Born in Pakistan, raised in the UK, Imran Ahmad is torn between embracing the freedom the West offers an individual and remaining a practicing Muslim. He addresses serious issues in a light way, makes the reader laugh out loud every now and then and at the same time leaves us thinking deep.
The Perfect Gentleman is an honest memoir of the writer’s life year by year — mainly, school and college years but also about his work. He is aware of the important events in the world at the same time, independent in his views.
He comes across many bullies in his early life — a racist neighbour, the authorities who ignore his family’s genuine complaint which also appears as racist, the bullies at school who cut mean remarks and whom he calls ‘low life’. Ahmad counters them by staying at his best behaviour, ignoring and performing at school. He does not get into medical school and lands in Stirling University, Scotland which he deeply appreciates. When he has done two thirds of his PhD in Chemistry, he takes up a job with Unilever.
Ahmad’s world outside home is all made up of white community. He makes friends amongst them, learns from some teachers at all stages and is grateful to them for what they have taught him — “a sense of intellectual honesty, which Hampton Grammar School encouraged in us.” Ahmad is honest about his feelings at all times. While he is successful academically, he doesn’t have success with girls in his college days. He is friends with them but that’s it. Actually, his sense of responsibility, right and wrong comes in the way. He is a self-disciplined person with a lot of self-restraint. He has the ability to laugh at his own limitations and puts that in a manner that it makes the reader laugh at the same time every now and then.
Ahmad remains committed to one girl with whom he never graduates to becoming her boyfriend while she keeps going out with one person after another until she announces her marriage. He lives under the pressure that he can marry only a Muslim Pakistani girl and eventually, gives in to his mother’s wish and goes for an arranged marriage. He writes, “White people, Christians, Westerners — whatever we call them — they marry only for love. We marry for anything except love. Isn’t love all you need.”
Imran Ahmad comes across as a stylist. He dresses up tastefully, keeps his car in good condition, which he initially bought because he thought girls stick to guys who have cars. After Beetle to Renault 5, he acquires an Alpha Romeo while he is a student that must be a dream car for many.
The most remarkable is Ahmad’s quest for religious truth. He is pushed to think about Christianity and Islam by Evangelists who try to convert him first at school and then at college and writes about the two religions with more clarity as his thoughts evolve over the years. He writes, “West is committed to implement the highest ideals — personal freedom, social equality, human rights, justice — and is willing to struggle with the consequences of these.”
He sees Islam as “cultural neutral” the core message of Islam as brotherhood, peace, tolerance, humility, self-discipline, good deeds, freedom of religion and care of the environment but there is no focus on these ideals. Thus Westerners never associate Islam with these core values. He is especially wary of “creeping elements” of Wahhabism, of reciting the verses in Arabic which neither the pupil nor the teacher understands. “I could read the Quran in English.” He sees “modest’ dress, gender segregation, and the banning of music” as rules that have no Quranic basis.
Ahmad also writes about Pakistan: “Everyone in Pakistani society hates everyone else, based on religious sect, region of origin, native language, class, gender, and so on… The only time that Pakistan functions as a coherent nation is when it’s at war with India.”
The book is interspersed with important things happening in the world that the writer notices The Iranian revolution when the Iranians drive America out of their country, then shooting down of Iran’s airbus heading towards Dubai (1987-88), at the same time America continuing to support Saddam Hussein. He sees the Israeli invasion of southern Labanon (1982-83) as giving Lebanese militiamen an opportunity to kill two thousand Palestinian refugees. He resents the attack on an island in Argentina which was once a British occupation.
At the same time he questions, “When people say ‘Death to America’ which America do they mean?” Then he counts the many good things that America has done in this world. And he loves America. He warns against becoming a herd because by doing so “we cut ourselves from the greater whole.” He warns against falling into “lazy tribalism.”
The Perfect Gentleman’s strength is the fact that it’s a memoir with a terrific sense of humour and his book is an entertaining, moving and thoroughly thought-provoking tale of our times.
The Perfect Gentleman is available at Liberty Books (www.libertybooks.com)
The Perfect Gentleman
By Imran Ahmad
Publisher: Centre Street