The tram to Damascus, by Judith Ugwuja
2019-02-01 00:00:00 -
Art & Culture

This 17-year-old from Drogheda won the Spirit of Intercultural Ethics award for her story about learning to overcome one’s prejudice


Samhradh felt like a passenger in her own body. The psychology student had spent the entire day intermittently taking notes down in every lecture and trying to look attentive while actually finishing up her essay on ethics and religion for her independent research project on her laptop. Poor Mr O’Brien would never know that out of his 15-slide presentation of behavioural neuroscience, Samhradh had only taken one note: the title.


The day had been cruel towards her, tedious and interminable. Waking up at 6am and only getting five hours of sleep had left her feeling like a sack of spuds, heavy and slumping and wanting to be immersed in hot water (the bath bomb, candles and glass of wine type). Three years and commuting was still not for her.


Waving goodbye to her friends, she made her way to the tram station. It never ceased to amaze her how incredibly packed the ‘Tintreach’ was on a Monday evening, and as she waited at the boarding line she allowed the familiar setting to wash over her.


The Tintreach, or ‘Tint’, was a big metal robot worm the length of four buses, with a standing area in the middle where passengers held to the metal bar over their heads, and seating at the front and towards the back. The Tint, which was arguably the main transport system in Dublin, looked almost identical to each other, apart from the bold white numbers on their lime green surface.


“Hey Paul,” Samhradh grinned at the driver — “I thought I’d never see you again!” she added with mock drama. He had gone on holidays to Spain with his wife and was looking slightly darker. She reached into her pockets to pull out the coins for her fare. He charges her the child’s fare. At her height, almost five foot three, it was quite believable although she’d turned 23 two months before.


“The loveliest smile in Dublin! How’ye Samhradh? Looking gawjus as always,” Paul laughed, taking her coins and pulling out a ticket for her. Paul knew that Samhradh was a student in UCD, and had a daughter of his own attending the college. Samhradh loved to see him; sometimes she would sit at the front to listen to his CDs (hits from the ‘80s) and have a chat with him.


“Ah stop!” (Irish for ‘thank you’.)


“You look younger every time I see ya, what’s the secret?” he said, sounding like a song. Samhradh thanked him hurriedly, realising she was holding up the queue, and gave him a wink.


Samhradh pushed her way past the chaos around her. Passengers chatted to each other animatedly and the mix of voices created a low humming sound, not unlike that of a swarm of bees. Teenagers at the front were obnoxiously singing the lyrics of a vulgar rap song loudly and out of tune, leaving middle-aged women sitting in a pack not too far behind them tsk-tsk-tsk-ing and asking themselves ‘Whatever happened to the kids of today?’ An older man with Trump-esque hair was having a coughing fit, and a child with several teeth missing, resembling a duckling with tufts of light blonde hair, wailed like a banshee.


It was easy to tune it all out as Samhradh made her way to her favourite seat. The perfect spot by the windows, just behind the wheelchair platform thing which broke the long line of seats towards the back of the tram, leaving her secluded. She popped her laptop bag onto the seat next to her before deciding against it. She knew that if she dozed off it would be taken. She pushed it under the hollow of her chair, popped her ear phones in and pulled out her favourite book. There was a long journey ahead.


Naveed was at the end of a long line when the Tint finally pulled up at the station. He had his phone to his ear and at the end of the line was his wife, Aadila.


“And the look that she gave me!” she exclaimed. “I felt like sinking into the ground, my dear, I could feel the tears coming and I hurried to clean the drink so she could not see.” Aadila’s soft voice broke a little.


“They were ignorant … this kind of thing makes me want to…”


Want to what? Naveed felt powerless. What could he do? March into Tesco and demand to see his wife’s manager and yell at him? She would lose her job and he knew it.

“اندېښنه مه کوه زما پلار” was all that he could manage. He assured her that everything would be okay and that he would be back by her side soon.


A few eyes looked up at his significant height, and a few side glances at his olive skin. You would think that they would be used to seeing me, he thought to himself with a little laugh. Salma’s pink school bag was in his hands and out of place, not matching his grey shirt and dark pants.


On the Tint he headed to his usual spot on only to find a man, perhaps in his 50s, immersed in the Independent. He moved to the seat opposite, but a chirpy looking thin woman placed her hand bag next to it, careful to avoid eye contact. The embarrassment nearly consumed him as he made his way further towards the back of the tram.


“Sorry, I’m saving this seat.”

“My friend’s coming on at the next stop.”

“There’s not enough space for the both of us!”


He knew that he would have nowhere to sit, like his first few days on the tram, where eyes were cautious not to be caught staring and people carried so many bags, coincidentally placed next to them when they were sitting alone. He’d been naïve, believing the ‘coincidence’ until one day he walked past a lady with a bright yellow shopping bag sitting next to her. When he got off at his usual stop, he walked by to notice that the hideous bag was on the floor, and the seat still empty. He wasn’t sure what to feel ... but settled on disappointment. Since that day, he made a point of being first in the line at his station, and sitting in the same spot every day. Today he was late.


“May I?” Naveed asked the young blonde lady with a vacant seat to her left. At first he worried that she did not hear him with her earphones in but she hesitated, removing them, before nodding. Samhradh cursed herself for not leaving her laptop bag on the seat.


“Thank you…” — turning slightly to face her with a smile, he added: “I’m Naveed.”

“Hi…” Samhradh said, reading the same sentence of The Kite Runner again.


An awkward silence followed but Samhradh was relieved. Her body subtly recoiled and she shifted her posture away from him. Something about this man left her feeling unsettled, something sinister. His face was cupped by a dark black beard and his deep-set eyes were framed by thick bushy eyebrows, and although his smile was bright, her mind was already tying him to the ones she saw on the news. The men with the turban-like head wear, wearing black draping clothing and shiny black machine guns hanging across their shoulders. The men who shouted strange things in a strange tongue that brought death and destruction. Naveed was wearing dark clothes. She looked at the pink schoolbag that he is carrying and she wondered what was inside.


“Khaled Hosseini,” Naveed named the author of her book. Pride swelled in his chest that an Irish woman was reading about Afghan people and the hint of a smile traced his lips.


Samhradh nodded cautiously, unwilling to speak to the man next to her.


Naveed resigned from making conversation, thoroughly disappointed and staring out the window at the road. He felt ridiculous for thinking that because Samhradh was reading a book about Afghans that she cared for them.


“Which of those cars move faster?”


The question had come out of nowhere. The tram had stopped at a traffic light, and there was a large parking lot seen through the window where the two sat. Naveed was pointing at two identical cars. One was a deep blue and the other was a bright yellow colour.


“What do you mean?” she replied, slowly examining the vehicles. The question sent her back to her childhood games with her brother. They would both pick a colour and count the amount of cars of their colour that passed; he always won.


“If I were to pick one at random, which one, from looking would be the best?” Naveed, gaining confidence, continued.


Samhradh considered the question carefully. It would depend on the brand, right? The make of the car … Or maybe the wheels? But well…


“You would have to open up the car, look at the engine,” she said. The Tint begins to move again, leaving the parking lot and the cars behind.


“You’d have to see what’s on the inside,” she continued. “You couldn’t possibly tell from just looking!” she added with a laugh, shaking her head.


Naveed is quiet for some time. Samhradh is thoughtful.


“We’re the cars.”

It wasn’t a question but Naveed nodded without looking at her.

“I’m Samhradh.”

“You read about Afghanistan, the story, yet when an Afghan man sits next to you, there is so much silence.”


Naveed voiced his disappointment, standing up and carrying Salma’s bag. The Tint had pulled up at his stop and despite Samhradh’s brief introduction, she remained silent for much of the journey.


‘This is crazy,’ Samhradh told herself, but not soon enough. Her feet were moving on their own accord and she was running toward the stocky Afghan man that she just met as he stepped off the Tint.



What he had said had struck her and she felt like a fool. She preferred feeling crazy.

“Wait!” she called out again.

“I’m sorry, I was rude and I was ignorant and…”


Samhradh gasped for air — she really needed to start going to the gym again, she thought.


She walked alongside Naveed and he told her that she shouldn’t worry. Suddenly Samhradh reflected her name. She was warm and kind towards him. They conversed like she would with Paul. He told her that he was going to pick up his daughter Salma from her creche. He told her how Salma had forgotten her bag with her lunch in it and how worried he was about her. He told her of his wife and her phone call earlier that day; her manager had blamed her for knocking down products in the store she worked in and the white colleague who was responsible got away with it.


Samhradh reassured Naveed and felt a strange embarrassment about the situation, how the white manager had treated Aadila, and she felt like apologising on behalf of the manager. Samhradh told him about her psychology course and how she commutes every day. She asked him what he thought of The Kite Runner as they walked, and the conversation that eluded them on the Tint gradually unfolded. She wondered what they looked like to people walking by.


It was easy to spot Salma from the flurry of little people running out of the bright red creche doors. She had her father’s eyes.


“Things are changing,” Naveed told Samhradh. She had asked what he thought about racism in Ireland.


Salma is holding hands with an equally tiny, ginger girl, whose face was all freckles. They were best friends. Jessica had shared her lunch with Salma today.


“There is hope,” Naveed told Samhradh.

“There is hope” he repeated, and Samhradh wasn’t sure if he was speaking to her anymore.


Samhradh watched the two girls running towards them, huge smiles on their face.


She then realised that her laptop was still crammed comfortably under her favourite seat on the Tint.

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