We were waiting at the tram stop on Sydney Road when the traffic light turned red. An old bottle-green Corolla stopped in front of us, a bunch of white guys inside. ‘Informer’ was blasting from their stereo system. I stifled a groan. One of them leant out of the car window, staring straight ahead at us. He locked eyes with Elif, who was standing beside me.
‘Sand niggers! Nappy heads!’
I held my head up proud but didn’t say anything. A middle-aged woman to the other side of us clucked her tongue. Elif raised her fist at the car.
‘Why don’t you fucking come and say that to my face, you fucking idiot?’
The clucking woman gasped. Zehra and Emine stared back at the car defiantly.
‘Yeah, fucking cowards in your car.’ Emine’s words came out like short, sharp jabs and uppercuts. The guys were momentarily dazed, confused by these hijabis yelling the f word.
The traffic light turned green and the guys yelled out something incomprehensible as they sped off. The woman at the tram stop took a step towards us.
‘Girls, you’re in hijab. It’s not right to be swearing. You represent Islam.’
Elif, Zehra and Emine looked at each other and burst out laughing. I stood uneasily, pretending to fiddle with the zipper on my handbag.
The woman was not impressed. ‘You might as well take it off then. You’re making a mockery of it.’
Elif scowled at the woman.
‘Have some self-respect.’
Elif rolled her eyes and then turned her back to the woman, bored.
‘Pass me the lipstick will ya, Emine, ya dumb slut?’ Emine threw the lipstick into Elif’s lap. The three of them burst into laughter. It seemed to me that they were proud and self-conscious at the same time.
Their words bounced around the tram. I could see the moment ‘fucking’ and ‘slut’ hit the people around me. A woman who was unwrapping a lollypop for her toddler winced. An old man dressed in a cheap suit and clutching a faded leather bum bag frowned. The woman from the tram stop was sitting at the other end of the tram near the driver, thankfully out of earshot.
I pleaded with the girls under my breath, barely audible. ‘Hey, guys, um, don’t, um, swear.’ Then I giggled, my little amnesty. Pulling up your friends about swearing deserves some kind of apology.
We were on the number 19 tram from Sydney Road to the city. It was 1993 and it was my first trip to the city alone with my friends. I’d begged my parents the day before: you can trust me, I’m old enough. They’d agreed, with a reminder: Just remember, everything you do is a reflection of your faith. You’re wearing a flag of Islam.
My parents were only repeating the words I’d used when I insisted on wearing hijab back when I was 13. At the time they had discouraged me. I wanted to represent my faith, I’d argued. But what did I know about the politics of representation at the time? I had no idea about the bargain I’d struck, that I would become a walking ambassador for more than a billion people around the globe. The only thing I knew about Australian politics was that my parents thought Paul Keating was amazing. I knew even less about the geopolitical nuances of the Muslim world.
‘Fucking hell, my scarf is all wrecked.’ Elif worked the front curve of her hijab in the reflection of the tram window. ‘Oh my gawd this window is filthy, I can’t see a thing.’
I half-raised my eyes, surveying the people around us but avoiding eye contact with any of them. Zehra started singing a Salt-N-Pepa song. What a man, what a man, what a mighty good man. I breathed a sigh of relief to myself, thanking God she hadn’t chosen the other song.
I was trying to play it cool, but my face and body gave me away. Zehra knew me too well, could tell from my fake smile and stiff body that inside, I was freaking out. She started leaning closer to me: Yes my man says he loves me, never says he loves me not, Trying to something something la la la, touch me in the right spot. She was grinning madly and jabbing me playfully with her elbow. She broke me down, a laugh escaped me. Pretty soon I was humming along with her, two Muslim girls who hadn’t ever even held a guy’s hand singing along to Salt-N-Pepa. Elif was coating her eyelashes with mascara as Emine held up her dad’s stainless-steel cigarette lighter as a mirror. I tried to ignore the stares of the people around us. The tram lurched and then stopped.
Elif threw the mascara wand into her bag. ‘Fuck, this is our stop! Quick!’
We launched at the doors, Emine blowing a kiss to the commuters on the way out. Her hijab flapped in the wind as she jumped out onto Swanston Street.
There were four of us altogether: three Turks and an Arab. They had grown up together out in Broadie. Elif and Zehra were inseparable. Zehra was an only child and her mum, who was fat, short like a tree stump and always dressed in a long grey abaya, spent half the year in Turkey. I think it was to get away from Zehra’s dad. I felt sorry for Zehra until she put me straight: her mum was a nagging cow and the best months of the year were when Zehra and her dad were home alone. Her dad spent most of his day working at a textiles factory and most of his nights at a café on Sydney Road, smoking and drinking Turkish coffee, playing cards with his Turkish friends and discussing Turkish politics.
Zehra went home with Elif after school every day and hung out there until her dad picked her up. Emine was the third wheel, but she didn’t mind. She had other circles to move in whenever she got bored. Emine was a hottie, and being a hottie gave you a social passport to manoeuvre easily from group to group. She had blonde hair and chameleon eyes: green eyes whenever she wore blue, and blue eyes whenever she wore green. I was a 15-year-old Aussie-Arab girl and both the Aussie and Arab in me had taught me that beautiful meant blonde hair and ‘coloured’ eyes. I used to imagine myself with eyes like hers and burn with jealousy at the injustice of Emine getting green and blue. I had tried green contact lenses once, but they slipped down my eyeball and got caught in my eyelashes. That was the end of that.
‘Let’s go Sportsgirl.’
We followed Elif.
‘Nah, let’s eat first.’
‘Yeh, I’m freaking starving.’
Zehra led us to the Hungry Jack’s in front of RMIT and the girls started arguing about whether it was okay to eat a whopper because it wasn’t halal.
Emine wasn’t fussed. ‘Just don’t get the bacon.’
But Elif wasn’t convinced. ‘Yeh, but they fucking use the same hotplate to cook the bacon. Reckon we could ask them to wipe it down first? It’s all pre-cooked, isn’t it?’
She looked worried. Zehra didn’t care, she just wanted fries. They decided to eat fries and have a smoke instead of a burger. I was disappointed, I loved whoppers. But there was no way I was getting one now that there loomed a question of halal legitimacy over it. I would never live it down with Elif. I didn’t have the guts to pull her up over the halal legitimacy of fuck, slut and smokes, so I ordered a small fries and a Diet Coke and we headed over to the front lawns of the State Library for some people-watching. As we walked across the road, Elif and Emine stood on either side of me, threading their arms through mine. My chest swelled with happiness.
The girls were my life. I wanted so badly to be a working-class wog too, with plastic on the couches at my house and parents who didn’t ask questions about homework because they couldn’t read English. I’d take that if it meant I could live closer to my friends and see them more often. Growing up in the eastern suburbs, I lived among white people who only ever saw us as wogs, and among snobby middle-class wogs who thought they were better than everyone. Our high school was in Coburg, an Islamic school up the road from Pentridge Prison. In the nineties, before white people gentrified Coburg and made it ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ with their cultural appropriation, before high rents and vegan kebabs, Coburg was daggy as hell. To our neighbours in the eastern suburbs whose kids went to Melbourne’s grammar and private schools, the thought of an Islamic school in Coburg was mortifying.
I couldn’t offer Elif, Zehra and Emine any coolness. My mother had been their teacher in primary school and later she became the deputy of our high school. We couldn’t seem to get away from her. I was a nerd, one of the top students in our class. Coolness just wasn’t my capital. But for some reason they adored me too. It wasn’t like I was their pet, their pity project, their token non-Turkish friend. We had found our common reference points, a set of coordinates that helped us navigate our way across the map of adolescence. Each year the coordinates changed and by year 11 they had changed so much we had all gone in completely opposite directions. But in year 9, aged 15, they were clearly marked, and they bound us together like glue. We would spend hours together, chatting endlessly about Mo (Mohamed, a boy Elif and I both had a crush on), hijab styling, horror movies, R&B music and jinn possession stories.
Sitting on the library’s sandstone steps with our chips, the girls and I looked at the people around us. We spotted a group of guys riding their skateboards up and down the pathway in front of the library, their MC Hammer pants hanging low over their flat butts. A couple were lying side by side on the lawn, holding hands and using their backpacks as pillows. Elif mentioned that Mo had a pair of electric blue hammer pants, and for a second I imagined the two of us lying beside each other on the grass like the couple, our bodies close in sleepy intimacy. Emine was threatening to throw a chip to a pigeon but we screamed at her not to or we’d be swarmed by them and their bird shit. She shrugged and popped the chip into her mouth before Zehra grabbed her stomach in sudden pain, dropping a chip beside her. Half a dozen pigeons dove at her side to grab the chip. Elif let out a battle cry at them, jumping up and chasing them away. She turned back to us, beaming as she rubbed her hands together triumphantly. ‘Fuckers.’
Zehra was moaning. ‘I swear a clot the size of a tennis ball just fell out of me.’ She leant forward, pressing her stomach against her thighs and wrapping her arms around her legs. ‘I hate having my rags.’
I rubbed her back gently with one hand as I ate my fries with the other and stared down the birds that were sneaking back in our direction, stubbornly encircling the four of us.
I’d learnt so much from these girls. Things my mum called ridiculous superstitions and cultural nonsense, which only served to lend more credence to their information and advice. For example, The hoja said it’s better not to shower naked because the angels can see you so keep your undies and bra on. The fact none of the girls followed this advice didn’t in any way at all detract from the sincerity with which they dispensed it. When you have your rags, don’t walk under a tree at dusk because the jinns come out then and they can possess you. They had a huge store of jinn possession stories and advice. I’ll never forget year 9 camp, when Zehra suddenly claimed to be possessed by a jinn while we played truth or dare. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she started to shake. She fell onto the bottom bunk and stared at us with vacant eyes. Elif and Emine started crying in terror. I stood over Zehra, horrified. What kind of jinn had possessed her? She couldn’t speak. I ran to get my mum, who was attending the camp, hoping she could say a prayer over Zehra or find somebody who could perform an exorcism. As soon as my mum burst into the cabin, sternly demanding to know ‘What is this nonsense?’ Zehra’s eyes fluttered and she wearily propped herself up on her elbow.
‘It’s okay. I’m okay now. It’s gone.’ Her voice was strained, her face pale.
I wondered why the jinn had so easily left her body. ‘Get up or I’ll call your parents and they can come all the way from home and do the honour of releasing this jinn!’
We stayed up all night bitching about how my mum doubted Zehra. ‘How dare she? Only a middle-class educated snob could have such a failure of imagination.’ In fact, Elif added, it was practically a sin not to believe in jinn possession. Believing in the unseen world was part of Islam.
‘Tell your friends to stop worrying about the unseen world and start taking this world seriously,’ my mother had said. I just rolled my eyes. Not to her face, obviously, or she’d kill me with a lecture about manners, but behind her back. Like a rebel.
When we had finished our fries and Zehra said she was feeling better, we walked across the city to Sportsgirl. None of us had enough money to buy any clothes. Mum and dad wanted to give me more but I didn’t want to embarrass the others so I took the same amount as them: enough for lunch, transport and a little extra, just in case.
Bourke Street Mall was busy and we ducked in between the crowds. For a moment I lost the girls behind a large group of people. I ran to catch up with them and accidentally bumped straight into a man, who spilled his shopping bags onto the concrete. He was furious. I apologised profusely but, as he bent down to collect his things, he sneered at me, nasty and menacing. The look hurt, but what got me the most is I didn’t know if it was my hijab or if it was because I was just a teenager who had accidentally run into him. It was the not knowing that always killed me.
I caught up with the girls and we streamed into Sportsgirl together, excited like kids in a lolly shop. Emine saw a denim top and skirt.
‘You would look fucking hot in that!’ Elif grabbed it off the rack and thrust it into Emine’s hands. She picked out a skirt to match. ‘This would look hot with it.’ She grabbed another top. ‘And this.’
Emine entered the fitting room, weighed down with her bundle of clothes. Elif was at the back of the store now, running her fingers over the different textures of the bags and accessories. Zehra was sitting on the staircase in the middle of the shop, slowly rocking herself back and forth as she held her stomach. ‘Fucking of all days,’ she murmured. I sat down next to her and tried to distract her by imitating our science teacher with his lazy eye and strong Indian accent. It worked because everybody hated Mr Samuel and we were brats.
‘You’re my best friend,’ Zehra said through her laughter. My insides went all funny and in that moment I felt like nothing and nobody could touch me. It was a true happiness. I knew that to be best friends in high school wasn’t the same as being best friends in primary school. Best was relative now, more accommodating and expansive. Elif would always be Zehra’s best, best. And Emine, too. But I was also the best, now. I belonged here. I didn’t know who I was yet, but I was somebody when I was with those girls. I could be Aussie and Arab and Muslim, a wannabe Turk and a Westie, my own kind of hijabi, and fancy and clumsy and smart. I loved that it made no sense but at the same time it made complete sense, too.
‘Let’s go.’ Elif’s tone was firm and urgent. Still clutching her stomach, Zehra jumped up, grabbed my hand and pulled me up with her.
Emine walked out behind Elif. She was so calm she was practically strolling. She stopped in front of the shop on the corner of the arcade, finding her reflection and adjusting the front curve of her hijab. A woman was in the front window, carefully dressing a mannequin. Then Emine sauntered on. The three of us caught up with Elif, who was way ahead of us, near the entrance to Myer. She motioned at us to follow her into the perfume section. We stopped in front of a counter with a large picture of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell looking down on us from behind it.
We huddled around her. Elif grinned and flicked her wrist. There was a Sportsgirl bracelet dangling from it, catching the department store lights. Emine lifted up her top, only slightly, enough for us to see the denim shirt underneath. She dropped it down quickly. Zehra frowned and shook her head at the two of them. Elif threw her arm around her shoulders. ‘Relax. Come on, let’s take you home soon and pop you a napro. You look fucking terrible.’
I was trying to rearrange my face, to focus on my muscles and pretend I was listening to the story they were telling. I didn’t want to lose Elif and Emine. But I was terrified that my face, my god-damned face was going to betray me, to tell them all the feelings that were swelling inside me. I didn’t know how to confront the people I loved and still keep them in my life. I was afraid, deep down, that our friendship couldn’t handle dissent, disagreement, challenge. In the tram I’d cringed and squirmed because of my double sight; watching our Muslimness dissected and judged through the gaze of others.
Maybe there was a certain liberation in the way Emine and Elif played crude and crass while fixing the front curve of their hijabs. It wasn’t me, but I could understand it. It made me uncomfortable, made me sometimes question why they bothered to perform religiosity in form but not spirit. I wouldn’t ever contemplate policing their choices. But stealing? I was struck by the utter incongruence between the hijabs we were wearing, which were supposed to be signifiers of our spiritual selves, and the act of theft. It felt like a desecration of everything we were supposed to stand for, everything we had been taught by our families, by our teachers, by the Imams who took to the pulpit in our school mosque at Friday prayers. Emine and Elif’s giggles, their triumphant pride, confused me deeply. I felt as though they’d stolen more than a bunch of clothes. They’d stolen my faith that the things that bound us together were strong enough to hold.
I cleared my throat, knowing I had to speak up. But I didn’t. Instead I said: ‘Let’s try some perfume first. I wish I looked like Cindy. Come on, let’s go.’
When Elif and Emine stared up at me, I saw the recognition in their eyes. They could see that something had changed. But they let me off. That day, I didn’t have to take a stand either way.
The next week at school, we met up at assembly on Monday morning. Nobody mentioned Sportsgirl or our day out. We went on as before, just like it hadn’t happened. But something inside me had shifted. I didn’t know how to process it or what to do. I loved the girls deeply and felt they made up what was inside me. But my insides were stretching and growing, finding out what it meant to be all of the things my faith required of me.
During lunchtime prayer in the school mosque one day, I watched Elif praying. I watched her closing her eyes, deep in contemplation. I watched her bend down in prostration, the Sportsgirl bracelet touching the carpet. What was she whispering to God? I realised that being principled was tough, but pretending was tougher.
A few weeks later in English class, Emine scared us with a jinn story. Suddenly, loudly, angrily, I yelled out, ‘Bullshit!’
Emine and Elif stared at me but they didn’t get upset. To my surprise, they just grinned.
‘Bullshit,’ I said again, firmly. •