Portrait of the writer as a Booker judge
by Iqbal Ahmed
I met Sameer Rahim for the first time, by chance, in 2005 when I wanted to drop off a copy of my book for a London Review of Books contributor at their office in Little Russell Street near the British Museum. After pressing the buzzer, I timidly climbed up the stairs and it was Sameer Rahim who opened the door and accepted my package. I knew him by name but not by face until then. He had reviewed my first book for the Times Literary Supplement a year before. In fact, it was the lucky publication of one of my pieces in the LRB in 2002 that had encouraged me to write a full-length book. I had sent the article to the TLS as well and received a letter from the then editor, Peter Stothard, who had tried to find a home for it in his publication by editing the first page of my submission and then apologetically returning it to me. But surprisingly he had marked the first three lines of my piece in red like the editor of the LRB who had cut them. Perhaps the strongest editors do think alike.
I got to know Sameer Rahim while he worked for the LRB. I was invited to a Christmas party of the magazine that year, and it was Sameer who made me feel welcome at the event and introduced me to the editor of the magazine, Mary-Kay Wilmers. I met Sameer on one of my trips to the LRB’s bookshop in Bury Place one day and apologised for being critical of some aspects of his Gujarati community in my book about London. But he wasn’t bothered by it. He told me that he was going to Damascus the next year to study Arabic. I read a piece he wrote for the LRB on Syria, ‘Why did they bomb the lighthouse?’ It gave readers an insight into the multi-layered history of the country five years before the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring.
When my second book was due to be published, Sameer mentioned to me that he was unable to review it now that he knew me personally. Many years later, I learnt about another convention in the world of publishing: that if a person’s name appears in a quote on the jacket of a book, they cannot review the book for a newspaper or magazine. I asked Sameer for a different favour, though – whether he might read a passage from my book at the launch party, as I don’t like the sound of my own voice. I felt most grateful when he agreed to do so. Instead of reading a short passage, however, Sameer read half a chapter, long enough for me to become concerned about a woman in the audience who was heavily pregnant.
We lost touch for a couple of years until, in 2009, I arranged to meet Sameer again in the coffee-shop of a hotel in Kilburn as he had recently moved into the area. He was now working for the books
section of The Telegraph. I asked him about his work, remarking that it was far better to have a regular job than freelance work because you don’t know where your next meal will come from. I suggested that he should work on his own book, having read somewhere that, while working in a publishing house, Italo Calvino regretted spending more time on other people’s writing than his own.
Sameer has got a degree in English from Cambridge University, which is unusual for someone from his community in London who normally don’t opt for a degree in the Arts when they can draw a decent salary working as an accountant or a lawyer.
Sameer Rahim’s first novel, Asghar and Zahra, has been published in 2019 by John Murray, a decade after I met him in Kilburn. He told the audience at his book launch that the couple in his novel live in Kilburn because, when he first thought of writing a book in 2009, house prices were still affordable in the area. I hear that some Black Cab drivers call it County Kilburn because there are so many Irish people living there. V S Naipaul writes about his early attempt at writing fiction in a dimly lit room in Kilburn on special non-rustling paper supplied by the BBC.
Sameer Rahim wrote an obituary of Naipaul for Prospect Magazine, referring to him as a flawed genius and a pioneer. Naipaul remains a literary hero of his. He mentioned Naipaul’s book, The Mimic Men, in his conversation with Francesca Wade at his own event. I remember the author writing about his landlord in Kensington High Street, a man who wore suits made of such fine cloth he felt he could eat them. Sameer had met Naipaul just a month before his death at a literary do in Buckingham Palace. He saw Vidia in a wheelchair, bent down and told him how much his work meant to him. Naipaul had chosen not to speak on this occasion and Sameer describes it as a comic moment.
I met Naipaul for the last time in 2016 at a wedding ceremony in Camden Town Hall. Someone had hinted that Naipaul was hard of hearing. But he could hear me fine and I found him still curious about others. At least, he asked me how I knew the father of the bride.
The epigraph of Sameer Rahim’s novel asks ‘Art thou real, my ideal?’ It is a Joycean question. But you will have to read Asghar and Zahra to find the answer.
Sameer Rahim will judge the Booker Prize 2020.