I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first started questioning my place in the world but I was very young, still in infant school, not yet a personality in my own right. I remember I still believed in Santa Claus and Christmas was an event that I was very much a part of, from the towering twinkling tree in the school assembly hall to the black bin sacks brimming with toys on Christmas morning. I accepted the nativity as fact, Mary and Joseph had plodded along with their heavy load and Jesus was born in a stable, and the festivities celebrating the day of his birth were meant for everyone. At this age I wasn’t too heavily indoctrinated in the faith ascribed to me by my family, they loved Christmas and celebrated it, coming together as a family but also extending kindness to our neighbours, sharing a box of quality street with the elderly white woman who lived next door, and cheerily welcoming everyone with the season’s greetings.
I wondered why we didn’t go to church. I was taken aback when I was corrected about the virgin Mary and how she was actually called Maryam and married to Yusuf. Isa hadn’t died for our sins but he would be returning. As I grew, in size, and as a person, I very quickly came to the conclusion that religion was a bit like Chinese whispers (or something less racist) and it seemed, to me at least, a way for people to claim they were better, more informed, superior even, compared to the people they didn’t like; for a bunch of other reasons usually, like the colour of their skin or the country they came from. I learned in RE that sometimes brown people were Christians, and sometimes white people were Muslims but I never came into contact with these outliers until I was much older. I was fascinated by history and learned about the Egyptians, albeit on a very basic level but it was enough to spark my interest in world history and how each empire shaped the world. I liked to read in my own time, checking books out at the library but I could never find anything remotely related to my ancestry. I was already in the process of hating myself, my folks, our clothes, and food and perhaps was desperate for something that would set us apart from the rest. We weren’t like all the others, I was adamant about this.
Children might not understand the reasons people are hostile but they certainly perceive it. I noted the aggression with which certain people responded to what seemed like perfectly reasonable and softly spoken requests, at the bank, or job centre, or store. White people who wouldn’t make eye contact and lacked manners. I noted the ways in which my folks ignored the harsh tones and doubled down in their apologism, always feeling slightly embarrassed for their intrusion – often achieving the results they were after, but at great cost to their sense of pride and well-being. They had accepted their lowly status, whatever the reasons for it were and I was acutely aware of how this would impact on my opportunities. I guess that’s when I started to dissociate, splitting my personality. I wasn’t about to bow and scrape for the bear minimum, I was going to assimilate.
I remember learning all about the Spanish inquisition at school but never was there ever a single mention of Muslims. A tremendous feat given they were the primary victims. Even Wikipedia says it was the rulers of Spain who asked the pope to drive out Jews who were pretending to be Christians, and that’s it. Jews were also being targeted but they lived in Al Andalus, Moorish Spain. No mention of the Islamic books and heritage they burnt, or how Islamic Spain had managed to create a peaceful state where Muslims and Jews lived peacefully alongside Christians until the rabid Catholicism of the day slaughtered entire villages, drowning and decapitating children in their beds, raping then stabbing Muslim women through the heart because any offspring would be spoiled. We learned all about the Romans, and Greeks, and the British empire yet nothing of the Moors, or the Mughals who ruled for many centuries and were such learned cultured peoples conducting themselves in genteel ignorance during the middle ages they had no way to anticipate the savage barbarism of cold and hungry Christians, raised by the rod and indiscriminately slaughtered by both state and neighbour alike (much like the East today).
Medieval Europe was a grim fucking stage for the origins of white power. By all accounts they reveled in torture. Ah yes, there was the Magna Carta (England) allegedly holding everything together, but I can bet more people know about it today than did back then. From the peasants to the clergy (who were all powerful) everyone was in it for themselves. If they hadn’t been so wretched they would never have won, in all fairness. To be devoid of humanity is the only true guarantor for success in the pursuit for world domination. You can’t love thy neighbour and feed the poor and be at all comfortable with coercive power and control. Yet this is what they did, the Christians. They lied and manipulated. They forcibly converted Muslims and Jews (the converts were referred to as Moriscos and Marranos, respectively) then killed them anyway. Nobody talks about this, or how Isis and the Taliban are a poor imitation of the conquistadors.
When you have no history you feel untethered, floating in the air with no clues as to where you’ll end up. I have a recurring dream in which I’m trying to get to places, one example being from that old primary school to my family home but I have to measure my stride and watch how I place my feet otherwise I bounce up into the sky, terrified at the velocity sometimes, which can throw me sideways, afraid I will come crashing back down and hurt myself or even die. My attempts at controlling my pace via lucid dreaming have yielded some results, some journeys have even been pleasant but I am not yet a master. I am convinced this is my brain trying to resolve deep rooted anxieties around identity and powerlessness over it. Sometimes I’ll panic because I’m wearing a skirt and no pants and if I don’t control the buoyancy effectively enough everyone on my street might get a flash of my lady parts. Other times I don’t care if they do. Once in a while my granddad is waiting on our porch and I’ll suddenly have to straighten myself out and stand very still, because he cannot know that I have this skill.
I felt as though we can’t have just transpired out of thin air, as a teen, and was determined to learn of my roots. I asked my grandparents, with whom I lived, who my great grandparents were and they gave the name of a great granddad on my granddad’s side and that was it. No great grandmas or great great grandparents. No lineage, no roots, no establishment. I wanted to know what we called the language we spoke at home because it didn’t sound like Punjabi to me. They replied Sikhs had a different dialect and that’s the difference I was hearing. Only, when I grew up, I met other Muslim Pakistanis who said they spoke Punjabi and they honestly did. I came to understand my ‘mother tongue’ is actually a lingua franca of sorts that enabled me to access at least 7 other South Asian languages, with its roots in Farsi. I had always managed to understand my South Asian friends whatever language they spoke at home but they rarely understood me. I had spent my life being told it was a cursed tongue, that it sounded dirty, and worthless, when it was actually a priceless tool. No wonder I found language so interesting, I had exceptional roots.
I registered the slight hesitance in my grandparents whenever I broached the subject of ancestry. They’d tense up. I thought they were embarrassed, especially when they snapped that it was enough. I reasoned it had to be a secret, whatever it was, otherwise they wouldn’t be so eager to change the subject. Perhaps we had been Hindus and this was a fact they had buried, because it was no longer of any use and they did not want to risk reversions.
It was many years later, long after both of theirs passing that I learnt the truth. Muslim history has been effectively erased in Europe. We don’t learn about it in schools, it is not spoken of much in pop culture, any allusions to it, like for example in The Spanish Princess, are post victory, when they are subjugated and at the behest of Catholic monarchs. Queen Isabella enacted a genocide on Spanish Muslims and her daughter Catherine of Aragon married Henry VIII. These moments in history that tie together the bigger picture, the union of these two countries for the sake of all Christiandom, Henry being a cornerstone of British history that is over taught in my opinion, from the many perspective of teams for and against the Tudor tyrant, and his many wives and their friends and foes; to so brazenly leave out the connection to how Europe was shaped by the sword and owes a debt to the world for its ignorant destruction of culture, is surely deliberate and intended to mislead. The Tudors weren’t just special because Henry was a literal ladykiller (what a thing to focus on though, how this country was spearheaded by a domestic abuser), the empire began with his devil spawn. Oh we all learnt about Walter Raleigh sending back spuds from the new world to flatter his queen but they left out the genocide of Native Americans on the curriculum. I guess it would lead to questions about other ethnic majorities on other continents, displaced and erased by the same people. I can see why, teaching a bunch of hormonally charged teenagers the reason they are here today is because you were there for 500+ years and you still haven’t left is asking for trouble. Kids tend to have a stronger sense of injustice than adults who’ve spent a lifetime lying to themselves about what is and isn’t virtuous.
Take sexual freedom as one example of the clash of civilisations in medieval Europe. Cold and hungry white Europeans hated sex. They believed it was a sin and a chore, even in marriage, where it was a method for procreation and not pleasure. Perversely a lot of their torture methods centred on the genitals, the pope even had a ‘pear’ for such purposes (google but nsfw). It is sexual freedom among other vices that was cited by Christians as a reason for their victory against the savage Mohammedans. Such lax attitudes concerning pleasures of the flesh had led to their fall from grace in God’s eyes and that is how they lost their empire. To this day, Muslims repeat this harmful life to justify their misogynous control over women and their attitudes towards sex in general. Sick of the way black and brown men/Muslims treat their women? But they learnt from the best. Muslims were making art about how sex was a gift from God before Christians turned that light out in them for good.
So what can we do about it now we know? For my part, I’d like to know more about who collected taxes and crops from my ancestors and our land, forcing them to bury grain so they wouldn’t starve. That chap’s descendants owe me and mine. As part of the decolonisation process, reparations are crucial to the healing process, to feeling grounded. Reparations come in lots of forms, acknowledging the histories they tried to erase is a good starting point. As a descendant of Mughals myself, I was only made aware very recently of my rich history. When there is denial and erasure even in families (because the ignominy of having it all and losing it, for not being pious enough, is too much to bear or acknowledge) it’s even harder to begin to unravel the chaos that ensured ten generations of trauma and toxic shame, the true legacy of the British Empire.