July 7th 2005 was a traumatic day. The London tube and bus bombings threw the country into deep distress. I covered events as a BBC journalist and remember clearly the communal sense of shock as commuters staggered, dazed, out of the transport system and young medics ran through the streets with stretchers and emergency aid.
The sense of national bewilderment was compounded by news that the bombers had been born and brought up in Yorkshire. The video of Mohammed Siddque Khan talking to his baby daughter was particularly poignant. The dramatic events – and that video in particular – raised a lot of questions for Sunjeev Sahota, who also lived in Northern England and was also of South Asian parentage (in his case, his parents were from India’s Punjab.) They became the seeds of this debut novel, Ours Are The Streets.
“I was living in the North of England, quite near Leeds where the bombers lived,” he told me, “and I wondered: how could someone go down that route? How could someone have compassion and be capable of love and yet end up doing what he did?”
The psychological journey of a suicide bomber like Khan intrigued him.
“There was a sense at the time that either it was completely explainable in terms of geo-politics or these people were incomprehensible, just crazy fanatics. I wanted the novel to look at some of the grey area between.”
Sunjeev says he re-worked the novel four or five times before finding its current form, a confessional memoir. It’s written by a young British Muslim, Imtiaz, who is preparing himself for a suicide mission. He addresses it to his white British wife, Becka, from whom he’s become estranged, and to his infant daughter. It’s an intense, sometimes claustrophobic narrative, at some times a self-justification and at others, the cry of a young man who wants to be understood and forgiven.
It’s been described by its publisher, Picador, as “the story behind the news story”. I wondered how far Sunjeev intended it to be a contribution to the current debate about alienation and why some British Muslims are attracted to violent fundamentalism.
“I don’t think I was ever trying to say: this is a definitive way in which young Muslim males become radicalised,” he says. “This is very much his own journey.”
“I was trying to look at the situation of a young man in the North of England who decides to give his life for a cause. I wanted to do that as strongly, as unsentimentally and as much without judgement as I could. It was not about trying to identify with them or make a political point.”
Sunjeev is not himself a Muslim. He’s a second generation immigrant whose parents are Sikhs. In my own writing, I’ve adopted the points of view of Afghan and Pakistani Muslim women and sometimes worried about the sensitivities of writing across the religious and cultural divide.
By contrast, Sunjeev is refreshingly confident about the legitimacy of assuming a Muslim voice, despite the fact he isn’t a Muslim, doesn’t have Muslim friends and didn’t, he says, seek out young Muslim men as part of his research for the novel.
“I didn’t feel any doubt or compunction or hesitation,” he says. “I felt excited. I felt this is something I can really roll up my sleeves and think about and sustain for the length of a novel.”
“Writing is all about otherness, about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and knowing what it’s like to be someone else. I can’t think about anything more boring than writing a book about myself.”
In the last few years, he argues, people in England have become notably more relaxed about cross-cultural writing.
“People ask me about it,” he says, “and they seem surprised that I haven’t had any negative reactions. I think writing across class boundaries in the UK is more sensitive than writing about people from a different culture.”
The novel is set in part in Pakistan and Afghanistan, countries which Sunjeev admits he hasn’t visited. He did do some research about these places, he says, but it was mostly about physical detail: what crops people grow and what they eat and so on.
The rest of the book is set in Northern England. It seems at its most vivid when Sunjeev does make use of issues and locations which resonate with his personal experience. Clearly there are profound differences between Sunjeev and the troubled, unstable fictional character he’s created. But there are some interesting similarities too.
Imtiaz’s journey is driven by a search for personal identity and a craving to belong. At the start of his story, he seems well integrated into mainstream British society. He doesn’t have a strong sense of purpose but he clearly adores his white British girlfriend, Becka, who agrees to convert to Islam when she finds out that she’s pregnant so the two can marry. He seems at this point to be finding happiness.
Then Imtiaz’s father dies and when he and his mother accompany the body back to Pakistan, he starts to see himself and his identity in a new, compelling context. His grief seems to add to his sense of displacement and he feels a powerful connection with Pakistan which starts to transform his thinking.
“I were always so and so’s grandson or such and such’s nephew or whatever,” he writes. “I were never just me, on my own. No-one ever called out: “Hey Imtiaz!” And I loved that. It were like for the first time I had an actual real past, with real people who’d lived real lives.”
Like Imtiaz, Sunjeev says he too experiences a sense of dual identity. In his own life though, he says, he sees it as a positive force.
“When I see my white British friends,” he says, “they have a very instinctive, natural, and wonderful response to England as their land and home and where they belong. “My parents have a natural sense of belonging in India. When you are between both worlds, it’s a different sense of belonging which I think Imtiaz feels too. When I visit my ancestral village in Punjab in India, where my great-grandfather lived and grew up, I do feel a connection there and a love for India which is different from the love I have for the UK.”
Imtiaz’s relationship with his immigrant parents is one of the most touching elements of the novel. As he prepares to marry his English girlfriend, he seems desperate for his Pakistani parents to be more conventionally British.
“Couldn’t you have just been normal?” he cries after one painful public embarrassment. His attitude veers between protective and frustrated At times, he seems to carry the burden of justifying or validating the family’s migration through his own life.
Sunjeev says the issue of dual identity is key in Imtiaz’s journey towards violence.
“For Imtiaz, it takes on an exaggerated and self-aggrandising sense of responsibility which he carries over and starts to feel too in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he says. “He feels responsible for the “humiliation” he perceives there.”
Some criticism of the novel has focussed on the central question: just why is Imtiaz willing to throw away everything in his life and become a suicide bomber? Sunjeev says he was determined that his motivation must be internal and psychological and not ascribed to external forces.
As a result, Imtiaz does not have a deprived or wretched home life, in fact Becka is close to being a model wife. He is not brainwashed by a preacher. His Islamic beliefs are not fundamentalist. He doesn’t even come across as terribly devout. Clearly, he has a lot to lose – and for some readers, his descent into violence isn’t fully convincing. How far this succeeds or not depends on how credible the reader judges Imtiaz’s voice to be.
Some readers have also been uncertain about the openness of the novel’s ending – something Sunjeev is quick to defend.
“I wanted the ending to be ambiguous,” he says, “Throughout the novel, the reader has been in a powerful position, privy to Imtiaz’s innermost thoughts. But at the end, he gives the reader the slip and disappears round a corner.” He pauses. “I really like that.”