In 2001, I worked as a cafe assistant in a coffee shop. My responsibilities included making coffee drinks such as Caffe lattes and espressos. In addition, I would serve customers and assist in the preparation of sandwiches.
On September 11, 2001, I was informed by my manager that a plane had struck the twin towers. Her voice was frantic, and she kept repeating, “Parveen, the twin towers in America have been attacked.” I did not understand what she was saying, and I responded, “What are the Twin towers?” I looked bewildered. She replied, “The World Trade Center in New York.”
As I was still unsure of what was going on, I asked “what happened,” and she replied that planes had crashed into the tower and that people were trapped inside. According to the news coverage, the towers were on fire. Although I knew nothing about The World Trade Center or the city of New York, I found the experience shocking.
There was something strange about that afternoon. Many customers came to the coffee shop to tell us how shocked they were and how awful the situation was. My response was that, yes, it is shocking. Due to my limited knowledge of the world then, I was unsure how to respond. As a teenager, I was gullible and believed anything anyone told me. My older sister often told me I was naive and needed to mature.
On the afternoon of September 11, my manager told me, “Parveen, you are joining the TA, so this is significant for you.”. I asked her what the TA was; she replied, “the territorial army.” I smiled and replied, “Yes, I’m joining the British Army.”.
I spent most of my childhood surrounded by white people, and this was the only way of life I knew. Many of my friends’ brothers and sisters served in the British Army and encouraged me to join. My country was very important to me and I wanted to help it in any way I could.
I recall visiting the British Army office on my local High Street. During the visit, I was accompanied by my elder sister. Upon entering the army office, I saw two men wearing military uniforms. One approached me and asked, “Can I help you?” I was intimidated by the man’s uniform. He was tall and large in stature. I informed him that I was interested in joining the military. Looking at me, he asked, “Why?”. In my conversation with him, I explained that my friends encouraged me to do so and that I wished to make a positive impact on my country.
He recommended that I take some time to consider this decision before committing. I was provided with a booklet and an application form, and he instructed me to return after reading the information.
Several months later, I returned to the same office. I explained that I was ready to move forward. The soldier pointed out, “you do realise the challenges you will encounter”. I asked, “what challenges”. Your hair will not be able to be down and your makeup will not be able to be applied as you did today. Upon looking at my nails, he commented that I could not paint my nails either or have them done. Since I was very girly, the thought of not being able to wear my red lipstick shocked me. My response was that I needed to think about it and then return. A smile spread across his face as he told me to take my time. My desire to join the military had ceased and I had put it behind me. A few years later, my friend’s brother joined the army, and I told him I attempted to join.
Looking back now, I am not sure that joining the military would have been the best decision for me. Even though I have never served in the military, it continues to be an important part of my life. Why? While studying and working as a photojournalist, I have been exposed to war photography and the work of British soldiers worldwide. I sometimes wonder if I had joined the army what my life would have been like and where I would be today.