July Issue 2012

By | Art | Books | Published 12 years ago

Packed with self-deprecating humour and charming witticisms, Ahmad’s debut is a poignantly honest and intimate memoir that recounts his early struggle with race, religion and relationships. Ahmad was a Pakistani immigrant in the suburbs of London in the 1970s and ‘80s. The memoir has been written with a simple structure; each chapter represents a school year of his life, including the summer vacations. As the work progresses, the writer depicts several major life-changing moments. The book follows his birth up to his late teens, then skips through adulthood at a much faster pace. Often the prose is laugh-out-loud funny and anyone who has migrated from Pakistan to more developed countries can relate to it easily.

Ahmad immigrated with his family when he was only one, shortly after coming second to one of the judge’s children in Pakistan’s ‘Bonniest Baby’ contest. This unfairly preferential treatment did not prepare Ahmed and his family for the first of many hardships they would face once in London, including racism and discrimination. It was a rude awakening for Ahmad’s parents who were educated professionals in Pakistan but not in the eyes of the English. In England, they were considered lower-class manual workers, and the faster they accepted this, the easier it would be to find employment.

Ahmad recounts his experiences with complete honesty and doesn’t shy away from writing about his doubts and fears. He feels his learning experiences in England were flooded with questions and a host of different answers, and he often found it difficult to pick the right one. Additionally, he believed that his faith was being tested all the time. It wasn’t until Ahmad began to attend Islamic school, at age 11, every Sunday, that he felt slightly more secure in his own religion and was able to find a balance between Islam and the western world. But that did not happen overnight. “We [Muslims] make the Amish look like swingers,” he says. Before attending Islamic school, Ahmed felt he suffered from a distinct lack of knowledge about his religion. For example, he knew he couldn’t eat pork but didn’t know why, until he was at a friend’s place and the friend’s mother explained the reasons to him. Over the years, he learnt more about Islam, soon to discover that he was becoming a target for other religious activists that attempted to convert him. This rattled him immensely, especially since he felt these people were so certain of their message, a certainty that he believed was lacking in his own faith

Ahmed relates how he tackles some of life’s most profound questions that are not only restricted to religion, but also to living in the social milieu of the West. He wonders what God does exactly? Does one automatically go to hell for following the wrong religion? And on the other extreme, he wonders: How does one persuade a beautiful woman to become one’s girlfriend? Would driving a Jaguar XJS help? And how can he obtain a James Bond persona without the vodka, cigarettes and women — even while his parents are trying to arrange his marriage! Later in university, he comes quite close to emulating his spy hero as he drives an Alfa Romeo around campus and is possibly one of the few students to own a microwave.

But life “doesn’t go quite as expected,” explains Ahmed comically. While his initial plans were to attend medical school, he doesn’t quite make the mark because of poor grades. He does the next best thing and initially attempts to major in chemistry at Stirling University, in Scotland, which works out well but it is not something he enjoys. While at the university’s guidance counsellor’s office he reads brochures about finance and is impressed with executives in suits who travel all over the world. So, instead, he graduates with a chartered accountancy degree, convinces Unilever to hire him, and thus commences his career in finance that takes him around the globe. The Perfect Gentleman is a memoir worth reading, not only for its humour, but also because it makes one sit up and think.

This book review was originally published in the July issue of Newsline under the headline “How The West Was Won.”

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