When I think about growing up, I think of my best friend. We grew up together, both in years and within ourselves. The lucky ones amongst us know there is a magic in finding a best friend that nurtures both kinds of growth. There is a magic in finding a real sense of community in that one person.
Pinafores and Tamagotchis define the start of our friendship. I remember my first day at a mainly white school in East Anglia. I was joining halfway through primary school, which made me one of the only newcomers in my year. My already mixed-up nerves became totally scrambled when I showed up wearing a different uniform to the other kids. But my saving grace was the one other person wearing a pinafore too.
We tentatively scoped each other out across the room as our mothers’ faces were awash with relief. In that nerve-wracking and awkward moment, I felt less alone. Days later on the school bus our Tamagotchis ’mated’ and, just like that, the rest was history.
At that age, all we ever want and long for is community. To belong. Perhaps we don’t have the words for it, but we know we want people that understand us, and make us feel less alone. That’s exactly what we found in each other.
We both come from Muslim families, mine Iranian, and hers Bangladeshi. That meant we both had to learn the Lord’s Prayer overnight after realising it was recited every day at school assembly, testing each other on the bus so we wouldn’t stand out the way we did on the dreaded pinafore day.
That’s the thing about finding your community, it makes you brave.
Having her in my life meant I felt less self-conscious of not eating pork, that I didn’t know what ‘pigs-in-blankets’ were, and I knew I wasn’t totally judged amid the outcries of ‘pepperoni isn’t pork though is it?!’ after I mentioned I couldn’t eat pepperoni pizza.
We even started a petition together calling for better school lunches for people that couldn’t eat the main option. We stood firmly next to each other as the headteacher scolded us for it hours later. That’s the thing about finding your community, it makes you brave. I found a true strength in our friendship – a solidarity and a confidence – in the knowledge that we had eachother.
Our friendship allowed me to navigate my identity; spiritually, socially, and politically. Within safe and warm boundaries I had the space to air my feelings without worrying about judgement from people that would just misunderstand. We had an unspoken rule that certain conversations weren’t to be discussed with other friends at school.
It is the simplest thing, the comfort in having shared lived experiences. But when those experiences feel rare, and growing up feels lonely and heavy at times, finding someone who can empathise is like finally exhaling when you’ve been holding your breath for a long time.
We had conversations on the school bus as the leaves on the trees went from sunset hues to shades of green. How would we navigate asking for permission to go to that sleepover? Would we drink when we left home? Would we marry people from our respective cultures? As we grew older, the relationship to this identity shifted like the leaves. We went from discussing hypothetical scenarios to making real decisions about how to live our lives. I remember the uneasy feeling of being left behind when she started drinking before I did. Really, we were just growing up.
We flowed through feelings of shame, guilt, confusion and responsibility and landed somewhere close to peace as we got older and grew within ourselves.
The feeling of acceptance that I found in her was important when it came to the shaping of my Muslim identity. It sometimes feels as though there are narrow boundaries when it comes to who can call themselves a Muslim. We allowed each other to wander outside the more rigid lines of who ‘counts’ as a Muslim, reminding ourselves that the Muslim identity is not a monolith.
For me, this has meant interrogating that spiritual relationship and divorcing it from what society told me it meant, and from what Western media wanted to convince me it meant. We flowed through feelings of shame, guilt, confusion and responsibility and landed somewhere close to peace as we got older and grew within ourselves. It wasn’t easy but it was definitely easier together. She validated my experiences and I validated hers. More than validation, we celebrated each other and in turn celebrated ourselves.
I have never had an extensive Iranian community, growing up in the suburbs of East Anglia with family scattered across the continents. As I got older, the frequency of gatherings within our small group of Iranian family friends started to dwindle.
I found myself searching for a deeper understanding of myself, which I think came from letting go of my internalised notions about being Iranian. A feeling of urgency took hold of me to further explore that part of my identity, which manifested as asking my grandmothers’ for stories about their childhoods in Iran, as reading Iranian/Middle-Eastern writing, and as watching Iranian films to keep a grasp on my Farsi. But I realised that a lot of what I was craving from a community was already being fulfilled by our friendship.
Perhaps it’s a sisterhood between children of Muslim families, of families with the same values and similar rituals.
I think there’s a particular magic in friendships between Bangladeshis and Iranians. Such friendships keep popping up. They’re in podcasts (shout-out to #GoodMuslimBadMuslim and Brown Girls Do It Too), in our siblings’ newfound friends at university, and in our mothers’ old friends. It has always made sense to me. Perhaps it’s a sisterhood between children of Muslim families, of families with the same values and similar rituals.
Or maybe it goes back further than that, to the intertwining of our ancestors. Her Nani used to tell us how closely our ancestors are linked. A WhatsApp message from my best friend reads: “You’re essentially our ancestors, in a way”. It’s true, the bond between Bangladeshis and Iranians is magic.
This made even more sense when I learned that Farsi and Bengali are inherently linked, dating back to the thirteenth century. It explained the feeling of being at home and at ease within our friendship. The warmth that uncovering new commonalities brought about, words in Farsi and Bengali that sounded similar, the same otherwise unextraordinary habits, even similar sweets from our respective countries.
It’s as if our friendship was already written in the DNA of our ancestors. Maybe we understood each other before we had ever even met.