One could be forgiven for thinking that barrister Mohsin Zaidi’s A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of a Gay Muslim’s Journey to Acceptance would be an all-too-familiar identity narrative — of those whose parents are South Asian immigrants in the United Kingdom, and typically depicting their family and community denying them the agency to realise their true selves.
However, it soon becomes abundantly clear that it is anything but that. Zaidi’s voice is pertinent as he writes about issues of identity, race, sexuality, faith, class, education and mental health. His story is one that will help others such as him confront their own personal narratives and allow them to feel empowered enough to come out and face the world. His dedication says it all: “And to every young person struggling with their identity. You are not alone.”
In recounting his “journey to acceptance”, Zaidi writes beautifully about how his parents overcame their prejudice and says, “The thing about superheroes is that they had to have a weakness. If they were invincible there would be no point. I knew now the same was true in real life. What made them so special was that they found a way to overcome that kryptonite, not that they didn’t have it in the first place.”
Born and raised in East London, Zaidi is the eldest son of immigrant Pakistani Shia Muslim parents. He was bullied in a school that was beset by gang violence, had very few friends and, once, during the troubled environment of post-9/11, his home was petrol-bombed.
But his incredible drive made him the first student from his failing comprehensive to ever go to the University of Oxford, where he studied law and was elected college president. After graduating, he worked in a ‘Magic Circle’ law firm before transferring to the Bar. As one of the country’s leading young barristers, he specialises in white-collar crimes and was twice ranked as Financial Times’s outstanding young future leaders. He is, by all accounts, a son any parent would be proud of. But for much of his life, Zaidi harboured a secret — his sexuality.
A compelling and lucid memoir of a Pakistani British man’s coming to terms with his sexuality could be a game-changer
Zaidi’s incredible success story as a high-flying criminal barrister and achieving all that he has in the face of adversity would have been the ultimate trophy for anyone, and being gay should have paled into insignificance in the order of priorities to define him. However, this was the worst thing he could tell his religiously conservative parents.
Zaidi lived in personal torment for years before finding the courage to tell his family. He writes that homophobia was so prevalent in his upbringing that one of his uncles referred to him as “Fag Bag” for listening to pop singer Mariah Carey. When singer Freddie Mercury died of AIDS, Zaidi’s brother remarked, “He bloody deserved it — it’s the gay disease.”
He was gifted a book, Morals for Young Shias, in which a chapter on homosexuals clearly spelled out death for them. Having grown up in such an environment, Zaidi’s self-loathing led him to remark to his father, when driving past a gay pride march, “they should all be bombed.”
With immense beauty, fluidity and sensitivity, Zaidi shares heart-breaking moments that brought me to tears, and endearingly funny ones that made me laugh. He tells how he prayed for a cure when on family pilgrimages to Syria. In school, desperate to prove himself straight, he tried to date girls, but gave up the pretence after his third attempt. When he received his offer from Oxford, he went on a pilgrimage to pray to Allah to take it away in exchange for being made straight.
When he writes how his therapist asks if his parents would prefer a dead son over a gay son, and Zaidi couldn’t answer the question, I felt my heart break. He contemplated suicide and, at one point, even thought of finding a lesbian to marry. Reading all this, it is not hard to sense his anguish and pain.
But what makes Zaidi’s story powerful is the balance with which it is told. He writes of his family with immense tenderness and love. For them, “the revelation of my sexuality was like an earthquake that had ripped apart the ground we stood on, them on one side and me on the other.” His parents’ initial response after he revealed his sexuality made Zaidi consider “a life without them that was free of judgement and free from guilt.” But he knew he “couldn’t let them go, even if that’s what they wanted.”
Although at Oxford he found the space and freedom to come into his own, Zaidi had his fair share of challenges to contend with there too, having to face battles with other parts of his identity.
His world couldn’t have been more polar opposite to many of his peers. For one, their academic fees and extracurricular expenses were bankrolled by their parents, while he depended on government grants. Many knew each other from pre-Oxford days, having attended the same elite schools that he had never even heard of, and his sense of otherness felt even more pronounced. His simple name was mispronounced “Martin” and, in his defence, the erring student clarified: “I’ve never really been friends with a foreigner before.”
These were just some of the ‘culture shocks’ Zaidi experienced. “I already felt like I was getting an education in things other than law,” he says, poignantly writing how this discomforting start at Oxford compounded his sense of loneliness. He wanted to return home and apply to a London university, but his father — who threatened, “I’ll slap him sideways” — immediately vetoed the idea.
Hoping to find some affinity, Zaidi attended events at the Pakistan Society — where, incidentally, Imran Khan made a speech — and the Islamic Society. Soon, though, it was clear to him that neither the Pakistan Society (which had “caricatures of the English upper classes”) nor the Islamic Society (where members exchanged notes on where to buy a lota in Oxford) were spaces in any way relatable for him. It is here, especially, that Zaidi displays his sense of humour, conjuring in his amusing account an accurate description of these societies as being the same at any university in Britain.
Once he came out as gay, he discovered the dating scene to be another unwelcoming, overtly racist world. “No Asians” was a common prerequisite, sometimes “No Pakis” was thrown in, too. “Each time I read that, the words made me feel just a little less attractive and a little more isolated.”
Even in the professional arena, Zaidi would often be mistaken for the defendant. In a suitably succinct manner, he describes the gargantuan sense of not belonging every which way he turned: “For gays, I was too Muslim. For Muslims, I was too gay. For whites, I was too brown, and for my own family, I was too white.”
The account of his dilemmas and anguish is most poignant when he narrates the reactions of each family member after mustering the courage to tell them of his sexuality. His father eventually came to respond with acceptance and love: “I still love you just the same. You are my son and I love you.” Later, when his father called over a “witch doctor” to their home to “cure” his son and banish the “evil eye” — although disconcerting and troubling for Zaidi at the time — he recognised that, that too, bore out of his father’s deep love.
He had already told his mother a couple of years earlier and, although she resisted accepting the truth for years, it is endearing to read that, when Zaidi took her to an event for parents of LGBTQ South Asians, she instinctively started competing with other parents about how wonderful her gay son was. “Asian mothers could compete over bloody anything,” he writes light-heartedly.
His younger brother had already figured things out when he visited Zaidi in Amsterdam, where Zaidi spent the third year of his four-year degree, and sent a text: “I’m just so sorry you had to go through it alone.” This brother’s fiancée’s response was full of love as well: “I can’t wait to have a gay brother-in-law.” The youngest brother’s response was tear-inducing: “I wear rainbow laces for you.”
Zaidi works with several charities and has set up a support group for LGBTQ Muslims. He describes a gathering where everyone recounted their experiences with an LGBTQ relative. When Zaidi’s mother spoke, she had this to say: “We have so little time with our loved ones. Why waste it? God created my son this way and it is me who had the problem, not him.” Comforting his wife, Zaidi’s father adds: “Children are not ours to disown. My son is not hurting anyone. He is a good person. I don’t care what anyone says. I know that Allah loves him like I do.”
Zaidi works his magic with prose with great skill and elegance. His is an articulate account of how love transcends two opposing worlds and, in so doing, he has brought together those two worlds into almost perfect harmony. The memoir is not merely a compelling read, but a possible game-changer with the potential to save lives.
The reviewer is a freelance writer
A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of a Gay Muslim’s Journey to Acceptance
By Mohsin Zaidi
Square Peg, Penguin Random House, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 14th, 2021