I attended Yousefzada’s book talk and signing at the opening weekend of The Heath Bookshop – he was a very engaging speaker and had a lot to say about the reception of his book in his local community – one that lives just up the road, past Moseley, so about two miles away from us. Having now read the book, I can see why it might have caused consternation, sharing the secrets of a very closed community, ultra-orthodox and hardly interacting with the outside world. But it’s important to learn about such communities, the people still living within them and the people who have felt the need to escape and done so. And this is a charming and compelling read which gives much understanding. I picked this up to read because the paperback is just about out now – in fact there is another event to celebrate that on 31 January 2023 at Camp Hill School in Kings Heath – tickets are just about still available here. Osman Yousefzada – “The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing up Between Different Worlds” (10 September 2022, The Heath Bookshop)

This was my new place now, outside, standing with the men. I was older now, at secondary school, so this wasn’t like before, when I could have moved around the women’s quarters, inside, watching them unfurl their garments, revealing themselves, their clothes filled with embroidery and colour. I could no longer observe them hugging, weeping, praying, and then morphing themselves back into the shapes of their burqas and walking out of the front door, concealed as ninjas, into the streets. Now I could only see them leaving in the same shape as they had arrived; my ingress had been blocked. (pp. 227-228)

I knew I was going to find this book moving and interesting when it opened on Willows Road, a few miles from my house and a road I’ve run down and past during training runs, social runs and the small matter of the Birmingham Marathon. But although there’s a hijabi woman on the cover of Women’s Running Magazine this month, the women of this book certainly stay inside, forcibly in many cases, happily in others. Yousefzada lifts the lid on the ultra-orthodox Pathan Afghan community in Birmingham in his youth – the 1980s to mid 1990s – the women kept in strict seclusion, domestic violence rife and accepted by many, girls taken out of school at the end of primary school, lies told to cover up their absence, sent back “home” or kept in the house, hidden when the inspectors come round. It was quite shocking to me that this was still happening into the mid-1990s, when I was around Birmingham, with no idea.

The book sounds grim but it’s anything but, really. It’s a celebration of Osman’s mum, a talented seamstress who created clothes with no patterns, running her own business from their house, all sorts of women visiting to use her skills, and the other women who weave a network of mutual support. There’s palpable grief when he becomes too old to sit with the women, enjoying their colourful clothes and stories, popping out to buy them shoes, but he then starts to understand the processes happening to his sisters and he’s very vocal in the latter part of the book about their plight and his support of them. As in “Manifesto” we find a strict dad who will lecture and rarely soften, and we also have a system of community elders, often friends since childhood, who rule social conventions with fear and shaming to keep everyone in order, while the more educated – particularly the local scribe – are kinder and more supportive where they can be.

As well as family and community business, Yousefzada also describes social change that sweeps over the religious community when Islam becomes more heavily codified and visiting preachers require change just at the time that many men are made redundant in the recession so have more time for religious pursuits: so the dads change from having film star hair and best suits to growing beards and adopting close fitting hats over shaved heads – as an embryonic fashion designer, he obviously notices all the little details of appearance as he’s growing up and this gives a rich and fascinating background for the personal and social events.

Being set in Birmingham brought it all closer to me, and it was fascinating to see parallels with Pete Paphides’ “Broken Greek” in Yousefzada’s brush with gangs and lawlessness and in living a separate life to the wider community around him. Not all is separate, though, and both the sex workers who line the night-time streets and his White teachers help Yousefzada to learn about different types of people and different ways to be:

Miss Albert had held out her hand and pulled me into a world of dreams, very different dreams to those of the rest of my family. My escape route began with her. (p. 111-112)

A beautifully written, often funny, often moving book which I highly recommend, even if you don’t know Birmingham well.