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Handstitched Katha

By Tamara Haque

Tamara Haque was Highly Commended in the 2023 Women of Colour Mentorship program in partnership with Western Sydney-based literacy movement Sweatshop. She has worked on a short fiction piece, under the guidance of Sweatshop judges and mentors Winnie Dunn and Sarah Ayoub. The work was written in response to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement as part of the All About Women festival. 

Tamara Haque was born in Bangladeshi with roots in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Australia. She cherishes her multicultural upbringing, and writes stories that celebrate Asian and Muslim cultures. Tamara is a strategist by day and a writer by night, who is on a mission to decolonise literature and history.


Tamara Haque Recipient

Sweat gathered on Sariya’s brows. Heart thumped like a mortar and pestle. In the small dining room, sunlight peaked through the drawn lace curtains. Heat radiated from Sariya’s limbs where Ustadh Alam, her Quran teacher, had touched her.

An only child, Sariya lived with her parents in a beige brick house on a leafy street in Minto. Her parents migrated to Australia in the early 2000s from Bangladesh. A civil engineer with a beard to his Adam’s apple made up Baba, Sariya’s father. He was not given a chance by Australian employers because he wasn’t a ‘good fit’. Accepting it as Allah’s will, Baba opened a Bangladeshi grocery store on a corner street in Minto while Ma, Sariya’s mother, catered kacchi biryani from home. Ten years of prayers brought their miracle baby. ‘Allah has given us so much barakah through you, mamoni.’ Ma had crooned, or at least that’s how she tells her. Barakah in the form of a three-bedroom house. Evening cha and board games. Enough income to send Sariya to Al Faisal College. Even a few holidays around Australia and Bangladesh.

The screen door clanked at 12:06pm sharp – the time when Baba came home for lunch. Sariya was waiting at the dining table for Baba, her best friend. There he was with his salt and pepper beard shimmering in the afternoon sun. Clinging to his arm, the first time she tried roller skating her legs wobbled like jelly. He snuck Matilda by Roald Dahl into her backpack when Ma said no books until exams were over. Baba rolled up his sleeves, kissed Sariya on her cheek and gently touched Ma’s slender arm. Ma filled their plates with rice, chicken and two heaping tablespoons of shobji. Baba washed his hands. ‘Did you know hummingbirds can fly backwards? Did you hear what Mrs Saleh said yesterday?’ Baba wiped his knobbly brown hands dry, chuckling to himself as Sariya whittled on, ‘Did you –’. Ma wrinkled eyebrows across the dinner table, ‘Slow down beta, you’ll choke on your food!’ Baba took the momentary silence to update his wife about the shop. Sariya knew that the shop doors would reopen after Dhuhr prayers but not before Baba watched Bangla news with a cup of doodh cha and a ten-minute power nap when he snored like a revving engine.

After lunch, Baba helped Ma clean up, murmuring dhikr together. He made himself comfortable on the sofa as Sariya glanced at the ticking clock. All the Muslim kids on their street shared one Quran teacher, Ustadh Alam. He taught tajweed rules. She now knew when the ‘n’ turned into an ‘m’ and to reach the back of her throat for a heavy ‘qaf’.

Going back into her garage-cum-kitchen, Ma called to her daughter, ‘Bring the kewra bottle!’ Ma continued marinating meat for kacchi biryani. Five cinnamon sticks, twenty cardamom pods, and eleven other spices – she added all this whilst doing dhikr again. ‘Oshadharon!’ Everyone raved about her kacchi biryani. In the background the hum of Zahid Hassan’s dramas on Channel I blended with Baba’s snores.

‘Are you ready for Quran lessons?’ Ma asked, watching ginger and garlic paste splatter in hot ghee.

3pm. The familiar creak of the screen door, but this time the sound made her freeze. He was here. Wrapping a scarf tightly over her head, Sariya greeted Ustadh Alam at the door. ‘Waleikum salaam,’ he said in his low voice. He wore a light blue punjabi and a white tupi adorned his wavy black hair. A lean man with sharp eyes and a scrawny moustache. Ustadh Alam, as she addressed him, also grew up in Minto. Sariya remembered listening to his melodious recitation at the local Quran competition every year when she was younger. Many parents wanted their children to sound just like him. Their wish grew plausible when Alam received his tajweed ijazah and became Ustadh Alam.

Gathering her Noorani Qaida and Quran from the coffee table, she scurried towards the dining room. ‘Tang niye jao!’ Ma exclaimed, reminding her of one of the houseguest rules – always greet visitors with a cold beverage.

After the cool Tang, Ustadh Alam sat in the chair next to her. His bony hand occasionally grazing Sariya’s when narrating from her Qaida. The touch made her skin pores shrivel. The lesson was on al-qalqalah – vibrating five particular letters at the end of a word to produce an echo. With ten minutes to go, she concentrated on getting the qalqalah of ‘abb’ just right. That’s when she felt a hand on her thigh slowly sliding upwards. Skin prickled through the salwar at every touch. Gaze remaining fixed on the ayah, she could feel his stare gorging through her headscarf. Was she still breathing? ‘All-allahu…l-la ilaa-h-ha…’ Sariya tried to whisper Ayatul Kursi under her breath, the fifty words she repeated every single day for protection.

His bony hand abruptly moved away at the screech of the fly-screen. Sariya didn’t look up. She couldn’t. ‘Great work, Sariya. You’re progressing well.’ Alam quickly praised in a silky voice. Gaze still fixed on the Quran; she tried to close it but her fingers stiffened. The footsteps subsided.

Five years ago, Baba took them for Umrah. A sea of black and white, feet treading in rhythm, pilgrims whispering their duas to Allah. They were circumambulating the Kaaba in anti-clockwise circles. Sariya felt overwhelmed, like one of thousands of ants in a colony. Baba scooped her icy hand into his callused one, warming it instantly. He didn’t let go. Not through the seven circulations, not when he pushed through the shifting crowd to help her touch the black stone, or during Sa’ee. She watched Baba raise his sturdy hands and make dua to keep his only child’s smile as cheerful as her toothy toddler giggles after a tickle. To make him a father she could be proud of. His whispered prayers made Sariya feel the warmth of her handstitched katha, which once belonged to Baba. Dadi, her grandmother, had stitched the white katha with red and yellow patterns for him as a child. He used to cover himself with the katha every night and he has been tucking Sariya in it since her birth.

‘Alam, let me know how much I owe you for the month,’ Baba gruffly said with ice in his voice. Sariya hadn’t heard him speak in such a voice before yet it warmed her like her katha, it enveloped her like his gentle embrace. Shoulders stiff, she watched her father’s chest heaving under his blue striped shirt. His eyes focused on the salt and pepper shakers on the dining table. He didn’t look at Alam’s face and slowly turned his gaze towards her face, white as milk. She saw the same hazy eyes and rounded eyebrows when she was sick or in pain. She couldn’t help but let out a nervous sigh of relief. ‘My daughter is done with this class.’