Empire of the Mind

Reviewed by Murrough O’Brien in The Independent on Sunday

The sentences are all even, the phrasing careful, lucid. In a characteristic double-bluff, faux-naif becomes sardonic becomes challenging in its innocence. Ahmed’s descriptions, by any ordinary lights, ought not to work. Indeed there is little or no description as such; yet somehow everyone is sharply differentiated. Many of the stories are similar, and the characters he meets as often as not resemble the shades encountered by Dante, who wave in their passage and are waved away. Despite his frequent animadversions on the English character, Ahmed’s generosity glows through everything. English people are often described as “kindly”; more tellingly, they frequently have “a commanding voice”. He has warm words for Americans, South Africans, fellow vagrants in a post-colonial world.

Hashim’s father wanted a son who could claim that he had been to Oxford, never mind that Hashim can’t get into the university itself. The Sri Lankan community in Bournemouth (Bournemouth!) is sharply evoked, a world where gossip spreads from petrol station to petrol station. Asians distrust Africans, Shia fears Sunni. But the enmities within the various communities are almost always offset by a shared understanding of the host nation’s indifference.

There is Kumara, defiantly in love in Bournemouth, though it seems to have cost him everything. Zeinab, from the Yemeni community in Sheffield, works in a voluntary aid organisation; the “invisible” character of her community sometimes drives her to despair. Yemeni men think her “overqualified”. Peter, a white South African in Edinburgh, is escaping his spendthrift friends in London with their backpacker mentality. They all seem to bear their sorrows lightly; perhaps this is only Ahmed’s own unfailing patience. He is often “touched” by unexpected kindness, “puzzled” by many things we take for granted, and finds “bizarre” customs that require not very much explanation. He is a very bad Martian, but a wonderful observer. A great tenderness of spirit suffuses this book.

The Old Harbour by CRW Nevinson

Far more than in Sorrows of the Moon, Ahmed flits back and forth between the Kashmir of his childhood and the Britain he has adopted. Expectations reared in Kashmir are set loose in the homely, often unforgiving reality of modern Britain. Arthur’s Seat over Edinburgh compares poorly with Solomon’s Seat in Kashmir, for example. But in this case, as in many, the weather seems to have a lot to do with it. In fact, you could say that about many of his observations. He doesn’t seem to be aware that postcards invariably hire obliging suns to beautify their subjects. But he aims true in his understanding that English euphemism runs very deep indeed. The history of England is in many ways a history of euphemism: the English have facelifted everything, from their origins to their empire.

In Sorrows of the Moon I was sometimes left wondering what test he felt Britain was failing. Now things are clearer; this is not just about immigration. Britain’s linguistic dominance is an historical accident; it was naval supremacy, not God-given right to rule, which won Britain the world; its democracy – in Ahmed’s view – is fatally compromised by the House of Lords; it is not welcoming to those it exploited. He speaks as a denizen of a former “colony” and is rightly indignant about the hypocritical reception accorded those like him. He is uneasy about Indian companies who take the epithet “imperial”, but “Imperial War Museum” he doesn’t mind. He was once happy to accept the version of empire peddled by its apologists and even in Kashmir, but not any longer. While angry disillusion with the pretensions of the British Empire is not quite the leitmotif suggested in the last few pages, it remains the tonic note.