Taking Khayrah to Cambridge

A short story by Nina Ellis

I taught Khayrah: how to book return tickets to Cambridge online using a debit card; how to collect these tickets from a machine in King’s Cross station using said debit card; that though my first name may be Ruth, she must still call me Ms Blue; how to find the right platform for our train; what the Quiet Coach is; what it means to be quiet in the Quiet Coach (no talking in loud voices, not even about how boring Eid was with her mother away in Bangladesh); that a university summer school is more or less the same as a university during term time, except during the summer.

    Khayrah taught me: that you can’t Like a Snapchat Story; that you can’t Like a WhatsApp Story; that Khayrah means good deed; that she also has a home-name, but that no way will she tell me what it is; that she is the third of three sisters but is the only person in her family I have taught; that she got the highest GCSE and AS Level grades of all her sisters; that her eldest sister lived away from home for a year; that private landlords cannot be trusted; that kuthar bacha (child of a dog) is a common Bengali insult; that Eid was boring with her mother away in ’Desh.

    I also taught Khayrah: what a Cambridge college is; what a Cambridge college porter is; that she must not apologise for only eating halal food; that it is not okay for halal food not to be provided for her, no matter how sorry the Master’s assistant seems about it; to take a pen and paper to every seminar; who Virginia Woolf is; what Modernism is; the meaning of the word disdain; what Indiana is; where Indiana is; why everyone else at this summer school seems to be American; why the Master’s assistant is so keen to introduce her to the Master; why the College is so keen to photograph her for their website; what Thai food is; how to arrange her fork and knife on her plate to show that she has finished eating; how to ask for a bill in a restaurant; how to lock her dorm room door at night; how to use those industrial toasters that scroll the bread over the heat.

    Khayrah also taught me: that there is an app that tells you where Mecca is; that she would rather pray in her room than have me ask if the College has a prayer room for her to use; that she would rather eat vegetarian than have me ask if the College can provide halal food for her; that the Master’s assistant’s eyebrows are on fleek; that when she was a child she used to coat her hair in Vaseline to make it shine; that her sisters are her best friends; that her eldest sister is open-minded and doesn’t wear a scarf; that her second sister is open-minded and does wear a scarf; that she herself is open-minded and will always wear a scarf; that the hot sauce in Thai restaurants is not halal; what precisely is and is not halal; that even cooking in gelatine will turn something haram—that it’s all pretty hard to keep track of.

    I also taught Khayrah: what a cricket pavilion is; what an orchard is; why female ducks are brown; why everyone applauded after she shared the paragraph she’d written about coating her hair in Vaseline as a child; why they didn’t applaud after anyone else shared their paragraph; why she must stop Snapchatting when the Master’s assistant is talking to her; what a college bar is; where the word pub comes from; the difference between pubs and bars (in brief); that if the Master invites us to the pub it really is polite for us to go to the pub; that going to the pub in a group often ends in walking around in a group, trying to find a pub with enough free seats for the group; how to order Diet Coke in a pub; how to drink Diet Coke in a pub without feeling self-conscious about it; how to appear engaged while American teenagers exchange stories about Prom.

    Khayrah also taught me: that she must stay away from the Master’s dog; that touching it would make her go haram (plus, that Labs are scary); that her dada on her father’s side had four wives, with his prior wives’ consent; that her nani on her father’s side is a witch, and not in the good way; the names of her favourite writers of sci-fi romance, vampire romance and fantasy romance novels; the plot outline for her idea for a sci-fi/vampire/fantasy romance novel; that White people get confused and think arranged marriages and forced marriages are the same thing when they clearly aren’t; that DP means profile picture; that she doesn’t know what DP stands for; that pubs are dirty; that pubs smell like stale BO; that beer looks and smells like piss, as well as making her American classmates want to piss.

    I also taught Khayrah: how to drink a cup of coffee without wincing; how to pronounce the words genial and endeavour; what a Poltergeist is; what Poltergeists do; that it’s Ted Hughes, not Teddy Hughes; what meze are; how to order meze in a Lebanese restaurant; how to eat hummus; how to eat halloumi; how to eat them both at the same time; how to not multiply the bill by anything when the correct tip has already been added; how to enter the College’s chapel; when to stand, when to sit, and that it’s alright for her not to kneel along with the rest of us; what the point of incense is; that the Gospels are books, not people; that a Chaplain is a priest; that not all Chaplains have nice singing voices; that her dorm room door definitely is locked even though it opens when she turns the handle from the inside; that she is worthy of being here.

    Khayrah also taught me: how to drink a bottle of Lindhouse Fruit Blast Summer Burst without wincing; that there is a Bengali word for Jacob, the only boy on the course: shoral-shuza, meaning one who is easily influenced; that if someone told Jacob to text a teacher he would probably text a teacher (just FYI); that the Dajjal will come at the end of the world and try to persuade us that he is the Prophet; that he will go among the people and ask us to choose between Jannah and Hell; that those of us who choose Jannah will go straight to Hell and those of us who choose Hell will go straight to Jannah, because the Dajjal is not Allah and should not be mistaken for Allah; that Djinns are always around us, in the invisible world that exists alongside our own; that hymns are basically nasheeds because they are about God and sung by holy men.

    I also taught Khayrah: that 10:00 p.m. is much too late for her to be up, even if she’s with me and we’re eating frozen yoghurt; how to put a chair under her dorm room door handle if she’s still worried that it isn’t locked; that it was not funny to tell Jacob to text me, given that he is a shoral-shuza; that she is a kuthar bacha for even thinking of pranking me (and Jacob) like that; that knocking on your teacher’s door before 8:00 a.m. is not appropriate, even if it’s the before-last day of the course and you need to borrow toothpaste—and especially if you kept her up half the night with a run of prank texts from someone else about you being lost on Jesus Green when you were clearly not lost on Jesus Green; what lack of sleep does to underpaid, overworked old teachers like me; how to drink coffee with less than seven spoonfuls of sugar in it.

    Khayrah also taught me: that the frozen yoghurt in Nando’s is unlimited; that her second sister Mhima should have been called Mohima but that they left out the o on her birth certificate back in Dhaka; that she, Khayrah, was the first person in her family to be born in the UK; that she eats rice and curry with her hands at home; that Mhima still feeds her with her hands sometimes, because she, Khayrah, will always be her baby; that their father is bald on top but dyes his remaining hair black with mehndi; that he wore toupee last time he went to Bangladesh; that Mhima thought it would blow off in the wind but that it didn’t; that she really is sorry for pranking me like that, but that every time she talks to anyone on this course she ends up having to explain her whole life, and that she’s bored of it—she’s sick to death of it—and she had to do something.

    I also taught Khayrah: to speak up at least once in every seminar, even if she doesn’t feel that what she has to say is important.

    Khayrah also taught me: that her uncle, the imam in Sheffield, had his house burgled while he was visiting family in ’Desh, but that he’d left his valuables at his cousin-sister’s house anyway, masha’Allah; that a hafiz is someone who can recite the Quran from memory; that this is difficult (and that she, Khayrah, knows, because she has memorised most of the Quran herself); that of course women are allowed to recite the Quran; that it is funny that I would even ask; that women’s recitations must be private, though, because our voices are seen as a temptation to men; that it wasn’t always that way; that it was not Allah who said that women must keep their voices hidden; that that was decided by men, as so many things are; that the Prophet’s wife Umm Salamah ran her own legal school; that things will change.

    By the last day of the summer school, I’d run out of things to teach Khayrah.

    Khayrah was still teaching me, however: that I would look nice in a loose headscarf; that the peak she pinches into the top of hers is cool in East London; that Luton girls don’t do it, but that no one cares what Luton girls do anyway; that her hair started falling out when she wore a cotton cap under her scarf for a year to stop it from slipping; that she was prescribed Vitamin D pills for the hair loss, but that she still has a receding hairline; that she hates her “huge” forehead; that she coiled her hair into a turban for Prom and took her glasses off even though she’s allergic to contacts; that she could barely see her date—a quiet boy called Fahim who used to draw all over his English books, even outside the margins; that the whole of Prom was a blur to her, a happy blur; that Fahim took her to her seat; that he held her hand on the dance floor; that she felt beautiful.

Nina Ellis is a writer and teacher born in Dallas, raised in Paris, now based in London. Her stories have appearerd in Litro, 3:AM, American Chordata among others. ninaellis.com

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