The Only Difference, by Maria Butt: Writing Competition Winners
2015-09-01 14:30:56 -

The third-place finalist Mullingar teen puts herself in the shoes of a native Irish pupil meeting a new school friend with an unfamiliar background



It was the 1st of September and I walked into my primary school. I’d done this before of course; I’d been going to this school for seven years. “One more year to go,” I thought to myself, “just one more year.” As I walked in, I saw the same faces, the same chairs. I could smell the distinct smell our school had of new books, Ms Morris’ perfume and cleaning agents. But there was something different, someone different, someone new. She was sitting in the corner, quiet. Her books had a sticker with her name on it: Aliyah. She looked friendly and approachable, but no one approached her. Maybe no-one noticed her, or maybe it was because of that thing on her head.


I went to a small school in the countryside. We didn’t have a uniform. There was probably only 12 of us in each class, and one class in each year. Our town was small too, everyone knew each other, grew up with each other. There were a few shops, a few pubs and a small park. We weren’t living in the Dark Ages though, we all had televisions, computers and phones; we just were a small town. But this girl, she was so different. She didn’t dress like we did. She had a cloth on her head, I thought it was called a ‘jihad’, a ‘jilbab’ – oh no, wait, a ‘hijab’. I thought she was Muslim. I hadn’t met a real life Muslim before. I’d seen them on the news, though: they always do those terrible things, hurting people. But Aliyah didn’t seem like she’d do that. She seemed nice, friendly. But why was no-one talking to her?


I have this theory, you see. I think we, as people, try to ignore, avoid or make fun of things that are alien to us. Like a coping mechanism. Maybe that’s why no-one was talking to her, because she was so unfamiliar. But isn’t everything unfamiliar before it becomes familiar? I mean, my best friend Beth was unfamiliar before we became best friends. My dog Teddy was unfamiliar before he came familiar. So maybe this is the same.


So I went and I sat beside her and I said “Hey” with the cheeriest face I could put on. I think I might have been a bit loud but I wasn’t sure if Aliyah spoke English or not. She did and she replied with “Hello”. I asked if she was new around here and she told me she had just moved from Pakistan. Other people overheard our conversation and joined in, they were so interested and asked so many questions like “When did you move over?”, “How are you liking Ireland?” and of course someone said,“Do you speak Islam? ” – to which Aliyah smiled, but still happily answered their questions.


Months went by and Aliyah and I became best friends. She was good friends with the rest of class too. We kind of had our own little group: Aliyah, Beth, Tom, Mark and I. She was really intelligent and had a great sense of humour. After a while I think we just kind of forgot that she was new and she just became a part of our class. We learned so much about Islam, Muslims, fasting and Aliyah’s family even invited us over for Eid! They were a lovely family; her dad was hilarious and had the funniest jokes, and her mum made us delicious Pakistani food. I think my favourite food is Aliyah’s mum’s biryani now.


After the Eid party, my friends and I went to my house to just hang out and listen to some music. Usually Aliyah would come too but it was Eid and she had family over. After praising the food and how generous Aliyah’s family was, we began talking about some more serious things. We talked about why we thought Muslims were so bad, why we hear all those things in the media, and of course why Aliyah isn’t like that. Even when my friends left, it’s all I could think about.


The next morning in class, at lunch time, we were all sitting in our group and Beth just asked Aliyah: “Are all of them like you?” “Beth! That’s rude!” I protested. “No, no, it’s okay,” said Aliyah, “what do you mean though?” “Muslims,” Beth said, “are they all like you or are they like the ones in the news?” 


Aliyah smiled and said: “Muslims are just people, like me and like you. They just follow Islam. And like all people, there’s good and there’s bad. Unfortunately only the bad get shown on the news, which makes all of us look bad. In fact, Islam is a religion of pure peace, we are told to never hurt another person, to dress modestly, to give in charity, to smile and say salaam to passers-by, to help the needy, to look after the elderly and so much more! Those people that do those bad things? They aren’t following Islam, not at all.”


I had never thought of it like that, about Muslims being just regular people. They’re just regular people following Islam. A different set of beliefs, that’s all.


Before we knew it, the year was over and we’d finished primary school. It was a bittersweet moment. I learned a lot, of course; that’s what school is for, learning. But other than maths, Irish and English, I learned from Aliyah. I learned the most valuable thing I could have, we’re all human. Black, white, short, fat, Muslim or not, we’re all human. We all look different but we are the same. We shouldn’t let outwardly appearances affect how we treat other people. There’s good people and there’s bad people. That’s the only difference between us. The only difference there should be. The only difference.

TAGS : The Only Difference Maria Butt Writing Competition Winners
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