Monday, July 30, 2007
imran ahmad's book 'unimagined'
The cover of Imran Ahmad’s book “Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West” shows a toddler with a curiously adult face dressed in a suit, white shirt and tie. This is Ahmad in the early 1960s competing in the Karachi ‘Bonnie Baby’ contest.
Ahmed sets the humorous tone of his memoir, published in London by Aurum Press, from the start. “Smartly dressed, suave and handsome, I looked like James Bond, although I was too young to have seen either of his movies,” he writes. “I was also somewhat unsteady on my feet. People were particularly impressed by my light skin.” But he came second when the first prize went to the child of the organiser. “The judges were her friends. This is absolutely typical of third-world, banana republic unfairness. In the West, the organiser’s child would not be allowed to enter the contest. I was denied the title of ‘Karachi’s Bonniest Baby’ by blatant nepotism. I began my lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice.”
Ahmad’s memoir covers the first 25 years of his life, although it adds a brief epilogue set in 1999-2000 when he is 37. The book gives a refreshing insight into the texture of life for a bright Pakistani boy who was two years old when his parents emigrated to Britain in 1964.
The memoir is written as a series of vignettes written in the present tense, which gives a sense of immediacy. Although Ahmad is a highly intelligent, bookish boy he is sometimes naïve and finds it hard to decipher codes of behavior. He does not always realize the significance of what he describes, which is amusingly evident to the reader
Relations with the opposite sex are a constant source of puzzlement. From the age of nine, Ahmad feels he has a special connection with certain girls. At Stirling University, Scotland, he falls for fellow student Janice and is convinced for years he will eventually marry her, despite all the evidence to the contrary. His obsessive attentions can make females uncomfortable. And yet he underestimates his ability to forge genuine friendships with them.
Ahmad has a rich fantasy life. At school he dreams of being James Bond or his other fictional hero Simon Templar, the Saint. In the epilogue he returns to London to work for General Electric, for which he has worked for five years in America. As always, one of his priorities is to buy a car, and he manages to find a third-hand Jaguar XJS, the model favored by Simon Templar. His life is punctuated by the various cars he owns, including in his student days the battered old VW Beetle that takes him and his best friend at Stirling on many trips to the lochs, forests and mountains of Scotland.
Racism often rears its ugly head in “Unimagined”. When Ahmad’s parents arrive in England, they find to their dismay that they will not be able to get jobs as professionals, but are expected to be lower-class manual workers. They first rent an unfurnished house in the northern English city of Manchester and buy furniture with the precious money they have brought with them. But after three weeks a lawyer’s letter arrives. It turns out that the family’s landlady was herself a tenant, and was not authorized to rent out the house. The true owners of the house have found it is being rented to Pakistanis and wants them out. The family leave the house, abandoning the furniture they had bought.
The family then lives in a succession of bed-sits, with bathroom and kitchen shared with other tenants. Signs advertising rooms for rent often said “No Irish or Coloureds.” When Ahmad is five, his mother is “highly stressed by the misery, humiliation and poverty of life in England (not to mention the cold and the rain), and is possibly having a nervous breakdown.” She considers moving the family back to Pakistan permanently. But they stay and make a go of life in Britain. Ahmad becomes the first in his school whose family has a VCR recorder, so that his father can watch Indian films, and he is very proud when his father buys a Mercedes car.
As a teenager, “racism takes me by surprise sometimes. Living in an affluent suburb, going to a posh school, sometimes it’s easy to think that it has gone away forever, that I am now immune, but occasionally its malice disturbs the tranquility, the calm optimism of life.”
At the age of 12 there are a “few racist lowlife” in his school who are racially abusive and bullying towards him for being a “Paki”, the only one in the school at that time. Their racism is fuelled by talk in the media and gutter press about immigrants who come to Britain to take people’s jobs, or get unemployment benefits, or both. “The funny thing is, I can understand their point of view. From their perspective why wouldn’t they resent immigrants? They even have their own political party, the National Front, whose key policy is that all coloured immigrants should be repatriated, sent back home”. Ahmad is very concerned about the possibility of having to live in Pakistan.
Before she won the 1979 general election, Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher warned of people being “rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture.” Yet the young Ahmad thought it would be amazing if Mrs Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister, because “women are more compassionate and peace- loving than men.”
Ahmad’s own story is interwoven with the international events of the time. When he is eight years old, he is very aware of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which reverberates through the Indian and Pakistani communities in Britain. His parents had previously been friendly with a couple from East Pakistan, but after the war they never speak to them again.
When the Falklands War breaks out in 1982, Ahmad’s Britishness is put under severe strain especially after the Argentine ship the General Belgrano is sunk by the Royal Navy with the death of hundreds of Argentine sailors. Ahmad asks himself whether he should cave in and jeer at the deaths of ‘Argies’ to show how British he is, or whether he should express disquiet at the loss of ‘enemy’ human life and thus show himself to be a foreigner after all, not really committed to Britain.
At school and university, Ahmad is the focus of attention and sometimes Islamophobia from assertive evangelical fundamentalist Christians. At Stirling one fellow student is particularly persistent, and Ahmad finds much later that he had “been on an American course in converting Muslims and has selected me as his field project.” Ahmad becomes very wary of evangelical or “American style” Christians, and prefers what he calls lukewarm or “British-style” Christians. He spends much time at university discussing religious matters with Muslims and others he encounters.
Ahmad does not complete his Chemistry PhD at Stirling because he has lost interest in the subject, and dreams of being out in the world and doing something. He succeeds in winning a place on the Unilever Companies Management Development Scheme. But although he is proud of being awarded a place, he does not feel completely at ease with the crowd he works with. He is very uncomfortable with the alcohol, cigarettes and lewd jokes culture of his colleagues and dislikes having to socialize with people he has been working with all week, when he would prefer to relax at home. Even after spending almost all his life in Britain, Ahmad is still in his mid-20s negotiating a path so as to reconcile his faith and value system with societal norms and peer expectations.
Saudi Gazette, July 23 2007