Review: Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota

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Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota border=
Imtiaz Raina is a happily married man, young father, moderate Muslim, and British Asian. He is also a suicide bomber. Well, almost. Ours are the Streets (2011) is Sunjeev Sahota’s debut novel, and the story of Imtiaz, a young man from Sheffield who, following the death of his father, tries to find an identity for himself back in Pakistan – from where his family originate, and some still live. His search for identity brings him to radical Islam, however, and when he returns to Britain he is a changed man. Becka, his British wife, quails at the change in her husband and soon Imtiaz, soon separated from his wife and daughter, is more isolated than ever. As the days tick down until he plans to blow up a local shopping centre in Sheffield, Imtiaz begins to record his final thoughts in a journal – a way of reaching out to those lost to him, and recording his own personal story.

Save for a few short lines, there is very little sign in the narrative of Imtiaz’s genuine estrangement from the British society in which he has grown up – he appears well-adjusted, with a wife and child, settled and without suffering from any particular marginalisation. In fact, more than anything it appears to be the death of his father that sparks his need to connect with his roots and his subsequent radicalisation (which is also largely glossed over). This style of narration, where all keys to the supposed plot are unwritten, quite possibly suggests both that much of the narrative Imtiaz writes for himself comes from within, and that Ours are the Streets is not truly a story of radicalisation but of a young man who, like many before him, finds himself hopelessly lost in the world and in need of direction to fight off the nonchalant apathy he feels towards the rather dull and straight-forward existence into which he has fallen. For Imtiaz, though, even the potent single-mindedness of jihad cannot truly engage him, and, like Meursault before him, he is pushed in one direction after another by those with a will greater than his own. Put simply, what Imtiaz wants is a place in the world and a story to call his own. In this way, Ours are the Streets is far from being a ‘terrorism’ novel.

Imtiaz’s ennui is particular to those torn between cultures. One suspects that many British Asians will identify with Imtiaz when he states that he "felt fine rooting for Liverpool, in a quiet way, but not England", and torn as he ends up "defending Muslims against whites and whites against Muslims". This lack of belonging is an undercurrent in Imtiaz’s life until the death of his father, which leads to him visiting his parents’ homeland. The sections in Pakistan and Kashmir, as Imtiaz finds a heritage and sense of belonging that he yearns for, are strong – the descriptions of the simple life of the protagonist’s remote family, the dusty roads, hard labour, and smiling poverty that he experiences, create a really fertile atmosphere for Imtiaz to ‘find himself’ and become radicalised. How realistic or how sugar-coated Sahota’s and Imtiaz’s reporting of his Asian experience are is impossible to tell, but one suspects this is the view of a man longing for identity and buying into the myths about the ‘simple life’ sold to the disenfranchised. It is easy, however, to appreciate the sense of identity that Imtiaz finds in a place where he always referred to as "so and so's grandson or such and such's nephew.” Indeed, the radicalisation that takes place on Imtiaz’s trip is perhaps less about hating the West, and more about wanting to fit in with this new found heritage – disassociating himself from the West in the eyes of his family and new friends back in Pakistan and proving to them that he is one of them and not, as they might suggest, a Westernised Muslim, who is as foreign to their homeland as visitors who more visibly stand out.

The narrative is supposed to be Imtiaz’s journal: his last testimony and a few precious words for the loved ones he leaves behind. However, this conceit falters almost instantly as the journal jumps from addressing Imtiaz’s mother and his young daughter to describing sex acts he received in dark alleys as a student. As the novel unfolds, the journal as a literary device all but falls apart, with the narrator drifting off into inappropriate and unlikely diversions, and the general idea being ignored by Sahota when it suits the plot. For large parts the narration is written as if spoken, too, and time and frame become blurred, not to mention the incongruence of having large chunks of plot inserted into the, presumably emotive, writings of a man about to depart from this world. The biggest problem, however, is that the author attempts to show the increasing paranoia of his protagonist and the shift in his psyche from outsider to violent militant, in a re-shaping, or at least questioning, of reality reminiscent of American Psycho. However, as the journal is supposedly written after Imtiaz’s radicalisation and in his final days, his mind-set, and thus his reporting of events, should spring from this perspective, rather than the more sympathetic one that Sahota affords his narrator. This give the author a real problem, one that he never really gets to grips with.

Aside from this evident problem, Imtiaz as a character is disconnected enough from his actions (and life) to be neither likeable nor unlikeable. He is, however, very human – even if his (humanising) struggles with daily life are largely glossed over. His occasional breaks into humour show the cheeky kid he is inside and at all turns he tries to do the right things by the people who he cares most about at the time (first Becca and his daughter, and later his brothers in (radical) Islam). This unthinking co-operation on his part makes his actions almost amoral, conveying neither positive nor negative traits about the narrator, again reminiscent of Meursault’s indifferent compliance in The Outsider. In keeping with this disconnected stance, Ours are the Streets trades little on affecting the reader’s emotions, save for a small emotional kick towards the novel’s conclusion. Another sign of the resigned way Imtiaz is carried along by the momentum towards goals set out by others is the increasingly frequent use of ‘ameen’ to close paragraphs, almost like the persistent refrain of ‘so it goes’ that marks each death in Slaughterhouse-Five. Here the technique feels hollow somehow, perhaps reflecting Imtiaz’s own lack of engagement with his own radicalisation, or perhaps simply indicating a half-formed idea on the author’s part.

In truth, quite a lot of the novel feels underdeveloped, although, again, whether this is a stylistic choice or not it is a little hard to tell. The result, however, is a fictional reality that feels rather thin and is frequently unconvincing. The prose, too, is sloppy in places and this slowly drains the reader’s confidence in Sahota’s abilities as the pages drift by. There is certainly something to the novel – the blending of the Angry Young Man narrative with the idea of radical Islam is a decent concept and, while he is impossible to truly understand, Imtiaz represents a group of people (young, torn between cultures) that is worth exploring in fiction. Sadly, the execution is not good enough here, and Sahota fails to develop the things that might make Ours are the Streets stand out. Instead, what is left is a fairly predictable, even clich├ęd, story of extremism which does very little to challenge the reader.

To be completely honest, I didn't get a lot from this: I didn't find the plot enlightening in any way and the prose was fairly standard fare, nothing to particularly engage.


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Reviews of Ours are the Streets on Amazon (UK)
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