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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Go-Between by Osman Yousefzada

I learned a huge amount about Islam and about barriers/ semi-permeable membrane between cultures from Osman Yousefzada’s frank and thoughtful memoir whose strap is “a portrait of growing up between different worlds”. In some ways it reminded me of Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot although, of course, the detail is different.

Osman’s father had Pakistani heritage and came to Britain as an immigrant. His mother’s heritage is Afghan. The family lived, both parents illiterate, in a small house in a Birmingham ghetto later getting better off and buying a bigger house.  His mother was not allowed out unchaperoned and had to wear a burqa – as did his sisters, thereafter not allowed to attend school, as soon as they hit puberty.

As a young boy, Osman was the go-beween who was allowed to sit with the women in one room or the men in the other. Later, when he inched away from the rigidity of his culture and began to integrate he became a go-between in another sense. Like most people who grew up in white, liberal Britain I find this religious, cultural segregation very hard to fathom and I am grateful to Osman, a very thoughtful and accessible writer, for describing it so informatively. I shall never understand it fully but I now know a little more about it than I did.

Today, and in his 40s, Osman is a successful artist and fashion designer whose eponymous label, Osman, was launched in 2008. His first yearnings towards the trade came from watching and helping his talented mother who ran a flourishing tailoring business from the confines of her purdah. Later he studied at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and at St Martins.

He is fascinating on the way that life revolved around the mosque, prayers and ablutions. And his account of what some of the Imams routinely said about “infidels”, honour, sin, hellfire and all the rest makes chilling reading. The young Osman, however, accepted most of it unquestioningly, churning with guilt over things like enjoying sweets made with gelatine, being  sexually aroused by images or people and other serious sins. And incidentally, I had no idea, until I read this that orthodox Muslim men are required to shave arm pits and pubic hair in order to stay “clean”. The lists of rules, Osman quotes or refers to in passing are, indeed, fascinating.

At school Osman was bullied. An especially dreadful incident occurred when a group of slightly older boys forced him to the ground and pulled off his trousers. No, it wasn’t rape but given the level of shame and horror it left, it might just as well have been.

How sad too that when one of his sisters eventually “escaped” she didn’t see her father for a very long time because she was estranged, disowned and dishonoured. Happily she reappeared at the very end of the old man’s life and there was a reconciliation of sorts. Osman’s father, incidentally, a carpenter who beat his wife and children a lot, died (dementia) when he was probably between 80 and 90. No one knew his exact age because his birth wasn’t regarded as important enough to record back  “home” where he was born all those decades earlier. And Osman’s community didn’t celebrate birthdays.

In reading this book, published earlier this year,  with a lot of respect along with the horror and surprise –  I feel that I too have, in a very tiny way, straddled the gap between strict Muslims and the other faiths or none they live amongst.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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