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My first year at University was hellish. I didn’t kid myself it was anything other than hellish for long. No more than three weeks in, I realised that – by agreeing to study in residence at a Central London University – I’d pretty much consented to live in a third-world backwater for 12 months. I fell into a deep lethargy. I stayed in on most of the days when lectures were not scheduled. I drank massively to excess, almost to the point of straightforward alcoholism, and I ate little but pizzas and toast.

I should regret living like that. It’s below my pride. But until you know what it’s like for a naïve, hopelessly polite kid to live in what felt like a Pakistani youth detention centre for 12 months, you can’t understand the need for such obliteration. 

Anyway, On one of the rare occasions I wandered around my sprawling residential campus in a state of sobriety, I recall stopping to smoke a cigarette near where a boy and girl – one Asian, one native – were sitting on the grass, engaged in what looked like an intense conversation. The boy was doing much of the talking. The girl looked dutiful, awkward but maintained a pleasant facade.

“It’s clear as crystal, perfect and nourishing…’ – He was saying. When I heard the boy say this my English mind inevitably tried to restructure what he was saying into different possible metaphors for his phallus, but as he went on, this seemed less and less likely to be the case.

“It’s the most beautiful and pure stream. It’s from heaven. You can cure diseases with it…”

Now he couldn’t be that shameless…

“It described in the Qur’an.”

Ah. Eh? What the fellow was talking about I went on to grasp, was the ‘Zamzam’ wellspring in Mecca, and he was explaining to the girl the wonders associated with the water which flows from it.

I immediately felt sorry for her. She probably thought a British university was going to be the home of free-thinking intellectuals. But instead she had been cornered only a few weeks into her sentence… ahem, I mean her degree, by some amateur imam from Bolton.

For those who don’t know what Zamzam is, it is an Arabian desert spring mentioned in the Qur’an, and revered by Muslims, who gather water from it when they undertake the Hajj pilgrimage. Many bottles (genuine or otherwise) of the liquid are sold in the UK to members of the Muslim Asian community at markets and are billed as being able to bring health and other blessings upon consumption. The guy in this instance had purchased some earlier in the day.

After telling the girl to ‘wait there’ he skipped excitedly across to his tower block and then a few minutes later hopped out again carrying in his hand a clear, unlabeled plastic bottle.

“Wow!” The girl said as she held it in her hands. “Is that really from over there?” She seemed genuinely over-awed by it.

After that I went back inside and cracked open a few Kronenbourg. It wasn’t until my second year (my course is 4 years), when I was meandering by the entrance to my campus and saw the girl again that I remembered that encounter. She’s very different now. The flowing ginger hair I remember her having is now tied-up and hidden under black cloth. All her friends have changed colour. I’m told her name is different to the one she was born with, and that she seems tired.

As am I.  

D, LDN.

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