Every summer I dreamt of going on a long holiday to Poland to relive the lazy and carefree summers of my childhood. And last year I did just that – I spent the summer in my homeland, except that it wasn’t carefree anymore and I knew it wouldn’t be from the moment I booked my plane tickets.
Of course I know that our memories of childhood are always romanticized and it is not possible to retrieve the lost time, not even if we eat Proust’s madeleine, but it wasn’t that. My worry was of how my new image could affect my experience. Because now I wear hijab and unlike other times, when I travelled to Poland in winter, that time I wouldn’t be able to substitute a headscarf with a woolly hat and scarf set. It was time that I unveiled my new veiled self and make my debut as a Muslim in my hometown.
I didn’t start wearing hijab straight after my shahadah. It actually took me a few years to make the commitment. I wore hijab in its local version while I lived for two years in Pakistan, then I moved back to the UK, and at some point I decided that I was ready enough to become a full-time hijabi. No one pressurized me to do it and my family were quite supportive of my decision. I was happy I could make this choice and I was happy to be living in a place where passers-by wouldn’t look twice at my head cover and where I wouldn’t face any oppression nor intolerance based on my religion. I never did. Actually wearing hijab here in West Yorkshire proved to be plain sailing and it had some unexpected perks, too, like random Muslim women greeting me on the street as they recognized me as fellow sister, shopping for scarves in lovely colours and patterns to match my clothes, and not bothering with brushing my hair before leaving home for errands.
But I knew that in Poland it was going to be a whole different story. First of all, in my hometown and within thirty miles radius there are no Muslims. Secondly, people in small town like mine are bound to notice and comment on everything that is out of the ordinary and a headscarf certainly was an odd sight. And thirdly, sadly, the recent rhetoric of hate and prejudice against minorities and especially Muslims that dominated the media in many Western countries is present in Poland, too, turning many people who have never actually met a Muslim into Islamophobes. I knew of some Polish Muslims women who stopped travelling to Poland after they embraced Islam for fear of oppression. Of course not everybody was persuaded that Muslims are bad and Islam is evil, and after all there is a small minority of Polish Tatar Muslims living peacefully in Poland for centuries, but a handful of hateful comments under articles about Islam published in Polish newspapers and websites was enough to make me tremble.
So here I was the only hijabi Polish woman trapped in a claustrophobic space of an airplane full of Poles muttering quietly and constantly: “Ya Allah, make it easy for me, Ya Allah, make it easy for me…” Perhaps it would be best to pretend I was not Polish? I could speak English or Pashto, my husband’s language, to my children… Except that they insisted on answering me back in Polish and it was a major telltale of our background. Ok, I’d just have to handle the situation and keep reminding myself that it was a trial and every trial that I manage to get through would bring me reward. I also thought about the refugees from Syria and other war-stricken countries that were getting – I’m ashamed to say – quite a bad press in Poland. The thought of them got my courage; I felt I could nearly become a kind of the representative of the oppressed in my country and what an honour it would be?
Living in the UK you can nearly forget that you have headscarf on your head, it really goes unnoticed, at least where I live. But in Poland you do get stares, people are startled to see you enter the shop or an office and occasionally you can see someone dropping their jaw in surprise. So the hijab that is supposed to be not attracting attention here does quite the opposite. Especially because in a small town like mine, you roughly know everyone or at least where they come from or whose their family is. So I was like a strange person, that used to be familiar, and really many Polish reverts to Islam feel that this is the general attitude of Poles towards them: the unsaid accusation that they have renounced their Polishness and became strangers. But is being Polish and being Muslim really at odds? I didn’t feel this way. And I still felt familiar in my town. So I wore this big grin on my face and made sure to greet anyone I knew or I used to know and this is how I got by. No bad comments, no oppression of any kind. I was helped by my family who proudly walked beside me, and were very supportive. I guess it must have been an interesting sight when my sister who is a nun came to visit and we walked around town together, both veiled. I figured that attracting some attention may not be such a bad thing after all. Perhaps their curiosity about me could turn into curiosity about Islam?
During my stay in Poland I also visited my sister who lived in a bigger city. Again I feared what it would be like there, in an unfamiliar place, but it turned out good. I just got one strange comment, by some old lady who first asked me if I was not too hot in that scarf and then told me that people in here are not supposed to cover their head. I was surprised to hear that and then I remembered: I actually expected much worse. I smiled to her. I was happy. My journey to Poland as a hijabi turned out to be a great experience, not a strife I expected.
Klaudia Khan is a Muslim mother, who strives to be a good example for her daughters insha Allah.