Song of Gulzarina
By Tariq Mehmood
“Sing to the Western wind the song it understands.”
Song of Gulzarina, by British-Pakistani filmmaker and author Tariq Mehmood, stands out as a unique piece of literature that intertwines personal issues such as migration, identity crisis and romance, with the impact of racism, Islamophobia and Western imperialism in the Middle East.
The novel’s protagonist is Saleem Khan, a Pakistani man who leaves behind the love of his life, his family and his life as a teacher in order to emigrate and work in Bradford, in northern England. What follows is a long journey of a man who faces degradation and humiliation at the racist prejudice he finds in his new home, whilst simultaneously witnessing the horrific aftermath of the Western-sponsored Afghan war and its effect on his hometown in Pakistan.
At the same time, the novel portrays his personal struggle to find love and belonging, both through his marriage in Pakistan and the romantic relationship that develops with an English woman meets in Bradford. His relationship with his daughter also forms a defining aspect of his life in England, particularly her urge to rebel against her father’s atheist beliefs and embrace her religious convictions and insistence on wearing the hijab.
The story follows a non-linear format, with the events switching between the present day, his early life in Bradford, his early life in Pakistan and his return in the 1980s, as well as the events leading right up to an attempted terrorist attack in Manchester.
Saleem’s actions are the culmination of the oppression, discrimination, degradation and loss he has experienced. The story provides an insight into the nature and reasoning behind terrorism, disregarding the modern Islamophobic views attempting to associate the religion of more than 1.6 billion believers solely with violent acts of terror.
Tariq Mehmood is a writer and filmmaker concerned with social justice. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut. Green Left Weekly’s Denis Rogatyuk sat down with Mehmood, to discuss the novel and his own personal journey as an immigrant to Britain from Pakistan and the way it has influenced his writing.
I wanted to discuss the parallels between the events of the novel and what we recently witnessed in Manchester. In both cases, a man plans a suicide attack in Manchester, although their profiles could not be more different. Saleem Khan is by then a 72-year-old atheist, whilst Salman Abedi was a 22-year-old Libyan influenced by extremism. Yet what seems to connect them both is the part that military intervention from the Western powers has played in their respective countries.
My novel was published last year and was written over a period of 11 or 12 years. In a sense there is a thematic connection that the spine of my novel is about a 70-year old Pakistani atheist who sets out on a suicide mission in Manchester, but the reasoning is similar, but also very different. I’m utterly opposed to ideas of terrorism and deeply upset about the loss of life and to some extent, the tragic prophecy of my own novel.
I also want to point out that I come from Manchester and have lived there the biggest part of my life. I was aware, even before, of the role played by the so-called “Libyan opposition” as they were called then and assets of British intelligence services. This is not a secret. These people were openly calling for war and destruction of Libya. I belong to the people who were fundamentally opposed to these things.
I would like you to think back to 1979. I was in Bradford at that time, as a young man trying to fight and organise against racist violence in the north of England. At that time, our young people were being groomed to go and fight in a jihad in Afghanistan. The grooming that took place in Manchester is not that different to the grooming that took place of the young people in the Libyan community.
Hence, primarily our problems are a consequence of our colonial past and our imperialist domination today.
The most overriding similarity of all is that chickens have come home to roost. But in the case of Manchester, so tragically, so callously that they [British government] knew who those people were. The reason they knew who these people were is because they sent them to fight in Libya, just like they sent my friends in the 1970s and 80s after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Some of my friends are still alive, and are my age and back in England. Some of them died when they got there.
So this outrage in Manchester cannot be understood simply by looking at the Libyan connection, but rather the never-ending wars, which won’t let us all live in peace.
Saleem’s initial journey from Pakistan to Britain sounds a lot like the paths that many migrants from former British colonies take. Do you see your own personal journey reflected in that?
Absolutely. It is the journey of my grandfather, of my uncles, my aunties, my cousins and the journey of people from India, the Caribbean and from all parts that were former British colonies.
But what’s more important than simply the journey is what happens to us and who we were before we came. Saleem was a teacher from a village in Northern Pakistan. That is, they were part of the middle class in the societies from which these people left, but as soon as they came to England, they became “Pakis”, “Wogs” and “Niggers”.
We became suddenly painted in colours we didn’t even know existed. And the brutalisation and the humiliation at the hands of people and in places where we worked produced another culture — a culture of resistance. And that was a culture of saying “Hang on a minute, we are equal to white people. We are not more, but certainly not less. Surely for the same work, we should get paid the same amount of money.” And we had to fight for that.
Salem Khan goes through a process of de-classing and then he becomes involved in the trade union movement.
Saleem’s life shows that there is a transmutation of racism. Initially, he was called a “Paki”, a “wog” and a “black bastard” — as I used to be called. But with the current phase, it becomes Islamophobia. The old one has not gone away, the new one has come along.
The reason the new has come around is very clearly the never-ending wars through which we are forced to live. The old one existed because of the needs of British imperialism and colonialism making the people of colour not equal to white people.
Saleem’s early participation in the trade union movement is the way that many of our workers went through. One of the differences that workers from South-East Asia and the Caribbean (ie black workers) brought to the West, particularly to Britain, is that we could not simply talk about economics all the time.
There were wars that raging in our countries, there was such poverty in our home places. So the political aspect of our struggle could not be separated from the economic aspect of our need for better life and better conditions where we lived. So we brought politics into the trade union movement at the time.
And do you see parallels between what took place in Manchester and the horrific attack on the Muslim community in Finsbury Park?
This attack, coming as it has on the anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox, by another right-wing extremist, is clearly not the work of yet another lone white wolf, but that of a neo-fascist movement hell bent on enflaming racism and encouraging mass murder.
But we should never forget, this sort of “radicalised” racist did not crawl out of some unknown rubbish heap, but is the direct product of a country which has continued to destroy nation after nation. There is no choice but for those who oppose racism to organise, and most importantly for white people to organise in white communities.