By Zahed Sultan (editor)
A collection of essays prescribed by voices from the Middle East, South Asia, and the diaspora.
A Roadmap to Surviving Professional and Emotional Heartbreak by Aina. J Khan
'Remove your top, please.'
After six months of back-and-forth between hospital emergency departments with chest pains, a fantastically stubborn infection, weight loss, a persistent cough, and no conclusive results, I finally struck gold on a routine check-up by my GP; a small lump had infiltrated its way into my breast. It was the tell-tale sign of nothing or something.
I was due to fly out on a month-long work trip and combined holiday the very next morning. The choice was simple: Go topless in front of the robotic male doctor for a mammogram or carry the burden of not knowing like a trail of bulging clouds until I returned.
The sudden urge to laugh at the absurdity of the situation swept over me as I sat on the navy-blue hospital bed. My hands felt like anchors, pulling sluggishly at each end of my hijab, resting on my shoulders as if slowing my pace would halt the inevitable stripping. The corner of my mouth drooped in passive protest, and I reluctantly undressed, raising my arms above my head. The doctor wanted to check my lymph nodes just to be safe. He squirted the cold ultrasound gel against my skin as though he were shooting a toy water-gun. Digging the device deep into my armpit, he scrutinised the black and white images on the screen behind.
'There’s a slight abnormality in one of your lymph nodes', he said. 'I’ll need to take a small sample so we can test it. There’s a chance I won’t be able to extract enough cells. If that’s the case, we’ll have to schedule a biopsy when you get back.'
My thoughts wandered to a lamb’s eyeball I dissected in school eleven years ago. Thinking of the way it had stared in unlidded terror as I prodded the corneal gel gleefully with a metal scalpel, I wondered if I had the same look of naked horror as the needle disappeared into my underarm. I screwed my eyes shut and tried to imagine the cerulean Caribbean Sea of Negril in west Jamaica that my nurse, a Jamaican woman herself, had spoken to me about earlier.
'I spent four months as a breast surgeon – 99% of this stuff in under 35/40’s is non-sinister', a doctor friend had messaged me reassuringly. But ever the optimist, one thought lingered in my mind as the robot doctor rummaged the needle around grotesquely:
What if it was cancer?
I grew up in west London at the turn of the 1990s when ‘British Muslim’ hadn’t been fully embraced by the Muslim community. Then 9/11 happened. As my 10-year-old brain grasped at how it was humanly possible to fly planes into the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, I had no idea that in the years after I would have to justify my humanity, defend my faith, and rationalise my claims to being British enough. In journalism, I found a way to translate my everyday experiences, a cocktail of passive racism, misogyny and Islamophobia mixed with condescending remarks of how polished my English was, or why on earth I wore a hijab on my head.
As a young, naïve journalist starting out, I had subconsciously internalised the Thatcherite mantra of meritocracy. If I just worked hard enough, collected more academic credentials under my belt, got more by-lines, I would succeed. If it wasn’t working out, there was something deficient in me.
And so last year, I concluded that if I completed a journalism diploma alongside the part-time Masters I was already half-way through (while working a full-time job), and still I couldn’t get a full-time journalism job, only then could I quit - knowing I had tried everything. It was as though qualifications and accolades could provide a lifejacket that would keep my head above the violent waters of a melanin-phobic industry keen on promoting ‘diversity of ideas’, when what it needed was diversity of authority, faces, and lived experiences.
Constantly floating from one freelance contract to another, unpaid work experience placements, internships, well-meaning positive action schemes and completing applications for entry-level jobs four years into freelancing, I was struggling immensely to keep financially and mentally afloat.
The more I was supposed to plant firmer roots with my journalism career, the more a crippling sense of imposter syndrome continued to whisper in my ear. Maybe if I exploited the privilege of my fair-skin, removed my hijab, anglicised my name to ‘Anna’ and masqueraded as a racially-ambiguous woman, I could escape the limitations of ‘diversity’, that nine-letter word that has metamorphosed into a taxonomy of human species for those with an ounce of melanin in their skin. And so I began doubting why I wanted to pursue journalism. Ambition and talent were two wobbly crutches that would only get me so far, but they needed to be tempered with discipline and endurance that would help me to bull-doze through self-doubt and rejection. But with a stable job still eluding me and my financial situation becoming even more uncertain, my endurance tank was running dangerously low.
Barely a few days before my travels, I lost someone I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. For the very first time, I was in love, deeply, foolishly and recklessly. I astonished myself with my capacity to love so beautifully and infinitely, I simply couldn’t bottle its intricacies inside one single word. My love for him blazed with the warmth of an internal, eternal sun which rose each time I saw his face, and set whenever we parted.
But his love was cold and conditional. Though the two of us were insatiably ambitious, in his own words, his work was his life. As I scrambled for just the bare minimum of commitment, I lost myself in furiously trying to fulfil his countless needs. The proud woman who would rely on no man metamorphosed into a mannequin to be picked up and put down when it suited him.
My Pashtun pride puffed its chest out, proudly insisting that I did not need that much attention. But waiting on the edge of a cliff for him to prioritise our relationship gnawed at me excruciatingly slowly. As he lifted the bar higher and higher, in the same way I convinced myself that my inability to secure a full-time job was entirely my own fault, the fool in love that I was, I naively leapt over his hurdles unquestioningly because surely, the deficiency was with me?
Gradually, the light of that internal sun began to diminish. I simply could not compete with the glistening professional jewels of Ivy-league credentials and glowing words from those with power that were so important to him. The news of the lump brought a death sentence with it, but not the one you might expect: It was the crippling realisation that his needs would always come first, and that his ambition would always eclipse our relationship. And so I left, only to return to a London that no longer felt like home.
I had built an Other London for him, where he and I could walk together hand in hand, untroubled and unhindered by the chaos of its twin; the real London where the smog of car fumes and the sound of shuffling crowds numbed by the chaos of busyness, gnawed like rats scuttling amongst the trash. I built the roads, paved the streets, erected the minarets of its mosques, painstakingly assembled the stained-glass windows of its churches, synagogues and temples.
I spilled the warmth of our love into its steamy coffee shops, the leafy sanctuary of the plane trees arching over the public gardens as a monument to us, to the roots we were supposed to plant, together. Every fragment that made London, was a fragment of him.
But how could I grieve for him who was dead in my memories? How could I wrap him in his burial shroud, mourn his memory which lingered like the stubborn, sweet scent of fried onions which refused to remove itself from my hair when my landlady prepared the day’s dinner early in the morning?
Lost and alone, I became a ghost wandering through an unfamiliar city, a stranger in my own home. But if like Audre Lorde I am to write my own ‘Litany of Survival’ – because survive I must and survive I will – I must erase our footprints imprinted into the grey concrete, rename the streets, reclaim this home that I built for the both of us. I must chart out a new path for myself without him. When whispers of his memory reach me, cripple me with grief in the moments his face and the sound of his voice pass through me like heavy clouds of rain, I will not hide from them. I will grieve for his memory, burn them to ashes and blow them into the night sky to sit amongst the stars, a eulogy of light and darkness.
I built this London, for the both of us. I buried him and mourned his memory in that Other London. But now I must build London anew, only this time, I will build it for myself.
إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ
Verily to God we belong, and to God we return
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