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Book review: Cultural clash

29th Oct 2021
Book review: Cultural clash

Border Crossings – My Journey as a Western Muslim by Mohammed Chowdhury. 345 Pages, 2019. Unbound Publishers. Hardback, £15.19

The story told in Border Crossings is one that has been told before and will undoubtedly be told again. It is the story of Mohammed Chowdhury, a British man of Bangladeshi origins who is recognised from one but feels belonging to another.

His marginalisation in dual cultures ascribed to him allows him a brilliant birds-eye view of both, which he employs in his bid to untangle the cultural mindsets he comes across.

Chowdhury, in his role as a telecoms’ consultant, travels quite a bit and the book – a cross between a travel log and autobiography – delves into what it says in the cover, border crossings. How he navigates the physical borders he comes across, such as the crossing into Israel, the UK, or Bangladesh. These border crossings also allude to the cultural border crossings that he undertakes, which makes this an interesting read.

He writes in length about his ordeal at the Allenby crossing into Israel – a small excerpt which reads; “The wall he wants me to lean my hands against has a large Star of David flag pinned onto it. It is so large that there is no way I can lean without placing my hands on the flag. For a second, I am unsure as to whether it will appear disrespectful to place my sandwich-greased palms all over it. I don’t know the etiquette for leaning on Star of David flags.” (p49)

Not only is he very detailed about what he sees, smells and hears, but is also very articulate about what is going through his mind at every juncture. When he finds himself being interrogated by an Israeli intelligence officer, he states, “I look back at him blankly, unsettled by how he has already read my character, my instincts and my nature.” (p56)

As with other biographies, there was a family drama, such as Dadu (his paternal grandmother) who did not wish to speak to him after his father’s death because the memory was too painful. Or how he refused to touch the feet of the elderly – as an act of ‘salaam’ – out of principle as he felt it wasn’t fair, and the respect given was dependent on status and wealth as opposed to an unconditional act of respect.

Chowdhury explains, “The most arrogant would not assist you as you rose, nor would they reply to the gesture with the customary ‘waleykum as salaam.’ These folks would simply stand awaiting homage, at times striding off before the exercise was even complete. Lesser variants, such as bending down from the waist and gesturing to someone’s feet rather than going into a vertical squat, were acceptable for lesser murubbi… (p83)

Chowdhury makes no effort or does not feel the need to redress the power imbalance that we, as people of colour, find ourselves in. In being given an opportunity to give words to the –often – voiceless, I wish he had made a greater effort to do so.I enjoyed reading this book but felt I gained very little. It is well written, but it is just one man’s extensive travels and (very low) opinion of his parent culture. I understand that there are aspects of all societies that are not favourable or seemingly foreign, but it almost comes across as if there was nothing to learn from the Bengali culture, and I resent this idea that it is only a Western culture and education that has something positive to contribute to our worldview.

Aasiya I Versi

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence event is to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to society. Over 850 people from diverse background, Muslim and non-Muslim, attended the gala dinner.

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