Portrait

A coffee with podcaster, actor and model Nuriya Benson. By Magan Magan.

Nuriya Benson

As I walk to the cafe in Fitzroy to meet my childhood friend Nuriya Benson, I feel the intensity of time. I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to go back in time, but perhaps what it takes to travel back is to first reckon with who we are and who we were. Then, the world offers us the chance to meet our past, as our current self, and heal what we have lost. Did we really graduate 13 years ago? I ask myself as I enter the cafe. The rush of warm wind escaping the door flies through me but all I can think about are the attempts I’ve made to shake time by its shoulders – my compulsion to try to freeze it, to take control – all the times I’ve joked about wanting to go back. Today, for reasons beyond my comprehension, I am able to do just that.

I see Nun sitting at the back of the cafe. We grew up together. We are both Somali. I haven’t seen or spoken to her in years, but our families know each other well. So, I know her as well as one can know a person whose inner life is hidden from the world. In life, we have no choice but to experience loss, though no one tells you that. But when I reach her table I am transported to the past – everything feels visceral; all of a sudden there are words to describe certain experiences.

“What a way to reconnect,” I say.

“I know, right?” she replies. “Who would’ve thought.”

Growing up, Nun always appeared so comfortable in our world. She was one of the popular kids. I, on the other hand, kept to myself and spent my childhood and adolescent years largely alone. I ask her if she felt connected to our world growing up.

“I began to feel disconnected from our world when it started to become religiously restricting,” she tells me, “when I began to get bullied for not being conservative enough.” I can see in her face that she is swimming in the memory of her childhood.

I wonder if Nuriya ever realised how confident she appeared. “You made being a teenager look easy in high school,” I tell her.

“Funny you say that, as you always appeared quietly confident,” she replies. “I’m still surprised to hear you were going through an existential crisis.

“You know, growing up I was the black girl in Australia, then I became a Somali girl in an Islamic school dominated by Arabs, and amongst Somalis I became Australian.”

The waiter arrives with my order. “I didn’t know who I was,” I confess.

“I remember you as super-religious,” she says.

I can only tell the truth: “Yes, I was. I was sold a dream. I was told if I just followed the rules, I would find happiness. I would feel content and God would bless me with connection to myself. The promise never eventuated into any of that.”

Nun looks at me: “You have to work out that kind of betrayal and accept it.”

Our paths towards self-discovery look different. Where I identify as a Muslim, she does not anymore.

“People think I made the decision to leave Islam quite easily. It’s not true,” she says. “This has been a lifelong journey, filled with grief. I spent many years trying not to be exiled for things that non-Muslims take for granted. You’re never enough. No matter how practising you are as a Muslim, especially as a woman, you’re always toeing the line of exile. You can be a saint one moment and be thrown into exile the next. The threat of exile is constantly there.”

I can’t help but think of all the times we saw each other at school, in the corridor, at the playground, at community events, never knowing we were both on this raw journey that demands so much of you.

“Am I right in saying that it’s conditional love?” I ask her.

Nun takes a sip from her latte and says, “Yes, it’s conditional.”

I ask her how she would describe her process of leaving Islam.

“It was like a build-up of small issues,” she says, “discrepancies that led me to face my larger grievances with Islam – pertaining to being a woman and having a lesbian aunty whom I had lost in order to gain the acceptance of our community.

“I had to face myself.”

What do you do with the kind of love that slams you to the ground, then helps you up and tells you how brave you are? Do you wear it like a fur coat? Nuriya shares a truth many of us grapple with when she says, “The hardest pill to swallow for many is: no one is coming to save you from your life. You must do the work alone to improve or transcend your circumstance.”

I take in her words and then, with a shock as sweet as living, I imagine myself in the sea under a waterlogged sky, wondering how to tackle the burden of inherited pain. To find meaning in our suffering, which seems to be the only sustainable way to grow.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Pacts of faith". Subscribe here.

Magan Magan
is the author of From Grains to Gold.