Book Review: Carving out a new identity

29th Jan 2016

We Are A Muslim Please. By Zaiba Malik. Windmill Books. London. 2011. PB. £8.99

This book, like many before it and many after it, is about a clash of two worlds, and a girl -Zaiba Malik – caught between them. This memoir is not unique but is a well written account that keeps the reader engaged by shifting from a potent situation in the present to flashbacks from her past in Bradford.

The format is similar to the 2008 movie, Slumdog Millionaire which tells the story of Dev Patel, a boy from the slums of Mumbai, answering his way through ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ and recounting his life throughout the process using flashbacks.

The tale begins with Malik being interrogated in a jail cell in Bangladesh by the torturer, who is recounting his story of how he had sworn to protect his country and all Muslims, to which Malik replies, ‘But I’m a Muslim…I have no intention of hurting other Muslims.’ To which the tortures says, ‘No, you are not a true Muslim.’ And that is the central question throughout the book, who is a true Muslim?

The book is primarily about growing up in the Pakistani community in Bradford, or Bradistan as she refers to it. A big chunk is dedicated to her struggling in a grammar school where she was the only Pakistani girl and she desperately wants to belong. “I just needed a clarinet or a flute. So that I could be a bit more like the other girls at school. I could fit in.”(p104) But she wasn’t like the others, however much she tried. “You see, I was trying to straddle, balance, juggle, whatever, my life at home with my life at school.” (p111)

Each chapter has an epic event in her life, such as the Salman Rushdie affair, her first exposure to a nightclub and her three month undercover stint in a small town in the Midlands which had a history of far right activity. In each instance Malik recounts how she felt at those times, “I hated these constant T-junction dilemmas at the best of times – should I turn left towards White England or turn right towards Muslim Pakistan? (p135). She is disenchanted with her faith and her community. Although she manages to reconcile her faith towards the latter part of the book at no point in the book is there an attempt to understand or even empathise with the struggles of other members of her community.

At the end of each chapter, the typeface changes for a couple of paragraphs, and Malik addresses a third person. These paragraphs is build on sub plot which reveals towards the end that she has been addressing Shehzad Tanweer, one of the 7/7 bombers, a member of the Pakistani community in Bradford.

How is it that two individuals coming from the same community have such different outlooks on Britain and all that it has to offer?

Even though Malik’s story – of a girl stuck between two lives – is a story that has been told before and is one that will be told again. Each one adds to the rich tapestry of the human experiences of migration and assimilation. The vastly differing outcomes of Malik’s and Tanweer’s live is an example of how two seemingly identical experiences can lead to such contradictory ends.

These narratives enable us to understand the struggle of one another within this nation. The dilemma is summed up in the quote, “… that small black plastic VHS tape…with its confused, scribbled yellow label and all its crossings-out and all the obliterations and restorations, symbolises to me what it’s like to be a British Muslim. The conflict, the competition between the two; British v Muslim. (p125)

The challenge lies in carving out a new identity in this cultural no man’s land.

Aasiya I Versi

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