Photo courtesy the writer
Photo courtesy the writer

So how does Saima Mir think the Pakistani community is going to react to her debut novel The Khan’s depiction of a criminal syndicate run by Pakhtuns, who also happen to be pious Muslims?

“I don’t know,” she answers carefully. “But I’m very conscious of the fact that I have written a crime novel, I haven’t written something to represent Pakistani culture. I just want to tell a story — like any writer wants to tell a story. The Khan has been likened to The Godfather and that was well received by Italian Americans even though it was about a crime family.”

“It’s about family,” she continues more emphatically. “At the end of the day, the book is about family and loyalty and it’s about love and the things we have to do to survive when we are not on a level playing field.”

Mir is a successful, award-winning journalist, having worked first with a Bradford newspaper — the Telegraph and Argus — and then later with television news at the BBC, but she was able to develop professionally and find her voice only after she had survived two arranged marriages. She has written about this journey in a brave and insightful piece, ‘A Woman of Substance’, which was published in 2019 in It’s Not About the Burqa, a collection of essays on the issues that modern Muslim women face.

Eos speaks to the author of The Khan about a desi crime syndicate in modern-day Britain

Mir’s piece was also published in The Guardian which made it go viral. Her account gives an excellent insight into family relationships and social expectations and the dilemmas faced by Muslim immigrants growing up in the West. During our meeting, she mentions, in passing, that she decided to write that piece because she thought it was important that these things be talked about, even though she was concerned how it might affect her parents.

But by that point, she had probably had enough of worrying about community approval anyway. After her divorces (both by the age of just 25), she went to work as a journalist and was soon writing a newspaper column which also featured a photograph of her — something which so riled the cleric at the local mosque that he held forth to the congregation about the errant ways of Mir and “women [such as] her.”

Now aged 46, Mir is still indignant about the way she was regarded socially as a divorcee. She has written how, before she married the man who is now her husband and father to their three young children, the maulvi at the mosque was so horrified to discover who the prospective bride was that he cautioned her future husband, asking, “Saima Mir BBC? Are you sure you want to marry her?”

She also recalls being snubbed by at least one community auntie who only decided to speak to her again years later, once she was married and had her children. But through all of this opprobrium, Mir was lucky to have supportive parents and her book’s dedication reflects this, as it thanks them both “for putting my happiness above the gossip.”

Mir grew up in the city of Bradford and she tells me that her family is from Karachi, but of Kashmiri origin. She has fond memories of school holidays spent at her maternal grandmother’s house in PECHS in Karachi (at this point in the conversation we digress slightly as we both share our memories of Tariq Road and PECHS and Silver Spoon kebab rolls and so on).

Her parents were first cousins; her father ran his own small textile business and her mother taught Urdu and English as a Second Language. They lived in Bradford and Mir is the eldest of six children — four sisters and two brothers. She studied science at university and, by age 21, she had done what seemed to be the ‘right thing’ and made a good match by marrying a desi doctor. As a survivor of two such ‘good matches’, she is highly critical of the patriarchal notion of ‘the good woman’.

We wheel back to her earlier remark about there not being “a level playing field” — has that been her own experience professionally? She says that it has, to some extent, but it did still come as a shock because she had been in positions of relative privilege throughout her life.

She recalls that, once, a producer told her that she “dressed in very ethnic clothes.” Mir was taken aback. “I was wearing a Karen Millen suit that day and when she said that to me, I realised that she couldn’t really see me — all she could see was my name and my colour.”

She says that the sifarish, or personal recommendation system, doesn’t apply only to Third World countries. “The idea that it’s all a meritocracy, well, that’s a bit of a fallacy, although I do think it is something the Western world at least aspires to.” She talks about how structural racism is embedded in a system and you can only really get the big opportunities by having gone to the right schools and getting the right placements and being from a certain group.

Although The Khan has been optioned by BBC Studios and there’s quite a pre-publication buzz around it, the manuscript actually remained unsold for years: “I had an agent who couldn’t sell the book for about five years.” She says she gave up on both the book and the agent. “I was stuck with The Khan and didn’t know what to do with it. I thought nothing’s going to happen with this book.”

But then came her piece in The Guardian, then the Black Lives Matter movement, and then her signing up with Nikesh Shukla’s agency and working with their “brilliant editor.” She says candidly that “timing is everything” and that, after Black Lives Matter, there is now far more of an effort to publish stories about different communities, “because bookshops have realised there’s a market for this and so publishers are realising it too.”

But why did she decide to write about a Pakhtun family? Mir says that she has family links with that culture and that she became interested in the community in Bradford years ago when she was out on a reporting assignment and found herself in a beautiful garden crescent in Bradford, which turned out to be populated entirely by Pakhtun families.

Her experience as a crime reporter also informs much of the story, which is quite violent in parts. “I loved covering crime,” she says, “but when you cover crime you see aspects of society that are really shocking.” She recalls how surprised she was to discover that “the criminals look like ordinary people”, and how strange it was to realise that, even after horrific incidents, “the streets look the same, the sun still shines, life carries on.”

Mir says of The Khan that, “I was just writing a commercial crime thriller” and, although the book is effectively that — a commercial crime thriller — it is also a work that depicts very vividly the gritty social and economic reality of an immigrant community in Britain. And Saima Mir still has more stories to tell about the Khan clan — she’s now working on a sequel.

— UK

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 14th, 2021

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