I was walking through the rolling hills of Long Bredy, West Dorset. The sheep were bleating, when I got a WhatsApp from my sister in London: ‘Is everything OK? When you’re out, be vigilant. It’s not safe right now.’
I looked around for signs of danger. What was she on about? Then I remembered: there’d been an attack at Westminster [in March 2017, an attacker drove a car into pedestrians and stabbed a policeman] and now my family feared for my life. It has been that way ever since I started wearing the hijab, aged 24, the only one in my family to do so; the pronounced spike in attacks on hijabis – or anyone who looks Muslim – after any terrorist incident made them understandably frightened for me. But the reality was that, in my countryside setting, the only thing I needed to be vigilant about was the herd of sheep that would chase me down a hill later that day (and I was confident that they weren’t targeting me because of the hijab).
I wrote back: ‘Mate, people here are more worried about the village spring clean. I think I’m OK.’ It struck me then, quite forcefully, that I felt safer in a part of the country where I stood out like a church spire – or, more appropriately in this context, a minaret – than I would have done if I had been in London. This wasn’t quite what I had expected when I moved to the countryside. There to research my novel about a Muslim man trying to build a mosque in an English village, I was exploring themes of identity and belonging, interrogating the idea of what ‘home’, especially in these times of Brexit, really means.
Removed from the perpetual news cycle – having decided to disengage from the wider world while in Dorset – I found myself adopting a slower pace of life. Now, instead of my constant checking of Twitter, I preferred to stare out of my window at the rolling hills, wave hello to the maintenance man, or pop over for tea with the neighbours who would show me artefacts from when their ancestor was Commander- in-Chief during the British Raj. (The fact that I – a British Pakistani whose ancestors lived through the Raj’s oppression – was in their home as a guest highlighted how things can and do change. The experience felt both disturbing and hopeful.)
So what had just happened in London already felt disconnected to me, or perhaps I felt disconnected to it. I had gone from London to Long Bredy to explore the idea of how we all live in our own bubbles – Brexit being a stark reminder of this – but I’d comfortably settled into a whole new bubble in village life. That’s not to say that everything was different. The gap between who I am – made obvious by what I wear – and my surroundings has been prevalent most of my life. In my former role as an editor, I’ve had to pop out in the middle of publishing meetings that have gone on too long, needing to catch a prayer before I missed it. (Muslims pray five times a day and, conveniently, have a set period of time in which to perform each one). I’ve been caught in the ladies’ loo with my foot in the sink – washing one’s feet is part of the ablution ritual performed before praying.
Thankfully, people in publishing are too polite to ask many questions. In the latter situation, there’s only ever been a mild sign of alarm on a colleague’s face, followed by an uncertain smile and me saying something about the weather, while I try to balance on one leg and get my foot back on the floor.
Not everyone has been so pleasant, however. A Londoner born and raised, I started wearing the hijab while living in New York; I felt that it was the natural next step on my path of spirituality. People’s reactions to it have often surprised me, because I sometimes forget the hijab’s even on my head. That time in the street I was called a ‘terrorist’, for example. I looked around and thought, ‘Gosh, where?’ – until I realised the comment was directed at me. The hijab has since been a part of so many discussions, in papers, the news, burkini bans and burka bans, that I am positively bored by it. I’m used to hateful looks, but it only strengthens my resolve to practise my religion as I please.
So, the double takes when people saw me in the village were expected, and uncertain nods were par for the course. Once, I walked into a café for tea and scones and the entire room paused and stared, continuing to look at me as I spread the clotted cream and jam and tried to eat. On another occasion, someone asked me if the book I was writing would be in English.
What I didn’t bargain for though, was the feeling of quiet, assured safety that spread over me. My regular walks to the village church would soon be punctuated with chats with the lady who lived in the Tudor house; my friend in Dorset introduced me to locals who welcomed me to their parish council meetings and fishermen’s meetings. An ex-council member came over with lamb chops to talk to me about what it was like to serve as a parish member. Any woman, no matter where she lives, could appreciate the comfort of this. Any visibly Muslim woman might appreciate it even more.
Now I am back in London, people ask me what my time in Dorset was like, given my hijab. They are poised for uncomfortable truths – but the most poignant truth I came away with was that perhaps, if I felt safe enough there, I could belong anywhere.
‘This Green And Pleasant Land’ by Ayisha Malik is out now (£12.99, Bonnier Zaffire)