My mother knew that I would be a barrel full of trouble when she smelled cigarette smoke on my clothes once when I was in seventh grade. From that point on, she was quite adamant to clandestinely place a Muslim “big sister” every step of the way in my life – particularly when I was a teenager.
Caged Blue Budgies and the Aafia I knowIn The Political on 19/03/2011 at 00:17
One of the appointed big sisterly figures to me was beloved Aafia Siddiqui. Aafia baji, as I called her, entered into my life when I was fourteen. One of my very first memories of her was at a women’s get together and Aafia baji was dressed from head to toe in maroon. Her hijab meticulously matched her stockings, which meticulously matched her shoes. Her small frame and high pitched voice didn’t match her hearty presence. For a college student, she was very mature in her stature. I remember thinking to myself how adorable she is – for an auntie. Yes, when I first met Aafia baji, I assumed she was an auntie. Next to her, I did appear very much a child. She is, however, only four years older than me. When I was introduced to her – knowing myself, I most likely stuck my hand out to shake hers – she gave me a look of recognition and sincere compassion. She didn’t accept my hand. Instead, she gave me a hug. I took to her straight away.
It was shortly after meeting Aafia baji that I learned she was a local college student in my hometown of Boston, MA. The students in the area were socially organised and often hosted a range of activities, not only for themselves but, in collaboration with the local Muslim community. Over the years, and at various events and social gatherings, I got to know her well. My parents’ home was a hub for many of the local students. As a result, Aafia spent a lot of time at my parents’ home. There was a large group of us, me being the youngest. We all spent a lot of time together –like an extended family. The familiarity between us all gave way to many inside jokes, Aafia baji often being at the brunt of many. We were merciless in teasing her in our best moments. From trying to get her to chill-out in her uber serious moments to threatening to set her up with random “brothers” in the community for marriage, and to her credit, she was good natured about being teased.
I did a lot of silly things as a teenager, but Aafia baji never judged me. She always kept an open line of communication through my mother and I always saw that she had a soft spot for me. She often called my mother to ask her to bring me to her university campus where she frequently put me to work – whether it was with her extra-curricular activities or her curricular ones.
One of my favourite memories of her was when my mother dropped me off one afternoon at her university dormitory when she needed help with creating artistic poster boards for a class presentation. There were a whole load of them that she needed help designing and colouring. When I arrived, she had an entire snack ready and waiting for me: orange juice in yellow plastic cups and vanilla cream cookies. We must have sat at the table for a good hour just talking. She was good about engaging with me and talking to me at my level – always encouraging me to be truthful and honest about who I am, never deigning to talk down to me. Our big sister/little sister match was quite perfect. I too, had developed a real soft spot for her.
That week, one of Aafia baji’s fellow dormitory residents was away and had asked Aafia baji to take care of her pet budgies. There were three of them – all of them blue. After our little snack, we went into her room where the three budgies were flying around and chirping away. They were taking turns sitting on her desk, on her curtain rod, or on top of the cage. Before we got started on her project, Aafia baji was insistent that the budgies had to be put back into their proper place so as to not distract us from our work. The trouble was how to catch all three of them as quickly as possible. It ended up taking us a long time. Together, we ran around the room in circles chasing after the birds – but they weren’t having any of it. They wanted to fly around free and not be caged. After a while, we just laughed at the silliness of it all. Then Aafia baji grabbed the dupata (shoulder scarf part of South Asian women’s suits) off of her shoulders and waited for the birds to land somewhere accessible. When one did, she carefully threw her dupata on top of the bird and grabbed it. She was gentle with these animals. I know Aafia baji – she would never harm a fly.
Aafia baji stayed in Boston even after she completed her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Eventually, she went on to complete her PhD at Brandeis and then got married. I remember her, her husband – and I even remember hearing the news about the birth of her children. By that time I was in my 20s. Though I didn’t see Aafia baji as often as I did when I was a teenager, she was still a part of my life.
In 2004 when John Ashcroft stood on national television declaring several wanted Al-Qaeda suspects at large, naming Aafia baji as one of them, my mother and I stood in front of the TV in stunned silence with our hands over our mouths. I feel compelled to say that what is being said about her is not the Aafia Siddiqui that I know and love dearly.
Over the years, I have been haunted by all of this. There have been days where I thought I would see her in random places and had to literally rub my eyes and double check. There have been nights where images of her wouldn’t leave my mind so that I could sleep. I cannot even begin to imagine what has happened to her – I cannot bring myself to even picture the image of her small frame being put through years of trauma of an unknown kind. When the first images of her came out in 2008, I couldn’t even look at them without feeling panicked and sick to my stomach. Many members of my family cried. We didn’t even recognise the photographs. She had gone from the woman I knew, a confident adorable beauty dressed from head to toe in maroon, to a woman so visibly broken.
While the world continues to speculate what Aafia baji has been up to in all those years that she went missing, I will continue to keep alive my memories of me and her chasing those blue budgies around in circles and laughing together. Just like those birds wanted not be caught, caged and instead, fly free, I know for sure, so too does Aafia baji.
This article was originally published here