Book review by Bob McDonald

I’m not a celebrity I am a Muslim

Book Review by Bob McDonald

The rites of passage of a young girl of Indian origin, growing up in the North of England, family life and frictions, things happy and sad, school bullying, adolescent crushes on boys (and the odd teacher!), friends, young adulthood, holidays, marriage, career, arrival of children etc…. Sahera Patel’s self-declared ‘non-celebrity’ autobiography has themes which are universal and would be a quietly entertaining read at any time, place.

But the account is a lot more than this prosaic content might suggest.

A book’s significance can also change with the time, place of reading it.   Right now, during a summer of rising racism in 2016 on the streets of England, “I’m NOT a Celebrity…” strikes this reader as a timely reminder for tolerance and understanding, as we are being called upon by too many here to become more parochial and less diverse as a country and society. This is an uplifting and bravely honest account of a young girl and woman, growing up in 1980s England onwards when the country had become much more culturally diverse with the arrival and settlement of peoples migrating from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.

The narrative is largely chronological. Sahera describes personal, private events and domestic memories which challenged and gradually shaped her as a person. These mark the story of her young life as she grows and matures. The events are familial: anyone looking for momentous national or political news as a backdrop to the tale will not find them here. Nor are they needed. The rich and real history of a period and a place can often best be seen in the lives of ordinary people at home in their everyday, neighbourhood surroundings and encounters.

This is such an account. “I’m NOT a Celebrity…” is the singular, personal story of the author; but it also makes an important contribution to our country’s social history, seen through the eyes of a perceptive young woman, growing up and reflecting on wider themes through the lens of her own upbringing and the minutiae of her personal experiences. It conveys a picture of the period which is as authentic as any top-down history of the times, based on Parliamentary Hansard records, Cabinet papers and political biographies, which we might find on the history shelves of Waterstones.

So how does the author achieve this?

Sahera’s skills as a story teller make the book tick. She can evoke a scene from the past which draws the reader into the story. For example, the description of her reaction as a young girl to arrival in India with her family and being confronted by a railway station full of staring faces is typically effective: you are beside her and share the emotional shock of what she is confronting. There are many more – some more graphic than others, but no need to repeat them here! Just read the book.

Beyond the technical ability, what made it a page-turner for me was Sahera’s humour. This runs right through the book. Quiet, dry, sardonic, understated, self-deprecating. But be careful of reading it in public – there are bits you will laugh out loud at. A couple of examples: returning to England from a family visit to an uncomfortably hot India as a young girl, Sahera writes:

“Landing in Manchester was one of the happiest moments of my life! The cool air and miserable view of the damp weather was a welcome sight…we were back to civilisation.”

On husband-choosing via arranged marriage conventions, she describes first impressions of the latest potential suitor:

“His outward appearance was pleasant enough; his beauty didn’t blow me away but at the same time I did not feel any repulsion, so this was a good start.”

Through these and other personal reflections, Sahera also reveals for us the wider social issues, conventions and challenges they imply. What racism felt like to a young Indian Muslim girl; the enduring influence of ‘back home’ India on family trying to settle and thrive in England; making ends meet; teenage attitudes and rebellion, and the challenges of a new, modern Muslim generation; courting and marriage customs; community isolation and impact of new cultures on the indigenous population.

Her personal strength and determination is gently observed in how she learned to deal with racism as a schoolgirl:

“…[the school bus] full of scary, intimidating characters that seemed to prey on our differences…insults, jibes and racist comments made me stronger and more confident as a person…”

Sahera doesn’t shy away from including close, personal and painful family experiences.   She no doubt intended her father to be an important figure in the autobiography: this he certainly is. In some ways, he becomes the central character in the story, through whose difficult, moody and abusive behaviour Sahera not only recalls the challenges of her own upbringing and growth to maturity; she is also very adept at appreciating the underlying (and sometimes almost inescapable, if not excusable) reasons for his behaviour and attitudes which impact on the lives of all around her.

This is arguably Sahera’s greatest skill as a writer. Her family came through difficult times during her youth. Bad things happened. And yet the author’s account remains objective, warm-hearted and affectionate to all the individuals with whom she lives and interacts. She explains the reasons behind people’s behaviour rather than using hurtful incidents in her past as opportunities to blame and condemn others. Sahera’s art is to bring two aspects together in her writing: objective analysis of people and behaviour combined with love for her family and friends. A good example is how Sahera in a matter-of-fact, but sympathetic way explains that her mum’s life was the result of inescapable aspects of traditional Indian culture:

“…subservience and acceptance were the order of the day during my mother’s era…”

and yet without which (and with complete ignorance of how the western world worked):

“…she would have been lost and helpless without her intact family unit. The idea of shattering the only life she had ever known would have destroyed her own sense of self…her inability to make a stand provided us with unconditional love throughout our childhood: a reliable source of affection in the form of our enduring mum….”

This is wise. Astute reflections and analysis by an author who can identify underlying societal factors which define the limited range of options open to an individual (her mum, for example) in real life. Lesser writers (and thinkers) would be tempted to blame and complain about others in her past life and rail against the “unfairness of it all” for herself and others in the story. Instead, Sahera’s self-portrayal and of those around her are drawn with affection not condemnation. I think that’s why “I’m NOT a Celebrity…” is a page-turner: you can’t write good biography without that love and understanding – the art of the good story-teller. You have to like and love the people you are writing about. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.

The significance of the Islamic faith in Sahera’s life is clear and her autobiography concludes with a detailed diary account of the spiritual journey and pilgrimage she made in 2012 with family members to Mecca. In these final passages the author explains her religious devotion in very practical and personal terms which communicate her profoundly held spiritual beliefs but without ever coming across as “preachy”.

I suspect that she must have thought long and hard about how best to incorporate an explanation of her faith journey in the book to readers, given its evident significance. The inclusion of ‘Hadiths’ to provide religious context for different incidents and statements throughout the book works well. This is a proven literary device. Yet I get the feeling that the author thought this didn’t quite get the job done. I have a sense that Sahera took a deep breath finally and decided to round off the story with a ‘no-holds barred’ exposition of her Islamic faith and really sock it to the reader.

These final pages are detailed and informative. Above all, they are marked by an emotional intensity where the author really let’s go. Although these passages are highly charged, Sahera still maintains perspective and objectivity: she explains the nature of her spirituality without falling into a vague, verbal mysticism which would have confused, not clarified her meaning to the reader and the importance and everyday relevance of her faith. It’s a definite strength of Sahera’s writing: she can explain subtle behaviours and factors behind them without getting totally carried away with abstractions – she gets down to brass tacks.

“I’m NOT a Celebrity…” can be enjoyed on a number of levels. Sahera’s tale is one to dispel myths and prejudice about a faith and a community. This is important but the account should not be pigeon-holed on library social science or religious studies shelves. It is first and foremost a biographical study – an intimate and personal story. It should appeal to a very wide readership – young people, adults, fellow Muslims, the religious and non-religious, and all ethnic backgrounds, indigenous and migrant.

Through its pages we get to meet, to understand and very definitely to like Sahera as a person. She writes with honesty, courage, warmth and humour and her call for us all “…to be willing to open our hearts without prejudice” is indeed a timely one when the need for respect and toleration for people from different backgrounds in our country has rarely been greater.

I hope Sahera Patel continues to write. I look forward to her next book very much.


Bob McDonald

24th July 2016

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