by Helen Goodway

TARIQ Mehmood’s novel The Song of Gulzarina is multi-layered and beautifully written, covering the period from 1940 to 2006 to the present and is set in Pakistan, Afghanistan and England.

The life journey of the protagonist, Saleem Khan, is shaped and fractured by historical events; Partition in 1947; migration to England in 1965; the three-day week of 1974; his return to Pakistan then in the thrall of Zia-Ul-Haq; the Soviet-Afghan War; the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by western forces; the Labour Party Conference, 2006.

The story moves back and forth and the reader comes to understand the depth of despair into which Saleem has sunk. We know from the start that it is his intention to become a suicide bomber. From this point, Saleem looks back, episodically, through his life. In the cold weather and gloom that greets Saleem’s arrival in England is a warning from visa-fxer Amjad Choudry: “Here you are nothing. No teacher Saab. No Khan Saab. Nothing.” It sums up Saleem’s migration to 1960s Britain, from high school teacher to ‘nothing’. Hereon in is constant racism, both casual and vicious, in England, and the response in Pakistan: “You’ve become one of theirs now. You are a Britisher.”

One of his few relationships that remains unharmed is between Saleem and Mangal Singh, his pre-Partition boyhood friend. Their sense of loss of and nostalgia is movingly told. The two re-connect in Shipley at a mill in which they’re both employed. It is through union activism that Saleem is politicised and enters the drinking culture of work comrades.

Tariq Mehmood is a master of conjuring up pictures and atmospheres in words. The plenitude and veracity of the detail, be it in the ancestral village, migrant workers’ lodgings in Bradford, the mill, the claustrophobic office of cousin Habib’s Goods Forwarding Agency in Rawalpindi, the Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan, the streets of Manchester. It’s all there and we are there with Saleem. The culmination of the novel includes reconciliations with Carol, Saleem’s great love, and with Aisha, his beloved but conflicted daughter. But there’s a sting in the tail.

* Tariq Mehmood is an award-winning novelist and documentary-maker. His first novel, Hand On the Sun, dealt with the resistance to racism by young migrants to the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. His second novel, While There is Light, was set against the backdrop of the case of 12 young Bradford men defending their community who were charged with conspiracy offences. He is the co-director of award-winning documentary Injustice, about people who have died in British police custody. Tariq teaches at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.

He will be at Bradford Literature Festival for an event called Writing Radicalisation, at the Dye House Gallery, Bradford College, on Saturday, July 1 at 11.30am. He will be discussing themes of migration and radicalisation with Johannes Anyuru and Tabish Kahir.

Tariq will also be on the panel, with Melvin Burgess and Juno Dawson, at The Books They Don’t Want You to Read on Sunday, July 2, in the Norcroft Centre at 2pm. Tariq’s young adult novel, You’re Not Proper, about a young girl grappling with Islamophobia, will be under discussion.