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Sunjeev Sahota: Ours are the Streets

The subject matter of this novel is fairly daring, telling the story of a British-born man, son of Punjabi parents, who is planning on being a suicide bomber. Imtiaz Raina is writing an account of what led him to his decision. The document is addressed to his late father, his mother, his (white) estranged wife, Rebekah, and their daughter, Noor. In it he essentially tells his story. He was born of parents who emigrated from Punjab to England (and miss Punjab). The family lives in Sheffield (not far from Leeds, where Sahota currently lives). The father works as a taxi driver, a job that he does not particularly like. He will die of a heart attack running after a passenger who did not pay his fare. At university, Umtiaz met Rebekah. They started a relationship. For her birthday (to her disgust) he takes her camping in the Peaks (near Derby, where Sahota was born). Apart from disappointing her in taking her camping, he also forgets to bring the condoms. Two months later, she is pregnant. Both sets of parents are disappointed but Rebekah reverts (a term that apparently means converts, i.e. to Islam). As a result of becoming a father, Imtiaz has had to give up his university studies and becomes a taxi driver, a job he does not particularly enjoy.

Everything changes when his father dies. It is decided that Imtiaz and his mother will return to Pakistan to bury Imtiaz’s father. His mother plans to stay there permanently but Imtiaz will stay for some time, to get to know the country and his family. It is not made clear how Rebekah and their daughter will cope without his income. Imtiaz does, indeed, get to know his family, particularly his cousin, Charag, as well as a friend from a nearby village, Aaqil. It is these two who persuade him to come on a trip which will take them over the border into Afghanistan. There they will be with a group of young Muslims (presumably Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda-linked, though the name is not mentioned). Ustaadji, one of the leaders, tells tales of Pakistani legends but this bores some of the others, particularly Aaqil. But they also watch propaganda films, showing Muslims being attacked and brutalised by Westerners. They also meet US soldiers. Gradually, Umtiaz becomes politicised.

When they return to Pakistan, Umtiaz stays a bit longer in the village. It is decided he and Charag will go to England, where they will carry out a suicide bombing attack. We know this from early on in the book, as Umtiaz has not only been telling of his past but also of their plans to carry out the attack, probably in a shopping centre in Sheffield. They manage to get an illegal visa for Charag and the two go England, Charag to work in a fast food shop and Umtiaz back to driving a taxi. But Umtiaz is very involved in the whole business and this estranges him from Rebekah who, though she does not know what he is planning, is aware that something is not right. For his part, Umtiaz starts to become paranoid, fearing that he is being watched and that Charag might betray him.

As an account of a young Pakistani man who changes from being an ordinary person who likes sex, occasional recreational drug use and a modicum of fun to a committed suicide bomber, Sahota tells his story well. However, while well told, I did find it somewhat predictable, with, of course, the suspense being would he or wouldn’t do it and, if not, why not? Would he have abandoned his wife and daughter for so long in Pakistan? I found the ending very unconvincing. His use of language has a lot of Pakistani/Muslim expressions which would have had Westerners rushing for their dictionaries but a bit of local colour is always good but he had a few other anomalies. In his writings, Umtiaz clearly speaks good English but there were three exceptions. He tended to use the Me and X construction instead of X and I, which is understandable. However, he always used were in every case where was should be used. For a man who had been to university, this seems odd but not as odd as his continual use of sempt for seemed, apparently a Mansfield usage. Overall, it is an interesting first novel but I wonder where he will go from here.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by Picador