Fighting warplanes with words

Tariq Mehmood′s latest novel ″Song of Gulzarina″ is an arresting tale of love, loss and longing set against the backdrop of a never-ending war. In interview with Changiz M. Varzi, the award-winning author addresses issues of identity and how racism and Islamophobia can leave an indelible mark

By Changiz M. Varzi

These days we are prone to imagining suicide bombers as bloodthirsty psychos, extremist Muslims and even helpless drug addicts. Why did you make the suicide bomber, the main character of Song of Gulzarina, a decent person?

Tariq Mehmood: There is never anything decent about those who seek to take innocent lives, nor about the chain of events that leads people astray, especially when their hatred is not the result of religious conviction, sectarianism, or even a thirst for revenge. There is terrible pain behind the terror attack being planned by my character in Manchester, yet the pain is also born of a lost love – I tried to reflect this complexity.

In your book, the attacks being staged in the West are explained as a result of both western countries waging war in the global south and of state-sponsored terrorism. What do you think caused the recent spate of suicide attacks in Europe?

Mehmood: In western countries the image prevails that, when it comes to terrorism, the West is always the victim; the problem is cleverly delegated to foreign policy issues. Selective memory, which puts right-wing terrorism at the door of lone wolves, such as Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in Norway, or the murder of Jo Cox MP in Britain, or the Finsbury Park attack, not to mention the almost daily acts of terror across the U.S. also feeds into the mix.

Cover of Tariq Mehmood's "Gulzarina" (published by Daraja Press)
Through this moving story, intertwined with dark humour, Mehmood provides an insider′s view of war in Afghanistan and the life of migrants in Europe. He takes us along on a memorable journey through the villages in Pakistan, the mujahideen′s stronghold in Afghan caves and the working class districts of England. At the end of this powerful novel, Saleem Khan plans a suicide bombing in Manchester; the same city in which a suicide attack took place in May

The terrorist of my novel is at once West and East. But it is not a generalised geographical ′West′. It is the one that has colonised him and enticed him to come and sweat in its mills, brutalised him and terrorised him. It is his ′Eastern′ part that bleeds and his ′Western′ part that cuts.

The roots of his action are born of on-going suffering, one that goes back in time. An outrage cannot be understood in the flames of its brutality, but in its historical context and therefore, what can the countries and their allies who rain death and destruction on others, expect in return?

In this novel, racism and Islamophobia play a vital role in shaping your characters′ actions. To what extent do these factors influence the political views of Muslims in the UK?

Mehmood: Were the new racist wave anti-Semitic and not anti-Muslim, no one would ask the Jews what impact this was having on their political views. Although we may feel engulfed by this new racism, the old has not disappeared. A short story called ′English Lions′ that I wrote recently sums it up:

1976. A park in Bradford. A white boy comes up to me:

White boy: Do you speak Paki?
Me: You′re having me on, aren′t you?
White boy: Go on, say something.

Me: Piss off you ignorant twat!

2016. A park in Manchester. A white boy comes up to my son:

White boy: Do you speak Muslim?
My son: You′re pulling me leg, aren′t you?
White boy: Say something, will you?
My son: Boom! Boom!

Apart from political themes, another strong storyline in your book is the complex love triangle. In this love triangle Saleem Khan is shown treating his wife, who is the mother of his only child, cruelly. Why does he have a different attitude toward his British lover?

Mehmood: Saleem Khan is not necessarily a nice character, he is deeply flawed. Yet he was not born this way, something made him what he is. He does not treat either of his lovers very nicely and is aware of his actions, born out of situations in which he still remains trapped. By exposing the character′s inherent contradictions, however, we get the chance to propel the fictional narrative forward.

Do you think fiction has potential to change the stereotypes surrounding the dominant narrative about terrorism?

Mehmood: The mainstream media needs its cliches, for it has to feed into that which sustains its own life. By placing the aches, pains, loves and joys of our material existence, into a fictional landscape, giving it an existence in the world of the imagination, we get a chance to fight the war planes with words, hate with love, power with poetry. As long as we hold on to our own stories – and all of us have stories worthy of being told, for that defines the nature of humanity – the dominance of mainstream media will slowly fade.

Interview conducted by Changiz M. Varzi

© 2017