I woke up this morning to the smell of banana pancakes cooking in my kitchen. The smell of burnt sugar, cardamom, and cinnamon. As sunshine pooled through venetian blinds and defrosted my cold, air-conditioned bones. And upstairs, the neighbour was practicing clarinet, albeit very badly, and below my window Ian, our community gardener, was whistling along trying to save the remainder of our garden because we have no retic. And outside there were people wearing hues of red and pink and walking to Modus Coffee all smiley-faced, not wearing masks, and there was this general feeling of relaxation after what was a very stressful week for most of us West Australians in the middle of a pandemic that keeps us like “Are we – are we numbed?”
I was in bed on this perfect Sunday with my cat curled up in this perfect little croissant making little snoring – okay, big – snoring sounds that was kind of melding in with all these other sounds creating this beautiful choir. And on this perfect day, in this perfect apartment, in this perfect suburb I felt something coming up in my stomach that felt a little less than perfect. But it was this feeling that I was so used to and yet a feeling that can only be described in the language that I have forgotten that was part of so long ago. The word ‘ajeeba’. I wish I could describe what the word ‘ajeeba’ was but there is no equivalent in your language. It only exists in approximation.
‘Ajeeba’: kind of like – I don’t know – a 13 degree day in December in Perth, or magpies flying over an oval in the middle of the day or the first sip of milk that you know is definitely off. ‘Ajeeba’: the smell in the back of the closet. ‘Ajeeba’: weird, strange, out of place, awkward. ‘Ajeeba’ was also a word that was used to describe me a lot as a child. It’s a word I’m very familiar with.
I grew up in a tiny town called Peshawar in the middle of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It’s the year 2000. We have dial-up internet, we also have state-sanctioned censorship. And on Fridays we have the bootleg movie-makers sitting on their little stools on their haunches and suddenly they hear the adhan and they cover up their pictures of Jennifer Aniston in a bikini and that Tomb Raider poster that everybody knows and we’re not looking at those guns. Those guns. And they walk single file to a mosque and they sit there and listen to a bearded man give a sermon about how the country’s going to shit because we have a female Prime Minister. And then they walk out of this mosque, hand in hand, the men, walking past posters – towards the nearest McDonald’s – posters advertising toothpastes, with happy families except the mothers have their faces scratched off. Yes, this is growing up in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the year 2000, and might I say: it’s very ‘ajeeba’.
We lived in this very beautiful, old, formerly colonial house – and when I say ‘we’ I mean it was me, my siblings, my parents, their siblings, their parents, and I think there was a dog at some point. To say that the concept of privacy did not exist…yeah there was no concept of privacy, that too was very ‘ajeeba’. So at any one point, in any one room in this house, there would be ten people talking in different languages. There’d be a ‘Bismillah’ here, ‘Alhumdulillah’ here, there’d be pop songs, we’d be singing Britney Spears in a corner, gyrating. It was ‘ajeeba’, but it was one of the happiest times in my life.
And in the evenings, when the cooking was done and everyone had eaten, we’d sit together in this living room while my parents would watch old Bollywood movies – you know the ones. The ones where there would be these big doe-eyed girls running between mountains in Switzerland, in these very flimsy saris, and they’re kind of coyly avoiding kisses from moustachioed men with lots of chest hair and these obscene looking shirts. My grandmothers and aunties and my mother would all look at my uncles and my father and my grandfather and go, ‘ahhhh’. And then the men wide hide behind the newspapers coyly trying to get away from promises they never were able to keep. Yeah, those were the days.
And then, after all this was done, my older cousin, my mother and my grandmother and all my aunties would start carrying all the dishes and plates to the kitchen, all making little jibes at the men’s virility. Talking about, ‘Oh yes, it’s not like in the movies, is it?’ and I’m like, ‘What’s not like in the movies?’ And then my cousin would turn to me and go, ‘You don’t understand, you’re too little.’ I’d like to point out here that I was 13 years old and, in the words of Britney Spears, ‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman’ – that was my anthem, but I digress. Now, we have an interesting relationship. She is my older cousin, she was older than me by 4 years, and that was also, coincidentally, the year that I started junior high. I don’t know what you call it here but I had started junior high, and my older cousin, she was a senior at the school. A lot taller than me, a lot prettier than me, a lot slimmer than me, but she’s not funnier than me – at least I have that, I have the sense of humour, you have to in my situation, you really have to.
So I started junior high with my older cousin, and her friends would all sit on the stairs in front of school, braiding each other’s hair, reading CosmoGirl hidden between chemistry books because you’re not allowed CosmoGirl in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. No, anything that won’t educate you about your body is probably a good thing. Meanwhile, I’m trying to make an impression in this brand new school, running from pillar to post trying to sign up to debate team and squash team and netball and…drama club. See I really, really, really wanted to be actor when I grew up. I still want to be an actor when I grow up. When that’ll happen, I do not know. And that’s when I signed up to the drama club in our school, and every year the drama club would put on a performance for our seniors who were graduating that year. Coincidentally, that year, they needed a stage manager. Enter me, stage left, ‘Hello, I would like to join drama club!’
Now I know that was not exactly my first preference, I really wanted to lead actor, but that’s okay I could weasel my way in somehow, I just needed to start at the bottom. So at the first meeting for drama club I show up, ridiculously early, 30 minutes early, and I’m waiting for everyone to pull in. And in come the rock stars: the seniors. All the different people in the different roles show up. And I’m taking roll, and then I come down the list to a name that still follows me around in the corner of my mind at various points in my life: ‘Wajiha’. No Wajiha, no sound. ‘Wajiha?’ And then, through the door, walks in a tall, lanky person with the most adorably floppy brown hair and these coke-bottle Buddy Holly glasses and then there was that really heavy feeling, like a weight in the pit of my stomach, tugging on my heart that felt like some kind of helium balloon: that feeling of ‘ajeeba. She walks in, ‘Sorry, I’m here.’ Yes, yes you definitely are here, ‘Please sit down.’ And thus began the most confusing time – and when you’re 13 a lot of confusing things happen to you – but this was perhaps the most confusing time of my life. Again, Islamic Republic of Pakistan: lots of censorship. No CosmoGirl. Not knowing what‘s happening. Why am I feeling all so very, very mixed up and strange?
So this is three weeks of rehearsal between me and this cohort. My older cousin, she was a lead performer, as the love interest of Wajiha who’s playing the other lead. And God, if you knew anything about my cousin, she just cannot act to save her life. She has this sigh that she does that’s so heavy, you could stub your toe on it. And she’d read these lines without passion or gusto. And I’d say, ‘No! You have to hold Wajiha’s face in your hands and just say these lines with passion!’ and she’d say, ‘Alright, chill! What’s gotten into you? Why are you so-‘
‘I just want the play to be really good, okay!?’
It comes to opening night. I’m nervous. I’m nervous for many reasons. One, my older cousin she was terrible at her lines, she’s barely learnt them. Two, we haven’t sold all the tickets. Three, is everyone like going to show up or are they going to make me look like an idiot. And I’m standing there, trembling with this giant folder that says ‘Stage Manager’, a giant folder with all these things and I start thinking about the future. And, not the far future, the near future. This is probably the last time I’m going to see this cohort of people- at this play. And this is the time before Facebook. This is the time before MySpace. This is the time when once a person is out of your life, they’re out of your life, ‘See you later!’ you’re never going to see them again. And I start to think about Wajiha. And being around Wajiha made this bearable. Those jokes, those dimples, those glasses, that floppy hair. And I was never going to see her again.
And I started thinking: maybe I could ask her if she wants to pen pals? Yeah, we could be friends. That’s what’s this is! I just really want to be her friend. A really, really good friend. I start penning a letter in my head. And so the scenes go on and I grab a scrap of paper from my file and I write a little note:
‘Dear Wajiha, you’ve done an excellent job playing Feathertop. I have so enjoyed our time together, I was wondering if maybe you would like to be my pen friend. We have the same interests, we both like cats. Love, (no, not love) Your friend, Dure Khan.’
And then I fold it up, really teeny tiny, and pop it inside her jacket that’s on the side. Then I realise something: I should probably add a little addendum. I pull it out again:
‘PS: can we meet at the gates after this is over? I’d really like to talk.’
Fold it up, pop it back into the jacket, and there we go.
The show is pottering along. Wajiha’s smashing; she looks so good in that jacket. And then the show comes to a close. The curtains shut. I start congratulating everybody, ‘Everyone else, you’re all doing really, really well!’ I leave, to go attend to something else and let them get dressed. It gets to closing time, I’m waiting at the gates, hoping Wajiha’s gotten my notes. I check my breath – okay, it’s alright, we’re not going to be getting very close. And then someone taps me on the shoulder and I turn around…and it’s Mrs Iftikhar, the drama teacher, holding a giant crate going, ‘Oh, thank God! Can you just take this to my Jeep? Please! It’s so heavy.’ So, reluctantly, I grab her giant box that she’s given me, and I run to her Jeep, almost falling over on myself so I don’t miss Wajiha, and I chuck it in there, run back to the gate.
‘I have another one, can you please take this one as well?’
Now this happens a total of three times, I don’t know what she was packing in those boxes, but it felt like sandbags – it probably wasn’t sandbags. When the final box was loaded in the Jeep and I turn towards the school: it was like tumbleweeds. There was no one there but me and the gatekeeper. And I thought, maybe there’s a small chance. I head inside, I stand by gate and  the gatekeeper is like, ‘Oh, have your parents not come to get you yet?’
‘Oh no, my aunty is coming, I’m still waiting for her, it’s fine. Is anyone else in here?’
‘Oh no, everyone’s gone. Oh! But a young lady did leave this for you.’ And he handed me the bowler hat that Wajiha was wearing on opening night that I had lent her for Feathertop. And in the hatband, under this marigold, I saw a little sheet of paper and my hands started getting sweaty. It’s almost as if I forgot how fingers work. And I’m holding it, and I’m pulling it, and I’m very delicately unfurling it. And I read the note and it said:
‘Dear Dure, thank you for being such a great stage manager. I hope all your dreams come true after high school. All the best, Wajiha.’
And that’s all she wrote. No address, no contact details. Maybe she didn’t want to be my pen friend, and I don’t know why, but at that very moment, for my 13-year-old self, I’d never felt such a feeling of rejection. And the funny thing was, there was nothing wrong with that note. There wasn’t anything mean written in it, but there’s also nothing nice written in it, nothing to look forward to. And so with this crumpled note in hand I stand at the gate, staring into space. I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn around and it’s my older cousin. ‘Oi! Are you going or not?’ And so I drag myself to the car.
Her disgruntled mother is waiting for us with 101 suggestions on how this play could’ve been better, more organised. And then she starts complaining about my uncle and how men can’t get anything right and how everything was crappy and how her marriage is crappy and at this point I could feel this ‘ajeeb’ feeling coming up and it was building and I was like a little, 13-year-old’s pus-filled pimple and I was erupting.
‘If you fucking hate men so much, why do you fucking marry them? Why don’t you just marry other women?’
And then she turned around and looks at me, looks in her windscreen and says, ‘Huh, ajeeba jinaye aye. Gosh you’re a weird girl.’
Many years later, when Facebook was invented, I decided to, I wouldn’t say stalk – okay, I totally stalked – Wajiha. And the funny thing is I did find her. She lives in Canada now. She is married, to a woman; so I was right, the old gaydar. She has two beautiful children and she’s a human rights lawyer. And I started thinking about all those times, about all those things that didn’t quite piece perfectly – that pieced ‘ajeeba’ – and I realised that there is no word for ‘queer’ in my language and there was no concept of what a ‘lesbian’ was, or what ‘bisexuality’ was, or what ‘queerness’ was, because there was so much censorship then. And I started thinking if there was a word for what I was – who I am – in my own language and I cannot think or a better word than ‘ajeeba’, because [my] ‘ajeeba’,was not like ‘weird’, not ‘ajeeb’ ‘out of place’, ‘ajeeb’ more like ‘fuck you, I’m queer’. And yeah, I think I like that word for me now.