The Aqil Ghani Media Awards 2021

Alas, we have arrived at the end of yet another year of pandemics, environmental crises, and political turmoil. But despite the doom and gloom that has accompanied 2020 2.0, there were still moments to be enjoyed and memories to be treasured. And so, to commemorate the end of 2021, I’m going to share with you my favourite media from this year.

This year I’ve seen a total of 70 movies, read 44 books, listened to 28,428 minutes of music, binged an uncountable number of TV series and played a troubling amount of video games. Given this and my exhaustive credentials as a media critic, it seems fitting that I give my verdict on the top movies, books, songs, TV series and video games of 2021. Without further ado, I’d like to give you all a warm welcome to the Aqil Ghani Media Awards!

DISCLAIMER: Not everything on this list came out this year, but I did consume them this year, and that’s what really matters. We like to do things differently here at the Aqil Ghani Media Awards.

First up, we have Video Game of the Year. This year marks the eighth year since I made my Steam account and started gaming properly. According to the platform, I’ve amassed over 4,254 hours across 110 games, and that’s just what I’ve played on Steam. During this time, I’ve come across a lot of great games. My honourable mentions for this year include Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, Wasteland 3, Crusader Kings III, and League of Legends. But my Video Game of the Year for 2021 has to be Amplitude’s new turn-based, 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) strategy game, Humankind.

Humankind takes the 4X genre to a new level by moving away from the standard mechanics of other 4X games like Civilisation. My favourite mechanic has to be Humankind’s culture feature. Instead of picking a single faction to play for the entire game, you choose a different culture for each era. For example, you can start the game as the Ancient Egyptians, switch to the Romans, then the Aztecs, the Mughals, and the Zulu before finishing off as the Soviets. This, alongside many other innovative mechanics, makes for a refreshing take on a genre that’s long been stagnating.

For our second category, we have TV Series of the Year. By TV series, I mean both series that can be found on regular television and streaming services like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. This year I watched lots of series, so much so that I lost count. That being said, the series that stood out to me this year include Black-ish, Loki, Star Wars: The Bad Batch, and The Walking Dead. However, the best TV series of 2021 has to be animated Amazon Original Invincible.

Based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, Invincible is a new spin on the classic superhero genre. The animation style is superb, the story arc is a masterpiece in storytelling, the final episode was shockingly entertaining, and let’s not forget the glorious memes that it generated. I don’t wanna give away too much, so be sure to check it out yourself. Just know that it bangs.

Next up, we have Song, Album and Artist of the Year. According to Spotify Wrapped, my most played track this year was All I Want by Olivia Rodrigo. Which, to be honest, I have no explanation for. Seems I’ve been channelling my inner teenage girl a little too much. Other honourable mentions for Song of the Year include Meet Me At Our Spot by Willow Smith and Tyler Cole, Freedom by Pharrell Williams and Letter to the 1% by Lowkey. But if I had to pick my top song of 2021, it would have to be Koi toh miley ga by Pakistani band The Tamaashbeens.

When it comes to albums, it’s no competition; Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda reigns supreme. There’s pretty much a song for any occasion in this album, whether it be a gym workout or sad boy hours. If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to watch the play on Disney+. Insha’Allah, I’ll get to see it live one day.

Our Artist of the Year is someone I’ve been listening to since year 8. It’s the alphabet assassin, the lyrical genius, the one and only Lowkey. He was the first music artist I ever really followed and the key to my political awakening. I was fortunate to be able to go see him live in Birmingham earlier this month to celebrate 10 years since the release of his album Soundtrack to the Struggle. Seeing one of my idols up close was a most surreal experience indeed.

For our sixth and seventh categories, we have Fiction and Non-fiction Book of the Year. This year I set out to read 60 books; however, since starting university, finding time to read amidst assignment deadlines and rampant socialising has been difficult, meaning I fell short of my goal by 16 books. Still, 44 books are quite an achievement for a man like myself, so I’m not particularly disappointed. Before we announce our winners, though, a few honourable mentions are in order.

For fiction, we have Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, I stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. For non-fiction, we have Azadi by Arundhati Roy, Thoughts on Pakistan by BR Ambedkar, The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, and The Hundred Year’s War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi. But of course, only two books will reign supreme this year, and those are Bitter Fruit by the legendary Saadat Hasan Manto (fiction) and Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (non-fiction). Check out my bookshelf to find out why I love these books so much.

For our final category, we have Movie of the Year. Many good movies were watched this year, including One Night in Miami…, Mogul Mowgli, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and The Mauritanian. Still, only one movie can be crowned king, and that king is the phenomenal Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Without saying too much, Spider-Man: No Way Home was like a coming together of my childhood. Not only did it redeem what came before, but it was also a crucial moment for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. Plus, any movie that can get UK audiences cheering and shouting in the cinema is most definitely a special movie indeed. I can’t wait to see where the MCU takes Spider-Man next.

Video Game of the Year: Humankind

TV Series of the Year: Invincible

Song of the Year: Koi toh miley ga by The Tamaashbeens

Album of the Year: Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Artist of the Year: Lowkey

Fiction Book of the Year: Bitter Fruit by Saadat Hasan Manto

Non-Fiction Book of the Year: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

Movie of the Year: Spider-Man: No Way Home

That concludes the Aqil Ghani Media Awards 2021. Happy new year to all those reading. May you grow and learn evermore.

That’s it from me this year. See y’all in 2022!

Peace be with you.

Storytime with Aqil: The Three Fights

There are few events in life that can be called defining moments. Moments in which you come into your own. Moments in which you found out for yourself what kind of a person you are. Moments you’ll remember and pass on to your children as lessons. Moments that make a good story for your blog. In this post, I’m going to tell you about three such moments in my life.

Before we begin, a quick disclaimer: I am in no way advocating for any of the behaviour I’m about to bring to light in this here post. Fighting is both dangerous as well as very immature. Hence, the last fight I had was more than three years ago when I was but a wee little boy (sixteen). I’m merely telling you these stories for entertainment value and perhaps even the off chance you can learn something from my stupidity. So, with the legal side of things sorted, let’s jump right into another – you guessed it – ORIGIN STORYTIME!

Fighting. ‘Tis a natural part of being human. We all fight; We’ve all fought. Every day, your body fights against foreign pathogens. Yesterday, you were fighting against your vices. Tomorrow, you’ll be fighting against an alien invasion. Right now, you’re fighting boredom by reading this post (thanks for the support, by the way, it means a lot). However, few fights are as self-defining as a good old fashioned brawl.

I’d go as far as to say that brawls are a rite of passage. You haven’t really lived until you’ve been punched in the face at least once. This is why I believe combat studies should be made an official part of the UK education curriculum. Too many people go through life without being punched in the face, and quite frankly, I find that unacceptable.

Most men have been in a physical brawl at least once in their youth. It’s how boys vent out their frustration. And it works, despite it being unsustainable (I could go into a diatribe about toxic masculinity, but I’ll save that for another day). That’s why – and I’m sure you’ve seen at least one example of this in your lifetime – boys can get into a fight one day and be best friends the next. For long-time followers of this blog, you may be able to recall that one of my closest friends actually knocked me out in year 7.

This isn’t to say women don’t fight – I went to public school in south-east London, I should know. In fact, I’d say women are even more brutal than men. A fight between two men ends with a little blood and some bruises. A fight between two women ends with a lot of blood. I’m talking on the floor, on the wall, on the ceiling and on the spectators. You break up a fight between two men, you become a hero. You break up a fight between two women, you become a martyr. Women are vicious. Y’all give me nightmares.

But regardless of who is doing the fighting, the fight itself can reveal a lot about their character. If you want to know if someone is merciful or merciless, watch them fight. If you want to know if someone is courageous or craven, watch them fight. If you want to know if someone is honourable or deplorable, watch them fight. Your actions in a fight, when the only thing that matters is your own survival, are the ones that speak most true to your character.

I’ve been in my fair share of fights, both in school and out. In some, I was victorious. In most, I was humiliated. However, each and every one of them served to teach me a valuable lesson. Either about the art of fighting, about myself or about life in general. Today, I will tell you the story of three of those fights.

The Advice That Started It All

Many years ago, before I started wearing glasses, I was attending nursery school. It was here that your boy got into a few scuffles with the other kids. Nothing major, just a little pushing and shoving and occasional kicking from time to time. After one particularly bad scuffle – the details of which have escaped me – I went home and cried to my dad.

Amidst a torrent of tears, I told my dad I hated school because none of the other kids liked me. I’ve still yet to outgrow my melodrama. I complained that none of the teachers did anything to stop it (whether this is true or not, I cannot remember). It was at this point that my dad dropped one of his many pieces of sage advice that would stick with me for life:

“Next time someone hits you, hit them back with the same force. You can’t rely on other people to save you. You have to stand up for yourself.”

To this day, those words continue to echo in my head whenever I’m confronted with a bully. In life, you have to stand up for yourself, and you have to stand up for those around you. Whenever you fail to stand up to a bully, a tyrant walks free to do what they did to you to others. Of course, now that I’m an adult, I’ll have to use methods other than physical violence, but the essence of the message still stands:

“You have to stand up for yourself.”

It would be these words that stop me from backing down from future fights no matter whether the odds were in my favour (as you will see, most of the time, they were not).

Fight #1: The Battle of the Collapsing Tiles

A few years later, after I started wearing glasses and a few more scuffles, I got into my first proper fight. It happened during my second week at secondary school. As I mentioned in previous posts, I never really fitted in and by this point into the school year, I had yet to make any friends.

We had just finished a PE lesson doing rugby. I was never really big on sports growing up, so I wasn’t very good at them. If you had to put me into a box, then I was more a geek than jock. Especially when it came to rugby, which can be quite scary for someone on the smaller side. Getting tackled by people twice your size is not a fun experience. Instead, I’d stay on the outside of the action. My worst fear was being passed the ball and then getting run down by fifteen angry lads.

Anyway, there I was, minding my own business, as we made our way back into the changing room. Our school building was very old and very cramped, evidenced by the creaking floorboards and the asbestos room we were forbidden to enter. As soon as I get into the room, I wash my hands in the sink and then turn to use the hand dryer. Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone grabs the back of my head and smashes it into the hand dryer. An eruption of guffaws fills the packed room.

I turn to face my attacker, anger steaming out my ears like in the cartoons. Standing before me were a group of students, but it wasn’t obvious which one had done it. So instead, I decide for myself who dared to do such a thing. Eventually, concluding it had to be the one with the big smug grin on their face: a kid whom we will refer to as K (seeing as his name began with a K).

To this day, I still have no idea what pushed K to shove my head into a hand dryer. Maybe it was because I was one of the smaller kids, not very athletic, and kind of strange looking with a big nose that my parents promised I would grow into. All this, coupled with my very low position in the secondary school social order, made me an easy target. Preying on the weak is a tactic many have used throughout history to gain respect and admiration, and I wouldn’t have put it past K to see me as his ticket to upward social mobility.

So there I was, angry and in need of retribution. My father’s words echoing in my head. I punch K directly in the kisser, knocking that smug grin from his face. The whole room goes silent save for someone in the back going, “OOOOOoOOOooooOOOOO.”

Now I wish I could say that was the end of it. That I punched K so hard, he fell to the ground and ran crying to his momma. That would’ve made a good story. Maybe it could’ve made it into tomorrow’s headlines: KID STANDS UP TO BULLY AND BECOMES NATIONAL HERO. But, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. All it did was make K blood-red angry. K also had something I didn’t have. K had friends.

Two of K’s friends grab me by the arms and haul me off the ground. I was now dangling in mid-air as K pummelled me in the stomach. Punch after punch, forcing air out my lungs. My eyes began to water as I clenched my jaw, trying to hold back cries of pain against a backdrop of year 7s chanting, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

At some point during the barrage, my brain reminds me that I still have two other appendages at my disposal. With a great burst of effort, I lifted both my legs up into the air and launched them square into K’s chest. This didn’t do much, but it did force him back far enough to lightly brush the wall behind him. And that was all that was needed for the tired, old school building.

First, one tile collapsed off the wall. Followed by the one above it. Then the one above that. Until the entire wall of tiles had come crashing down to the floor in a cloud of dust. Everyone went silent yet again as K’s friends finally let me go.

“Rah, this school is older than my grandma.”

Whoever cracked that joke was a comedic genius because the entire room burst into laughter at that point. Even I managed a few fits between my wheezing. Eventually, the teachers arrive on the scene and ordered everyone to stop messing about. Then, after a stern telling off, they hurried us to get changed and dismissed us for the day. I don’t think anyone got in trouble that day; I’m pretty sure the teachers knew the school needed a renovation.

No adult found out about the Battle of the Collapsing Tiles. After all, snitches get stitches, as they say. I don’t even think I ever told my parents about it either (hey, mum and dad, if you’re reading this). I actually remember trying my best to hide the bruises from my parents. I guess I was too embarrassed to admit I’d been beaten up. A trend that continued throughout all my years in secondary education.

At the end of the day, I did learn a few lessons from this experience. Mainly not to start a fight when you’re outnumbered. I should’ve hit back with my words instead of fists. Cuss out his wonky teeth or something, I don’t know. At least that would’ve earned me the crowd’s approval and saved me from having an aching abdomen for a week. But, alas, it would take me many more years to perfect my wit.

Fight #2: The Battle of the Lunch Line

A few months later, I got myself into another fight just before we broke up for Easter. Like most Muslim kids born after 9/11, I’ve had to endure a lifetime of bullying for an atrocity I had nothing to do with. Most of the time, this would consist of verbal abuse, but sometimes it got physical. This was one of those times.

In my year group, there were only about four Muslims that I knew of. Now you’d think that us being in the minority would make us want to stick together, but alas, I was still too weird for the other Muslim kids to want to hang out with me. I guess a part of me also felt as though I wasn’t Muslim enough to hang out with them. Too Muslim for the non-Muslim kids but not Muslim enough for the Muslim kids (an identity crisis I still struggle with, but that we will save for another day). In short, I was left to navigate the Islamophobia of secondary school alone.

So there I was, waiting in line outside the cafeteria. Our school was so over capacity that there were three lines for lunch. The first line was around the corner of the cafeteria. Once you’d finished with this line, you’d get promoted to the line outside the entrance to the cafeteria. After that line, you’d have to queue one final time inside the lunch hall for your food, at which point you’d be lucky if any food was left. It wasn’t uncommon for students to go their 1-hour lunch break without eating, especially considering there were rules against eating anywhere besides the cafeteria.

Looking back, I’m surprised I managed to do as well as I did, considering the complete lack of resources. I believe this is one of the key downsides of academies. Without local authority oversight, academies get away with cutting a lot of corners to the detriment of their students’ wellbeing. And don’t even get me started on federations. *Cough* Harris *cough*. My principal was in charge of three schools within our federation, which meant she was only on-site once a week. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the federation’s government funding went into the pockets of its executives.

Anyway, we’re getting carried away. Where was I? Oh, that’s right, I was waiting in line. A couple of students behind me started making jokes about 9/11. Now considering nearly 3,000 innocent Americans lost their lives that day, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed during the War on Terror that proceeded it, 9/11 is no laughing matter.

Naturally, being the only Muslim within the vicinity, these jokes slowly started becoming insults hurtled towards me. If you’re Muslim, I’m sure you’re more than accustomed to being called all manner of slurs from “raghead” to “sandn*****” or just plain old “Osama.” However, one particular kid, whom we shall refer to as Z, got a little more creative with his insult:

“I bet your people did 9/11 to celebrate your birthday.”

Let us take a minute to analyse the inaccuracies of Z’s insult. First up, we have “your people.” Just in case you were unsure, I have zero affiliations with Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organisation for that matter, and so they are not my people. In fact, I, alongside pretty much every other Muslim in the world, consider them a disgrace to humanity.

Next up, we have the bit about 9/11 being a celebration of my birthday. I wasn’t born until the 20th of November, two months after 9/11 (y’all know my birthday now, I expect gifts). So unless Al-Qaeda was a little too eager to celebrate my incoming birth, this part of the insult is also wholly inaccurate.

I would not stand for such slander and decided to fire back with a long string of expletives telling Z to shut his mouth. Not my most elegant moment, I assure you. This got him angry enough for him to push me. Now that he’d thrown the first shot, I was well within my rights to hit back in self-defence. And oh boy, did I hit back.

There we were, in the middle of the lunch line, throwing everything we had at each other. Punches, parries, elbows, headbutts, the whole lot. Whatever you wanted, we had it. Z hit me with a very strong right hook that drew blood from my nose (the bridge of my nose has a slight scar, and I think I got it from this fight, although it may well have been another). Then, just as the teachers were about to break us up, I thought I’d go in for one last dirty shot and so kneed Z in the balls. He doubled over, and I got detention. I wasn’t too fussed about it though, I had just won my first fight.

Fight #3: The Battle of the Keyboard

The last fight I ever had was around five weeks before my GCSE exams. As you can see, the urge to fight transcends the need to study. The backstory to this one is quite long, so bear with me.

For those who don’t know, I’m British-Pakistani. If you’re a minority in any country, you’re bound to be exposed to at least some racism. But Britain isn’t just any country. The British Empire basically pioneered how we see race and ethnicity, from the pseudo-science that’s still prevalent today to racist policies that were only overturned during my parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes (the implications of which are still felt today). It is within this hotbed of racism that the word “Paki” was introduced.

“Paki” is a racial slur indiscriminately used against people of perceived South Asian descent. It is commonly associated with “Paki-Bashing”, which is a term used by skinheads to describe the act of violently assaulting people of perceived South Asian descent. My father has many stories of people he knew that were victims of “Paki-Bashing”. Luckily, “Paki-Bashing” was an outdated practice by the time I was born; however, hate crime, in general, is still prevalent throughout the UK.

For more information on the word “Paki” and my experience with racism, allow me to point you towards an interview I did with Pak-Cord:

Anyway, leading up to the fight, there was a discussion in our English class about whether “Paki” was really a racial slur. Being the only Pakistani in the class, I assumed my opinion would hold the most weight, so I made it clear how I found the word very offensive and that I wouldn’t tolerate its use by anyone.

Unfortunately, being outnumbered, I became an easy target for harassment over this. People would pretend to almost say the word constantly. Usually, they’d go something like this:

“So Aqil, you’re a Pakiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiistani, right?”

Now you’re not really fooling anyone when you do this, but I knew that if I flipped on someone, then I’d be the one in the wrong. I bided my time and waited patiently for someone to slip up, and sure enough, someone did. We will refer to this individual as X (his name actually began with A, but I thought that’d be confusing since my name starts with A, so I opted to use the last letter of his name instead).

X was a troubled kid. His parents were very wealthy, they lived in a private estate, and he just seemed kinda out of place in a public school. You also got the sense that X didn’t get enough love from his parents, and seeing as he was also an only child, he seemed kinda lonely too. However, X was also a little edgy. We ended up finding a bunch of Nazi paraphernalia on his school computer during one of our Computer Science classes.

During another Computer Science lesson, a fellow student starts pushing my buttons. He asks me, in a mocking tone, whether the word “Paki” is offensive. I tell him yes. He then asks what I’d do if someone says it to my face. Being a sixteen-year-old male, filled to the brim with testosterone, I try to act all big and say that if someone says it to my face, I’ll punch them in theirs. This student then turns to X and dares him to say the word. X, being the edgy person he is, goes along with it and actually says the word.

Of course, I cannot promise something and then not deliver. I got up, walked over to X, grabbed him by his shirt collar, and pulled him out of his seat. We struggled for a few moments while all this was happening. He even tried removing his keyboard from his computer to hit me with it. After a few more moments of pushing and shoving, I eventually had him out of his seat and up against the wall.

Now that we were both standing, the striking began. We hit each other back and forth for about thirty seconds (which is actually a long time in a fight). Eventually, after just a few punches to the face and body, X yields and apologises. I accepted his apology and let him go. Then the SLT arrived.

The decision was made to separate us for the day. X got sent into exclusion while I was allowed to return to class. I only got off scot-free because the SLT member that first responded was one of the very few black members of staff, so he understood why I was upset and went easy on me. He was also my French teacher as well, and we got on, so maybe that played a factor too. However, not everyone was happy with his decision.

A few hours later, when I was in English, I get taken out of class by another member of the SLT. He couldn’t renege on his colleague’s decision, so he decided that he’d just give me a piece of his mind instead. He started off by saying:

“First of all, Aqil, I cannot believe he called you a Paki.”

And he just let the word sit there in the air. Now, regardless whether you think the word is offensive or not, you have just seen a student get emotionally unsettled by it. For you to then go out of your way to say that word to that student’s face is just wholly irresponsible. He then went onto a lecture about how hitting people is bad, but I wasn’t paying attention. To be perfectly honest, I was too shocked by what he’d just said to me as his opener.

It was during that lecture in the corridor that I realised you can’t fight everyone. Sometimes, people just have too much authority and power behind them. This realisation made me angry, but I was at a loss for words. To this day, I wish I said something, but I didn’t. I was too afraid to stand up for myself when it came to a teacher. After all, you can’t hit a teacher.

I vowed from that day on to perfect my ability to use words to stand up for myself rather than my fists. Now, this isn’t to say I wouldn’t physically defend myself if I’m physically attacked. If you punch me, expect it to get hella south up in here. However, if I can avoid a physical confrontation through my words, then that’s the route I take, and so far, it’s worked very well. I haven’t been in a fight since.

And that concludes the final fight of this here story. From reading this post, you may get the wrong impression that I spent my entire childhood getting into fights every other day. This is not true. In fact, compared to most other boys in my year group, I was quite timid. I reckon I had no more fights than the average boy growing up. Perhaps even fewer. I’m a lover, not a fighter.

Ultimately, fighting is just a part of life, and while we should avoid it, we shouldn’t shy away from it when the time comes. If you’re attacked, you have every right to defend yourself. While I may not be proud of the fights I got into as a kid, I’m glad I did. Now, whenever I have to deal with confrontations, I don’t back down because I know that I’ll be able to defend myself if it gets physical.

Eid Mubarak!

Eid Mubarak. May Allah shower blessings upon you and your family. Ameen.

Today marks the end of Ramadan, but it also marks one week since Israeli forces illegally entered the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. Since then, the Western-backed colonial state of Israel has placed Masjid al-Aqsa (the third holiest site in Islamic tradition) under siege, launched missiles into the Gaza strip, and continued the sadistic process of ethnic cleansing it began in 1948.

At this point in the 73-year-old conflict, there is no longer room for sitting on the fence. You’re either on the side of a fascist state armed with one of the world’s most powerful militaries or that of a native population that has been subject to the same brutal treatment enacted upon the Jewish people of Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the world’s governments have chosen to remain largely silent on the genocide currently taking place in one of the world’s holiest lands.

As Muslims across the world wake up today to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, Palestinians will be waking up to mourn the loss of their daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, cousins, aunties, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, and colleagues. So far, at the time of writing, a total of 17 children have been killed by the Israeli “Defence” Force. None of these children asked to be born into this conflict. None of these children were combatants. The only crime they committed, at least according to the Zionist apartheid State of Israel, was their mere existence.

For many of us, today will not be the happy Eid of years past but rather a solemn one. While we greet friends and relatives with smiles and break bread with our brothers and sisters, our hearts will be torn as we remember those that do not have this privilege. In many ways, this Ramadan has been a test for all of us but none quite like that for the people of Palestine.

However, it is important to remember that no matter how grim things may seem right now, whether in Palestine, Kashmir, Xinjiang, Myanmar or elsewhere, there is always hope. Indeed to lose all hope is to lose your belief in Allah. As for those who have lost their lives, let us remember that they are not really lost at all.

وَلَا تَحۡسَبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قُتِلُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمۡوَٰتَۢاۚ بَلۡ أَحۡيَآءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمۡ يُرۡزَقُونَ

And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision,

The Qur’an [3:169]

A Reflection on Loneliness and How to Punch

Two weeks ago, I received my Autumn physics exams results. I am happy to report that your boy bagged an A; thus concluding the whole A-level predicament. Alhamdulillah!

The stress plaguing me these last few months has finally been lifted from my shoulders, leaving room for the next load of stress that life’s going to throw at me. And so, it is in this moment of respite that I can sit back, relax, and reflect for a minute.

This past year has been a rough one. I’m sure you’re more than acquainted with why that’s the case. The way I see it, my life has been on pause since March. Unlike most of my peers, I did not start university this year, so I’ve virtually been stuck at home these last nine months.

During this time, I’ve learned things about myself as I’m sure you have as well. The key thing I have learned – the subject of this post – is that I’m not able to cope with loneliness as well as I used to. To understand why we must delve into my past. That’s right. It’s time for my ORIGIN STORY!

In primary school, I was very much a loner. I struggled a lot with making friends because my interests were very different from my peers. I wasn’t into sports. To this day, I’ve yet to sit down and watch an entire ninety-minute football match. Considering I’ve lived my whole life in England, this is borderline blasphemy. The most I do is watch cricket when its India vs Pakistan but that’s more for the culture than anything else.

Neither did I have Cartoon Network or Disney XD, like the other kids, so I couldn’t relate to any of the shows they talked about. Even during playtime, I used to prefer staying in class playing with Lego, drawing, or reading than outside playing with the other kids. I was a bit of an oddball.

This isn’t to say I was sad, I was actually pleased to spend my playtimes alone because as far as I was concerned playing with Lego was way more fun than playing football. Nonetheless, the result was that I was very socially awkward and only had a tiny group of friends.

When I started secondary, I lacked the social skills that my peers had. My few friends from primary had started at different schools. So I was alone without the skills needed to make new friends. This meant that for much of my secondary school career, I was a social outcast. It also didn’t help that my school was set up in a very odd way.

My school had four houses (we called them Ties because we were differentiated by our ties’ colour). I was in Green Tie. Coincidently, I was also in Green House in primary school and Wilberforce House (also denoted by the colour green) in Sixth Form. I guess the magical sorting hat known as fate decided that I was a Slytherin at heart despite my inclination to the unseriousness of Hufflepuff.

These four houses were then divided into two bands: X and Y. In the X band you had Red and Blue Tie students, and in the Y band you had Green and Yellow Tie students. For the first two years of school, our classes were determined by our band. This meant that you didn’t even get a real chance to socialise with half your year group, thus limiting your potential pool of candidates for friendship. From year 9 to 11, the bands were finally mixed for our optional classes, but by that time, secondary school’s social circles were set in stone, and I was left adrift.

I did make one friend in year 7, though. He was an immigrant from Bangladesh – something I was surprised to find out given he spoke with an almost Canadian-like accent – and had just started school in the UK. We used to spend our break times playing Pokémon cards or discussing video games. Unfortunately, this friendship wouldn’t last long due to a very stupid yet humorous sequence of events.

This friend and I would often be singled out and picked on due to our different interests. It also didn’t help that we were both brown and Muslim. The other kids used to call him “Big Aqil” because he was taller than me at the time. One day, we were leaving through the school gates when another student started verbally abusing us. My friend decided that he had enough and began to swing for the bully.

I would now like to take a pause in this story to deliver a PSA on punching techniques. When you deliver a punch, there’s a particular technique you must follow to maximise damage done to your opponent while minimising damage dealt to you.

The first, and arguably most important, step is to make a fist. Now a lot of people surprisingly get this wrong and end up injuring themselves so listen up. To make a fist, you must first open your hand, stretching out your fingers and thumb. Then curl in your fingers at which point you’ll be left with a thumbs up. Your thumb is then secured onto the outside of the middle phalanges of your fingers.

Many people end up connecting their thumb to the proximal phalanx of their index finger or, even worse, underneath their fingers. This will inevitably lead to a broken thumb when you land a punch, so please don’t do it. Your wrist must be kept straight at all times. This ensures that the fist is reinforced allowing you to put more power behind your punch.

The second step is to get into your resting stance. Different martial arts have slightly different stance variations for different reasons. Muay Thai fighters like to keep their arms highs with their elbows flared out and shoulders square-on to allow for easier elbow strikes and kicks. But for the purpose of this post, we will be looking at the traditional boxing stance.

Tuck in your chin by slightly lowering your head and place your fists in front – not too far and not too close. Your elbows should be kept close to your sides to defend your ribcage. Your legs should be kept apart with your less dominant side at the front and a slight bend in the knees. Your shoulders should face your opponent side-on with your less dominant side in front.

For example, if you are right-handed, your left leg should be in front with your left shoulder angled towards your opponent. To keep things simple, we’ll assume everyone is right-handed – sorry left-handed folks. Whenever you’re not throwing a punch, you should be in this position. All punches start and end here.

Now we move onto the actual punches. There are different types of punches, such as hooks and uppercuts, but we will just be looking at a basic jab and cross to keep this post short.

To throw a jab, simply rotate your waist clockwise. As you do this, extend your left arm rapidly outwards, leading with your fist in a straight line towards your opponent. Your jab should be shoulder height, so don’t aim too high or too low; aim straight ahead. Of course, if your opponent is a different height to you then adjust accordingly. Once your arm is fully extended, it should immediately be brought back into the rest position.

Similarly, to throw a cross, rotate your waist anti-clockwise extending your right arm. As before, do not aim too high or too low. However, this time you should also pivot your back foot to get more power behind the punch. Once again, the arm should immediately be brought back to the rest position once fully extended.

The aim is to hit your opponent hard and fast with your knuckles. Think of yourself as an oscillating system. Equilibrium is the rest position with the peaks and troughs being your jabs and crosses. At no point should one of your arms be left sticking out.

Before we get back to the story, I’d like to cover a few things to keep an eye out for. If your unsure whether your opponent is in range just throw a jab. Your jab is your measuring tool so use it wisely. If you find you are out of range then simply move closer to your opponent. Don’t overextend your punches lest you be punished with a volley of punches throwing you off balance. Your legs should be providing a stable base at all times. As a general rule: Move your legs first before you move your arms. Fleet footwork is key.

It is imperative that you keep your knuckles in line with your forearm and wrist. This is because you will be hitting your opponent with them and so it’s a good idea to keep them reinforced otherwise you risk injuring yourself. Lastly, do not flare out your elbows when you punch. Remember the punch is lead by the fist, so you do not need to raise your elbows out to the side before extending your arm. The punch should be a fluid straight-line motion.

When my friend swung for the bully, he ignored all of the rules mentioned above. Instead, he decided that he’d like to charge up his punch by swinging his arm all the way behind him before going for the bully. Unfortunately, I was standing behind him. It didn’t end well.

A few moments later, I woke up in the medical room. My friend was standing by the door; the colour drained from his face. I was more embarrassed than I was angry at him. Within a few days, word had travelled around the school, and kids began taunting me, but the worst part of it all was that my father was picking me up that day. He had brought me some wings and chips from my favourite chicken shop, and by the time I left the medical room, they were cold. After this, I stopped talking to my friend; the embarrassment was too much. He was also in Red Tie, so I didn’t have any classes with him until year 9 making it easier to avoid him.

For the next few years, I just drifted between different social groups, never really part of any of them. In almost all of them, I was ridiculed for my differences in the name of banter. Kids would talk about me behind my back, and I was rarely invited to hang out outside of school. More often than not, people would tear me down than build me up. At the time, I didn’t think this was a problem because I had just assumed that this is what fitting in was supposed to be like. This, of course, destroyed a lot of my already dwindling self-confidence.

On the flip side, when you don’t have a lot going for you socially, you find it a lot easier to spend time by yourself. I would spend a lot of my free time playing video games to the point that I was clocking 30 hours a week on Team Fortress 2. Other than video games, I would also read a lot of comic books. Loneliness wasn’t a significant concern for me because I had resigned myself to the fact that kids were just naturally unkind. The time I spent alone was way more fun and emotionally fulfilling than the time I spent with others.

Luckily, by the end of year 11, I reconnected with my friend from year 7. Things were awkward at first but seeing as we were going to be starting at the same Sixth Form, it seemed appropriate that we just forget about the past. Through him, I met two other students from X band that were also going to the same Sixth Form.

On the whole, my secondary school experience was pretty bad socially. I would often pretend to be ill to avoid going into school. However, academically it was going very well. I would usually rank amongst the top of my class and was the first student to sit the GCSE further maths exam. When you didn’t have friends, you’d have a lot more focus in class. And while I did meet some decent people in secondary school, I wouldn’t call them friends per se save for the three that joined me in Sixth Form.

It wasn’t until I took part in the National Citizen Service (NCS) when I fully came out of my shell. For those unaware, NCS is a four-week program where teenagers get together and participate in activities before undertaking a project for their local community. It’s not mandatory but is highly encouraged by schools. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to said their wave was quote “dead” – meaning dull – so my wave (Bromley Wave 8) was certainly an anomaly.

For the first time, I was surrounded by genuinely kind people. Before this, I was often greeted with animosity by my peers. Instead, at NCS, people celebrated me and my differences. People built me up instead of tearing me down, giving me a much-needed confidence boost. I will forever remain grateful to those I met at NCS for giving me the chance to socially thrive and come out of my shell. They essentially changed me from a bitter introvert sceptical of others to an enthusiastic extrovert who actively goes out of his way to meet new people.

With my new found confidence, I was able to socially thrive in Sixth Form. I made a lot of friends from different walks of life. I took part in social events; something I would’ve never dreamed of at secondary. I also grew very close with my friend who knocked me out in year 7, to the point I consider him my brother. The truth is, I feel as though I found my community in Sixth Form. And by finding my community, I ultimately found myself.

Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can be harmful. I had essentially become dependent on social interaction with others. This meant that when lockdown started, I had a lot of adjusting to do. Without my community, I struggled a lot, which brings us back to the whole point of this post. I can’t cope with loneliness as well as I used to.

When the lockdowns first started, I found myself with a lot of free time but hardly anything to do. Physically cut off from my peers, I began to miss the little things. The ramblings we used to have on our train journeys. The daily shenanigans we got up to in room 10 – our weekly games of Cards Against Humanity. The philosophical discussions I used to have in the canteen during my free periods. The chicken and beef burgers I used to get from Wrap City located just outside Victoria Station (Highly recommend). All of this was brought to an abrupt end on the 20th March.

I needed things to occupy myself with at home, so I took up reading more seriously – something I’d begun to neglect. I even revisited comics again, which I had stopped reading in year 12. My video game consumption ultimately skyrocketed yet again. Anything to keep me occupied lest my mind wanders to unpleasant places. I also took up writing which culminated in the establishment of this very blog. That being said, I still missed my friends greatly and yearned for social interaction. There is only so much time one can spend cooped up with family before going insane.

This feeling of loneliness was new to me. As mentioned before, prior to NCS, I had learned to enjoy the time I spent alone. In many ways, I was my own best friend. Since NCS, if I ever felt lonely, I could just meet up with friends. With the new lockdown restrictions, this was impossible. Lockdown was the introvert’s paradise, yet I was no longer an introvert.

Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of technology, I could still communicate with my friends via social media. Had social media not existed, I’m sure I would have gone insane. Then again, one could make the convincing argument that it is social media itself that is driving us insane. Alas, that is a topic for another day.

With one of my friendship groups, which we dub “Brown Society” due to the majority of members being of South Asian descent, we began hosting weekly intellectual discussions. Our very own Oxford Union, you could say. This eventually evolved into weekly games of Among Us. Unfortunately, these discussions and gaming sessions only lasted a few months as everyone was slowly preparing for their new lives at university – something I’ve yet to experience.

As sad as it may be, I need to come to terms with the fact that people are moving on with their lives and I should too. The friendships that are meant to last will do so and those that aren’t, won’t. The sense of community I felt at Sixth Form is gone and, from what I’ve heard from my peers at university, it probably won’t ever come back. I’ll try my best to hold onto the friendships I’ve forged these past three years. Still, I must also remember that people outgrow each other and move onto greater things – ‘tis natural.

And so I venture into 2021, with the acceptance that, for better or for worse, things will never be the same again. Happy new year to all those reading, I hope you all fulfil your ambitions for the next year. For myself, I hope to come to terms with this new feeling of loneliness. Perhaps maybe reach an equilibrium between my current extroverted and past introverted selves.

That’s it from me this year. See y’all in 2021!

Peace be with you.

Aqil Ghani’s Gap Year Goals

On Wednesday, I completed my final A-level Physics exam. The exams themselves went far better than I anticipated. Paper 1 and 2 were smooth sailing with paper 3 posing the most significant challenge yet still tameable. I think its safe to say that I did not crumble and fumble (see my previous post). Of course, we will not know for sure until my second results day on the 17th December. In the meantime, though, I find myself presented with a lot of freedom.

It is strange to find myself free of academic responsibility: no more exams, no more classes, no more homework, no more timetables. And while we have been in Lockdown for the past eight months (wow!), this time it feels different. I no longer have the uncertainty of A-levels casting a shadow over my daily life. It’s done and dusted. Never again will I have to do Physics in my life, and in this, I take immense pleasure. But now I feel a kind of emptiness. A-levels had been the primary concern of my life for the past two years. Before that, it was GCSEs. Day in day out, Monday to Friday (and even some Saturdays) I was in school. For the next year, I will have no such commitments. My long-coveted gap year is finally underway, and I have a lot of time on my hands now. The question is: What to do with this time?

Believe me; I would love to spend the next year just kicking back and playing video games. However, this would be a complete waste of time. Not because I would not enjoy it but because I would have nothing to show for it – I am nowhere near skilled enough to be a professional esports player. I want to look back in a year and say: “Yo, that gap year was actually lit you know, I did X, Y and Z” as opposed to “Man, I sure could’ve used that time way better instead of just playing League all day.” So instead, I have decided to dedicate my time to the following endeavours.

I now present to you: Aqil Ghani’s Gap Year Goals! (This post is more for myself than anyone else to act as a record I can review at the end of my gap year). So, without further ado, in no particular order, let us begin:


For those who know me (and those who have read my last post), it is no surprise that I aspire to be an actor. It was my sole motivation for taking a gap year after all. A year to pursue acting. The main thing you need as a professional actor is an agent. Agents are what get you acting work after all. Now, this is no small feat, especially with the effect COVID-19 has had on the acting industry. Small acting agencies are going through financial difficulty, and a lot of the larger ones are not admitting any new actors in what was already quite a hard industry to get into. Nonetheless, this will not deter me from doing what I can to get the prerequisites covered.

The main thing you need to get an agent in the UK is a Spotlight CV (And this will be what I am going to work towards over the next year). There are two ways to do this 1) Go to drama school and graduate with a degree and 2) Have at least four professional credits in featured speaking roles. Unfortunately, I will not be able to go to drama school, and so I am left with the second option. Alas, we have the old “chicken and the egg” predicament. You see to get acting roles you need an agent, but to get an agent you need to have done some acting roles. This is very much the first of many mountains one must climb to become a successful actor. Fortunately, in the modern age, we have the internet. There are many sites online that one can use to find available casting calls, such as Backstage and StarNow, so I will be using said sites to find work. Once I’ve done this, I just need to put together a showreel showcasing my talent, get some headshots taken, and I’m good to go. Of course, this is all easier said than done.

The actual process of getting an agent once you’ve met the prerequisites is a long one. It took my acting coach a whole year to get an agent, and he had the added advantage of going to drama school in South Africa. It is going to be a process fraught with rejection. Even once I get an agent, this won’t change. The life of an actor is very much one of sacrifice, uncertainty and financial insecurity. There is no set path when it comes to becoming an actor like there is for doctors, lawyers or engineers. A drama degree and an agent doesn’t guarantee that’ll you will get work the same way medicine or law degrees do. This isn’t to say that treading those paths are easy – I know some doctors, lawyers and engineers who can tell you just how hard it is – but they are most definitely paths that have been trodden before with a set roadmap to follow. For an actor, there is no road map. Just a bunch of objectives hidden in a dense jungle that you need to find and even once you’ve found them you still need a massive dose of luck to get admitted into the temple filled with the treasures. A far cry from the well-paved highways with signposts that tell you where you need to go and what you need to do to get the keys required to enter the hospital, courtroom or construction site. That being said, I know that in front of the camera is where I want to be. Nothing else can quite match the thrill of tapping into one’s deep-seated courage to deliver a line to a captivated audience. And so if that requires me having to forge my path, away from the beaten track and into the dense jungle, then so be it.


For my entire life, I’ve always been the scrawny kid who was never particularly good at sports. Not because I don’t like playing sports – I do – it’s just that my enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate into skill as I’m sure my friends who played cricket with me at Lord’s are well aware. And while I may not look it, I consider myself quite physically fit having done several martial arts over the years from Karate to Muay Thai and even a little bit of Jiu-Jitsu. However, when you look at my skinny frame, you wouldn’t think I’m that athletic. It’s no secret that when it comes to acting, one needs to maintain a particular physique – you know the chiselled jawline, bulging biceps and six-pack that is all too familiar amongst Hollywood stars today. Furthermore, let’s not pretend that when it comes to finding a romantic partner that your physique doesn’t play a part. And so over the next year, I aim to significantly change my skinny frame into one that is more “swole”.

This is not the first time I’ve tried to do this. As someone who has struggled with body image issues – yes, men can also have body image issues – Its always been a dream of mine to one day become “dench”. Unfortunately, this desire has led me to take on board advice that in hindsight wasn’t the best. For example, when I was fifteen, I got the awful idea that drinking a gallon of milk a day would somehow magically turn me into the next Hrithik Roshan. As you can imagine, this ended horribly, I kept it up for about three weeks, and then my bowels turned against me. Now my body can’t even handle a single glass of milk, let alone a gallon. Even though now I’m a lot more cautious having learned that online advice isn’t necessarily the most reliable – what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the next – I still want to attain that so-sought-after figure of an ancient Greek statue. Fortunately for me, I have a friend I met in Sixth Form who used to be skinny like me. Now he is one of the “denchest” people I know. He’s offered to help guide me in my quest, and I most definitely will be taking advantage of his guidance.


One thing that people often say to me is: “Aqil you should start a YouTube channel”. The truth is, I did have a YouTube channel from when I was about eleven to fifteen. It wasn’t anything special: Just another kid with a high-pitched voice making Minecraft videos in an age when everyone was making Minecraft videos. I’ve since had it deleted. Now I suddenly find myself with an abundance of time, I thought, why not give it another try. However, I will be doing things differently. Instead, I will be tailoring it more towards acting rather than gaming. It will serve as a kind of portfolio of my work. I aim to write, direct and act in short films that I can share with potential collaborators in the future. I may even upload vlogs and make documentaries on topics that interest me. In many ways, it will be like this blog – just another way to spurt out my endless stream of thought into the universe.


Speaking of blogs, I started this site back in June as a way to occupy myself during Lockdown. Since then, I’ve only made a measly seven posts. This is something I want to change. I want to expand this into something I do more regularly. I want to make it something I can point to whenever anyone asks me: “So Aqil, what are you about?”. And so, I aim to post more regularly on more wide-ranging topics, and I may even expand this site to include some of my acting work with maybe even some occasional photography. So far, I’ve only really covered historical topics. While I still aim to complete my series on Jinnah’s Pakistan, I do wish to cover more issues relating to pop culture, society and politics in the future. Right now, I have an idea concerning everyone’s favourite brown girl from New Jersey (wink wink to my fellow Marvel fans). Furthermore, my last post and this one, which have essentially consisted of me waffling about my life, have proven to be a very therapeutic experience for me. So I also want to do more posts just talking about me, myself and I (the site is named after me after all).

4U Tutors

Last but not least, I have an exciting project to share with you. A group of friends and I have decided to create and sell online GCSE courses. So far, we are still in the early stages as the courses are still in production, but you can still follow us on Instagram to stay updated. I will be making the Geography course which I am currently a third of the way through. Each course will consist of videos, worksheets, quizzes and tests that you will have lifetime access to. So if you know any current GCSE students, sharing this with them will be much appreciated. I aim to get the Geography course completed by the end of this year.

Alongside these primary goals, I also have secondary goals, that while not imperative for the next year, would be nice to accomplish. These include: doing some form of work experience, writing an article for a newspaper/magazine, begin writing a novel, learning how to cook biryani, develop a cure for cancer, and maybe even some travelling when/if COVID-19 calms down.

Alas, this concludes today’s post. I was going to end with an inspirational quote or something, but instead, I have decided to leave a message for my future self:

Your greatest blessing is an overactive mind that’s filled to the brim with ideas, yet you often fail to bring them to fruition. Instead of daydreaming about future possibilities, turn them into your reality. Live a life you can be proud of.


On Thursday, the 13th of August, thousands of students across the country received the most important results in their academic lives. I was one of these students. I remember struggling to sleep the night before, perturbed by what daylight would bring. And in a year like no other, this results day would be like no other.

Due to COVID-19, we went into Lockdown with the assurance that, when it came to it, our previous performance would determine our grades. This was the crux of the issue. My academic performance in year 12 was atrocious. I was getting Ds and Cs in nearly every assessment. Despite this, I was able to scrape an A in my AS Geography exam. Meanwhile, in my end of year 12 mocks, I got an ADE in Maths, Physics, and Further Maths, respectively. The issue was Further Maths. You see in Secondary School; I lured myself into a false sense of security that I was a talented mathematician. Maths came easy to me, and I would often rank in the top 5 in my year. When it came to my GCSE exams, I managed to get a nine and was the first student in my school to sit the GCSE Further Maths exam and got an A*. A-levels was a different story. Starting at a new school in the heart of London with some of the brightest students from across the city, I quickly realised that I was not the genius I believed I was. I also learned that my heart was not in the STEM subjects I had chosen but was instead in humanities. I enjoyed spending my free time learning about Geopolitics and International Relations.

So, after a year of revelations about myself, I decided to drop Further Maths and take on an EPQ (Extended Project Query). This was the best decision I ever made. My EPQ, titled “Is CPEC good for Pakistan?”, allowed me to explore my interests and led me to apply to study a joint degree of Economics and Politics through UCAS despite never studying either subject in a formal educational setting. Furthermore, by dropping Further Maths, I was able to free up time for my other subjects leading to significant improvements in my grades. I managed to achieve predicted grades of A*AAB (EPQ, Geography, Maths, Physics) with offers from Birmingham, Bristol, Bath and Durham for deferred entry. Unfortunately, I did not quite make the cut for my dream university of Warwick. Throughout year 13, I consistently got A*AAB in my reports, even getting A*AAA at the start of the year.  And so, I went into Lockdown with the self-assurance that I had done everything I could to prove I was capable of achieving my predicted grades. Then results day happened.

Results day itself had a melancholy feel to it. I remember walking into school. Not greeted by the cheers of happy students like my last results day but instead by the solemn faces of students hard done by either by the government’s algorithm or the school’s CAGs (Centre Assessed Grades). When I walked into the hall and received my white envelope, I honestly did not know what to expect. I peeled off the opening and slid out the contents to find that I had been given an A*ABC. And while these grades were decent, they fell short of both my firm and insurance offers. I immediately went into panic mode. I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, a kind member of staff took me to the side and explained that I should try and contact my universities to see if they would still allow me to join in 2021 as planned. I called multiple times and, unfortunately, I could not get through, so in the meantime, I decided to do some investigating. I came to find out that the grades I was given were not given to me by the government but were instead the same grades the school had sent off. I felt betrayed. It was not an unfair algorithm that stopped me from going to university, but the school I had tried so hard to prove myself to. It was at this point that I was at my lowest over the last two years. I tried again to see if I could get through to my universities but still no answer. Hopeless and helpless, I decided to give up. I know; not the most heroic thing to do but that is the truth. I felt as though I was being swallowed up from within, and I needed an escape. I needed to do something other than calling universities to no avail. Luckily, that is where my friends came in.

Gordan Ramsey had announced on twitter the day before that he would be giving out free pizza at his restaurants. Naturally, sniffing out a bargain, myself, and a group of five of my closest friends decided to make the trek to Gordan Ramsey Street Pizza. We arrived at a queue of dozens of students waiting to take advantage of the free pizza. Upon further enquiry, we discovered that those ahead of us in the line had been waiting close to thirty minutes. It was at this point a few of my friends had to start heading home. Eventually, we just forgot about Gordan’s free pizza and had Sainsbury’s meal deals instead. A lacklustre meal for a lacklustre day, I suppose. Following this, I decided that I too would return home and face the proverbial music as they say.

It was during this journey home that I reflected on my Sixth Form experience. The past two years, while academically challenging, were by far the best years of my life. I had met some of the most amazing people, built lifelong friendships and went from the quiet bitter introverted boy I was in secondary school to the positive extroverted young man I am today. Had I stayed in my previous school’s Sixth Form; I highly doubt I would have undergone such personal growth. This for reasons that are too long to go into right now as they would make what is already going to be a long post even longer. So while I may not have left Sixth Form with the grades and the university place of my dreams, I am happy that I was able to leave knowing that I am a much more well-rounded individual than when I started. Despite the bitter ending, I am glad the last two years happened. And this can serve as a neat segue to a video I made at the start of Lockdown of some of the highlights from my time in Sixth Form:

When I arrived home, I shifted gears and spent the evening with my sister calling up various universities to see if they would offer me a place through Clearing. I managed to get several Clearing offers; however, none of them would allow me to defer and take a gap year. I was faced with two options:

Option 1 – Accept a Clearing offer and start in 2020 with a guaranteed place. (Low-risk manoeuvre)

Option 2 – Decline the offers, sit the exams in October, and reapply in 2021. Thereby allowing me to take my desired gap year but with no guarantee of a university place. (High-risk manoeuvre)

It is at this point in the blog post that you, the reader, require a bit of context. You see, while I do have a particular interest in global affairs, my true passions lie in storytelling. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by stories. Whether it be film, TV, books, comics or video games, the power of a good story always kept me mesmerised. The way stories on screen, and paper, were able to tug on the strings of one’s emotional harp to leave a lasting melody on the soul is what drew me to storytelling.  The telling of stories, whether fictional or not, is intrinsic to the human experience. Since the beginning of recorded time, human’s have been telling stories. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Star Wars saga, stories have served to entertain, teach, spread ideas, enact change, critique the status quo, and much more. To truly understand a society, one must look to its stories. Even the divine places particular emphasis on stories: Throughout the Qur’an, Allah teaches us righteousness through the stories of the prophets. It is through stories that we interact with the world and the world with us. And when you combine my passion for storytelling with my innate desire for attention, you get someone who dreams of being an actor.

You can imagine the nightmare this has been for my Pakistani parents. When your academically capable son says he would rather be an actor than something safe like a doctor or engineer, it can come as quite a shock. I remember when I tried to pick Drama for GCSE, my dad laughed at me saying I should do something more useful. I chose Computer Science instead like every typical Desi Munda. I guess my father assumed I was going through a phase and would eventually see sense as I got older. This did not happen. At Sixth Form, I wanted to take A-level drama but fooled myself into thinking Further Maths would be a better fit. More practical, more useful. Bad idea. I decided early on in my Sixth Form career that after my A-levels, I was going to take a year out to pursue acting with maybe a little travelling and entrepreneurship here and there. But first, I had to convince my father.

This was a gruelling process. Many a time, we would debate long into the night. No one in my family had taken a voluntary gap year, and there was a negative stigma attached to it: “You’ll end up wasting a year of your life doing nothing.”  As a child of immigrants, you’re taught that the safest life path is as follows: school, then a good university, then a good job, then marriage, then children, then grandchildren and, then if you lucky enough to live that long, great-grandchildren. Surprisingly, one day out of nowhere, my dad did a full-on U-turn. For one reason or another, he agreed that a gap year was a great idea and the best course of action. And here is the thing about my dad, he is stubborn as hell and will stick to his guns but once you convince him of something it becomes one of his guns and he’ll stand by it until the day he dies. Now, I think my dad is more enthusiastic about me taking a gap year than I am. I happily selected deferred entry on my UCAS application back in November. This brings us back to results day.

I had two options: the easy route and the harder route. After a lot of deliberation, I picked the risker option – no risk, no reward after all. I decided I would sit Physics and try to get that C up to a B, maybe even an A. Then go on my gap year and pursue my dream. But first, a bit of grassroots activism.

Following the mess that was results day, protests took place across the UK condemning the government’s use of an algorithm that unfairly downgraded students from poorer backgrounds. The demonstrations proved successful and, by the following Monday, the government, just like my father, pulled a massive U-turn. Students would now receive their CAGs rather than their government moderated grades. This helped a lot of students get the places they deserved but still left many others, such as myself, with no hope. Naturally, I took to twitter:

For the next few days, various students from my school, who were in the same position as me and even some who were not, approached me asking what we could do. The only plausible option was to get the school to do something on our behalf. I decided to contact the student senate, who had more experience with this kind of thing, to come up with ideas. It was agreed that we would put together an open letter to the school with student testimonies. I got to work. On Snapchat, I asked people to each send a paragraph detailing their situation and why they believed their CAGs were inaccurate. Then I collated them together and wrote up the first draft. It was time for review. I sent the letter off to a good friend of mine who is a far better writer than me and was the same friend that inspired me to start this blog. In response, she gave me a long list of improvements which I used to put together a second draft which she then edited until we got our finalised letter ( By the end of the week, we had enough signatures to send the letter off to the school’s senior leadership team. Following this, I arranged a meeting with my headteacher to speak in person. This meeting proved futile. He simply was not willing to be cooperative instead arguing that he had more important things to deal with than the concerns of ex-students. I asked him whether he saw the letter. He replied: “I did, but I don’t reply to petitions.” Never have I lost respect for a person so quickly. Unfortunately, nothing came of that letter.

This experience taught me a lot of things. One being the importance of gratitude. Throughout my life, I have been a lone wolf, sometimes even an outcast. While in recent years, I have become more sociable and outgoing, still, I’m not too fond of it when other people try to help me. This probably stems from a place of mistrust. There are very few people I trust to have my best interests at heart. Or maybe a place of pride. I do not want to let others help me because it may make me seem weak or dependent. Ultimately, whatever it is, I had to accept that this was something I could not do alone. In this regard, I will forever remain grateful to those that assisted me along the way with this endeavour. I will try my best to make it up to you lot.

Even though we did not get the result we wanted, I was moved by the outpouring of support from my classmates. Never in my life, did I expect to get so many kind messages from people thanking me for putting together the letter. A week ago, it was someone’s birthday. Upon wishing him happy birthday, he responded with a voice note saying how the tweets, snaps and letter helped him personally cope with the whole CAGs situation. An action I took had a direct and meaningful impact on someone’s life. This was when it dawned on me, maybe life is not about success but is instead about the parts we play in each other’s stories. The impact we have on those around us. After all, we will not be remembered for the degree we got or the job we did. Instead, we will be remembered by those who knew us. Those people whose stories we played a part in. I played a small role in this person’s story. And if that is the case, maybe the letter was not a complete failure. Or perhaps I’m just on one big ego trip right now.

I have also learned that I need to take on a more active role in my own life. For perhaps the first time, I feel as I am genuinely being tested. This could be a blessing or a punishment, depending on how you look at it. And while I am finding revision a very arduous task – I hate Physics with a passion – I know that “Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity.” (2:286). Ultimately, this whole ordeal is supposed to help me become the man I am supposed to be. In the past six weeks, I have learned more about myself than I have in my entire life. It is funny how that works. I learned more in the space of six weeks than eighteen years. And this brings us today.

Right now, I feel as though I am in a place of limbo. In the coming weeks, my friends will be heading off to Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, UCL, Imperial and many other outstanding institutions while I am going to be stuck doing exams I should have done months ago. It is a weird feeling as though I am being left behind with my future hanging in the balance. Like the world is moving around me while I am standing still. Nonetheless, I do feel as though this could be THE turning point in my life – the moment where I really see what type of man I will be. Will I work hard and get the grades I deserve, or will I crumble and fumble? I do hope it’s the former.

Do I feel like a failure? Most definitely. But like a phoenix from the ashes, I hope to rise and shine brighter than I ever have before.

Insha Allah.