Our Last Supper
Today I am thinking about Areeba.
I met Areeba when I was sixteen years old. Dressed in my mother’s kameez that I stole from her early in the morning, and with my hair slicked back into a tight bun, I walked into her classroom for the first time in June 2012. Because she was in fifth grade, she was seated in one of the bigger classrooms at TCF’s Sumar Goth campus but a bigger classroom only meant more physical space – no other perks. When I walked in behind my supervisor who burst in with an introduction, my eyes landed on Areeba sitting in the front. She had her arms folded neatly in front of her, her cotton uniform sleeves stopping just short of her wrists. The classroom was covered in a shadow from the lack of electricity in the neighborhood, but the dimness was easy to ignore compared to the heat. Like almost all the other students, Areeba’s face glistened with sweat as she stood up with her classmates and greeted me hello. Her hijab was sliding back with sweat as well, and brown strands snuck out from its grip to stick to her flushed cheeks instead.
I worked there for the rest of the summer. I would arrive at nine in the morning every single day, in the back of a rickety van that preserved our daily odor like a friend routinely saving us a seat. My hair always stayed on the very top of my head so that my neck could flirt with the possibility of a breeze. I’d carry a big thermos of ice that would melt into cold water within the first half of the day, and become fit for boiling tea by the time I was leaving in the afternoon. Every day the second I would get home, I’d instantly strip and stand under cold water then stand in front of a blasting air conditioner before wiping myself down. My parents were worried I’d get sick and would often ask me to perhaps switch to another campus where they will at least have running water and a working fan.
But I was fond of my students. They were all so enthused to begin their day with me every single morning. I figured they were excited to have a younger, more relaxed teacher around rather than their regular staff. I figured they were just excited about something different happening in school, like I would get on the days we would watch a movie throughout class. I thought that I, along with the other volunteers, felt like a change of pace from their normal routine, and that’s all I imagined it to be. So when Ramadan started and most of these children were fasting in this heat but still coming to school, I began to question my theories about their enthusiasm. How much fun were they really having for it to outweigh the heat, the lack of resources, and now the lack of food and water?
One Friday, although it was time for their hour of games outside in the playground, Areeba came and sat with me instead. She told me her head hurt under the sun and that she was fasting too, so I took her inside with me to do some colouring in the library. As we sat opposite one another with the rainbow distilled in front of us in the form of crayons, I asked her casually, “Why do you come to summer school if you’re fasting and its so hot? Summer school isn’t even compulsory. You could take a few days off.”
Areeba shook her head with glee and laughed at my nonsensical question. “What would I do sitting at home?”
“I don’t know, rest? Not wake up so early? Sit under a fan or near an open window?”
“Miss, I live behind the school. If there’s no electricity ever over here, why would there be at my house?”
I paused and stared at the strands of hair poking out from the hijab, dripping with sweat. I stayed silent.
“Every day I come here, I learn something new or do something new. Even in summer school where we have more fun than study. And Ammi would send me anyway, even if I was very bored and very upset and very sick. She can’t teach me at home because she never went to school, and Baba drives a truck so I see him once a month. The days I have to sit at home, Ammi says I’m being lazy and gives me chores or I take care of my younger brother and sister. If I stay at home, Dadi jokes about me going from 9 years old to 19 immediately!” she giggles and continues, “I would rather stay 9 you know?”
It was that quintessential conversation that pulls at your fish-eye lens and broadens it to finally see the entire horizon for the first time. In theory I knew I was privileged even back then, but as a sheltered high schooler, I hadn’t been smacked in the face many times yet. The kind of smack that knocks you off your high horse when you begin to hail yourself a good person for doing no more than stepping out of your own bubble, to see beyond your own reflection. And I did.
Areeba helped shape the way I would approach my own academic life as well. Where I stopped looking at it as a burden imposed by all the adults in my life, and began to look for joy within it instead. To be fair, I became a much better student after that as well but perhaps that’s a conversation for later. Regardless, it made me realize that a girl like Areeba would do anything for a seat next to me rather than opposite me. And while I strive to help make that possible in countless capacities for the rest of my life, I worked on heightening my own appreciation for my life. I didn’t want to be another privileged lost cause who swallowed all the resources thrown at her but never understood their true value.
Eight years later, I am thinking about Areeba again today. Today as I wake up my younger brother for his online classes in the wake of COVID, I watch him moan and groan and bargain another five minutes of sleep. I empathize as he is caught between a limbo of school holidays but also not on holiday. But I also imagine Areeba rolling over in her bed this morning, perhaps in the same house in Sumar Goth. I imagine her looking outside at the campus across the street and staring at the bolted gate that keeps her out. I think about all the ways she’s going to keep herself busy today. Perhaps she will help her mother with chores. Perhaps she will play with her younger brother and sister. Perhaps she will try to sneak in some reading time from old tattered magazines. Perhaps she will cry when she comes across a word she can’t read but neither can her mother, and there’s no one else to ask. Perhaps she will eventually give up.
As I scroll through a social media timeline that swears we can use this time to better ourselves, I wonder how long will it take for our fish-eye lens’ to cease to exist. This time is advertised as a break from our regular lives, but for most of us privileged Pakistanis, it really means a break from our opulent social lives. The institutions with money and resources have the luxury of shifting onto online platforms, and have readily left behind those who do not have the same luxury. As opposed to focusing on how to adapt all our people together, we narrowed down the dialogue to fit the handful of people we can cater to. We dumbed down this time to work online and bake banana bread and tighten the circumference of our bubble. I wonder when we will realize that this elitist narrative shuns out those with true potential, true motivation, the people who are truly inspired to make waves. This narrative only acknowledges the people who have been feeding off of these resources for so long, we are too full to appreciate anything anymore. And we continue to feast and innovate our meals and dinner parties, insisting that we are moving towards the future but really, we are hoarding on supplies that could land in an empty stomach. We are carrying home our feasts on a road lined with starving bodies, and we are all right with it.
For children like Areeba, education is still sold to them like a luxury they are blessed with, rather than a fundamental right to learn. Even though she is as entitled as I am to sit in a classroom, our inability to include her in our narrative will always shrink her down. It is a constant reminder we send to the children around us every day, that you aren’t worth investing in because it is a longer road for you, than it is for a kid growing up in Clifton. It is a reminder that they aren’t worthy and it is a reminder that they will remain in the backseat because we aren’t done hogging the wheel yet. Be it eight years ago when I would walk into the campus floating on self-gratification, or today as I wake up a student for an online class that he will sleep through anyway; we make sure we keep the divide alive, as if the clear distinction helps us feel more important.
In the wake of a world that has proven the prince and pauper to be equally vulnerable, when will we finally let go of the holy reigns of capitalism and tap into an inclusive, harmonious dialogue about humanity? Isn’t there enough space at the table for us all?