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November 22, 2005

Sorrows of the Moon - Iqbal Ahmed

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Sorrows of the Moon
by Iqbal Ahmed
Pp 190. London: Coldstream Publishers, 2004
Hardback, £9.95

In quoting Baudelaire in the title of his first book, Iqbal Ahmed has assumed the noble tradition of the 19th-century flâneur - the idler adrift in the city. In so doing, Ahmed has added his name to the list of flaneurs and their literary descendents, psychogeographers, undertaking random searches of urban life in the 21st century. Unlike the current masters of the genre, Iain Sinclair and J. G. Ballard, and catching up fast - Will Self and Stewart Home, as a recently arrived immigrant, Ahmed can bring an authentic experience of alienation to the terrain of familiarity. Like his fellow writers, he also brings a poetic sensibility to the hidden histories of the city.

Early on in his book, he takes a taxi to Whitechapel, in search of the borough of Tower Hamlets, which he envisages as a series of wattle-and-daub dwellings lying under the protection of the Tower of London. He is of course bound for one of the poorest boroughs in England with the highest proportion of immigrants encased in near-derelict concrete blocks. His driver informs him that Whitechapel is home to thousands of Taliban warriors. The man has mistaken the bearded and gowned Bengali elders for Afghani warriors. Ahmed's naivety and the taxi-driver's ignorance are emblematic of the melancholic irony that pervades Sorrows of the Moon as it chronicles the lives of ten London immigrants.

Zack, born Zakir, is one of these Londoners. Married to a Czech woman, his Pathan family, based in Ealing, have disowned him for marrying outside his tribe. He works in the City, which he sees as soulless; he has no friends; his wife is a bystander to his depression. Zack's estrangement is rendered even more painful to read given the quiet insistence of Ahmed's prose in detailing the pariah status of the unassimilated immigrant's situation.

The soullessness of the city is something he is keen to stress. This is not a host culture that embraces. City, Bank and St Paul's are forbidding, monolithic structures. Baker Street is just about bearable for its rush-hour anonymity. It is as though a secret resentment underscores the stark lyricism of his pared-down style. But if contemporary London resists his advances, its history lures him on. And he lovingly distils centuries worth of architecture and culture in a few sentences.

In so doing, he reveals himself more than at any other point in this book. Ahmed has chosen lonely subjects, and one senses they mirror his own loneliness. And in his historical musings one glimpses a lonely child lost in books describing the empire that colonised his homeland in Kashmir.

By focussing on immigrants with such a degree of empathy he subverts the herd mentality of Londoners. We are in too much of a hurry to exercise tolerance, to wonder about the lives of those around us whose eyes we dare not meet. He is scathing, without losing his gentle, mournful tone, towards the snootiness of Hampstead, describing it as an:

area where people apologized often but showed little kindness to others.
He clearly has not read Alan Bennett.

But he sees us through a Muslim's eyes, and he marvels at people:

for whom sex is usually central to their existence.
Although the same could be said for bigamous (Nigerian) Solomon, or unhappily unmarried (Iranian) Mariam, one gets his drift. Alongside Kasim, a rare entrepreneur in this book, who occupies a tobacco kiosk on Charing Cross Road, Ahmed watches the drunken hordes fill the West End with dissipated dreams of fulfilment, and the pickpockets who fleece them. All the while Ahmed is reminded of the Thugs of 18th-century India. It is these literary incursions into his imagination that bring this book so resonantly to life.

Ultimately, he gives us a tour that sidesteps the central issue of his own identity. We know that he works in a hotel. We don't know what has happened to his family, or what has brought such a talented, erudite man to this country for which he has such ambivalent feelings. Given his predilections, one senses an inquisitive mind and one who is not comfortable in the present. A stranger who seeks out other strangers, whose sadness feeds his own. However, his moment of being, towards which his story has been pulling him all along, evokes a sense of belonging which arises from the 30-metre elevation in Hampstead, called Parliament Hill. A full moon evokes the moons he observed in his childhood in Srinagar, in the heart of the Kashmir valley, 1,730m above sea level. A city, like London, that spreads on both sides of a river, and whose tidal rhythms are dictated by the same moon. It occurs to the author that his shyness has prevented him from sharing his homeland, his thoughts and feelings with others. But it is this shyness that has made him such a compelling writer.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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He clearly has not read Alan Bennett.

Neither have I. I am more concerned with the near-catastophic decline in physics education than in keeping up with contemporary literature, especially since my literary tastes, such as they are, span millennia and continents. I looked up Alan Bennett on the Wikipedia, but I am none the wiser. But this article does commend the book to me, and it looks worth getting hold of. So in the meantime, could I please have a sentence or two explaining the connection?

A word to blog authors in general: an occasional parenthetic explanation to those outside the worlds of letters or politics woul be helpful.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 26, 2005 12:52 PM
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