By Mariyam Suleman
My first day in Brighton was a rainy morning of September 2020. The fresh smell of henna on my hands and feet reminded me of something big that had recently happened but by then all that felt like a fairy-tale and I was about to live my dreams.
Aspiring to become a development specialist after years of journalism and writing, I had woken up to the silence in my University hostel, a tiny room in Sussex, with a bed, a table, few shelves, a reading lamp, and a wardrobe. It was all enough for me and it had already started to feel like home.
I had lived a year in Oregon as a teenager, two years in a hostel in Pakistan’s metropolitan, Karachi. They, however, never felt like home the very first day. It always took me time to accept my new surroundings. For some reason, my heart accepted Brighton as home the very moment I stepped in my hostel. I still am not sure why. Perhaps, long before traveling, the photos I had seen of the beautiful beaches and cliffs that resembled those in my hometown of Gwadar or the lively atmosphere of Brighton. I am still to find why Brighton was so quick to make a special place of its own in my heart.
But, long before I had visited any of those beaches and experienced the colors of the town, the first fourteen days, I quarantined myself in my tiny room. This time and space were mine -a relief and refuge from all the chaos I had gone through in the last few weeks.
The freedom of reading and writing uninterrupted on a big desk -all mine, sipping hot chocolate and being myself all day long, were something I had hardly experienced for this long. My time there often reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s work,, “A room of one’s own,” where she argues that every woman needs a room of her own where she has the time and space to think through and have her long uninterrupted writing sessions. She considered intellectual success and individual freedoms, the result of some material things for instance a room with no distractions and financial independence. The life experiences I had had so far made me totally endorse her idea.
But, as much as I loved the silence and my uninterrupted self-indulgences, I did miss the noise and distractions of home. Especially those plates of food and glasses of water that my mom kept by my desk at home when I had forgotten to eat or drink for hours and hours. She would warn me, if I did the same again, she would not feed me instead take my laptop and books away, but the next day she would forget that and repeat. I missed those cute interruptions and love-filled warnings in the silence of my tiny room. But, she was just a video call away and that was a privilege I didn’t have back in 2011 during my year in Oregon. Technology made things a lot easier these days, I often thought.
And thanks to the same technology that kept things going during the peak of the pandemic. Almost everything was virtual in the beginning; classes, seminars, meetings and even grocery shopping. It was all about learning to adopt the new normal and unlearning what we were comfortable with for so long. Most buildings, museums, threatres and dine-in were closed but that gave us the opportunity to explore the outdoors. And Brighton was the perfect place for that.
The beaches were my first preference to spend time with friends and then walking endlessly in the town without any plan, enjoying the colours, architecture and art on walls, rooftops with hanging gardens, vibrant lights and the beautiful tiny cafes packed on both sides of the centuries-old streets.
These were the things I had never seen and experienced in my hometown. We either did not have all this or I really never had the opportunity or the ‘privilege’ I would say, to walk all by myself or with friends in the streets without any fear and restrictions.
There were times when I would sit under a tree in the South Downs -a National Park with Sussex University, all alone, thinking how wonderful it would have been if I could only walk all by myself, in green plains, mountains or on beautiful sandy beaches back home. And sit under a tree or on the sands of our beaches, on warm summer days without any fear. These tiny freedoms, many would take for granted, often made me think about the very basic liberties and rights women often do not have in my place.
I have always adored Gwadar -my hometown, a place I had spent most of my life and have so many beautiful memories connected with but one thing I knew for sure. My feet would never carry me on their own accord to discover the town I dearly adored and have spent all my life in. Perhaps I would have got lost somewhere unknown if I had ever dared walking endlessly in the streets back home. But, that was something I could never do there anyway.
In Brighton, where I had only spent a year, I would not mind walking alone and enjoying the solitude without any fear of getting lost in the unknown. These thoughts reminded me of a passage I had recently read in Orhan Pamuk’s book, “When you love a city and have explored it frequently on foot, your body, not to mention your soul, gets to know the streets so well after a number of years that in a fit of melancholy, perhaps stirred by a light snow falling ever so sorrowfully, you’ll discover your legs carrying you of their own accord toward to one of your favorite promontories”.
Not that I spent years in Brighton but that one year introduced me to some very basic liberties and little freedoms I had never experienced before. For someone who has always been very particular to being productive and planning everything ahead, I learned it was alright to not have a plan sometimes. Throughout the year, I learned to cherish some very little things in life, the times spent with friends traveling in and out of Brighton without much planning, talking hours and hours with them without any fear of judgement and the opportunities of growth, constant learning and unlearning especially under a new normal.