Zooming In

Fizza’s Big Sister

The distance through the pandemic has made Saadia Ahmed realise that although she’s many things – a writer, a feminist, an activist, a friend to many – an important part of her identity is that she's Fizza's big sister.

Zooming In is a podcast that tells stories of 2020, but it’s not a COVID podcast. It’s about how life keeps going, even through a global pandemic.

The distance through the pandemic has made Saadia Ahmed realise that although she’s many things – a writer, a feminist, an activist, a friend to many – an important part of her identity is that she’s Fizza’s big sister.

This podcast collection was made possible with funding from Lotterywest.

Centre for Stories is an organisation based on Whadjuk Noongar land in Western Australia that believes in storytelling as a way to build more inclusive communities. Head to centreforstories.com to listen to more stories, or to make a tax-deductible donation.

Special thanks to our storyteller for this episode Saadia, and to our production team: executive producer Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting and interviewing by Sisonke Msimang and Claudia Mancini.

Copyright © 2022 Saadia Ahmed.

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

View Story Transcript

Sisonke: Welcome to Zooming In, a podcast about the lives and feelings of regular people who are like you and me. People seeking connection and love. People who are just muddling along, trying to be human. I’m your host for this episode, Sisonke Msimang.

The pandemic has forced many of us to rethink the things we’d taken for granted – especially relationships. Saadia Ahmed arrived in Perth not long before the pandemic hit. Like the rest of us, she thought things would blow over in a few weeks. She didn’t imagine that it would be so long before she could visit her family back home in Pakistan. She;s missed her family a lot of course, but she’s missed her sister in particular.  The distance has made her realise that although she’s many things -– a writer, a feminist, an activist, a friend to many – above all, she’s Fizza’s big sister.

Saadia: I’m the eldest. I have a brother who’s two years younger to me. I have a sister who is nine years younger to me. His name is Sherry and her name is Fizza.

Sisonke: Saadia was nine years old when Fizza was born, so the age gap is pretty big – “almost a generation” as Saadia puts it. This means most of Saadia’s childhood was spent with her brother, Sherry. With just a two-year age gap, he was more like a peer than a little brother. When Fizza finally came along, Saadia and Sherry were over the moon. Finally, a baby in the family. It was just what these two older siblings had been waiting for.

Saadia: I clearly remember that. Dad actually took us to the hospital. He came home and he told us that you have a baby sister. I and my brother, we started jumping. We were so excited because we really wanted to have a baby in the family. And it was also because our friends had baby siblings and we didn’t have a baby in the house. So, it wasn’t about having a human being. It was having, it was about having a baby.

Sisonke: Now Sherry was a big brother and Saadia was a big sister twice over. And, importantly, they had a baby in the family, just like their friends. But, it wasn’t long before they realised that having a baby around wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It wasn’t all fun and games.

Saadia: We thought she would be pooping glitter, but no, there were so many other aspects. Because she was crying and, you know, when you see other people’s babies, you don’t remember them crying. You only like, you know, you enjoy other people’s babies, who are in other people’s homes and who don’t like, you know, come to your home at night. So yeah, she used to cry a lot. And, that was something quite like, you know, quite a shock for her. I said, why is she crying all the time? Yeah. So it wasn’t like that. I think crying and pooping was something that, yeah, that we didn’t really like about her. Maybe she shouldn’t have pooped or cried when she was a baby.

Sisonke: As Fizza started growing up, becoming her own person with thoughts and feelings and opinions, not just the pooping and crying baby that Saadia remembers, she developed very different relationships with her siblings.

Saadia: Initially she was closer to my brother because my brother was more fun. I’ve never been a fun kid as such because, yeah, I think I was, I was more serious. I was someone who was into books. I wasn’t much into playing around and stuff like that. I, even as a kid, I enjoyed talking more than running around. So she had more fun time with my brother because, our brother, is, like most of the kids in our family have always loved him. And he treated her as an equal and I would treat her like a baby. I would want to cuddle with her and I would want to kiss her. And yeah, lots of, you know, carry her everywhere, even when she was three or four years old, I just wanted to have her in my lap and carry her around. But yeah. So yeah, she was closer to my brother and she would, like whenever she was sitting with our brother, she would say that like, you know, “I don’t like her. You’re my brother. I don’t like her.” So yeah, it was different when we were growing up.

Sisonke: Saadia noticed some differences in the way her parents were raising Fizza, in comparison to how she and Sherry had grown up. They were more relaxed with Fizza, and this showed in her personality. From a young age, Fizza was cheeky, a bit bratty as Saadia would say, and very strong-willed.

Saadia: With I and my brother, my parents were strict disciplinarians. We would not even allowed to eat in front of the guests. There were quite do’s and don’ts for us, when we were growing up. But when she was growing up, things were much different. Our parents were more relaxed, and they did not care much. Probably they were tired of raising both of us. So once Fizza said to Sherry, “Pick up my school bag,” and he was like, “No, I wouldn’t do that. Go pick your own school bag.” And she said that, “If God has given you hands, what are those for? Go pick my bag.” This is who she was.

Sisonke: As time went on, Fizza’s attention shifted from her big brother to her big sister, who by this time, was a teenager. Saadia discovered she had a new shadow, who followed her everywhere.

Saadia: I think sisters naturally bond as they grow up. So when she was growing up, we did have a better bonding as compared to when she was a kid, and she had this habit of like, you know, following me like a shadow. And I was at that age when I needed my privacy and I did not want her to be around all the time. So, yeah, she used to do that. And, I remember one time I said to her that I need my space. Now, she had no idea what space means. And, actually at that time in most of the South Asian, and I think even now, space is a concept, which is a bit unheard of in Asian families. So she was like, “No, you’re not allowed to have space.” And that day she literally followed me everywhere. Like she would just stand outside the loo. And that was it.

Sisonke: Years passed by, and the three siblings remained close. The whole family did. But Saadia feels like Fizza was always particularly family oriented. Maybe it’s because she was the baby, and she was used to having everyone around her, fussing over her.

Saadia: She was always a very family oriented child. Like even as a kid, she wanted to celebrate her birthday with the family. Like we wanted to celebrate our birthday with friends, and she always wanted to celebrate birthdays with family and whatever. Like, you know, we had to go out for dinner or something. She wanted everyone to be there. So when Saadia announced that she was leaving Pakistan for Dubai with her husband, Fizza took the news the hardest.

Saadia: She was really disturbed about me moving to Dubai. So for her, like, you know, me changing, like moving to another country was a huge thing. Actually at that time, now she’s more expressive about her feelings. Otherwise she’s always been an introvert, so she never expressed what she really felt, but our parents would tell that like, you know, she does miss you. And, she would express that in some other way, even if she wasn’t saying, “Oh, I miss my sister.” It was the first time I had moved out of Pakistan. And, I was really excited and thrilled, by a new country, by a new city, having new things to explore. So I did not really miss my family in the beginning.

Sisonke: Even though Fizza was 20 by this point, she didn’t feel ready to let her big sister go just yet. But Saadia was 29 and she was excited to be moving abroad. She was looking forward to meeting new people and living in a new place. It was a big adventure, and the hard truth was that she didn’t really think about leaving Fizza behind. A few years passed, and the geographical distance between Saadia and her family grew even bigger. She moved to Sydney, and eventually, to Perth. By this time, Saadia had been living away from Pakistan for four years. She was getting used to a transient lifestyle. She coped well with change and made friends wherever she went. But unlike when she first left for Dubai, she really missed her family now. At the start of 2020, Fizza got engaged. Saadia’s baby sister was going to be a bride, and she didn’t want to miss it for the world. She planned to get back to Pakistan for the wedding, but it was 2020, so you know what happens next.

Saadia: I was pretty sure that everything is going to be all right. By October or so, we would have vaccines, everyone would get vaccinated because who wouldn’t want to come out of this pandemic? But none of that happened. Who knew that I was stuck here long-term as, as mentioned earlier. You can also consider me being naive at that time or probably overly optimistic.

Sisonke: At first, Saadia’s family talked about changing the date of the wedding, hoping that if they pushed it back, the borders would be open and Saadia would make it. But as the weeks went by, it became clearer and clearer that things weren’t going to open up anytime soon. Saadia hated the idea of missing her only sister’s wedding, but she hated the idea of delaying it for her sake even more. She pushed them to go on without her. The little sister who had followed Saadia around everywhere, standing outside the toilet and refusing to give her privacy was getting married, and Saadia wasn’t there by her side. It was really tough.

Saadia: So, so yeah, couldn’t travel to Pakistan. It was those three days because in Pakistan weddings are a long affair. Those were pretty hard, pretty hard. And she would be sending me pictures from the salon and all of that. And like literally every moment. And, she was, she was really happy on her wedding and smiling and beaming with joy, and I would see those pictures and I would cry. So I think not for three days, I think I cried for almost seven days. Although initially I thought I wouldn’t before her wedding, I didn’t think I would be so emotional about her wedding. Yeah.

Everything was hard. In South Asian countries, and I can only speak for South Asian countries because I come from there, wedding is a patriarchal affair and girls’ wedding actually means marrying her off to another family where she leaves her home and all of that. So even if I was in Pakistan at that time, it would have been a very emotional moment because like, you know, she’s leaving and you’re worried how, what next life would be and all of that. But being here and being stuck here in Perth, because after border restrictions then COVID and everything that had happened, I think it doubled that. So it, wasn’t only about not being able to be there, but also the things, the thoughts that you have when a girl is getting married and then she was baby of the family. So yeah.

Sisonke: Still, the ever loving little sister Fizza was committed to including Saadia in everything. Fizza and their mum called Saadia at every opportunity, to get her advice on anything and everything wedding-related. Fizza was determined for Saadia to be a part of her wedding.

Saadia: She included me in everything, in everything like whatever she had to buy for her wedding, the flowers, the clothes that she had to get. And my mum and I are very close, so my mum, obviously she does include me in everything even now, so whatever had to be done for the wedding, small decisions and all of that. So Mum always made me a part of it, but she also like everyday, like I was only physically not there, but she made sure that I was a part of everything that was going on over there. She also wanted me to be on the wedding, through zoom, but I was crying so bitterly that day that I told her that, “No, I can’t be on Zoom.” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t watch this wedding on… no video, no.” I remember calling my uncle who lives in California and, it was 7:00 AM or something like that day and I just called him and I was wailing. So yeah.

Sisonke: Saadia had missed her sister’s wedding and the enormity of it hit her. But like so many of these pandemic stories, there’s no real take away. It just sucks. And it can be hard to overcome the grief of missing out on some of the most meaningful parts of life, like seeing someone you love get married, or being there for the birth of a new child. 2021 has been another long year marked by separation for many, and just as the pandemic has dragged on, so has the distance. For Saadia, she tries to focus on all the things she’s looking forward to doing when she’s finally reunited with her family, the simple things, like going for a drive with Fizza.

Saadia: So one thing is that I want to go for drive with her and enjoy the interesting food in Lahore. We used to have these really fun drives when I was in Pakistan like, you know, singing and all of that. So we are looking forward to that. I just want to spend time with them. I don’t care if we’re going out. If we are staying in, it doesn’t make a difference to me. Like, even if like, you know, if I’m spending the whole day in my mum’s living room, I would be happy with that. I just want to be around them. That’s it. Yeah. Nothing that, like, it doesn’t matter where we go, what we eat, where we sleep, doesn’t make a difference.

Sisonke: There is this funny thing about family. You spend years living under the same roof, then you grow up and disperse. The further apart you are, the more the things that bugged you about them, the closeness, the irritation of daily life, become the things you miss about them the most. I imagine Saadia and Fizza’s reunion, whenever that might be, and I can’t help but think it might look something like their earlier interactions – Saadia jumping up and down with excitement, waiting to greet her baby sister with cuddles and kisses, just like she did that very first time.