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My story of hope

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Tariq Mehmood, novelist and activist, talked to Hassan Mahamdallie about his latest novel, While There Is Light
Issue 1920
Demonstration as trial of the Bradford 12 begins in Leeds, 1982
Demonstration as trial of the Bradford 12 begins in Leeds, 1982

What is While There Is Light about?

It’s a story about trying to come to terms with what happened to a whole generation of Asians of whom I was one.

It is the story of a young bloke, Saleem, who is made into a “terrorist” when he is in fact a victim of terrorism.

He is a worker who begins to understand that there are fundamental wrongs in society and that things have happened in history that he has to learn about.

He has to try and find out why he came to Britain in the first place.

It is also a love story—about the intense love Saleem has for his mother.

Where does Saleem “belong”—Bradford or Pakistan?

He lives here in Britain but society won’t let him belong. And he is from a society where he doesn’t live.

It’s a very British story. Saleem goes from one set of hills in Bradford to another set of hills in Pakistan. It’s not a polemic—it’s a story.

I think he is British. But really I think it’s unfair to make my character decide what he is.

Saleem belongs here. But he’s not English—he can’t be part of that nationalism.

He goes to Pakistan but he doesn’t belong there, where people live and feed their family on £1 a day—a £1 that he puts in a slot machine or buys a cup of tea with.

A lot of the story is mine. I came to Bradford in 1967 and my mother did die and I did make that journey.

A lot of the police interviews in the book are verbatim from my own case. The statement about self defence was verbatim.

Saleem’s is a collective life and lots of people make that journey—white workers too. Saleem goes from Pakistan to England and others from Birmingham to Liverpool.

Saleem is accused of being a “terrorist” in Bradford. Although you are writing about events over 20 years ago it has strong parallels with today.

This book took me 20 years to finish, and I didn’t have clearly in my mind the events of today.

The dramatic event—Saleem’s arrest—happened to me in 1981. A group of us, the Bradford 12, were accused of possessing explosive substances and of planning to blow up a police station. They tried to pin the 1981 riot—uprising—on us as well.

It was a reactionary period. Maggie Thatcher was on the scene. It was also an era of a lot of working class resistance—the Irish hunger strikers, women’s struggles and community resistance.

The novel reflects the demand of black people to organise themselves in self defence by all means necessary

All people were involved in the struggle. When we were arrested it was Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians.

The people who came to our defence were white, African and Asian. This is where the light is for humanity—in a secular society.

We were acquitted and I did my own defence. Afterwards I had a few years of police harassment.

I had complained because when I was in a cell they threw a skinhead in with me. I wasn’t afraid because I was bigger than him. I put in a complaint and for years the police used to harass me.

In the Bradford 12 trial we established the right of collective self defence.

We argued that if we were faced with the same thing—an attack on our community—we would do the same again and make petrol bombs. And the jury agreed with us. It’s an enshrined position in law now. People don’t understand that.

What do you thing about the struggles in Bradford today?

When I look today it is very bad. Twenty years ago the British National Party couldn’t hold a meeting in Bradford. Now they are in the corridors of power. There has been a rightward swing in politics along with anti-Muslim racism.

We are also suffering from the destruction of working class society and the trade unions and community organisations.

The segregation in towns like Bradford and Oldham is due to corruption in housing contracts and the deep-rooted Old Labour racism.

Those segregated parts of Oldham are not fit for anyone to live in.

We minorities can only fight in the ghettos. We can’t do it on our own. It’s the British workers who have got to move. The enemy is not religion—the enemy is imperialism. Our dream was for a better world for all of us.

In the 1970s and the 1980s when mosques were attacked we all went in to mosques to defend them—Sikhs, Jews, Christians.

There is a central scene in the book where Saleem is jumped by a group of racist youths. A white man comes to his rescue and we discover he is a communist. Why did you write that episode in?

When you looked at society in the 1970s and 1980s the hostility was very intense. People used to run a finger down your face to see if the dirt would come off.

The things that happened to Saleem happened to me in my life. Although Saleem hates England he doesn’t hate all white folk.

It is a white guy, a white socialist, who defends him. I always say I have to fight racism, but racism is a struggle for white people and they have to fight it wherever they find it, even inside their own families.

Then it’s a non-Muslim old man in Pakistan who teaches Saleem his own history.

I was making a point here too. Our history is older than Islam—our history goes back thousands of years. When I was young we had an old man who wasn’t Muslim that used to teach us our history. He was 80 years old and a proud member of the Communist Party.

What do you think of the political climate at the moment?

This anti-Muslim racism is like a constant thing nagging at you all the time.

In the face of that Muslims should organise as Muslims—what else can they do?

We are being marginalised and that spells disaster for all of us. But I also know a lot of secular Muslims have been isolated by the alliances that have been made in the anti-war movement.

We know there isn’t a “black” community or a “Muslim” community—we all have our unique dynamics.

The religious groups don’t pose an alternative. I think that if the British working class and the anti-imperialist movement were on the move they would take everyone with them.

The problem lies in the health of the socialist and working class movement. The anti-war movement shows that there is hope for all society. It achieved an enormous amount—it has made life bearable. But is it very frustrating at the moment.

Today David Blunkett would like all black and Asians and migrants to assimilate—and to act “British”. What do you think of that?

The Labour government policy is racist, and it’s not going to work because we won’t accept it. The policy should be “let a thousand flowers bloom” and anything less than that should and will be resisted.

In the book I use Pothowari—the language of the region of north Punjab in Pakistan and Kashmir. Before I always wrote in Urdu and English—but neither is my language.

My language wasn’t written down until recently. But if I want a good laugh, or a good cry, I will write in my language. It is only the toilers and workers who maintain the language. The middle classes in Pakistan reject Pothowari.

For me to write in my own language is to give dignity to the downtrodden classes. We are still going through a process of trying to decolonise ourselves and language is part of that.

I often go to schools to tell the children stories and in some schools there are 40 languages. What a well for humanity to draw on!

While There Is Light is about the need for workers to tell their stories. They’ve all got a story to tell as important as any other’s story, and we all have the ability to tell it.

We are all what our stories make us.

About the author

Tariq Mehmood is a writer, film director, campaigner and socialist. Born in Pakistan, he came to Bradford in 1967.

In 1981 Tariq was one of 12 Asian youths, mostly members of an Afro-Asian youth organisation called the United Black Youth League, who were arrested and charged with conspiracy after petrol bombs were found by the police.

The Bradford 12 argued in court that they were right to defend their community against racist and fascist attack. After a nine-week trial the 12 were acquitted, establishing the legal right of communities to collective self-defence.

Tariq co-directed Injustice, a recent award-winning documentary about black deaths in police custody.

Tariq Mehmood’s While There Is Light is published by Comma Press priced £7.95 and is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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