Unimagined by Imran Ahmad (2008) Aurum Press (2008) 288 pp
Over the Christmas holidays I was extremely fortunate to win one of Dovegrey Reader’s giveaways from the dovesleigh (and from comment spot No. 1, I should add — what are the odds?). The result was a personalized copy of Imran Ahmad’s memoir Unimagined (2007, UK; 2008, US). It arrived at my post box on Christmas Eve, and once I started it I was kept up at night reading, something I really should be avoiding as much as possible these days when nighttime hours are still being stolen by a five-month old son.
The subtitle to Ahmad’s memoir is “A Muslim Boy Meets the West.” As is the case with many memoirs, it begins before the beginning by describing his ancestry on both his father’s and mother’s side. However, unlike most memoirists, Ahmad quickly lets his reader know that his memoir won’t be one of long-winded reflection:
My mother’s family and my father’s family were from the same village in India but, in the chaos and insanity of Partition, they headed in different directions. I could describe those events and years of separation in heartrending, excruciating six-hundred-page detail, but this is not that kind of book. (This story will proceed mercifully briskly and you will not be tortured along the way.) Suffice it to say that, eventually, both families ended up in Karachi, the capital of West Pakistan.
And Ahmad makes good on his promise. The pre-Imran years are not touched upon again and we move at a steady pace through the first twenty-five years of his life. We begin in Pakistan, but by the time he was two, Ahmad’s family moved to England. There, early in his life, the innocent young boy experiences prejudice and humiliation, but at this point he is too young to understand it well. It’s enough that some injustice is done. It is also here that we get a sense of the humorous aspect of the book:
This wasn’t always due to lack of money. Accommodation was hard to come by for Pakistanis. Although many people in London were renting out rooms, some had signs which read ‘No Irish or Coloureds’. The more liberal-minded ones had signs which read ‘No Coloureds’.
It is interesting to note that the memoir is entirely in the present tense (other than the brief introduction quoted above), allowing Ahmad to mimic both the voice and the absolute certainty or confusion of a young man (“I know where babies come from. I understand the principles of reproduction; I have it figured out. Being ‘married’ induces a psychological change in the woman. Since the mind and body are closely linked, the mind triggers off a process in the woman’s body which causes the development and birth of a baby. I’m not sure where the baby comes out, but it happens at the hospital.”). This also allows Ahmad to express his own prejudices in absolute terms without the cumbersome apologies of an interjecting author (“We are able to converse, although I look down on him because of his Northern accent.”). As the story progresses and Ahmad grows up, the certainty begins to slip away as he grapples with his identity, his religion, his relationships with others. As a reader, I felt like I was witnessing my own growth.
And that’s one of the best things about this book. The reader — any reader — can relate to Ahmad’s childhood, adolescence, and first steps into adulthood. With a unique voice, Ahmad speaks of universal feelings. All the better then, that one of the objectives of the book is to get people from different sides of the world to relate to one another. Here a Muslim boy wrestles with the idea of Christianity while reading James Bond. He responds in confusion to injustice on each side of the world and succeeds in putting a human face on each side of the world at the same time.
I’m pleased that Imran Ahmad has agreed to answer a few questions for me to post with this review. On to that, then; he’ll be able to tell more about this excellent book in his own words:
Q: You mentioned to me that you wrote this book with an American audience in mind, though the book describes in detail your experiences growing up in Great Britain: your interacting with British schools, British culture, and — though universal — the prejudice you experienced in Britain. We come to find out in your book that you eventually spend several years working in America. Why did you choose to write to Americans about the portion of your life spent in Britain and not the portion spent in America? (I ask this question fully aware of how well it reinforces Horace Engdahl’s comments about the insularity of American readers.)
There is a story behind this. I originally wrote a book which covered the 42 years of my life, including those living in the United States (and America remained an important part of my life thereafter). I couldn’t get any agent or publisher to consider this manuscript, so eventually I self-published it, as The Path Unimagined. This book had great feedback in some quarters — but it was completely ignored by the media. But I had a lucky break (one of many). The Head Buyer of Waterstone’s — Britain’s biggest bookstore chain — said he couldn’t stock a book which was so obviously self-published, but it had wonderful content and deserved a ‘proper publisher’. He sent it to a literary agent, who took me on as a client, and I shut down the self-published book.
The agent loved the first 25 years of the book, but said that the rest needed more work and material to make it as funny and compelling. So, I ended up with a three book project.
Unimagined is the first book, and covers school, university and my first year of work.It has an interesting structure (which continues in the other books). In England — and at the University of Stirling in Scotland, which I attended — the academic year begins in early September, which coincides with my birthday (September 13). So each chapter of the book corresponds to one year of my life, beginning with my birthday and the new class, and ending with the summer vacation.
More Unimagined (2009, I hope) continues with my career and all the years living in America. This book ends on the day of 9/11, which fits perfectly with the chapter structure. The final book of the trilogy is (again) called The Path Unimagined, (planned for 2010) and continues from immediately after 9/11.
Throughout the books, America is a theme — because it’s been such an important part of my life (I guess you may take America for granted if you actually are an American). It features less in Unimagined, because I’m not actually living there (although I do visit Disney World!), but my growing perception of America as I grow up is very important. There are so many exciting things about America, and so many contradictions. I begin to have a glimmering of understanding that America isn’t clear and simple, that the world isn’t black and white.
Unimagined is written for an American audience — because I know where the story is going — but of course it deals with growing up in England, visiting Pakistan, and attending university in Scotland. This growing up story, I have been told by many people, is universally resonant — regardless of the background, religion, ethnicity, and even gender, of the reader.
The original self-published book was written in American English, but I had to undo this for Unimagined, as my publisher is British. I wrote the UK version carefully, so that it would still make sense to ‘my American readers’ (whom I even refer to at the very beginning). I also discovered that the American readership most likely to read Unimagined would actually prefer the authentic British tone. (Once you understand that ‘pavement’ means ‘sidewalk’, you’re all set. But just in case, I have put a short glossary of terms on my US page.)
So the Unimagined trilogy is written by me with America in mind — a country for who’s people (but not necessarily its Administration and television media) I have the greatest affection and respect. It is easy to respect a country which enshrines every individual’s right to pursue their personal happiness in its Constitution. I am not aware of any other country which does this, certainly not any so-called Islamic country — where there is no concept of personal happiness, only of cultural and tribal constraints, and honor-bound duties (especially for women).
When I first approached American publishers, they all turned down Unimagined, because it had ‘no angle’ — i.e., I did not become a terrorist, so why would anyone be interested? So my British publisher has been exporting copies to the US. The only issue with having a British publisher is that they are struggling to meet demand in the US, so I am again actively looking for an American publisher — in light of the acclaim that Unimagined has received — to take on this project in the US and Canada. If I get an American publisher, I‘m going to do a US book tour by road — what a dream-come-true that would be!
Q: You write this book in the present tense, allowing your younger self to express his feelings in absolute terms and without the interference of blatant authorial hindsight. At the same time, I imagine this choice of perspective can be limiting. Why did you choose to portray these years in this manner?
I very much wanted the reader to experience my journey — my thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, fears, prejudices and misconceptions — exactly as I experienced them. I believe that these are most readily conveyed by relating events ‘in the moment’. It ensures that the narrative is a story, a journey, rather than an essay. It also helps the reader to understand exactly why I was thinking what I was thinking, because s/he has been led through the same thought process.
In just a couple of places, I cheat and briefly place some future event or insight in brackets, where it’s extremely pertinent and contributes to the story.
Readers have said that I have very successfully matched the maturity of the narrative voice to the narrator’s actual age at the time of the events being related. Obviously, over the decades I become somewhat more mature in my voice, especially once I’ve figured a few things out (like sex).
Actually, this wasn’t as hard as people imagine. Rather than writing a continuous story of everything that ever happened to me, I have written a series of vignettes about events which I remember vividly. These vignettes are placed in chronological order, without any filling in-between. I believe that the reader is smart enough to figure out what is going on and doesn’t need ‘packing material’ between meaningful events. As I say on the first page: ‘This story will proceed mercifully briskly and you will not be tortured along the way.’ (That’s one of the future insights, shown in brackets.)
Writing these vignettes was very easy, because they were already written in my head. Or rather, I should say that typing them was easy. You see, whenever anything significant happened (or happens) in my life, I could (or can) hear a detached observer inside my head, who is already writing down the event. All of these events were stored away in my head, already written. All I had to do was to type them out. It was only a question of when I would get around to doing it. I kept putting it off, because I thought that writing a book would be a huge burden of work, whereas in fact it was a joyful journey.
People have commented on how vividly I remember things. I thought that was normal. I didn’t realise that not everyone has such vivid recollections. I have to emphasize that I don’t necessarily remember the precise dates of these events – I have pieced together the chronology by what I can see in the visual memory (for example, who the teacher was). Or I have used the Internet to conduct research to figure it out. For example, I remember clearly that copy of Life magazine arriving in the mail with the front cover feature ‘One Week’s Dead’ (about the Vietnam War) and it being on the coffee table, but I had to research when that actually was.
Another aspect of the writing process is that I did not write in chronological order. I just wrote whatever event I felt like writing about at any particular time and then placed it in the correct position in the Word document. So the writing was never a chore. It was always enjoyable to write, and I hope that this means it is enjoyable to read. I firmly believe that writing and reading should not be torture!
Q: Obviously most of us have already missed out on the opportunity to read your prize-winning science fiction story written when you were 14. In the future, can we expect to be treated to some of your fiction?
First of all, that science fiction short story wasn’t so great. It’s just that the kind of audience which that Saturday morning TV program attracted were not very bright and only semi-literate. (I explain why I was watching in the book.) So any story sent in with correct spelling and grammar would easily lead the way in the competition.
I’ve heard it said that you should write about what you know. Now, I would love to write bestselling Dan Brown-style books about secret government organizations, ancient conspiracies and political intrigue. But I really don’t know anything about these, and my voice would have no authenticity, no credibility.
I am no good at making up stories – I find it very hard to create a plot. But I have a huge set of life experiences which make a good story, and I’ve only just embarked on the road of narrating them. I write mosaic style (in pieces, out of sequence) and, because it’s all true, there’s no continuity issue.
Some of the events described in the Unimagined trilogy are extraordinary. So much so that, if they were fiction, any publisher would reject them, saying that they were ‘implausible’ or ‘unpalatable coincidences’.
If I ever run out of life experiences to write about, then it would be great to write fiction. We shall see.
Q: I don’t want to spoil the ending of your book by asking questions about what has happened since, but Unimagined does – with the exception of the two-page epilogue – end in the mid-1980s. Can you briefly explain what has happened since then that made you want to write this book?
I should just explain something about the ending. Unimagined ends at age 25, and then there is a brief epilogue in which I’m returning to London at age 37, after living for some years in America. The purpose of the epilogue is to bring to conclusion the thread about the Jaguar XJS, and to give the reader a glimpse into the future. The Jaguar XJS is such an excellent metaphor for other themes in Unimagined, I felt it needed a proper ending in the same book.
Some readers are worried about the missing years between 25 and 37, but there won’t be any. More Unimagined will resume the story at age 25.
So, briefly, I started my corporate career in Finance in Unilever, transitioned to management consulting (about Oracle systems) and was sent to Minneapolis on a business assignment. The client decided to hire me and offered me a job – relocating me lock, stock and barrel to Minneapolis. I ended-up working for Ernst & Young Management Consulting and travelled all over the US – living the American dream – before being seduced into a smaller company (Whittman-Hart, later renamed marchFIRST) for apparently huge stock options. These were a mirage and the dot.com crash made things even more desperate. But, miraculously, I was offered a position with General Electric, which brought me back to London in 2000 – but still working closely with the US (and Europe and India). So, America remained an integral part of my life.
I have had a number of intriguing (and in some cases, life-altering) experiences which have changed my perspective in an unimagined way. Amongst these there’s also the gut-wrenching issue of 9/11. Of course, much has been written about this, so I’ll just pick out a couple of personal threads.
One issue which really concerned me was how dehumanizing 9/11 was, and how readily people fell into tribal positions over it (which is exactly what groups like Al-Qaeda want). I don’t believe that there are actually discrete entities called ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ which are diametrically opposed to each other. If you live in ‘the West’, you know that it exists over a huge spectrum of cultures, ethnicities, beliefs, and politics. The same also applies to the Islamic world, and there is considerable overlap between the two. You have to be completely inexperienced with one of these sides to be able to view it as a singular entity – but unfortunately many people are completely ignorant of the ‘other side’.
Some elements would have us believe that ‘the West’ is entirely imperialist, hedonistic, debaucherous and immoral, and that the only acceptable path is joyless, mediaeval Puritanism. Of course, neither of these extremes is true, and we must all find our own comfortable, middle ground – and should be free to do so.
9/11, unfortunately, drove too many people to extreme positions. Some of the material being written on Internet boards (like AOL and Yahoo!) was vile – and could be read from anywhere in the world, thus fuelling the hatred.
For a Muslim, the rock-and-hard-place dilemma was: if we were expected to condemn 9/11 more than everyone else, then that actually created a connection between us and the 19 terrorists, whereas I personally did not feel I had anything in common with them, and they had nothing in common with my Islam. Bin Laden’s goals are actually personal and political (he hates the Al-Sauds, because they did not show him any respect for his incredible achievement of driving the god-less Soviets out of Afghanistan), but when you invoke religion, millions of people immediately suspend all cognitive brain activity and jump on your bandwagon. (It works every time: ‘the West is waging a war on Islam!’ and ‘Jesus opposes stem cell research!’)
This dehumanization and simple black-and-white categorization troubled me greatly, and I wrote Unimagined as a re-humanizing book (of both ‘sides’).
On a really personal level, I had become a Platinum frequent flyer, and really enjoyed travelling around America. On visiting the US just about five weeks after 9/11, what I noticed most was how quiet the airports were. My only negative experience was on a small 6am flight from White Plains to Atlanta. Despite the fact that the aircraft had only about ten passengers, I had been placed next to someone. Once everyone was aboard, I moved across from my aisle seat to a pair of empty seats by a window. I heard the flight attendant immediately inform the pilot, who looked back at me, but didn’t do anything. I didn’t blame anyone for any of this (except the 9/11 terrorists), but I felt slightly hurt. The elevated level of fear was understandable.
It was a year later that things changed dramatically, when Alien Special Registration was introduced for all males, between the ages of 18 and 45, from certain countries of origin. On my 72nd arrival into the United States, I was sent to INS Secondary Inspection, for the first time ever. This delay was about two hours. I’ve been sent there a number of times since. I can fully understand the reasoning behind this, but a part of me is always thinking: “But America, it’s me!”
I have to say, I personally have always found INS officers to be extremely courteous and respectful to me; even the ones sending me to Secondary have been apologetic. (Except for one who was a little bit abrupt – but he was also abrupt to the white French man in front of me. Muslims and French people – known enemies of America?)
Whilst I love America, I have been greatly troubled by some of the actions of the Cheney Administration since 9/11 – actions which I feel are exploitative and contrary to American values, (and frankly, contrary to American interests). These have contributed significantly to the mutual dehumanization.
Oh, did you say ‘briefly’? …
Q: While managing to keep the memoir focused on your experiences and thoughts, you weave short discussions of world events from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that seem to emphasize your themes while showing your growing individual awareness. What role do these and current events play in your book, and what should readers take away from your book when they return to watching the news?
The world situation is a complex, tangled web, with many long strands going back centuries. Anyone who simplifies it into a black-and-white, ‘us and them’ situation is either very stupid or very ruthless. Our geo-political situation didn’t just occur spontaneously.
The reason there is a theocratic regime in Iran today is because the US installed and supported the brutal, authoritarian Shah – who tortured pro-Democracy opponents – and the only opposition movement which could gain enough critical mass to overthrow him was the one based on religion. And then the US (and other Western countries) gave support to Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran and the subsequent brutal eight-year war. No wonder there is so much bad feeling, when the natural state between Iran and the US should be one of warmth. I see the US-Iran tension as one of bruised egos and simmering resentment – so the more that the US tells Iran not to do something, the more Iran is going to do it (simple schoolyard psychology). A lot of re-humanization and forgiveness needs to take place to normalize relations.
The reason Afghanistan is in such a sorry state is that we (the West and Pakistan) created the modern concept of Jihad to rally volunteers to drive the Soviets out. (I’m not aware of suicide bombing being a technique used in the anti-Soviet Jihad – that appears to be a later innovation, viable only when you can find broken people who feel they have nothing left to lose). We supplied the Mujahideen with weaponry and training and those amazing Stinger missiles. I imagine that once you’ve become accustomed to firing Stinger missiles at helicopter gunships – what a high that must give! – then returning to agriculture or construction must seem somewhat dull. Unfortunately, we abandoned Afghanistan to implode once the Soviets were gone – theMujahideen started fighting each other, and the Taliban won. The shocking thought that occurred to me recently was: Maybe the Soviets were the best government that Afghanistan has had in recent times? At least they were committed to women’s education and rights. I never imagined that I would ever think such a thought!
We don’t just come to understand the world in a sudden burst of enlightenment (I mean the geo-political world, not the metaphysical one). We pick up threads and it dawns on us gradually.
Since Unimagined is a personal and authentic journey, it has many strands and some of these concern the external world. As I said earlier, I wanted the reader to be ‘in the moment’ with me and have my understanding at that point in time. My knowledge of the world came slowly (and is still developing, of course) as I picked up little bits of information and heard about events along the way: Vietnam war, moon landings, India-Pakistan war, Munich Olympics, oil-rich Arabs, Margaret Thatcher, Iranian Revolution and so on.
There’s also a risk of events being forgotten, so I wanted to remind the reader of some of those which have shaped today’s world. I had a very nice letter recently from Jimmy Carter, thanking me for the copy of Unimagined which I had sent him. I mentioned this letter to a younger co-worker, and she said, ‘Who’s Jimmy Carter?’ Well, she was just a haploid cell during his Presidency.
References to historical events also serve to give the narrative its place in time, when so much has changed so quickly. We need to remember that e-mail and the Internet have been with us for such a short time. The concept of having instant and free communication with someone thousands of miles away was unimagined for most of my lifetime.
Q: Besides Jimmy Carter, did you send Unimagined to any other famous Americans?
Unimagined is primarily a re-humanizing book, and therefore I think Oprah would appreciate it and might be willing to bring it to a wider audience. So I sent her a few copies, and I wrote to some of the people around the world who have sent me wonderful e-mails about Unimagined, and I asked them if they wouldn’t mind encouraging Oprah to give it a try (using the Contact Us page on Oprah.com). We shall see what happens.
I sent a copy to Barack Obama, months before he was nominated, with the inscription: ‘Barack, The world is desperate for change. America must lead the way. I hope you lead America. Best wishes, Imran Ahmad’
Shortly after this, all I heard him start talking about was change, change, change.
Q: And finally, what are three books you recommend we all read?
Well, the first three books which come to mind are: Unimagined, More Unimagined and The Path Unimagined. Oh wait … I get it … this part’s not about me.
Well, I’m still going to cheat and mention three sets of books.
Firstly, the final trilogy of James Bond novels by Ian Fleming: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (in which Jame Bond falls in love and gets married and widowed); You Only Live Twice (in which he seeks vengeance at all costs, and falls into the hands of the KGB); The Man With the Golden Gun (in which, brainwashed, he tries to kill his boss and, after recovery, is sent away on a mission which M hopes will be the end of him).
I have always felt that Ian Fleming was a storytelling genius. These books cost me my place in medical school – they were compelling, I couldn’t stop reading them, when I was supposed to be preparing for high school exams (anyway, I hated the subjects I was allegedly studying). Fleming had the writing process perfected: vacation home in Jamaica; 1,000 words and snorkelling in the morning; lunch; 1,000 words and snorkelling in the afternoon; leisurely cocktails and dinner in the evening; book completed in less than two months. To be fair, he was writing on a manual typewriter and it is easy for us to forget how much more convenient the mechanics of writing have become.
Secondly, the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Quite apart from being an entertaining story, there are many levels of meaning in this epic, and I don’t think I’ve even begun to unravel them all.
Thirdly, the Eckhart Tolle books: The Power of Now and A New Earth. I listened to the audio version of The Power of Now on a long haul flight to Australia. It was a surreal experience. A New Earth has so many insights which make perfect sense, it has completely changed my perspective. I think that I now understand, and am learning to moderate, my conditioned responses to what I perceive as negative events. Is that so?
There is actually a process of evolution across these books: from the simple days of James Bond, through the exploration of mythical beliefs in His Dark Materials, to the enlightened Consciousness of the Eckhart Tolle books.
Now, if only entire tribes and nations could let go of the pain of their collective Past.
You can visit Imran Ahmad’s website at www.unimagined.co.uk.