It was a summer of introductions and new concepts. My first summer in Pakistan. Everyone was talking about the heat and how uncomfortably hot it would be for us newcomers. Relatives flooded through the gates – unknown aunts and never-heard-about uncles, cousins who somehow shared a facial feature here and there – all crowding round in happiness, tight embraces and sloppy kisses, their faces shining with joy and love.
An old friend of my grandma’s was sitting in the lounge chatting to my mother whilst little kids ran in and out, screaming and playing. The soft sound of the fan swirling on the ceiling was like background music. I brought the guest a glass of cold juice, placing it neatly on the table. She paused through the conversation and thanked me, commenting on how tall I’d had grown since the last time she had seen me. I smiled and looked at the glass she had reached for. My mother had purchased them the day before at the cookery bazar. They were tall, almost like wine glasses, gold-rimmed with bright red roses painted on the thin china. They had a pretty vintage look to them and the frail turbaned man selling them was ever so kind and sweet that my mother just couldn’t resist.
“What are you studying, beta?” she asked, peering at me quizzically. I glanced at my mother and she came to the rescue. I turned around to make a quick dash for the kitchen when the doorbell rang. It was Babli, the new cleaning lady. She was a short slim woman with an oval face and soft beaming eyes and a sad smile. Our neighbour had mentioned her, talking endlessly about her neat work and brilliant washing up and how she had room for one more family in her schedule.
She walked in and hugged me tight, asking how I was, as though we had known each other for years. I went to get her a glass of icy juice knowing how hard it must have been to walk all this way in the harsh afternoon heat. It was the same gold-rimmed glass.
Later that evening whilst we were getting ready for supper, my aunty pulled me aside.
“You know that gold glass you used to give Babli her drink?” she asked. I nodded. “Well don’t use that again. We use the steel glasses for their lot. Leave those other ones for the guests,” she said firmly and returned to her task at hand. I was too surprised and confused to even ask what she meant by their lot and guests. I found the row of steel glasses in the bottom cupboard under the sink whilst washing up later that night. They were rusty and stained and as I stared at them, a fresh wave of bitterness and disbelief rose inside me. I shoved them further into the cupboard, behind the cookery boxes, ignoring the loud clanging nose they made. How could anyone drink in such a thing? Worse, how could anyone reserve such things for other people and for what?
I began to see this entire concept of different glasses and plates wherever I went during my visits to family and friends’ houses. The same tarnished steel glasses appeared and they would be accepted in silence, the desperate silence of the poor and the ignorant silence of the rich, both mixed together in tolerance. “Why do they eat in those dishes?” I asked a cousin one day, annoyed.
“They just do,” he shrugged. “The cleaning people and the servants eat in those…”
“But why? What difference does it make if you ate in the same plate?” I said. “Is it because they scrub floors and you sit on chairs that you believe that they’re lower than you?” I added, watching his eyes widen in amazement.
I remembered instantly the words from our Prophet’s last sermon, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
Had we become so wrapped up in our lives and our greedy dreams of this world that we forgot about those around us? How had we stooped so low that now golden rimmed glasses and steel plates had constructed barriers of difference between us, when the same la ilaha illalah beat in our chests and run through our veins? When did we start treating our own brothers and sisters with such cruelty? What happened to equality and love?