Tariq Mehmood’s new novel is uncompromising but hopeful in its portrait of the impact of the war in Afghanistan on a northern city in Britain, finds Sarbjit Johal
Tariq Mehmood, You’re Not Here (Daraja Press 2018), 238pp.
‘I feel her words more than I hear them’.
Tariq Mehmood’s latest novel, You’re Not Here, is set in Boarhead, an imaginary town in the North of England where the main character, seventeen-year-old Jake, lives and works with his Dad, who is a traditional white working-class carpenter. However, Boarhead is a place where people defy all stereotypes and devise creative ways to survive, a place where people
who have for too long been left to their own devices, to defend, protect and look after themselves. So, when the British Army goes into Afghanistan and starts killing Muslims, and destroying their homes, while the bodies of dead soldiers start coming back home, the tensions in Boarhead erupt out into the open. Young Muslims become angry and upset, and the white youth start giving their support to this horrific war, and start calling the Muslim youth ‘traitors’ for not supporting the British Soldiers.
While Jake’s brother, Dexy, goes to fight in Afghanistan, Jake falls in love with Leila Khan, an Afghan girl living in Boarhead. It is through this contradictory thread that Tariq Mehmood explores what it means to have a national identity, to be a real man and to really belong in a country which is always waging wars. From the name of the town Boarhead (pig’s head) to the names of roads and buildings (St Enoch’s Road, the Queen Victoria statue, and the cafe where the menu lists Vindaloo Porky to Trotter Tikka (opened by Curly, who can neither read nor write, and spent most of his life on the dole), Boarhead is a place facing economic decline where race, racism and present-day war shapes everything.
The novel raises questions about what is culture? What is Asian, and what is English? What happens when people do not fit their stereotypes? And how to create a people’s culture of resistance? It shows how war strengthens racism, how it affects who dies, who lives, who gets a job and who doesn’t, who belongs, who doesn’t and what happens when people dare to defy orders, refuse to follow the duty forced on them and decide to determine their own lives.
Surviving destruction and loss
It reveals the struggle of people whose lives once destroyed by war are again wiped out in the West, like the maths professor from Iraq, who is a taxi driver in Boarhead. His university in Iraq was bombed to bits and in Boarhead he is seen as a Pakistani, when in actual fact he is a Christian Arab. You’re Not Here refers to all those loved ones who are gone or missing, and in Jake’s case it refers to his mother, brother and the longing he feels for Leila. You’re Not Here shows the things people hold on to when everything else is falling apart and nothing makes sense. For example, Jake’s father starts reading the Bible when he loses his job.
The people in Boarhead have cast and recast themselves in a constantly changing backdrop. This is a place where old Victorian mills have been knocked down to be replaced by shops like Asda and new private flats for sale, and the only place where you can have any privacy is a graveyard in an unused church.
Whether it’s food, clothes, language, looks, nothing here conforms to any static idea of culture. The chapter, ‘Doris’s Kebabs’, where Jake meets Leila’s father, is absolutely hilarious. Leila’s father, who has green eyes, introduces himself as Peter but Jake finds it difficult to see him as a ‘Peter’ and keeps calling him ‘Sir’. Reading this reminded me of a close uncle who used to be a wrestler in Punjab. After coming to Britain and working in farms and factories in West London, he would insist on being called Peter Singh when his actual name is Pritam Singh.
Jake is also surprised to see Peter drinking alcohol, drinking so much, and drinking it so fast. Whereas Jake, who is expected to drink, doesn’t drink alcohol at all. Peter’s comments on the kebabs he eats, ‘Even my wife can’t make them like Doris’, the way he speaks a mix of English and his own language, give space to a dynamic culture. Peter’s words even challenge the Hindutva fascists in India who portray Muslims as people who kill cows. Peter laments the large number of animals killed in war and expresses his sorrow at the murder of a cow in his village in Afghanistan. A cow which Peter himself had named, a cow whose mother his father had raised, a cow which had been the envy of the village.
Resistance and dissent, great and small
The book is littered with laugh-out-loud moments. The challenge to conventional right-wing culture comes from unconventional places. In one chapter, Abu Khalid, a religious leader criticises the owner of a shop called ‘Paradise Foods’ for displaying his tomatoes and cucumbers in a ‘rude’ way. He asks: ‘How can you do this when there are sisters around,’ and then goes on to accuse the shop keeper of ‘promoting sex and temptation’. Abu Khalid is then confronted by an old Pakistani woman who picks up a cucumber and asks him, ‘Shall I show you what I can do with this?’ Later in the story we learn that this religious leader is linked to some ‘powerful people in high places.’
The story of another character, Ali, is of an Asian shopkeeper who is determined to keep going despite the daily onslaught of racist abuse and armed raids, in an area where there are very few non-white people left. He has even opened a photo-booth inside his off-licence to keep the business alive. Ali is tall, has a six pack and owns a huge Alsatian dog called Twinkle with whom he speaks in Punjabi.
Jake goes to ‘Ali’s Offy’ to get a photo for a visa to Pakistan and to buy a bottle of whisky for his dad. Jake’s dad either drowns his emotions in alcohol, or in his work. When he’s working, Jake’s dad looks like a totally different person, much younger and full of energy and when times get tough, his solution is to work even harder.
For Jake’s father, this pride in the work ethic, this pride in a respectable ‘soldiering’ family is also tied up with how he sees himself as a man. For example, at home, when he cooks, Jake’s dad always manages to burn the food. His opinions of what he thinks of men who cook are made clear in his comments to Jake, who enjoys cooking: ‘You’ll make someone a good wife one day’.
Leila and Jake are both outsiders in their own way. Leila is very articulate and confident in public and constantly challenges Jake, but she comes across as being more deferential in the family. However, Leila does not aspire to be a ‘respectable’ Muslim woman, and Jake does not want to be a ‘respectable’ working-class man. He doesn’t drink, smoke, and is not ‘macho’.
Dexy is the older, protective brother who has Rambo posters in his bedroom, who’s ‘all emotion one minute and off his head the next’. He wears gold rings, hates Muslims and refers to hijabs as tents. But everything is never black and white, and that’s what makes this book interesting. Some soldiers come back from the war with very different perspectives than with which they departed. The novel has a hopeful aspect, even as it highlights destruction and suffering, as some of the characters find unexpected connections and solidarities in growing disillusion and opposition to imperialist war.
The ending is great, but just like real life, it is not a ‘happy ever after’ ending. It would have been interesting to hear more about Ali and his background as well as about Leila’s brothers and mother. Another criticism is that, at times, Jake, the central character, just seems ‘too perfect’. However, the story, the characters, the way the novel is structured, all makes this a really brilliant read.
There are so many powerfully realistic scenes. For example, the passage where Jake goes to find out why his friends have turned against him, really made me empathise with Jake’s pain. This is a singular feature of this novel, the ability to bring together people who are supposed never to meet. Then there is the section where Jake is cooking a stew and you follow the whole process from the chopping stage up to the eating stage, and the tension builds right up. Then there is the bus journey with its details of bus tickets and bus stops along with the ‘policing’ of young people by drivers, which all comes alive as you read it.
There are also some very interesting facts too, like the link between a Scotch Whiskey Brewery and Pakistan, or that there are the soldiers who go to fight wars, and when they die no one ever hears about them. An important and unforgettable feature of this novel is the way in which Tariq Mehmood uses language. There are the funny names like the Mucky Duck pub, Go-East Go West travel agency, and Kurly’s Kurry Kabin. Then there is the technique of joining old words to create new ones like the ‘ohgoddoIhaveto’ look or the ‘Pleasepleaseplease’ and the ‘dontyouworryson’ smile.
Although the novel is aimed at young readers, this book speaks to adults too. It dares to give space to that humanity which connects us all. And it screams out loud:
‘No to Racism,
No to Poverty,
No to War!’
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