‘The first year, Miriam felt like she was living in a refrigerator’



Illustration Samia Singh

I live in a small university town in Belgium of about 100,000 inhabitants. Having lived all my life in the heat and dust of Delhi, it is disorienting to spend days praying for the sun. But more than 200 varieties of beer make up for it, and most students spend their days in a pleasant beer-induced stupor (or with its evil twin, the hangover).

One of my friends at the university here is Miriam. Miriam is your typical Iranian national: she wears a headscarf, she prays five times a day, she wears cargos with nike sneakers and screams ‘f*** you!’ when i take too long to answer my doorbell.

Recently we had an unexpectedly consistent week of sunshine. everyone was out on the streets, summer wardrobes were being paraded all around and a lot of people were smiling absentmindedly at each other.

One of these happy people was Miriam. She was ambling along one of the main streets of the town, enjoying the weather like everyone else. in the distance, two middleaged women were walking towards her, and one of them reminded Miriam of her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in a long time. The closer the two parties came, the harder Miriam beamed.

When Miriam finally approached the two, both took a good look at her, and with horror on their faces, snatched their purses away from her direction, and hugging their bags close to their bodies, hurried past her as far as they could. Miriam stood in the street for a while, and then she went home and didn’t come out again for three days.

Later, in a bar, she told this story to a table stunned into silence until someone finally managed to squeak, “that’s disgusting”. I thought about the worst experience i’d had that week and the only thing i could up come up with was having to climb uphill after buying the groceries. I felt like a fool. Not because i don’t suffer enough but because i don’t value its absence enough. it’s true that people are not always the kindest to non-europeans, but most people are polite to me, some are just downright nice. Miriam, on the other hand, faces hostility almost on a daily basis, from cold to aggressive and everything in between. An acquaintance of her’s was turned down for a job and told flatly that it was because she wore a headscarf.

The first year that Miriam lived here, she said she felt like she was living in a refrigerator. What irony that the sun should only bring with it more bitter weather.

In late April, before the government collapsed, Belgium was on the verge of becoming the first country to ban the veil and burqa (the collapse was related to other issues). They may still, unless France gets there first.

She has not gone back home because she’s worried that Iran may not be safe for her anymore

Miriam is not ideological about her scarf. Her sister doesn’t wear one (at home, that is, though it’s mandatory to wear them in public in iran), and her mother didn’t wear one for a long time when she was young.

Miriam came here two years ago, long before me. Before she came, she was politically active in iran, and also part of a group making a short film that criticised the current government. The first time she mentioned this to us was in the form of a casual joke (she seems to have a knack for delivering these bombs nonchalantly and without warning), which left everyone, as before, speechless and unsmiling. She, on the other hand, found our discomfort quite amusing. Since she left iran, she has not gone back home because she’s worried that it may not be safe for her anymore.

This summer, she’s thinking of finally taking the plunge and going back home. She may decide to (or have to) live in Belgium all her life, and she may also have to put up with being treated like a thief.

Oh, and she also watches South Park.


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