THEOne day, Osman Yousefzada’s parents took him out of school for six months and brought him back to where he was born, on the banks of the Indus. His father had returned often, but his mother had not, and as Osman looks at the jewel-laden women, at the towns that are a “puzzle of alleys in permanent shadow,” at the rounds of Kalashnikov bullets fired into the air at weddings in these border territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan, he caught up with his dead. Brought to England as a child, with only a few hours’ notice, she hadn’t been able to say goodbye. Osman, who in England often wondered how his vivid mother was intermittently flooded with sadness, watches her at her family’s graves. “My heart was inside hers: finally, I understood the crying.”
One of the many striking things about these striking memoirs is the way Yousefzada handles information: Like Leo in the LP Hartley novel that gives his book its title, Yousefzada is, for the most part, a boy. He sees what a perceptive child sees, which is not the same as understanding it (although of course the reader understands, and that creates tension). And what you see is Balsall Heath, Birmingham, in the 1970s and 1980s, when housing was cheap enough for recent immigrants: West Indians, Rastafarians, Ugandans, Bangladeshis, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Pakistanis, Irish. Ali Campbell of UB40 lives down the street; sex workers promote their customs in front of mosques. Yousefzada’s own Pathan Orthodox community is “the most covered and least integrated in South Birmingham”, the men and women within this separation strictly separated again. But childhood gives him (and us) a pass for off-roading. He is a skillful guide, who builds a rich world of hiding places, smells, praying feet and clothes.
Yousefzada’s mother was a talented seamstress; it was, his son writes, “like watching a magician.” Now he’s a designer who has dressed stars from the likes of Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, and an artist who has exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery and the V&A, but this is where he started: watching his mother cut freehand patterns, embroider cuffs and necklines, weighing fabrics and colors. Generations of children have dressed Barbies for role-playing games; only a handful will have used green devoré offcuts.
As she grew older, she began to see what this gift meant to her mother: self-expression, pride in personal achievement, and community. She couldn’t go out, but all kinds of women came to her. They often stayed and talked. The men were drab, aloof, terrifying, but for Osman, increasingly confiding in his mother, the world of women was a “full-blown epic, of tragedy, pathos, colour, jewelery and clothing”. He began to be sent on errands. He chose fabrics, he chose shoes, he earned a reputation for good taste. And he brought news from the outside world that, apart from the corner store, F Allen’s, was to him mostly non-white. Not even in school did this change: brown and black children were sent to lower groups regardless of their ability (and Yousefzada’s was high).
But when the other world burst in, it came with a vengeance: Thatcher’s complaints about being “overwhelmed” by immigration, marauding skinheads, “Pakis go home” graffiti. This begins to complicate Yousefzada’s understanding of the masculinity he fears: the violence and inaccessibility of his father, the religiosity of the bearded believers, or “Bushmen” as he called them. These were men brought to work, many of whom worked for decades without a vacation. Now the factories closed, serving them “with dismissal papers that they did not know how to read”, and they retreated into worship and “the consolation of our culture, our dignity”. There is a poignant moment when a son born in England asks why they have to take a recently deceased man to Pakistan when his whole family is in Britain. “He needs to be buried…in the land of his birth,” comes the reply. “In the land where he was respected, not where he was spat on.”
Yousefzada, who regrets his expulsion, at age 12, from the women’s barracks, “where the joy and color came from”, is honest about how long it took him, as a man, to realize the effect that this religiosity had on his sisters , who were taken out of school at 10 or 11 and confined to the house. Remember a woman unable to comfort a son who dies in the street because he was not allowed to cross his own threshold; the dire fates of those accused of being barren or “loose”. He tells these tragedies clearly, letting them speak for themselves in this narrative full of beautiful lines, often further enhanced by a slight irony: a man “visibly puffed up with sagacity,” for example, or another, a religious purist partial to oil of saffron. , musk and jasmine, which “always seemed to be there even when it wasn’t”. When the Bushmen kick the pimps and prostitutes out of his neighbourhood, Yousefzada realizes that he misses one girl in particular, whom he always said hello to. “However, God’s work was done and house prices began to rise.”
“I have washed away some of my feelings in this ritual writing,” Yousefzada notes in his acknowledgments, and the effect of writing about himself, about his escape to London’s Soas University, then to Central Saint Martins and Cambridge, can be elusive. , a curiously distant affect, informed rather than felt. What really lasts is the vividness of his childhood world, the struggles and pains of his parents, and especially his mother, of whose life he is a loving testimony.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism