Zaiba Malik grew up in Bradford, in the heart of the Pakistani community which gave the city one of its nicknames, Bradistan. Her father prayed five times a day and she stayed up with him throughout the night during Ramadan, reading the Qur’an. At school, she was the only girl in her class from a Pakistani family. She left home, went to university and became a journalist.
An excellent 5 part adaptation of the book appears on BBC Radio 4’s “Book of the week” programme and is worth a listen.
Her memoir describes a world already disappearing into social histories. The Pakistani migrants of the 1960s were far from well-off and Malik’s father worked ten-hour shifts at a textile mill. Malik lists the narrow confines of a home life she felt unable to talk about at school: there were no holidays, with the exception of her father’s annual pilgrimage to Mecca; an elderly, disabled uncle lived with the family; and the only time Malik went out at weekends was to visit WH Smith with her father.
Growing up involved a struggle between irreconcilable identities, a process she describes with humour and insight. “I knew I was a Muslim long before I knew I was British,” she writes. “And I knew I was Pakistani long before I knew I was English.”
The family spoke Punjabi at home, shopped at halal butchers and treated authority figures with exaggerated respect. The only visitors to the house were “men with baggy white trousers and little caps and women with baggy white trousers and headscarves”. Older women known as “the Aunties” policed the community, expressing disapproval if they spotted someone’s son or daughter adopting non-Pakistani habits.
Since 7/7, there has been a spate of memoirs about growing up in Muslim communities. This is one of the better examples, and it vividly conveys the secure but stifling atmosphere Malik left behind when she went to college. Her re-assessment of her faith predates 7/7 – it was inspired by her arrest and brutal interrogation when making a documentary in Bangladesh – but she is also motivated by anger towards the four young men who killed 52 strangers in London five years ago. The book includes a letter to the suicide-bomber Shehzad Tanweer, born in the same area of Bradford as Malik.
Obviously the book is about Islam and its role in the lives of 1960s immigrants and their children. Yet there is another dimension to Malik’s experience she barely touches upon, and that is class. My northern working-class family did not have holidays, regarded authority figures with awe and assumed the right to direct children’s lives. Conservative social values are not exclusive to Muslim families. Immigrants have always struggled to make sense of the competing claims of different cultures until the emergence of a successful new middle-class resolves the conflict, but it is to thoughtful people like Malik that the future belongs.