and safety policies for the corporate organisations, but because I wanted a steady pay cheque. So, pushing my real self aside, and tripping down the escalators, I somehow completed my certification. Again, it was time to apply for jobs, which I did, left right and centre. Rejections again. The same sense of worthlessness, and low self-esteem that had crept into me when I was an architecture student was now back in full swing. I had lost the confidence of speaking to my friends who were doing well in there careers. I wanted to avoid the crowds at all costs.

Until one day I reached the pinnacle of my anxiety, and I decided that enough was enough. I was sick and tired of the push and pull between financial stability and being who I really was. I knew that writing was something that would give me piece. So I started writing full time, without thinking about a pay cheque or financial reward. I would write for eight to nine hours at a stretch without feeling a minute of exhaustion. And in this process, I also regained my lost confidence. My writing started getting published in many leading publications. Many times people would write to me saying how my pieces had reminded them of their trauma and suffering. Every day I was writing was emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, and guess what? Money also started coming in. So, what is meant to be yours is always yours, so why not find your calling and be where you really need to, though you might trip on an escalator on the way to finding the right train.

Thank you, very much, and good evening.